it’s not about separation

Tim Challies makes a concluding observation about the Piper-Warren kerfuffle that, I think, misses the point.

At yet let’s heed Piper’s warning not to fall into an error of secondary separation. There is no need for us to separate from Piper over such a decision. We have plenty of latitude to disagree with him; let’s do so with respect for him and for his long and faithful history of ministry to the church. The sky is not falling, the world will go on.

JayC over at Sharper Iron asks a question:

In a context like mine, I’m not really sure that I ~could~ “separate” from Piper. The extent of the relationship that Piper and I have is that I download his books and will occasionally download a sermon. So in what meaningful way could I “separate” from Piper?

Jay’s question is a good one. How would anyone actually do secondary separation from Piper (assuming it is warranted)? In fact, let’s go a step further: How would anyone actually do primary separation from Piper?

The only way I could do either is if I was in some kind of ministry partnership with Piper. That is, if I was also invited to speak at Desiring God, then I could refuse to attend because of the Warren invite. Or if I was on the staff of Bethlehem Baptist, or a member, I could confront Piper personally and if I failed to achieve reconciliation, I could leave. If I were part of the BGC, I could raise the issue in the AGM and, if not satisfied with the Conference response or Piper’s response, I could pull out of the BGC. If I were involved in some other joint ministry with Piper (T4G, etc.) I could tell Piper that either he dis-invites Warren or we are dis-inviting him. Or failing that, I could break my relationship with him in this ministry and simply refuse to participate any longer as long as Piper were to remain part of it.

Have I covered every possibility?

Now, I am in NONE of these relationships with Piper.

So why should I care about who he invites to Desiring God? What difference does it make to me? What, if anything, should I do about it? Should I comment to anyone, should I make any criticism to anyone, should I discuss it with anyone? Should I blog about it?

All of what I have said so far assumes that I agree with Tim Challies in his evaluation of Piper’s decision to invite Warren to Desiring God. Well, I do agree. Challies says the invitation was wrong. I think Challies is right, Piper is wrong about this. It is a foolish decision, especially given the kind of influence Piper has in Christian circles.

But I think Challies final comment, dismissing ‘secondary separation’ is irrelevant and misses the real significance of Piper’s error.

Here is how I, as a local pastor of a small church should look at this situation:

  • Piper is demonstrating tremendously poor judgement in this case. Read Challies for a lot of good reasons why this is so.
  • Piper has, in fact, shown similar poor judgement in inviting others in the past (Mark Driscoll – twice! – is perhaps the prime example).
  • Piper’s poor judgement belies a number of things he has written in his own books. Which speaks louder, words or deeds?
  • Piper’s books and sermons are widely available. The people in my church can and do ask me about them from time to time.

THEREFORE I should be extremely careful about recommending Piper as a reliable source for my people to develop their spiritual lives. I shouldn’t recommend attendance at his meetings or support his gatherings by pointing my people to the online resources. And so on…

The point of this error is that Piper’s judgement is certainly open to question. This error is very significant, even evangelicals are criticizing it and using the “s” word in the discussion (“separation”).

If Piper’s judgement is so flawed, the next question is not “should we practice secondary separation?” – that is irrelevant, not a reality. But there is a follow-up question: Should we as pastors use and recommend his resources to others? How valuable are they if the author’s judgement is revealed to be so fatally flawed?

I suspect that evangelicals will answer the follow-up questions by “no, not yet, we still like what Piper does most of the time.” Fair enough, they haven’t evaluated the past history the same way I have. They see this as an aberration, not a pattern.

I don’t think fundamentalists should have the same reaction. Personally, I think this is yet another reason why we can’t really recommend Piper’s works for the profit of our people. This is yet another error in a string of errors that reveal fatal flaws in ministry philosophy. So I’m not going to promote him, and I don’t think other fundamentalists should either.

Well, what then? Will all fundamentalists follow the popery of the oxgoad as expressed in my last paragraph? As they say, don’t hold your breath. So what should I do about my fellow fundamentalists who don’t follow or agree with my advice?

Answer: mostly nothing.

The reason I should do mostly nothing is because for the most part, my fellow fundamentalists have little influence on the flock I am charged with guarding. They just aren’t big enough fish for my people to come and say, “What do you think about so-and-so?” So their decisions have little to no impact on me.

But you know, if my fellow fundamentalists become a group of people generally pushing the works of men who make such significant errors as this… well, we are going to have problems getting along. We are likely going to find ourselves in contention when things like this come up. We are going to find less and less in common and will likely find ourselves operating in distinct spheres of fellowship.

I hope that fundamentalists will see these errors as very significant and will begin to pull back from the love affair they have been having with Piper and others. I hope they will become more critical and discerning and at least less enthusiastic in their endorsements of men like this.

But it’s not about non-existent separation.


UPDATE: This comment by Matthew J on the Sharper Iron thread illustrates exactly the problem I am talking about. As a pastor, one has to be concerned at the inconsistencies of these men. This is why I have been warning against the wholesale use of their materials with little to no disclaimers by many. Inevitably, these guys will do something that makes the faithful pastor queasy about his previous recommendations.


  1. Keith says:

    Well at least he’s only invited Warren once, so far. Not, TWICE! like Driscoll.

    Don you can call it “not recommending” if you want. That’s just the type of “separation” you do in this context. You are “marking” and “warning” and all that good Lou like stuff.

    You say tomato, I say tomahto.


    • Keith,

      How can you separate that which has never been joined? This is where the complaint about the “chain of separation” turns the whole argument of separation into a ridiculous complexity. Person A works with Christ-denying apostates. Person B works with Person A. Person C works with person B. And person D works with Person C, but is a separatist, so he separates from himself for the sin of working with Person C.

      What I am saying is that for all those people, we have to decide whether we are going to work with them or not work with them and whether, even if there is no real possibility of working with them, we will yet recommend and use materials their ministry puts out.

      I have a lot of problems with Piper and his perspective, not to mention his many questionable associations. So I don’t use or recommend his material.

      We have never had any partnership connection in any way – we are, I trust, both members of the body of Christ, but we have no direct connection.

      You can sneer and mock if you like, but to me, that’s not really separation in the 2 Cor 6 sense.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  2. Jay C. says:

    Good stuff, Don. Thank you for writing it – I appreciate your perspective.

  3. A thoughtful response! Thanks

  4. Christopher says:

    sure, lets just start putting in their hands all the books that are God-honoring, Christ-exalting, and written by fundamentalists who never have lapses in their judgment…

    just one moment…

    I am sure I will come up with some…

    Come on man, maybe we should just teach our people to be discerning and to read with one eye on the scriptures.

    Sure this is a great lapse in judgment (in my opinion) but it is also a lapse in judgment to not see the immense value of so much of what Piper has written and that it is so much better than 95% of what fundies have/are writing. I would rather recommend a Piper book any day than to see someone reading something published by, say, Sword of the Lord publishers.

    (Disclaimer: I do not fully endorse John Piper, Rick Warren, Don Johnson, or all that they write. I do understand that there are some fundamentalists striving to put out good, theologically sound, Christ-exalting material, just striving to make a point)

  5. Larry says:


    Who are these fundamentalists who are having a “love affair” with Piper and others? I see that referenced often, but I haven’t seen any evidence for it.

    • @Christopher

      I usually refer my people to the Bible, first of all. And then I refer them to the Bible second of all. There actually aren’t a lot of books that I think are all that helpful in any case.

      Piper’s works, in particular, are particularly flawed. As I said, I don’t recommend him at all.


      I think you know a few of them, don’t you?

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  6. Don:

    Thanks for this perspective on the Piper invite to Rick Warren. I am fully supportive of your decision to refrain from endorsing a man who has a “string of errors that reveal fatal flaws in ministry philosophy.” What we have IMO, however, with some other men in Fundamentalism is a nearly unbridled passion to fellowship with Piper (and other ce men) around Calvinism, Lordship Salvation and academic interests.

    For the sake of that convergence Reformed IFB men will tolerate, allow for, ignore and/or excuse Piper’s denomination and school connections, his unwillingness to separate from those he knows to be in biblical error – i.e. “Open Theists” within his denomination; his charismatic theology, RAP artist in his church and his embrace and defense of Mark Driscoll in spite of his disgraceful speech and speaking at Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral. Not even this present indefensible error with Rick Warren is enough for some of our men to pull back from and caution others to refrain from promoting the ministry of John Piper.

    What some of the IFB men won’t acknowledge, due to their fear of labeling, is that Piper is a New-Evangelical. Piper’s action with Warren has blown apart Kevin Bauder’s Let’s Get Clear on This in which he, according to Dr. Gerald Priest, heaped lavish praise on the ce men. Dr. Priest wrote,

    Kevin [Bauder] has been quite lavish in his praise of conservative evangelicals while castigating so-called fundamentalists. Yet he has spent very little time warning us about the pitfalls and problems of conservative evangelicalism…. What I fear is that we may be allowing a Trojan horse into the fundamentalist camp.

    IMO, Bauder can no longer suggest Piper is not a New Evangelical and it is highly unlikely he will have anything to say at his Nick blog on the Piper invitation to Rick Warren.


  7. Larry says:

    Let me be clearer, perhaps (or perhaps not):

    Honestly, Don, I don’t know any evidence for any fundamentalist have a love affair with Piper or others. I see the charges, but where’s the evidence? Who are you talking about and where are their actual words that you are basing this on?

    I am not trying to be cantankerous here. I honestly want to know who is being talked about and what was said that indicates this love affair?

    • Well, Larry, I don’t know that anything I can say will enlighten you. You and I frequent the same blogs and online resources (I see your comments in most of the places I read). If you can’t see it, then I doubt anything I would say would convince you.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  8. Hey Don,

    I have never read a Piper book and have only listened to a few of his sermons. Therefore, it would be difficult for me to recommend him at all.

    I do know a few things about his ministry that I DO NOT appreciate or admire. (You have listed some of those here.)

    That being said, I would not object to a few casual mentions of his books or an occasional note of appreciation for his teaching. I do become concerned when someone makes a vast number of glowing statements about the man on a consistent basis. Bottom line: is your praise for Piper (or others) high frequency, high intensity and without qualification?

    In some cases the answer is absolutely yes! Therein lies the problem.

    Many young ministers find only fault with the people they supposedly “agree with” most. At the same time, teachers who dwell at the edges of fundamentalist thought and practice get a full-time pass for doctrinal problems, poor choices, etc.

    By consistently and passionately promoting men that we feel fall short is one category or the other, we are potentially doing a lot of damage. This is especially true if we fail to promote other, more worthy sources that agree with our doctrine, convictions and methodology.

    Good article overall.


  9. Don/All:

    What about “secondary separation?” In his classic Dr. Ernest Pickering wrote:

    “When our brethren do things that are wrong—caused by an incomplete knowledge of or deliberate disobedience to some teaching of Scripture—we should not merely continue fellowship with them as those who have done nothing wrong, but we should warn them, remonstrate with them and seek to recover them to a Biblical position. . . . If one should ask, Does 2 Thessalonians 3 teach secondary separation?—then the response would have to be given, It depends on what you mean by secondary separation. . . . It is the principle of refusing to condone, honor or utilize persons who continually and knowingly are following a course of action which is harmful to other believers and to the welfare of the churches.” (Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church, pp. 221-222.)

    Pay close attention to that the final sentence from Dr. Pickering’s excerpt (see bold). It “secondary separation” is an appropriate step to be taken with both Rick Warren and now John Piper. Why; because both are, “following a course of action which is harmful to other believers and to the welfare of the churches.”


  10. Keith says:

    It’s possible to have a love affair with someone you’ve never met but it’s not possible to separate from him. That’s curious.

    Don, I’m glad to hear that you don’t consider yourself to be separating from Piper in a 2 Cor 6 sense — since that passage seems to be refering to remaining separate from unbelievers. I’m glad that you think Piper is a believer. As such, you are in fact yoked with him (as is Lou) as parts of the one body of Christ.

    My point was that — whatever you decide to call it — there is a difference between (a)not recommending someone because you are unaware of them and (b) deliberately not recommending someone because you think they are problematic (in perspectives and associations).

    Now, if all you are saying is, “I don’t have to support and encourage folks to listen to and read every Christian out there,” I agree with you.

    If you’re just saying, “I’d take communion with the guy and pray with him, I just think there are better teachers,” I think that is acceptable.

    However, if what you are saying is, “Because he’s willing to be associated with Driscoll/Warren/etc. I could not fellowship with him even if he had a flat tire in front of my house,” well then you’re separating — whatever you call it.

    And, I totally agree that fundamentalists have turned “the whole argument of separation into a ridiculous complexity.”


    • Hi Keith

      Ok, you give me two alternatives that I agree with then a third outlandish alternative that is so way out there that no one (I think) would agree with it. Alternative 3 isn’t what I am advocating at all. But I am advocating something a good bit more than Alternatives 1 and 2.

      In these conversations, we get into all kinds of logical knots trying to pinpoint exactly what we should and shouldn’t do. I don’t think that it is really all that hard.

      I have never had any opportunity for ministry partnership with Piper. If it were offered (i.e., if some local church brought him in to town and invited our church to promote and/or sponsor the meeting), I would decline. But I wouldn’t mind attending if our schedules didn’t conflict and it was offered on a free-will offering basis. (Brian McLaren of emergent fame is coming to town next month, but they are charging $100 a head to hear him. I won’t pay.)

      If Piper was driving around town and broke down in front of my hose, of course I’d help him. But I’d do the same for McLaren as well. We aren’t talking about shunning here. We are talking about the kind of place and prominence we are going to give to someone’s ministry.

      For McLaren, I would tell my people, “Stay away, he’s verboten.”
      For Piper, I would say, “I don’t recommend him, he has too many problems to be really helpful.”

      In fact, one of my men mentioned this very kerfuffle to me on Saturday evening. I explained to him some of the reasons why I think this error is a pattern in Piper’s ministry which makes all his works suspect, in my mind. The fellow asked for some links to the things I pointed out, which I provided him with. I couched all of this ‘negative recommendation’ in this language: “Remember, Piper isn’t our enemy. He just has too many errors for me to recommend him.”

      Finally, Keith, I don’t think it is really the fundamentalists who have turned the separation argument into a ridiculous complexity.

      @ Lou

      I agree with Pickering concerning the concept, but I think the use of the term “secondary separation” is unhelpful. I don’t think it’s really separation, but whatever we call it, Pickering is exactly right on what we should do about ministries and ministers that exhibit a consistently unseparated pattern.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  11. Keith says:


    Very helpful clarifications.

    Two quibbles:

    (1) It sure isn’t the evangelicals who have turned the separation arguments into a ridiculous complexity.

    (2) When I said, “I could not fellowship with him even if he had a flat tire in front of my house,” I meant more than “help” him. I was not talking about shunning. I meant, something like: would not take communion with, would not pray with, would not truly have Christian fellowship with. I would help a Muslim change his tire — I wouldn’t shun him — but I wouldn’t fellowship with him in the sense I meant.

    But again, overall good stuff — even though I still don’t see why you need to do “a good bit more than (1) or (2).”

    Oh, by the way, I wouldn’t pay $100 to hear Mclaren either. I don’t think I’d even pay $10.

    And (I just can’t resist), you wrote: “If Piper was driving around town and broke down in front of my hose . . . ” Are you wearing nylons now too (I heard that Larry is)? Or is this a part of that whole Canadian “hoser” thing that we Americans can’t understand?


    • Hi Keith

      Ooohhh!!! How embarrassing! What a typo. No, no hose here. And not even ‘hoser’, that is a drinking term. It basically means, I think, that you just take it by the hose, not the tankard.

      Ok, on #2, I hear you. Yes, that would be the difference between Piper and McLaren. Let’s make the scenario this way: suppose Piper and McLaren showed up in my church for communion Sunday. I would gladly take communion with Piper. I would refuse to offer it to McLaren. I suspect you would agree with me there.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  12. Larry says:

    Don says, Well, Larry, I don’t know that anything I can say will enlighten you.

    I know what you could say … You could quote a fundamentalist showing this love affair. Saying it exists doesn’t help. Showing me what you base that claim on does help. It would enlighten me as to who you are talking about, and what you are basing it on. I honestly don’t have any idea what you are basing this on. I admittedly don’t get around a lot. I don’t read many fundamentalist blogs. Until today, I hadn’t read yours in several months. I read it because of your comment at SI. So I admit to being a little bit in the dark on some things.

    You are right that you and I read some of the same blogs. I doubt you see my comments at most places (unless you read a lot less than I think you do). I comment a little at SI (mostly in the moderators forum I think), and very little anywhere else. Probably only at Chris Anderson’s from time to time, and now and then at Scot McKnight’s and Ed Stetzer’s. I posted once on a guy’s blog that I had just found a few weeks ago. Aside from that, I don’t think I have commented anywhere that I can recall, but I don’t know for sure. I simply don’t remember. But I read some of them and I haven’t seen this love affair documented. I have seen it charged several times. But never documented.

    So while I don’t want to be obnoxious, if there is this “love affair” it should be pretty easy to show with a quote or two from someone. If you can’t show it, why not? Might it be that it doesn’t actually exist? That there isn’t any actual words you can quote to show it? Again, not trying to be obnoxious, but if you cant support it, why should anyone believe it?

    You say, If you can’t see it, then I doubt anything I would say would convince you. I completely disagree. You can convince me by quoting someone showing this love affair. I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it. I would show you.

    The fact that I can’t see it may mean that it doesn’t exist. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for proof of such a charge. Do you?

    I sincerely hope you won’t bail out here. You have made a serious charge that some fundamentalists have a love affair with Piper and others. I think that charge should be either documented or, if not able to be documented, then it should be withdrawn because of it’s nature. If some have demonstrated this love affair, then name names so that we can know and address it.

    • Well, Larry, you aren’t going to get any more out of me on this topic. So you’ll have to just have to remain in the dark, I guess.

      Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. I think the comment is a statement of the obvious. So I’ll leave it at that.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

  13. Bill says:

    Am I the only one who couldn’t care less about charismatic leanings, rap, etc., but who does have a major problem with the CFR? I cannot in good conscious endorse the CFR. But let me also be the first to publicly say that we can’t read a person’s heart. I will give Warren the benefit of the doubt that he joined the CFR out of pure motives and with good intentions and thought he could use it for good rather than evil.

    • Bill, I am sure there are plenty of people who agree with you. However, these issues aren’t really relevant to our discussion here. So… if you wish to address the subjects brought up in the post or by one of the other commenters, feel free. But I will delete any further discussion along this line. We aren’t talking about the CFR here.

      Don Johnson
      Jerimiah 33.3

      • Just a note…

        Larry, I deleted your last comment where you again press me for some kind of evidence of the ‘love affair with Piper’. I have made my position as clearly as I intend to at this time. I’m just not going to pursue that avenue of discussion now. It is really distracting from the main point. If you care to engage my main points in this post, I’ll be glad to do so. But if you persist in pursuing this somewhat bizarre obsession, I’ll relegate that persistence to the same place as the last.

        Don Johnson
        Jerimiah 33.3

  14. Good Evening Don:

    Thanks for your reply on the Pickering quote I supplied above.

    The Scriptures speak to this Piper/Warren issue in blunt terms.

    Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple,” (Rom. 16:17-18).

    In my second follow up to my original article from March 30th I go into additional details on what the fallout might and IMO should be. See, John Piper to Feature Rick Warren: What Are the T4G Men For to Do?

    Bottomline for me is this: In regard to Rick Warren the mandates in verse 17 apply and there is no subjective decision to make. Piper, however, chose to ignore the Scriptures to embrace Rick Warren, to defend and give him recognition, which will lend credibility to Warren and his methods. Piper puts impressionable believers, who follow him (Piper) at risk. Piper offers Warren a national platform, which could through his, “good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple,” draw away disciples (Acts 20:30) and lead to their spiritual demise.

    What Piper has done is inexcusable. Piper’s invite of Rick Warren, apart from his repentance from it, IMO numbers him among the disobedient. The Scriptures have an application to and mandate the believer’s response to him (Piper) just as they do to Rick Warren.

    You have done well to refrain from and to encourage other to refrain from endorsing, following and/or giving Piper recognition.

    There is a huge disconnect between what Piper writes in his books and what he does in practice.


  15. My thoughts almost exactly, Don. I pulled his stuff from our church library. I hated to do it because it’s so good, but Desiring God has become a brand name, and I don’t want to be responsible for leading our people to buy in to the brand.


  16. Christopher says:

    Don @ “I usually refer my people to the Bible, first of all. And then I refer them to the Bible second of all.”
    just wondering, do you encourage your people to read your blog? I imagine so. Maybe Lou’s as well? Just the fact that you have a blog indicates, I imagine, that you feel that there are things beneficial to read besides the Bible.

    I’ll take a Piper book over almost any fundy (or even non fundy) blog any day as far as spiritual benefit is concerned. Just teach your people to be discerning (something Hebrews 5 expects) to tell good from evil and better from best. Teach them to evaluate people’s arguments and points with the word of God.

    Of course then they might start doing that to our preaching…

    which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    • Actually, Chris, no I don’t encourage my people to read my blog. They can if they like, but I don’t write it for them. I encourage them to read the Bible. If I can get that as a consistent habit, then maybe we’ll go on from there.

      To each his own. I have read a few Piper books. That was enough.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  17. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Well said Don,
    I followed this over from SI and appreciate your comments on Piper and our working with our congregations. It is the Bible first and only that will produce Christlikeness in our flocks. There may be benefits in many other books but only where they bring in the Scriptures. Christianity has gotten so wrapped up in reading about the Bible in men’s books and as a result has become so anemic spiritually. We must get ourselves and our congregation into the BOOK of books if we are ever to see believers grow and know error from truth. Our reformed brethren speak of the Solas, one being Sola Scriptura, would that we would see more actually practice this than just make that pronouncement. Thanks, for your insights and warnings.

  18. Amen for reading the Bible! What a crazy thing to promote to your people! I also do appreciate your comments on the correct response to Piper…