John Piper Is Not the Pope (But I Love Him Anyway)

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I have had two conversations today that I did not expect to have as a Bible believing, conservative evangelical Christian.

They were both about John Piper.

One of my congregants had been hurt, traumatized and destabilized by reading Piper’s position paper on divorce. The vast majority of evangelical pastors and scholars would characterize her divorce as tragic but biblically justified. Her husband was a serial and unrepentant adulterer. She sought reconciliation for years and pursued counseling, accountability, church discipline and pretty much everything she should have. But it didn’t work. Her husband was not willing to give up his sin and the marriage ended. It was the first time as a pastor that I had ever advised someone to get a divorce.

I don’t regret it.

Her situation seems to meet the standard set forth by Jesus in Matthew 19: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 ESV)

The Greek word translated by the ESV as “sexual immorality” is pornea which most scholars believe covers the sin of adultery, homosexual sex, incest and bestiality. Therefore the divorce of this woman was, regrettably, lamentable and allowable. Should she remarry, she would not be committing adultery. That seems to be the obvious point of the parallel passage in Matthew 5:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31–32 ESV)

Here Jesus appears to be saying that if a divorce is not legitimate, then the remarriage is not legitimate. Conversely, if the divorce is legitimate then the remarriage is legitimate. In the context of the day, the certificate of divorce was specifically given in order to permit and endorse remarriage. Instone-Brewer for example explains:

“[A]ll Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman ones contained the words ‘you are free to marry any man you wish,’ or something very similar.” [1]

From that, many/most conservative evangelical pastors and scholars teach that if the individual believer had Biblical grounds for divorce, then he or she is permitted to remarry – but only in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39).

These are the texts that I had worked through at length with this woman and that had given her a measure of peace even while she lamented the dissolution of her marriage.

Her peace was shattered earlier this week by reading an article that had been written by John Piper. The article began with these earthshaking words:

“I have recently come to the conclusion that the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is not intended to provide a loophole for divorce and remarriage when one of the partners commits adultery.”

In her mind those words said something more like: “I have come to the conclusion that your pastor has dangerously misled you and that you have committed a very serious sin and that you now stand condemned before God.”

Obviously, we needed to meet and discuss that. Here is what I said to her: “John Piper is not the Pope. He wouldn’t want you to think he was the Pope. John Piper is a godly man who wrestles with the Bible and teaches people what he sees. We are thankful for John Piper, but on this issue, having studied our Bibles, we are convinced that he is wrong.”

For some reason, that was very reassuring to her.

And that made me realize that evangelicals may be more Roman Catholic than we have been led to believe. To be a Protestant is specifically and explicitly NOT to have a Pope. It is to believe that our consciences are captive to the Word of God – not to a particular podcast, conference or website and definitely not to a person. Of course we want to read Scripture in community – but ultimately that means in a church with a pastor and a board of elders – not the community of the Internet.

To be clear, John Piper is a gift to the church – a gift to my church – but he is not the Pope.

About 90 minutes after I had that conversation about John Piper and divorce, I had it again with another congregant about John Piper and women seminary professors.

Last week on an Episode of Ask Pastor John, someone asked Pastor John about whether women should teach at seminaries. You can listen to Pastor John’s response here. You can listen to a female seminary professor respond with frustration here. To listen to a colleague respond positively see here. The congregant I was speaking to was concerned that this statement by Pastor John would make it harder for him to reach out to some women who find the church’s position on gender hard to understand and impossible to swallow. While he agreed with our church’s belief that men and women are equal in terms of salvation graces and blessings, but different in terms of specific role and responsibility, he did not want to feel obligated to defend all of John Piper’s various applications and assertions related to the topic.

My question was this: Why would he?

Why in the world would he feel that he needed to defend John Piper’s application of gender theology to the seminary context? Did he attend John Piper’s seminary? No. Was he a member of a church that John Piper was pastoring? No. Then why not just say: “While I have a deep respect for Pastor Piper’s reverence for God’s Word, I don’t agree with his application of this issue to the question of whether or not women can teach in a seminary”.

Why would that be a strange thing to do?

John Piper is not the Pope.

To be clear, I love John Piper. A lot. I’ve spent some time with him over the years and have found him to be one of the most genuine, kind, humble, passionate people on the planet. I would love to know him better. I have benefited more from his preaching than probably any other preacher I can think of. I am PRO JOHN PIPER.

But he is not the Pope.

And he would not want the job if we offered it to him. He would say: “I have to teach what I see when I get on my face before the text and you have to teach what you see.” All he would want is for pastors and elders to wrestle with the text; to push back against the forces of the culture and the lies of the enemy and tremble before the Word of God. He would want us to hear the Bible in its own voice. He would want us to be humble and contrite and to be aware of your own sin and bias.

And then he would want us to preach, teach, lead, correct, rebuke and bind accordingly.

Let us give no man or woman priority above the text of Scripture – not even John Piper. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. He rules over her by his Word and through his Spirit. To submit to that rule is what it means to be a Protestant; more than that, it is what it means to be a Christian.

But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2 ESV)

Old Testament and New; 16th century and today, this is the Word of the Lord!

Thanks be to God!

Paul Carter

N.B. To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here; to listen on SoundCloud see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

N.B. To read an article where Pastor Paul defends his view on divorce and remarriage in greater detail see here.


[1] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 302.

The featured image was used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

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