Church Diversity: Why Piper Does Not Go Far Enough

Derek Ouellette —  September 26, 2011

Christianity Today recently published an excerpt from John Piper’s forthcoming book, “Bloodlines”. The article was titled “John Piper: I Was Racist” and as near as I can tell, it is the book’s introduction. Now this is an important observation to make because most often when someone writes a book the question becomes, ‘what qualifies this person to write on this subject?’ To answer this question by way of introduction, Piper launches into his own biographical back-story of how he went from being a self-professed racist to, well, not being racist any more.

For the most part I found the article quite good. He shares how merely 90 years before his birth South Carolina had a population that was 60% black, almost all of which were slaves. He comments how the whites had justified the “noble spirit of Southern slaveholders by pointing to how nice they were to their slaves, and how deep the affections were, and how they even attended each other’s personal celebrations.” He explains how when he was a child how in South Carolina segregation was all but absolute and even the church he was raised in refused to allow blacks into its pews.

“In 1962 my home church voted not to allow blacks into the services. The rationale, as I remember, was that in the heated context of the civil rights era, the only reason blacks would want to be there would be political, which is not what church is for.”

So as the slaveholders came up with a rational for slavery, so Piper’s own church of his youth came up with a rational for segregation.

Today Piper frowns down on both rationales.

He describes the event in his senior year of Bible College where he experienced an “awakening from the sinful oblivion of racism”. It happened during a missionary conference in which the missionary Warren Webster was asked how he would feel if his daughter married a Pakistani. Webster replied in force: “Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!” Up to this point Piper opposed racial-intermarriage.

With such assumptions now shattered Piper turned to the scriptures to see what they say about interracial marriage. In seminary he did research and wrote a paper concluding “the Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages but sees them as a positive good for the glory of Christ.” Despite receiving an A- on the paper, his professor at the time wrote in the margins: “It is extremely hard to see the positive effect of specific interracial marriage.” To this Piper writes:

“His hesitancy to give a wholehearted affirmation to the goodness of interracial marriage was rooted in his desire not to minimize the struggle for the intrinsic worth of authentic black identity.”

To this reason too Piper frowns upon.

Pause and Notice a Pattern

Before we go further we need to observe a pattern implicit within Piper’s narrative. First observe how the slaveholders provided a justifiable reason for slavery and how that reason seems revolting to us today (the reason given: slaves and their masters had good relationships). Second observe how the church of Piper’s youth provided a justifiable reason for segregation and how that reason is a terrible reason, yet more “spiritual” than the first (the reason given: blacks attending predominantly white churches were making a political statement thus distracting the worship and hindering the body of Christ). Clearly that is a terrible reason, but it seems more spiritual than the first. Thirdly observe how Piper’s seminary professor has provided a justifiable reason for not wholeheartedly affirming interracial marriage that seems to be out of concern for the black community and how that reason still seems unjustifiable to us today (the reason given: interracial marriages “minimize” intrinsic worth of authentic black identity).

In other words, with each new era the justifiable reasons seem to get “better” and more “spiritual” while the offense is lessened.

Observe How Piper Perpetuates This Pattern

Now that we’ve made that observation, let’s move on. While a hundred and fifty years ago the issue was slavery, eighty years ago the issue was segregation, fourty years ago the issue was interracial marriage. Today’s issue – it seems from the article – is racial diversity within the body of Christ.

Sadly, this is where John Piper falls apart in this article (in my opinion). Because rather than advocating racial diversity within the body of Christ he seems to follow in the pattern set out in the article. That is, while the “offense” seems lessened (lack of diversity in Church today is certainly not as offensive as outright segregation or slavery!), the justifiable reason he gives seems more spiritual than all that have come before. He has justified his reasons for not advocating racial diversity by creating a false “either/or”. He has done this by staking out his position as the “gospel” position, while subjugating racial diversity in the body of Christ under the rubric of “worldly matters”.[1] (For an explanation of this observation, see the footnote.)

His reason for taking this route is because he has to admit that he has not been a “successful multiethnic leader” and then try and justify that fact in light of his writing of this new book. So to do this he has to convince his readers (most of whom will no doubt be convinced) that he has been given a “higher” calling; that his mission is not to be a “successful multiethnic leader” because he has been called to “writ[e] books [and] carr[y] on a wider speaking ministry”. And all of this is rooted in a particular understanding of the “gospel”; and Piper’s understanding of the gospel comes out clearest in his final paragraph:

“I believe that the gospel—the good news of Christ crucified in our place to remove the wrath of God and provide forgiveness of sins and power for sanctification—is our only hope for the kind of racial diversity and harmony that ultimately matters.”

Let me unpack that a little for you. For Piper the gospel amounts to Christ’ substitutionary atonement and our heavenly destiny. In other words, all of this – for Piper – amounts to personal salvation climaxing in our floating about in heaven in the sweet by and by where there will be peoples from every nation and tribe on earth (note his reference in that quote to “racial diversity and harmony that ultimately matters”). Racial diversity in this world doesn’t really – at least it doesn’t ultimately – matter. So aside from getting saved, what we do on this earth has no “ultimate” consequences.

Now for those of you who are aware of the controversy between Piper and Wright not long ago are all too aware of where this is going. N.T. Wright has been advocating a Gospel that is larger than you and I. He has been advocating a Christian ethic that opposes the false dichotomy between heaven and earth. He has been preaching a message that is world-changing. It starts here and now. It starts with your neighbor and your churches neighborhood. It’s a Gospel that says what you do in the here and now really does have eternal consequences. As the saying goes, “heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world”.

Now Piper, in his next comment following the last quote, makes a startling turn:

“If we abandon the fullness of the gospel to make racial and ethnic diversity quicker or easier, we create a mere shadow of the kingdom, an imitation.”

But who’s advocating for an abandoning of the gospel “to make racial and ethnic diversity quicker and easier”? He has created a false dichotomy here and set up a strawman to do it.. It is not “either/or” but rather “both/and”. Piper’s idea of “the fullness of the gospel” boils down to personal salvation with a heavenly destiny. That’s not full. That is a rather impoverished view of the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus is much larger than that. The Gospel of Jesus Christ – in its fullness and glory – includes the breakdown of all racial and ethnic barriers in this world.[2]

If the Gospel is not having that kind of effect in our churches and communities, it is not the fullness of the Gospel.

In my opinion, John Piper has come a long way, but he has not gone far enough. Like those who opposed the abolition, like those who opposed integration, like those who oppose interracial marriage, so now with those who place on the back burner racial diversity in our churches, John Piper has come up with a “spiritual” justification for not going far enough.

[1] Piper’s concluding statement is a quote from Luke 9:25 except that he replaces the phrase “whole world” with “complete diversity”. The implication is clear. In the context of the article “complete diversity” means “racial diversity” of a local church that reflects its community. For Piper, vying for racial diversity in the church is tantamount to exchanging to gospel for the world.

[2] See Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Don Johnson


    Great insights! Thank you.

  • Victorious

    Yes! Great insights. Thanks, Derek!

  • Dave Leigh

    Nice job Derek! (As always!)

    It’s good to see Piper moving in the right direction on something, at least. Once he gets racism defeated in his life and thinking, I’d like to see him move on to defeating sexism and the questionable theology behind his doctrines of gender roles.

    Both racism and sexism are forms of discrimination based on people’s natural created differences. The scripture teaches us that God is not a “respecter” of such differences and that there are for him no longer distinctions like Jew/Gentile, Slave/Free or male and female in Christ.

    Piper continues to regard people after the flesh, rather than in Christ, and uses these distinctions not only for segregation and divisivness but for hierarchy. All of this is an abysmal disappointment when we consider the tremendous giftedness, talent, and potential this man possesses.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Don and Victorious. And Dave, it’s always a joy to know that you stop by from time to time. :)

  • Brian MacArevey

    Love the post Derek.

  • Jodie Anna

    well said! It’s not enough for him to just admit his shortcomings, especially when he then downplays racial diversity by appealing to the Gospel. As you say, the Gospel is about breaking down barriers – it’s more about inclusiveness than diversity, although the social concept of diversity seeks inclusiveness. As a respected author, he has the opportunity to really set an example and make positive changes in his community! What does he profit if he gains all the book royalties in the world and yet loses touch with his own community and therefore his own soul?

  • Britt

    Well Said friend!
    It’s a true shame that CT focuses on this sort of fluff and not on real scholars and their work.

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