John Piper and an ‘upper-middle-class’ emerging church

UPDATE: John Piper announced his time off from ministry 2 days after this post. Bad timing on my part. See my follow-up post also – Cutting John Piper some slack on the emerging church.

ORIGINAL: John Piper is a well respected pastor and teacher so his words on the emerging church this week are creating some discussion. Michael Krahn asks if John Piper’s new definition of the emerging church as an “upper-middle-class, white departure from orthodoxy” is correct. My two cents.

john piper


The EC leaders John Piper has met are, most likely, upper-middle-class people with Seminary degrees and salaries and mortgages and new cars so I can see why he would say that. But in fact the opposite is true, esp. when you look at the global movement, and I find the statement quite insulting to the many EC leaders who have given up their comfortable salaried pastoral positions in the traditional church (like I did) for the downwardly mobile lifestyle of ministry among the postmodern generation and in new forms of church where a salary is unheard of and probably not even considered. Most EC leaders cannot afford to attend Seminary, and nor can they get time off from their job at Starbucks to attend Christian conferences where people like John Piper and the upper-middle-class tiny minority of EC hang out.

Has the emerging church movement, as popularized by the American publishing industry and Christian conference business, degenerated from a grass-roots renewal movement, reforming voice, missional conscience and sustainable church planting movement to a theological discussion for upper-middle-class Seminary grads with too much time? Well, thats another question.


Perhaps in Minneapolis where John Piper hangs out there is a lot of white people [SHOUT OUT TO SCANDANAVIANS . . . YEAHHHHH!!!!!] representing the emerging church and coming across John Piper’s path. I dont know. But from what I have observed, the EC movement in each country and region generally reflects the ethnicity of that region. Sometimes, quite unusually – like the case in Japan – the newly emerging church is more contextual and national, and less international, compared to the traditional churches that often attract foreigners and missionaries looking for something like back home in the Bible belt. I was just talking recently with the emerging church leaders in Brazil and guess what . . . they are all Brazilian and not white. But the challenge for them is more cultural than ethnic. Likewise in the USA, the real challenge as I see it is not the multi-ethnic shift but rather the multi-cultural shift which is far more difficult.


Well, as John Piper correctly observers, the EC is a “constellation” and inside this diverse world there are plenty of people in all theological camps and certainly enough heretics among which one can find a worthy Emerging Church Patsy, whose downfall might threaten the whole movement [not likely]. But something bigger is going on. What has been defined as “orthodoxy” is being challenged by a new generation with a new approach and a new mindset. And although a particular man-made doctrinal construction may have been considered as “orthodox” by one generation, it will need to be reestablished by the next if it is to regain and maintain credibility and usage.


The idea of “imputed righteousness”, championed by John Piper in his recent writings, in particular, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, was undisputed as orthodox evangelical doctrine when I was younger. Dang – we even sang songs like

“I am covered over by the robe of righteousness that Jesus gives to me. . . . When he looks at me He sees not what I used to be but he sees Jesus”.

We didnt think twice about it. It was just assumed that the church had always believed that the moral righteousness of Christ is somehow transferred over to us, or imputed in us, creating a righteousness cloud that blinds God to our past discretions.

But now this doctrine is under question, along with some other doctrinal discussions in the EC world, and is creating ripples as a new generation tries to re-source (see D.H. Williams for how I understand that term) its Christianity with the wider and longer history of God’s people and as it tries to square the doctrine handed over to it with the biblical revelation. Sometimes there is a conflict between the two.

New questions arise. For example, If the idea of “imputed righteousness” is so central, why is it not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Tom Wright asks this question in his book ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, which attempts to give some answers to John Piper’s challenges. I found Tom Wright’s book to be more compelling than Piper’s book on the subject of righteousness and Paul, although both books are excellent and represent sound scholarship and teaching. Wright suggests that the idea of “imputed righteousness” is not what Paul was getting at in his writings. Rather, according to Wright and a lot of EC folk who agree with him, Paul sees justification as a legal declaration of the accused being in the right because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, but not a transfer of moral righteousness.

Last year I predicted that the EC would lean towards Wright rather than Piper on this issue. That was probably a no-brainer. But the conversation continues and it involves new questions – not “Is this doctrine orthodox or not?” but perhaps “What was Paul thinking when he wrote what he wrote?” and “How has the church through the ages understood that passage?” and “How does that verse or passage fit with the wider sweep of Scripture [including the Old Testament of course]?” and “What kind of theological/eschatological thinking were the intended readers getting into at the time that would impact their understanding of this passage?”


I hope John Piper will see this NOT as a “minimizing” of doctrine but instead as an opportunity for more doctrinal conversation with the Emerging Church leaders [and the many who have graduated from this term] and are casting doubt on other recent doctrines particular to the Western European mindset, but still stand for the missional, biblical, Trinitarian emphasis that has undergirded it over these past two decades.

Interested in this conversation? Take a look at my friend Andrew Perriman’s thoughts on Piper’s “imputed righeousness” on his blog, entitled “Open Source Theology: Collaborative Theology for the Emerging Church”. Also read his response to Tom Wright’s book on this issue. While it is true that some doctrines are pushed to the back and others are brought forward, in response to a changing world, I would argue that EC leaders do not “minimize doctrine” in general, but in fact are very interested in doctrine, even the doctrine of John Piper. BUT a narrative understanding of God’s revelation rather than a focus on our many recently-created theological terms, will create a new set of questions and assumptions.

Related on TSK:

John Piper in a Postmodern World,

When the darkness will not lift, by John Piper,

John Piper and the Desiring God Conference.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • That was a great reply you gave! Thanks for setting the record straight for many of us EC leaders!

  • JR Rozko says:

    Thanks for the post Andrew. Not sure if you still visit my blog, but I posted on an event I attended a few weeks ago where a similar sentiment was shared (
    What grieves me the most is the lack of a global view toward this conversation. I know of almost no EC detractors who ever mention the missiological dimension of the global EC movement, the focus is almost always on (a narrow definition) of doctrine or, as in the case of the event I was at, theological method.
    Thanks for your thought here. With you, I really hope for this to be a deeper conversation for the good of the Body.

  • ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh THERE is the Andrew that i’ve missed………….. ok, i know yer doin yer thang, but it’s nice to hear that brain in tap tap tap mode at times.
    well put as always!

  • Michael says:

    if i was accused of being part of a departure form piper’s white upper middle class orthodoxy, i wouldn’t complain.

  • mountainguy says:

    “if i was accused of being part of a departure form piper’s white upper middle class orthodoxy, i wouldn’t complain.”
    I was thinking something like this. Isn’t the church of Piper (and MOST of conservative evangelical ones) made up of mostly “white upper middle class” people?

  • Lee Fischer says:

    Hi, I don’t know you, but I identify with the Emergent movement quite strongly. After years of frustration, we have set out to begin our own community and are still pretty allergic to anything remotely resembling a modern church construct. I am also not a fan of piper. However, my experience of the Emergent church here in Germany, and the glimpses we get of what is coming out of the English speaking world, still leaves me thirsting for more diversity. Here in Germany, the theological discussion is still dominated by white, male middle class and I am finding myself frustrated with the way theology is being “done” altogether. I think your question at the beginning is a very good one:
    “Has the emerging church movement, as popularized by the American publishing industry and Christian conference business, degenerated from a grass-roots renewal movement, reforming voice, missional conscience and sustainable church planting movement to a theological discussion for an upper-middle-class Seminary grads with too much time? ”
    And if the answer is yes, how can we pursue social, cultural, ethnic and gender diversity not only in our smaller communities, but within the larger theological discussion? I think we would do well to allow Pipers critique to challenge us in this regard.

  • Paul Roberts says:

    Andrew, since you, like me, can remember singing “I am covered over” (yes, I know, it sounds like an advert for custard), you now well and truly belong to the Club of Internet-Enabled Old Geezers.
    Congratulations. Get your slippers.

  • Jason Elam says:

    I have always had a lot of respect for Piper so I was disappointed that someone of his stature would mention random accusations of “rampant immorality” that he he claimed to have some special knowledge of. I was somewhat disillusioned with him after that.
    Concerning the EC, Piper was overgeneralizing to be sure. When you’re talking about that many people in that many church bodies you can’t make blanket statements like that without being wrong.

  • Why does John Piper always look like he’s jamming out on some hip-hop in his pictures?

  • Tad DeLay says:

    does anyone know to what he’s alluding to with the *massive* personal issues in the leadership that haven’t been publicized? That’s a pretty big charge to just fling out there (and sort of childish in the vein of “i know something you don’t know”). But assuming he’s at least alluding to something, does anyone know what’s up?

  • lee Williams says:

    Greetings! This is my first time commenting, though I’ve enjoyed the blog for at least a couple of years. I’ve got Piper books, but really, the guy needs to take a seat. He seems to be the poster-boy for Reformation=Biblical, and the revelation of our day is simply that that is not true. He’s fighting an antequated (spelling?) battle. Anyway, keep at it Kiwi, and I love the Truck and the travel -my family and I are about to enter into something similar on the South American Continent – starting at the end and working our way up : ).

  • Doug Pagitt says:

    You know, this might be a bit of “karma kick-back”. I think 10 years ago too many of us, including me, were too quick to suggest that some expressions of Christianity didn’t care about relationship and only truth. And, that the moral failure of conservative pastors was due to their bad theology. And, that certain expressions of faith were only for a select demographic of elites. And, that those expressions of church would be gone in 10 years.
    We were of course wrong.
    And so is John.
    We tell ourselves that we wrong in great part because of being immature, rash and uninformed. Maybe that was the reason. But John shows us that there may be other reasons.
    What ever the cause, I am glad to know we, many of us anyway, have outgrown it.
    May that part continue to be true for all.
    Andrew, I am surprised to see this topic on your blog again. I thought you were done with all this emerging church stuff.
    Well, keep up the good work my friend.

  • I don’t like the finality of his pronouncement. It’s all too cut and dried. On issues like this I tend to side with Gamaliel:
    Acts 5:38-39 (New Living Translation)
    “So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!”

  • tsk says:

    doug. great to hear from you. you were in my dream last night we were having a few good laughs together. weird
    nice answer. humble. thanks for that. and i am still keeping up with the conversation, and i get asked to comment and teach on the movement as i see it, whether people are using the terms or not. \
    but one thing that brings me out of retirement is when the story is wrong and i feel a strong need to come out and explain or add truth to a situation. its history – and i love history – much of it is history happening around us and we are not always sure of the big picture but it helps if we all chip in with what we know and have seen.

  • Thanks for the post.
    I appreciate the tone of your writing. Sometimes when I read EC stuff it seems to be a reaction to a conservative evangelicalism that I never was exposed to growing up, even though I grew up in a conservative evangelical church. Some EC posts just leave me thinking, “Who is he talking about? My church is missional, my church has great community, my church is living out its teachings in orthopraxy”
    I also appreciated that the content of your post was not shockingly provocative. Some EC writers, in my opinion, seem to want to provoke a response from conservative evangelical folks, so they can get a reaction and then say, “See, I told you so.”
    I think your choice of “imputed righteousness” as an example of a doctrine that needs to be re-examined is a perfect topic to use when beginning a discussion with conservative evangelicals.
    I do have a question about this statement:
    “And although a particular man-made doctrinal construction may have been considered as “orthodox” by one generation, it will need to be reestablished by the next if it is to regain and maintain credibility and usage.”
    Is this really the pattern of orthodox down through the centuries? This seems too simple. Some doctrinal constructs have been around so long and accepted by so many generations that they automatically have credibility, where as those constructs that are newer to the church more likely need to be re-established by the newer generation.
    Also weren’t most creeds established as a response to a perceived heresy, rather than a questioning of an established orthodoxy as seems to be the case today with some EC leaders thinking.
    I am just now beginning to study the history and motivations for the different historic church councils and their creeds, so I still have a lot to learn, so my comments may show nothing more than my ignorance.

  • The Advocate says:

    Is it possible that every generation needs to revisit theology to make it their own? If so, history seems to demonstrate that it isn’t “our father’s theology” and yet still has similar components my like my father’s Oldsmobile even if re-designed.
    Sadly, it seems great spiritual fathers like John Piper can still marginalize themselves with labeling, overgeneralizing rants like this. Oh, and throw in the tag ‘heresy’ just to make sure everyone knows something is horribly dangerous.
    And show me a generation of God-followers who didn’t have leaders with moral failures. We can start with Abraham if we like. So maybe a better test for ‘orthodoxy’ is new fruit rather than perfect fruit.
    Thanks, TSK, for a meaningful engagement. That’s the kind of spiritual father I want to be.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    About 35 years ago someone gave me a free subscription to “Present Truth”, and I learnt what “imputed righteousness” is, though I’m still not convinced that it is “orthodox”.
    But what concerns me more is that the Emerging Church movement, in southern Africa, at least, does seem to be predominantly white and middle-class. And what scares me about that more is what is keeping black middle-class youth away — I fear that it is that they find the prosperity gospel much more attractive.

  • Ok, Steve, gotta say, that last line is a thought provoker…. not just for the black middle-class…… but there is a bigger thought there as to why it’s attractive….. easy outs and God’s gonna meet all our needs …………

  • Ken Silva says:

    Makes sense to me.

  • Well John Piper is wrong, because I sure wish I was upper-middle class! 🙂
    P.S.Anyone else find it ironic that a Reformed dude is criticizing another religious group for being made up of upper middle class, academically-minded Caucasians?

  • @generation4him says:

    Awesome comment…made me laugh 🙂 So true!

  • tsk says:

    Steve – I always respect your comments and opinions and i know you are a long-termer in these thngs.
    southern africa?? yes – i was there 2 years ago and met with “emerging church” leaders and thinkers/bloggers and YES – they were all white. so Piper’s remarks would certainly fit in that environment, although i dont think John Piper had the global scene in mind when he made his statements.
    in light of Doug Pagitt’s really gracious and humble blog post [ read it here ] I should learn to be a bit more gracious and humble and give more credit to folk who attempt to add critique, as well as realizing that I cannot see the whole picture either.
    God bless John Piper!!
    Did you read that he is taking some time off to sharpen his ax and tune up? What a great guy. We all need to do this every once in a while.
    Kinda wish I had not been so hard on him now.

  • Bo Salisbury says:

    I guesssome missed the fact that Piper is answering a question from the floor by an African American Christian — I think he’s speaking at a prison. Watch the video and you’ll catch it at the end.
    Years ago, sitting in a self-described emergent gathering in Durham North Carolina… I looked around, I thought “this will never fly in the black church.” It was just as Piper described it… so, I think he gave the most accurate assessment of the EC in the US you could give a group of African American prisoners in only a few seconds.
    Perhaps we could grab some candles and art… a tapestry and some stools… some Odwallas and head over to the local US jail and engage the guys in some community.

  • Thanks for this post! I was recently asked by a friend across the pond my thoughts on Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Wayne Grudem as it relates to a younger generation of passionate and very influential evangelicals in her church.
    Your post helps frame a portion of that conversation, so thanks! I’ll post my thoughts on my blog shortly at The WayWard Follower ( ).

  • Mark R says:

    he says , she says …..
    Kindah sad the older some get the more territorial over their ruts they become ….
    bit like retired Prime Minsters here in Oz … like s@@@!!! if these guys had all the answers to the worlds problems back then like they do now they would still be in office!!!

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