Every few years I’m dismayed to see the name John Piper reappear in the national religious conversation. A few weeks ago it occurred when Piper, the pastor of an unremarkable Baptist church in Minneapolis, started a minor tempest with a three-word tweet: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Piper, the self-appointed keeper of evangelical orthodoxy, was writing off Bell because of his book, Love Wins, which has the audacity to claim that hell might be unoccupied.
For Piper, that’s going too far.
This is not the first time Piper has gone on the offense against a fellow Christian who painted a too-friendly picture of God. A few years ago, he was guilty of the attempted excommunication of Greg Boyd, a rival Twin Cities pastor and theology prof at Bethel University (my alma mater, back when it was a lowly college). The tussle was over some obscure theological point of little interest to anyone outside the small confines of Piperdom. All you need to know: Boyd’s God was nicer than Piper’s.
Before Bell and before Boyd, however, Piper took his first victim: a warm, wise and humble Bethel professor named Ken Gowdy.
Gowdy, a sociologist, was my senior seminar teacher in 1985 and ’86, and his class was the best I ever took. We met at his home in St. Paul, where his wife, Shirley, would serve us coffee, tea and healthy food, while we discussed the history of sociology.
Gowdy poured himself into teaching, unlike many college professors who are more passionate about their own research and writing than their students’ learning.
A couple years after I graduated, in a private conversation with a student, Gowdy made the “mistake” of saying something along these lines: If a person is in a homosexual relationship, he or she should be monogamous.
In the late 1980s, when this occurred, it was far more unusual for anyone at a Baptist college to even acknowledge that homosexuality existed, much less discuss it in terms of a “relationship” rather than an outright sin. As innocent as it seems today, what Gowdy had done turned out to be unforgivable in that setting — thanks largely to Dr. Piper, who was told of the conversation and made it his mission to see Gowdy removed.
Fact is, Gowdy was expressing what was likely a common sentiment among his colleagues at Bethel. When I was in school, there were many liberals (politically and theologically) among the Bethel faculty, and they were outspoken, respected and mainstream. Many of my professors were left-leaning if not left-wing, including William Smalley, one of the 20th century’s great linguists, my father, Don Larson (who helped bring Smalley and Gowdy to Bethel), and several others I won’t “out” who were (and still are) in the art, psych, philosophy, English and even Bible departments.
Piper’s crusade against Gowdy was part of a larger movement that turned American Evangelicalism from a political melting pot into an interest group within the Republican party — and drove many of Evangelicalism’s young artists and intellectuals to other denominations or out of Christianity altogether.
After working out an early retirement deal with Bethel, Ken became a bus driver, a job I’m sure he performed with his usual kindness and professionalism. I last saw him at my dad’s funeral in 2000 and reflected on all the students who were deprived of his insight and his big-hearted interpretation of the gospel.
Sound familiar? Every time some evangelical has the nerve to paint a picture of a God who doesn’t breathe fire, John Piper goes ballistic — as if his God of Judgment is a mere projection of his own small mind and weak heart.
Piper’s recent tweet says less about Bell’s future than Piper’s own. In bidding farewell to Bell and his admirers, Piper is further retreating from the realm of relevance into his lonely kingdom of orthodox obscurity.
I say thank God for that.