Mini-Review: Brothers We Are Not Professionals, by John Piper

Subtitle: A Plea To Pastors For Radical Ministry

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Just a mini-review.  I’ve cited various chapters in recent posts.  But lest I simply work my way through the book, I have not covered every one.  I would encourage you to prayerfully read through the book.

I don’t know if you are in the “read anything and everything by John Piper” category, or at the other extreme, “I react against Piper because everyone seems to love him” category (or hopefully somewhere in between!)

This book has short chapters (although they seem to get longer as the book progresses).  It has short chapters that are a good introduction or summary of Piper’s Christian Hedonism.  They allow you to ponder the strengths and weaknesses of this theology that pervades all his work and preaching.  I’d encourage those enamored with it to graciously critique it.  I’d encourage those antagonistic toward it to carefully consider what the theological issues specifically are.  But while there are some very typical Piper-theology chapters, this book is not just a short-chapter version of Desiring God and other Piper books.

It has short chapters that directly challenge our de-radicalized view of ministry.  Some of these chapters will poke and convict in areas where we need poking and convicting.  This book is good fodder for personal prayer times.

It has short chapters that clearly call us to issues that some of us have become adept at avoiding.  For instance, the issue of racism.  The issue of abortion.  The issue of global missions.  The issue of loving our wives.  The issue of praying for seminaries.

I’m not a sold-out Piperite.  I have some theological differences.  I’m not a sold-out Piper-antagonist.  I’m thankful for his input in my life, even in this latest quick read through this book.  Wherever you stand on John Piper, if you haven’t read this book, perhaps it would be a good time to do so.  If you have read it, maybe it would be worth another dip.  It was for me.

Arrogance and Humility: Whose Definition?

In my quick review of Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals, I’m in chapter 22.  I presume I’m not the only one who resonates deeply with the issue raised in this chapter?  We live in a relativistic age where ‘arrogance’ is “the condemnation of choice in the political and religious arena for anyone who breaks the rules of relativism.”  (p160)  Any stand taken on biblical grounds will tend to lead to the charge of arrogance.

Piper cites G.K.Chesterton’s insightful description of that which is now fully fledged relativism.  The word ‘arrogance’ is used to hijack the term ‘conviction,’ and on the other side, ‘humility’ is used to hijack ‘uncertainty.’  In fact, the quote, from 1908, is so good, I will share it here:

“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place.  Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition.  Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be.  A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.  Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to asset – himself.  The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason . . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” (Orthodoxy, 1908, quoted in Piper, 162).

We stand in a precarious position.  Any biblical stand we take will be shouted down as arrogant (and not just by the world, but by many in the church).  Detractors will not engage meaningfully, but rather quench discussion under a mask of modesty.  At the same time we must constantly ask God to convict us of any pride on our part, for true pride is insidious and always ready to creep in.  So what do we do?  Do we allow ourselves to be silenced by tactics carefully contrived to checkmate us?  Do we allow ourselves to be held back by a fear of inappropriate motivations on our part?

Pride is a problem, so is inappropriate uncertainty.  We need to stand with conviction, not allowing misapplied labels of arrogance to quench our courage.  We need to address uncertainty, not thwarted by the misuse of the label humility.

We will take some knocks, some blows, perhaps even some suffering.  But if we do not graciously, yet firmly stand for truth, then who will?

Rethinking Reading

Another helpful thought from Piper and the men he quotes.  Many people hesitate to start reading a solid book because they don’t have the blocks of time they believe it requires.

Piper’s advice? Get into the habit of reading for 20 minutes a day.  By his calculations an averagely slow reader can get through 15 good Christian books a year that way, or a good handful of weighty classics!  In fact, Piper goes on to suggest three blocks of twenty minutes a day.  (Peter’s advice? Don’t try to read for 20 minutes at a busy desk, it doesn’t work.  If you are not a hyper-clean desk person, go sit across the room or elsewhere!)

Having said that, there is always the danger of superficial skimming that results in a “keeping up with Pastor Jones” approach to reading.

Piper’s advice? Don’t superficially skim, instead bore down deep.  “Your people will know if you are walking with the giants (as Warren Wiersbe says) or watching television.”  (Peter’s advice? Get out of the habit of trying to read every word in a book.  Figure out what you want from a book and then dig deep there, but feel no guilt about leaving sections, chapters, etc., unread.)

And then there is the related tendency to only read modern books.  While there is much of value today, there is also a widespread lack of spiritually reviving, heart stirring, soul warming quality as you might find in someone like Richard Sibbes.

Piper’s advice? Don’t content yourself with excessively light, shallow, a-theological books that don’t carry a sense of the greatness of God.  (Peter’s advice? Ok, nothing to add here.  I suppose we would all do well to rethink our reading strategies.)

Not Every Passage is Easy

I suppose many of us preachers have a desire to make every passage understandable.  This is good and right on many levels.  Yet some passages, and some details in passages, are tough.  I was leading a Bible study on Isaiah 49-50 the other night . . . there was a tough detail.  Should I force my understanding on people?  What if my understanding of it rests on a broader background than some of those present can draw on?  I’m intrigued by Piper’s point in chapter 14 of Brothers We Are Not Professionals – we should show people why God inspired hard texts.

It is amazing that so much of Christianity rests on the shoulders of a “book,” and some parts of that “book” (technically 66 of them I suppose) are hard to understand.  Why did God do this?  Piper offers four reasons.  1. To stir in us a sense of desperation (utter dependence on God’s enablement).  2. To move us to supplication (prayer to God for help).  3. To prompt real cogitation (thinking hard about Biblical texts – which is no alternative to praying for help!)  4. To stimulate genuine education (the training of young people and adults to pray earnestly, read well and think hard.)

As preachers we must wrestle with hard texts and not simply skirt around them in our preaching, nor avoid them in our scheduling.  On the one hand it is up to us to help make the message of the text clear.  At the same time, we may do our listeners a disservice if we don’t point out when a passage is tough, and look for ways to let that be a motivation for study, rather than a hindrance.

Sacred Substitutes

Just following up on Monday’s post on prayer . . . I appreciate the next chapter in Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals – Beware of Sacred Substitutes.  What is the greatest threat to genuine prayer and true meditation on the Word?  It is ministry activity.  “Ministry is its own worst enemy.”  (p59)

How true this is!  Turning to Acts 6:2-4, Piper exhorts the reader to guard against the many sacred substitutes, the real needs, the pressing concerns of ministry.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.” (p60)

Consider what must be sacrificed in order to take genuinely focused time in prayer this week.  Don’t leave prayer until your message is prepared.  Don’t leave prayer until the unplanned needs are addressed.  Don’t leave prayer until your next day off.  Don’t even leave prayer until it can be used to “redeem the time” in the car journey between appointments.

There are many sacred substitutes that come our way.  Even apart from the flesh, laziness, entertainment, and the enemy himself.  Just in the good and the right and the needy and the appropriate – there are many substitutes that will steal us away from the real priority.  “Without extended, concentrated prayer, the ministry of the Word withers.”

Refuse to Believe

I’m scanning through John Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals.  I resonate deeply with some of what he writes, then disagree with other elements – I suppose that makes for an engaging read.  Anyway, here’s an “I resonate” for us all to ponder in relation to preaching ministry:

“Prayer is the translation into a thousand different words of a single sentence: “Apart from me [Christ] you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

Oh, how we need to wake up to how much “nothing” we spend our time doing.  Apart from prayer, all our scurrying about, all our talking, all our study amounts to “nothing.”  For most of us the voice of self-reliance is ten times louder than the bell that tolls for the hours of prayer.  The voice cries out: “You must open the mail, you must make that call, you must write this sermon, you must prepare for the board meeting, you must go to the hospital.”  But the bell tolls softly: “Without Me you can do nothing.”

Both our flesh and our culture scream against spending an hour on our knees beside a desk piled with papers.” – Page 55

I don’t think I need to add much to this.  Amen, perhaps?  It is easy to respond to the conviction felt within by agreeing that we need to pray more.  It is easy to look ahead and imagine a change of circumstance in which we would pray more.  It is easy to spot a time later in the week when prayer may fit more easily than the current pressing situation.  Why not stop everything now and pray for an hour or two?  What’s more important?  What would the negative consequences be, really?  Ok, one more sentence to finish the post:

“Refuse to believe that the daily hours Luther and Wesley and Brainerd and Judson spent in prayer are idealistic dreams of another era.” – Page 57.

Banishing Professionalism

I was just prompted by a question to re-read John Piper’s first chapter in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Here’s a taste of Piper’s prayer at the end of the chapter:

Banish professionalism from our midst, Oh God, and in its place put passionate prayer, poverty of spirit, hunger for God, rigorous study of holy things, white-hot devotion to Jesus Christ, utter indifference to all material gain, and unremitting labor to rescue the perishing, perfect the saints, and glorify our sovereign Lord.

I suppose one question to ask is this, does the kind of “prophetic” ministry that Piper calls us to somehow stand in contrast to “expository preaching?”  To put it another way, is expository preaching a form of “professionalism?”  I would say not, although definitions are critical.  If by “expository preaching” we mean some kind of insipid, weak, fear-filled, irrelevant but technically satisfactory ministry, then of course there is a contrast. By “professional” does Piper mean “effective expository preaching” or something else?

I think Piper is going after the pastor pursuing the comfortable, dignified role in society, respected like a medical doctor, kind of professionalism – a profession.  If only our churches were led by men who were radically committed to uncomfortable spirituality, to sacrificial response-to-God kind of living.  I suspect that while such leadership would make some uncomfortable, it would give many of us more excitement and willingness to “follow” spiritual leaders, rather than just “fill” the pews kept in order by good and godly managers.

Can a “prophetic” ministry avoid professionalism, but still communicate well, as encouraged on this site?  I don’t think anyone would suggest the OT prophets were poor communicators?  They were master preachers, but they weren’t comfortable preachers.  They weren’t the socially respectable acceptable.  They weren’t nice, or insipid, or predictable, or fearful.  They spoke the Word of God with power and pointedness and precision and pluck (courage didn’t begin with a “p”).  I don’t read Piper ch.1 and think, ‘oh no, there’s no room for expository preaching anymore.’  Actually, I read it and say, “Amen!  If only we had more men of God preaching in our churches!”  What’s missing in contemporary preaching?  There’s a vibrancy, an urgency, a spirituality that is generally missing.  Piper is calling for the kind of radical sold-outness that often drains away in the professionalization of ministry.

We don’t want to sacrifice the authority of the text for the passion of the presenter, nor vice versa.  I suppose most of us preachers should hold our hands up and say “too much too safe too adequate preaching – my bad!”  Time for radical brokenness in our approach to ministry and our view of our own preaching.

Thank you Piper for the prod.  Let’s ponder.  Let’s pray.