Earlier this month a secular group that routinely targets U.S. military chaplains filed a formal complaint against a chaplain who had shared a John Piper e-book Coronavirus & Christ. Piper is a popular conservative Calvinist Baptist preacher who’s chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minnesota.
There are two sentences in Piper’s book that are cited as unacceptable. One says: “Some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.” The other refers to the “sin of homosexual intercourse.” The complaining group wants to create the impression that Piper thinks the pandemic maybe is punishment for homosexuality, though Piper doesn’t say so. Here’s what Piper writes in his book:
The coronavirus is, therefore, never a clear and simple punishment on any person. The most loving, Spirit-filled Christian, whose sins are forgiven through Christ, may die of the coronavirus disease. But it is fitting that every one of us search our own heart to discern if our suffering is God’s judgment on the way we live.
Piper in his Calvinist theology strongly stresses divine sovereignty. He does so in ways that I, as a Methodist, would not. Yet John Wesley believed earthquakes and natural disasters can be forms of divine punishment. Contemporary opinion chafes at such suggestions partly because we proudly think of ourselves as good people.
We, humanity, are in fact not so good, which’s why every religion and philosophy offers redemption in some form. In Christianity there are warnings against reading God’s mind or ascribing specific punishments to particular sins. We live under His grace, and He’s mainly trying to rescue us, not condemn us. The Gospels say rain falls on the just and the unjust equally. And Jesus warned that a blind man wasn’t blind because of sin but because God would be glorified through giving him new sight.
When my grandmother lost her son to an accident, nine years after losing her husband to an accident, a former pastor, who was Presbyterian, wrote her a letter. He didn’t ascribe their tragic deaths to sin. But he said God had honored her by entrusting such grief and loss to her, knowing she would remain faithful. Maybe some people would twist this meaning to say: “God killed them!!” But she cherished the letter the rest of her life. There are different ways to express divine sovereignty. Piper’s method is one.
But in this controversy with military chaplains, Piper’s theological views about divine sovereignty are irrelevant. The U.S. Army chaplain who emailed Piper’s book to 30 chaplain colleagues is a Korean American serving in South Korea. He’s likely Presbyterian or some brand of Calvinist. He wrote:
This book has helped me refocus my sacred calling to my savior Jesus Christ to finish strong. Hopefully this small booklet would help you and your Soldiers, their Families and others who you serve.
Presumably his chaplain colleagues are free to share their own favorite religious books, each of which could be “offensive.” Christian chaplains could be offended by books from non-Christians that deny the deity of Christ. Catholics could be offended by Protestant books not affirming the Catholic Church as uniquely the supreme church. Calvinists could be offended by Methodist and Catholic books stressing their versions of free will. Muslim books citing Muhammad as prophet could offend everybody else.
The military chaplaincy serves the spiritual needs of persons from all major faiths. Their mission is not syncretism but service and collegiality. The same is true for our wider democracy, where freedom of speech and conscience require that all be permitted to hold and share their own perspectives, even including Calvinist Baptists like John Piper.
This group filing a complaint against the Piper-reading army chaplain in South Korea claims to advocate free thought and speech. But the opposite is true. There’s a growing perspective in Western society that seeks effectively to ban some forms of speech, especially if it’s tied to traditional religion. YouTube removed an audio version of Piper’s book for several days until restoring it, perhaps prompted by public complaints.
The complainant against the Piper-reading chaplain wrote:
Many of the Chaplains who received this unsolicited book from Chaplain (Colonel) Kim are from mainline and Progressive Christian denominations which do not subscribe to the ultra conservative/Reformed/evangelical Christian theology of John Piper.
No doubt. And these progressive clergy are free to share theologically liberal books of their own choosing. No doubt chaplains across the spectrum can handle these different views maturely and without the chronic offense now so popular in civilian society.