(Photo: Parkside Church)
Baptist theologian John Piper and emerging church pastor Mark Driscoll are teaming up this week for an anticipated conference on the "resurgence of the local church."
"Advance," opening on Thursday in Durham, N.C., is just one of many events the two pastors have come together for in recent years.
The unlikely pair has stirred some controversy in conservative circles, with some criticizing respected evangelical preacher Piper for working with the young, emerging Seattle pastor whose raw language and liberal church culture don't sit well with many conservatives.
When Piper invited Driscoll to speak at Desiring God Ministries' 2008 national conference, some believed the well-known theologian had lost his mind.
Among the issues conservative evangelicals have with Driscoll is his language. Although he has come a long way from the infamous "cussing pastor" label and has repented of it, some are still offended by the emerging pastor's explicit talks.
The most recent controversy on Driscoll – who serves as preaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle – surrounded his sermons on the Song of Songs last year.
The series on the Old Testament book covered sex (between a married man and woman) – a topic many churches shy away from. Some of his sermons were given "MH-17" warnings as he talked openly about physical intimacy in a marital relationship and also answered some explicit sex questions from church attendees, who are mainly young adults.
Driscoll's interpretation of what many Christians view as delicate love poems shocked church leaders.
John MacArthur, a prominent evangelical minister, released a series of blogs in Pulpit Magazine rejecting Driscoll talking about sex in "garishly explicit terms" at church.
"It's frankly hard to think of a more appalling misuse of Scripture than turning the Song of Solomon into soft porn," MacArthur wrote in a blog titled "The Rape of Solomon's Song" in April.
"When people can no longer read that portion of Scripture without pornographic imagery entering their minds, the beauty of the book has been corrupted, its description of righteous love perverted, and its role in sanctifying and elevating the marriage relationship deflected," he added. "That preachers would do this in public worship services is unconscionable."
During a pastors conference last month, Piper was asked indirectly to respond to the issue, especially given the close relationship he has with Driscoll.
Piper stressed that he would never encourage anyone to use "course, filthy, ugly, trashy" language in order to relate to a younger unchurched crowd.
He said he has already confronted Driscoll – who is theologically conservative and culturally liberal and who ironically learned much of the Bible from listening to MacArthur's sermons – on some of the controversies and has told him to clean this up.
"I'm getting in his face," Piper explained, noting that the Seattle pastor is growing.
The Baptist theologian said he is not going to go as far as MacArthur in deeming Driscoll unfit for ministry. He's cutting Driscoll some slack because of the mission work he's accomplishing.
"He's walking a very fine line because he is rock solid doctrinally and he is accomplishing things in Seattle nobody is accomplishing in winning [people] to Jesus Christ," Piper, who has stated before that he loves Driscoll's theology, said during the Basics Conference in Ohio.
"You don't need to go as far as you've gone sometimes with your language but I understand what you're doing missiologically there and I have a lot of sympathy ... because I'd like to see those people saved," he added.
Even before MacArthur's public statements, Driscoll had responded to some of the concerns conservatives have expressed, hoping to keep the dialogue gracious and be at peace with fellow believers.
Having become a hot topic of debate over the last few years, Driscoll stated, "The worst thing in the world would be that somehow I became the center of discussion when the entirety of my ministry and, to be totally honest with you, the burning passion in my heart is Jesus."
"He saved me ... he's my Lord, my God, my Savior," Driscoll said in a video response released by Jonathan Christman, pastoral assistant at Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Ky.
"And my job is to talk about him."
Piper and Driscoll are working on a number of projects together including The Gospel Coalition – a diverse group of pastors who desire to prepare the next generation for Gospel-centered ministry – and the Resurgence Training Center, which aims to develop pastors and deacons with a passion for the Gospel.