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Sad news emerged this week in the United States that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) made the decision to remove Saddleback Church as an affiliated member. This California church was planted in 1980 under the pastoral leadership of Rick Warren. It has grown to a membership of over 23,000 and meets in several different locations. It has a worldwide network and has become a model for thousands of churches across the globe.

Rick Warren has authored several books. His most well-known are The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life. Together, well over fifty million copies have been sold. I have read both, and though I have some strong disagreements with some of their content, nevertheless, I found some benefit. I think particularly of Warren’s emphasis in his first book on the need for those on the fringe of the local church to become a part of the core. I would differ with him on how to achieve this, but I appreciate his pastoral concern. In fact, pastorally, I think Rick Warren has much that should be commended. I believe he loves people and desires to see them converted and to fulfil God’s purpose for their lives.

Rick Warren challenged an unjust tax law many years ago and won, not for his own sake, but rather for the benefit of pastors of small churches. Warren has a history of caring for such pastors. I believe he is a kind and generous man. In fact, following the huge success of The Purpose Driven Life, Warren gave back to his church all the salary paid to him from the start of the church. It is reported that he gives away 90% of his income. There is nothing Joel Osteen about him. Thank God.

Though Warren has had severe critics over the years, I have never been one of them. I can disagree with him and yet appreciate much good that has come from his ministry. I was sickened to read attacks upon him several years ago when his young adult son committed suicide. How wicked to demonise a man because your philosophy of ministry differs. May God help us by humbling us.

So, despite all this good, why was his church disfellowshipped by the SBC? For very good, biblical reasons: Warren led his church into ordaining women as elders. That, of course, is contrary to Scripture and contrary to the statement of faith and practice of the SBC called, “The Baptist Faith and Message.” Every member of the SBC must agree to this statement to join and to remain as a member. Warren knew this. Warren knows this. And yet he violated it. The SBC was right to take this action, as sad as it is. No one with integrity should be offended by this. Warren and Saddleback Church knew the parameters and they overstepped them anyway. They were wrong. As much as I can commend Warren in other areas, in this area, he was way out of line and deserves the rebuke and the removal.

Now, the reason I am writing what might seem to be an irrelevant article to us in South Africa is because of Rick Warren’s response. The day after he received the news of the church’s removal from the SBC, he tweeted the following:

Friends worldwide: I’m so touched by your love! Kay & I love you back! We’ll respond to #SBC in OUR time & way thru direct channels: Our newsletters to 600,000 ch[urch] leaders; daily Hope radio broadcast; 1 million PDC alumni pastors list; 11 million social media followers.

I was disappointed that Warren implied that, because he has millions of followers, this trumps both the Bible and the expected integrity to keep one’s doctrinal obligations (in this case, to the SBC).

When I read his tweet, I thought about what is perhaps the most famous line in Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. In the opening pages he makes the point that, if you want to fulfil God’s purpose for your life, then you need to come to grips with the truth that “it’s not about you.” How true. And it is equally true for a successful pastor like Rick Warren.

What life is about, particularly the Christian life, is living under the lordship of Jesus Christ. And such a commitment includes living with integrity. Warren’s ecclesiology has changed. He now believes that women have biblical legitimacy to serve as elders. He should therefore accept the consequences rather than placing the SBC in the position to “oust” his church. Large numbers do not give one the right to violate trust, nor to violate truth. Large numbers are no guaranteed measure of what is true. The Bible determines what is truth (John 17:17), not book sales, or Twitter followers, or a massive congregation. And we can all learn from this.

Think about a church covenant. Every member of BBC is admitted into church membership with the understanding of clearly articulated privileges and responsibilities. Why then do members sometimes treat their professed commitment with disregard? Why do members get their backs up when caringly confronted with their failure to keep their word? Why assume one can have the privileges of membership while resisting (even resenting) its obligations? I think the fundamental reason is that we forget that the church is not about us. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ. We have an obligation to continue to keep his word (John 8:31). When we begin to believe our own “press releases” as to how important and autonomous we are, then we are heading down the slippery and destructive slope of making it all about us. And that never ends well.

Enough said. I have much fondness for Rick Warren. I appreciate how the Lord has used him. However, he needs to take his own counsel and remember, “Rick, it’s not about you.” And I need the daily remember, “Doug, it’s not about you, either.” Maybe you need this helpful reminder as well.

Disappointed but learning,