The Rick Warren Incident

During this particular moment of time, as large numbers of younger Evangelicals are leaving the church for nominalism or into the camp of the 16% of the US which make up the spiritually “unaffliated”, I believe that the Anabaptist Tradition has massive resources to offer the North American Body of Christ at large, especially the conservative Evangelical tradition of my upbringing.

I am utterly compelled that the thought and praxis of the Radical Reformation uniquely confronts the weaknesses of North American Evangelicalism, a tradition credited (through the almost universal marriage with the GOP) with the 8-years of unjust Bush policies (two wars, the Patriot Act, trickle-down economics, etc), as well as a virtual obsession with “biblical” issues like abortion & gay marriage (and, yes, Obama has not fared much better in his quest to set records with drones and deportations). 

In addition, Anabaptism is well-equipped to confront narcissism, instant gratification, consumerism and celebrity worship saturating us everyday.  As Nancey Murphy wrote a few years back, referring to the “distinctive” characteristics of Anabaptism (nonviolence, revolutionary subordination, the separation of church and state and learning to live with less),

“All four of these radical-reformation distinctives can be seen as strategies for living in such a way as to curb the will-to-power.”

With this intense contest to define what Christianity looks like in North America,   consider a recent notable incident. At a conference entitled Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists, before 500 seminary students and scholars, the uber-power-and-popular invited guest, Evangelical megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren, triumphantly proclaimed,

“For 32 years, we have been building Saddleback Church on the lessons I’ve learned from the Anabaptists.”

Many Christians from Mennonite, Brethren and other Anabaptist traditions were giddy, even felt vindicated, that their beloved Radical Reformation tradition might, in fact, be responsible for birthing the 20,000 member Saddleback Church, with its menu of 6 services per weekend and Warren’s magnum opus Purpose Driven Life (2002), with it’s purported distribution of 40 million. Could it be that the Radical Reformation can take credit for (or even had a small part in) birthing one of the most popular church movements in North American Christian history?  I think not. 

To be fair, to my knowledge, Warren has never actually called himself an “Anabaptist.”  At Southewestern Baptist Conference, he was simply contending that the Radical Reformation has had a strong influence on the “success” of his church, starting in 1981 when he committed a year to studying the early Anabaptist movement.  However, the simple fact that Warren would be invited by Southwestern Baptist and gleefully endorsed by contemporary Anabaptist leaders raises serious questions.  As a former attendee and volunteer at Warren’s Saddleback Church, I would like to highlight 5 areas of concern that “The Rick Warren Incident” raises for all of us prophetically ministering (one way or another) from a North American Anabaptist homebase.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, I believe a few details are warranted detailing my own experience with Warren and Saddleback Church.  I attended Saddleback and volunteered in the High School Ministry for a few years after I graduated from college.  Warren and his congregation of thousands have a warm, non-confrontational & fun approach to church.  By and large, the purpose-driven tribe is tremendously sincere and quite pleasant to be around.  I’ve actually only met Warren once in passing, but my wife’s family is quite close to the Warren family and both Rick and his wife Kay have been tremendously supportive during this very difficult 2011-12 (my father-in-law died at 57 in September after a short battle with pancreatic cancer).  I share this because I (1) have no intention for this to be a personal attack on Warren’s character or credibility and (2) I have no reason to be personally angry or disappointed with Warren. My goal is for this post to be part of a wider intramural Anabaptist dialogue about how we respond to Christian celebrities who claim the Anabaptist label. After all, in this cultural milieu, celebrities give identity to the products they endorse. 

Since our days serving at Saddleback, my wife and I have attended Fuller Theological Seminary and, through much reading and dialogue, have become compelled by the Radical Reformers of the 16th century, particularly how contemporary progressive Anabaptists like Jim McClendon, Nancey Murphy, John Howard Yoder, Elaine Enns & Ched Myers have interpreted, practiced and advocated for the Tradition.  Of course, because our early decades of Christian discipleship were significantly influenced by the conservative Evangelicalism of Warren, we continue to define our current Christian philosophy and praxis over against Warren’s Evangelical Purpose Driven model.  This gives you a small glimpse of why I was so shocked to read online that Warren (of all people) was invited to be a featured speaker, rubbing shoulders with Anabaptist scholars at a seemingly distinguished conference on Anabaptist thought and praxis.

With this full autobiographical disclosure, I present to you my 5 reasons why Warren cannot possibly be an Anabaptist and, more importantly, why we Anabaptists (especially more progressive participants within the Radical Reformation) ought to clarify that Warren’s brand of Christian faith is not remotely representative of what it means to be “Anabaptist.”

1.  His Pseudo-Separation of Church and State

“It nonetheless tends to be the case, in the experience of the Christian community, that the only way in which faith can become the official ideology of a power elite in a given society is if Jesus Christ ceases to be concretely Lord. Some other value: power, mammon, fame, efficacy, tends to become the new functional equivalent of deity.”–John Howard Yoder

On the surface, with his language, Warren comes across as quite Anabaptist in regards to the legendary separation of church/state stance of 16th century Schleitheim and beyond.  In a recent interview he said,

“I believe in a separation of church and state, not a separation of faith and politics.” 

Sounds good, but over the past few years, Warren has been known to call an audible on more than one occasion. In a video blog to his congregation just days before the 2008 election, Warren said “We support Proposition 8 [the CA law banning same-sex marriage] and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage then you need to support Proposition 8.  Now I will never endorse a candidate, but on moral issues I come out very clear…”

His stance on “moral issues” is simply code for following the conservative Evangelical-GOP political marriage of the past 30 years.  For instance, with less than a week before the 2004 General Election, Warren sent out an email to his congregation.  Here’s an excerpt:

But for those of us who accept the Bible as God’s Word and know that God has a unique, sovereign purpose for every life, I believe there are 5 issues that are non-negotiable. To me, they’re not even debatable because God’s Word is clear on these issues. In order to live a purpose-driven life – to affirm what God has clearly stated about his purpose for every person he creates – we must take a stand by finding out what the candidates believe about these five issues, and then vote accordingly.

Here are five questions to ask when considering who to vote for in this election:

1. What does each candidate believe about abortion and protecting the lives of unborn children?

2. What does each candidate believe about using unborn babies for stem-cell harvesting?

3. What does each candidate believe about homosexual marriage?

4. What does each candidate believe about human cloning?

5. What does each candidate believe about euthanasia – the killing of elderly and invalids?

This was an obvious endorsement of Bush without actually spelling out his name for his congregation.  Warren’s legendary quote is “I’m not right-wing or left-wing: I’m for the whole bird.” (I’ve heard him say this on 3 separate occasions) However, the evidence shows over and over that he only flaps his right-wing.  Check his twitter feed (sometimes a dozen or more tweets per day) and you’ll find one thinly veiled reference to the culture war (always conservative talking points) after another.

In addition to walking this fine line, Warren waded through theocratic waters in the 90s when he successfully sued the federal government for an unlimited parsonage exemption.  Back in ’93, he deducted every penny of his $77,000+ salary as a “housing allowance” and paid zero taxes to the federal government.  He lives in the plush Dove Canyon gated community of South Orange County. Remember: only those employed at houses of worship are allowed the personage exemption. Not those working for non-profits in the innercity or Appalachia or anywhere else.  For many, this would seem like a bit of an entanglement of church-state affairs. It would be a stretch to think that those who signed the Schleithem Confession back in 1527 would be for an unlimited parsonage exemption today. 

2.  His Obsession with Connecting to Power & Numerical Success

“Down the long perspective of the future [the Anabaptist] saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world.”–Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (1944)

Saddleback Church’s enormous success in recruiting thousands of members in southern Orange County over the past three decades is not, in itself, proof that he is not an Anabaptist.  What goes against the ethos of historic Anabaptism, however, is how Warren himself points to Saddleback’s size as an indication of God’s blessing.   

This ethos is illuminated well in mass email sent to every member of his congregation on July 22, 2008, when Warren announced the Civil Forum dialogue with Obama and McCain as a “historic event coming up at Saddleback,” positing that “[S]ince the founding of our nation, no church has ever been given this kind of opportunity.”  Warren, interestingly writing from Sao Paulo, Brazil on a multi-country tour of Latin American P.E.A.C.E churches (churches under the Saddleback Church brand), noted that “[B]oth men have been friends of mine since before either decided to run for president,” adding that both Barack Obama and John McCain had participated in Saddleback’s Global AIDS Summit in November ’07, and, in addition, both officially support the P.E.A.C.E. Plan and have given written endorsements for the P.E.A.C.E. Coalition.  The upcoming Civil Forum would give Saddleback members an “opportunity to [unselfishly] serve the entire nation we love,” but also “millions of Americans will be introduced to Saddleback Church through the live media coverage.” 

Warren awkwardly ends his email with a plea for help to resolve two challenging obstacles.  First, they needed to decide how to divvy up the tickets. Warren simply asks, “What would Jesus do?”  Second, they needed to make a decision about how to provide high definition cameras for the event.  Warren explains, “For some time we’ve been planning to upgrade our 15 year old video cameras, lights, and mixing boards to high definition digital – but we haven’t had the $2 million to purchase it. It is now about to die and we must install new equipment before this national broadcast.  We need a miracle.  Here, Warren commends, for the second time in the email, the community’s unselfishness as “the very reason… that God has singled out our church for this national privilege and has positioned Saddleback Church for national and world influence.”

Warren believes that Saddleback can be a witness to the wider world through the various mediums of our culture, in this case connecting the church with the exuberance of electoral presidential politics.  This kind of Evangelical-Capitalist logic posits that, through privileged participation in the political process and through free access to all the major networks, a huge audience will know about Saddleback Church (at least, its pastor and its facilities) and then become “Christians.”  Only this sort of theology of mission could warrant spending $2 million on high-end video equipment.

I could cite several examples of Warren connecting himself or his church with political, corporate or celebrity power to use for the glory of God or the spread of the gospel.  Consider when Warren held Saddleback’s 30th Anniversary bash on Easter Sunday at Angel Stadium with special guests: The Jonas Brothers. 

Or coming up this week: a special seminar with Man Versus Wild’s Bear Grylls.

I’ll never forget the Christmas service I attended at Saddleback just a few years ago when Warren had a special announcement: his good friend Sean Hannity of Fox News would be televising his show from Saddleback’s campus.  The oooo’s and ahhh’s coming from the thousands in the congregation that night still sends chills up and down my spine.

Warren uses celebrity to give legitimacy to Saddleback in celebrity-obsessed culture.  This is an often-used strategy within the “seeker-sensitive” approach which attempts to non-believers to church with a “hook” (a major political debate, the Jonas Brothers, Bear Grylls, etc).  They come to see the show and then, bam, get “the gospel message.”

3.  His Endorsement of Violence

“They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war.”–Menno Simons

Speaking of Hannity, Warren appeared on his show a few years ago and advocated lethal violence against Iran and justified the use of force against robbers and rapists.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never heard Warren glorify war, but a central tenet of Anabaptism has always been a commitment to enemy love and non-resistance.  A peace church does not make allowances or justifications for lethal use of force.

4.  Saddleback’s Ecclesiology

“The medium and the message are inseparable.”–John Howard Yoder

In short, Warren’s church has grown according to his Propose Driven church model which builds on his enormously charismatic stature and upbeat seeker-sensitive weekend services. Warren caters to “felt-needs” of congregants (even dieting) and masterfully quotes Bible passages to meet those needs.

Warren should be credited with carrying the church on his back for the past 3 decades.  He started the church after being compelled by Robert Schuller’s positive, non-traditional Evangelical church strategies.  Warren went door-to-door in South Orange County in 1980 for 12 weeks surveying residents to understand what their church “needs” were. Indeed, this was masterful marketing. This, not Anabaptism, was at the heart of Saddleback’s massive growth over the past 32 years.

Saddleback is hierarchically organized around 12 male elders/pastors with Warren himself at the apex. This massively contrasts with an Anabaptist ecclesiology committed to the well-distributed participation of every disciple and the multiplicity of gifts (from the seminary trained to the single mom) while valuing all voices within the community.  This is vital for both biblical interpretation and decision-making within the Anabaptist community.  The Radical reformers believed that the Spirit works “from below,” through all members of the community, not through one powerfully charismatic male at the top. 

5.  His Reformed Gospel of Faith

“…the gospel has been emptied of its ethical content, while ethics are severed from the foundational message of the gospel.”–Wilbert Shenk

At the core of my critique of Warren’s (non)Anabaptism, however, is this 5th and final point: his construal of the gospel, the original message of Jesus, closely follows the path of Luther and Calvin’s Protestantism, leaving the narrow road of the Radical Reformation in its wake. Warren’s primary emphasis is on faith, not following.

This “gospel” for Warren, is summarized in his Purpose Driven Covenant which he delivered at Angel Stadium during Saddleback’s 25th Anniversary service: “my past has been forgiven, and I have a purpose for living, and a home awaiting in heaven.”   This understanding is firmly rooted in a penal-substitutionary understanding of Jesus’ death which is individual, spiritual and future-oriented.  Saddleback Church quotes II Corinthians 5:17 in regards to the meaning of baptism in illustrating “my new life as a Christian”: 

“When someone becomes a Christian he becomes a brand new person inside. The old life has passed away and a new life has begun!”  

Warren’s seeker-sensitive focus is on getting souls saved for heaven.  His messages are often concluded with prayers like this one at the end of his Christmas service in 2008:

Dear Jesus, I realize now that you’ve been getting my attention…my plans not yours…I’m sorry, I want to change…I accept your gift of salvation…please replace my confusion, guilt, uncertainty about death.

For Warren, this once and for all prayer is a guarantee to go to heaven when a person dies.  No doubt, for Warren, discipleship follows this one-time decision.  But the overwhelming emphasis is on where one goes after death.  And this one-time decision is what the witness of the community is all about.

For an Anabaptist, evangelism (what Shenk calls “missiology”) organically flows out of the ethical performance of the church body (what Shenk calls the “messianic community”).  At its very core, an Anabaptist believes that salvation is about becoming a citizenship of the kingdom of God as a primary allegiance.  In short, salvation is discipleship. 

The anabaptist community places a prioritization on the missio dei–the mission of God!–which is what compels non-believing people to come join up.  Anabaptists seek to radically live out the way of Jesus as communicated to us in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on Mount.  No doubt, this is important to Warren, but it is not primary and he exhibits the same Constantinian tendencies that have plagued Christendom since the 4th century (ie, the justification of violence and/or economic hoarding for “Christians” in positions of power–both awkwardly and obviously condemned by the Sermon on the Mount).

In conclusion, getting back to Warren’s strong claim at the Anabaptist Conference at Southwestern Baptist in February (“For 32 years, we have been building Saddleback Church on the lessons I’ve learned from the Anabaptists.”), it would be far more appropriate to say that Warren built Saddleback sociologically on the business lessons of Peter Drucker and Steve Jobs sprinkled with the theological insights of Protestant Billy Graham and Robert Schuller.  Like much of the church growth movement over the past three decades, Saddleback Church has grown numerically in South Orange County and other wealthy suburban pockets of the globe by way of Warren’s undeniable charisma and the “successful” branding and marketing of a gospel message that combines a one-time-decision for Jesus with personal piety and “family values.”  This should not, in any way, be confused with Anabaptism.

Comments (6)

  1. Tim B

    You summed that up really well. I like some of what Warren has to say and think he is taking American Evangelicals in the right direction. However, that direction is not notably Anabaptist (though perhaps more Anabaptist than, say, Dobson).

  2. Ben

    Thank you, TomA, for writing this out. It is very helpful and encouraging.

  3. HondurasKeiser

    Excellent TomA, thank you for posting this.

  4. cynthia curran

    Anabapists had take over a town and declared a communal chirstian state where wives were shared. This is rarely known. Well, south OC outside of Irvine is not growing that much, the non-hispanic population is declining, so Lake Forest is loosing people even though the church has expand. The hispanic areas in the north and even in some parts of south OC are growing and the asian populaton is growing in Irvine, about 200,000 non hispanic white have left Orange County in the past 20 years because of the high cost of living but Rick attracts them with some hispanics and asians in his congrezation and is able to expand with the remaing upper middle class population which each generation is decling from 75 when he started his ministry down to 44 today and probably by 2030 31 percent.

  5. TimN

    Cynthia, you can read more about the Anabaptist take over of Muenster you refer to here on YAR in an article from last year: The End of the World,

    Thanks for sharing about some of the demographics of Orange County.

  6. Cathryn

    It causes me grief to think of the Anabaptists being associated with Rick Warren. I rely on their educational curriculum for teaching.

    I also was thinking about becoming Mennonite just to get away from what Warren and his purpose driven concept has done to every church located in my entire county.

    These entertainment centered worship services and man-written-book centered, dialoging centered “small groups” have changed the format of the church as God structured it. It is a publishers dream. I’m an author and can say that in all sincerity.

    Since when did God heap up many teachers at a home group to dialogue? The Lord structured the church with teachers gifted by the Holy Spirit?

    I pray Warren and all of our pastors will repent of the purpose driven drivel and America will repent to a great revival and awakening. I pray for God’s mercy on our land.

    Sadly, it looks as though the U.S is headed for judgment but Christians are too entertained and worldly to notice.

Comments are closed.