John Piper’s son discusses the ‘dysfunction and conflict’ of his upbringing

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Barnabas Piper, son of famed preacher, John Piper, shares honest insights about his upbringing in a new book.

Barnabas Piper, son of famed preacher, John Piper, shares honest insights about his upbringing in a new book.

Barnabas Piper is the son of famed pastor John Piper, but he wants you to know he’s more than that. In his provocative new book, “The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity,” he shares honest insights from his childhood.  So honest, in fact, that John Piper writes in the book’s foreword:

You will ask, “Was it painful for me to read this book?” The answer is yes…First, it exposes sins and weaknesses and imperfections in me. Second, it is not always clear which of its criticisms attach to me and the church I love. Third, this is my son, and he is writing out of his own sorrows.

Here, Barnabas discusses the false intimacy he experienced growing up, what he thought of his brother’s excommunication, and the role his mother played in the household.

RNS: You say that growing up the son of a well-known pastor was like “being a sinner on display.” What is the worst sin you got caught in? Any arrests or pregnancies?

BP: I was a pretty good kid growing up, at least in terms of illegal activity and the like. The big things I got in trouble for were mainly being argumentative–with everyone–and lying. I got myself in some sticky spots both ways. My biggest struggles came after I moved out of the house when the little lies of childhood stopped being so little.

Book cover image courtesy of David C. Cook

Book cover image courtesy of David C. Cook

RNS: You describe how pastors’ kids often experience a “false intimacy.” What did this look like for you? Do you still struggle with this?

BP: I thought I was close to God because I knew all the answers. I could answer every question small group leaders or youth pastors threw at me about relationship with God. But I had fooled myself into thinking that was the same as relationship with Jesus. I still struggle with this to a degree. The difference is that now I have a relationship with Christ, so those hollow or dry aspects of knowing God are easier to spot and repair or repent of.

RNS: Did you experience pressure to follow your dad in ministry? 

BP: Yes and no. My parents never pushed me a particular direction, but I picked up a sort of tacit understanding of vocational ministry as a higher calling. I’m not sure if it was from them or just the way the church taught–or didn’t teach–about gifts and vocation.

RNS: What was the biggest negative you experienced growing up in the Piper household? Greatest positive?

BP: The biggest negative was not connecting with God in a personal way. My dad’s view of, and relationship with, God is so big and so powerful that it looked like the only way to come to God. But it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until I was out of college and things kind of fell apart for me that I encountered God’s grace and the person of Jesus in a profound way on my own.

There were lots of positives too. The biggest one is that my parents loved me and have always been there for me.

RNS: What is one thing people would be shocked to learn about the Piper household?

BP: Depends on who you ask. Those who are huge fans might be surprised to know that our family has a lot of tensions and quirks. We have dysfunction and conflict. We don’t always get along very well. It’s not the idyllic repository of peace and knowledge they might have painted a picture of in their heads.

Those who see him as a heavy-handed fire breather would be surprised to know that he loves movies like “What About Bob” and is fiercely competitive. He even got a yellow card for berating referee at one of my brothers’ soccer games one time.

RNS: An English teacher once told me that she expected more of me because she knew I came from a good home. Is the idea that we should have a higher standard for our leaders and their families Biblical or even fair in your opinion? Should there be two standards–one for the “called” and one for “regular” people?

BP: The short answer is no, it’s not fair, at least not at the personal level. It’s reasonable to hold people to the standard of their official position (like pastors), but to hold people to a higher personal standard because of their background or the position of their parents is just stupid. In our daily lives, all believers are held to the standard of “be Holy as I am holy,” so to craft a different set of moral or behavioral expectations is unbiblical.

RNS: A while back, your dad rather publicly enacted church discipline on your brother, and even excommunicated him from the church. Did you support this at the time? 

BP: I understood. “Support” might be a bit too strong because it was too sad to be supportive of. My brother at that time was not a believer, by his own admission. So it was a case of removal from church membership after years of trying to restore him. Also to say my dad did the discipline isn’t quite fair. It was a decision by a board of elders. In all, I understood why it happened based on the church’s membership standards, but I always felt the sense that it had to do with the “manage your household” criteria out of 1 Timothy too. And that made it feel like something unique to a family in our position.

RNS: A “regular” kid would never have had to face what your brother did. Was this one of the negative side effects of being a pastor’s kid?

BP: Absolutely, especially the public nature of it. If a child of a regular member had been excommunicated it may have been voted on by the church, but outsiders would never know about it. The pastor’s family, especially that of a nationally known pastor, is always under scrutiny. It makes hard things more pronounced and amplifies pressure. People still ask me about my brother now, and it’s been 11 or 12 years. That’s kind of ridiculous.

RNS: In my home, my mother often worked to soften the blows of being a pastor’s kid. Describe the role your mom played.

BP: My mom made the home a place my dad didn’t have to stress about because she ran it so well. She was my dad’s partner in ministry in a behind-the-scenes way and never ever disparaged his ministry. She was a good mom who took care of us and supported my dad. She is an incredibly strong and steady lady, and that itself relieved some pressure. She didn’t vocally shield us, but her persona and character did to a degree.

RNS: Pastors often carry a heavy burden and it shifts from day to day depending on the state of the church and the season of ministry. Did your parents’ mood change based on what was going on outside of the home?

BP: Both my parents are constant. I’m sure the turmoil at church—and there were some bad seasons—ate at them, but they did a good job not passing that along to us kids. We could pick up on it because kids are intuitive, but my parents were emotionally steady types in the home. They were good about keeping their worried-angry-pensive moods in check at home even when things were rough at church.

RNS: Talk to pastors. What do they need to do to increase the blessings and minimize the burdens of ministry for their children?

The ones that come to mind first are:

Don’t preach. Converse. Your kids hear enough sermons but really want to talk with you.

Don’t pray. Talk to God. Your kids need to see and hear what it means to connect to God, not speak formally to a distant deity.

Have a hobby you can share. Your kids love to be included in your life, and it makes for a wonderful escape form the hard aspects of ministry.

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  • Jean

    As PKs, we have lots of pressures. Society sees good priests and bad preachers in the media. That gets sooo old. Our fathers and mothers who are preachers are mostly people of integrity.
    I watched that stupid show 7th heaven once. The preacher was ill so they cancelled church. As if the church couldn’t
    exist or function with ‘just’ God.
    It seems like this book will be interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it. And then I might be inspired to finish my memoir.!

  • Tim

    “Don’t preach, converse” – good advice for every family, not just those where a parent is a preacher.

    “a sort of tacit understanding of vocational ministry as a higher calling” – now there’s an error common to much of the church, preachers’ families or not.

    Good interview, you two.


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  • Valerie

    Consider that GOD raised Adam and Eve…as well as..”Satan.”
    People and ALL with free will decide what they want to do.

  • Valerie

    Jesus said who HIS real family is. Look it up.

  • I look forward to reading this book. As a PK I struggled too with the false intimacy (both with God and “friends” in the church). In both finding my own faith and having friendships with those who like me as a person (not because of who my dad is) I learned the importance of allowing the PKs in our church, and their parents the freedom to be themselves. I try to encourage the lay leaders and church attendees to just be real with our pastors. They should be respected but not placed on a pedestal. They should be honored but not worshiped. That’s what God is for. They should be encouraged, prayed for and supported in their ministry.

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  • Chris Nelson

    5th Commandment

  • Jason

    I completely agree with you, Chris. It’s a failure to honor his father, and in my opinion also an opportunistic approach under the guise of wanting to help out other PKs. You wouldn’t publish a work on all the harships your spouse or kids had put you through over twenty or thirty years, without serious damage to the trust and virtue of those relationships being brought upon them, why should this be accepable then? Only in a tabloid culture.

  • Chris Byrum

    John Piper wrote the forward to his son’s book. He obviously believes his son honors him, and must believe in the purpose of the book as well. Don’t be one of those guys who specializes in internet accusations. You should be able to take Barnabas at face value here. Nothing in his interview suggests a take down of his father or any bitterness toward him. Quite the opposite. He notably shows that he understands the pressure his parents were under during different seasons, and he credits them for being “good at keeping their angry-worried-pensive moods in check at home”. Furthermore, he has a balanced and understanding view of his brother’s excommunication even though it must have been incredibly painful for him personally. He spends most of the interview talking about what it was like to be a **pastor’s kid**, the stated purpose of the book.

    I’m not a big John Piper fan, but I have a lot of respect for the relationship he has obviously cultivated with his son, and his willingness to support him in an honest account of his experience. I’m glad Barnabas wrote his book. I grew up in a home with a lot of outwardly obvious problems (like alcohol abuse), and no external family expectations, so I can’t really relate to his experience. I’ll bet that a lot of PK’s and non-PK’s who have an elder for a parent can though.

  • Lles Nats

    You’re argument is invalid because some of us were “born this way”. No, Demi Levano does not care.

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  • amy

    The title of this article is total clickbait. It’s very misleading.

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  • John

    Not the articles, just the click-bait, misleading headlines…

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  • Sherry Baby

    I remember when the Lord first called Lee into full-time ministry. Not having grown up in church and not having known any of the pastors and their wives where we’d attended church in those early years of faith, I wondered if ministers ever had conflict with their wives, because we did as lay-people. How was that going to look now? It didn’t take long to know the answer. As we were packing boxes in the garage one day to head off for his first pastorate, we found ourselves having an argument. “Well, then, I guess they DO,” I concluded. Now, 20 years later, there’s been nothing magical to keep us from recognizing that we are still sinners saved only by the grace of God, just like the rest of the flock. It’s hardest on the kids. Most wives and kids don’t see their father’s/husband’s “job interviews” or know the ins/outs of office politics they are faced with. They just know he has a job or he doesn’t. This young man has done a brave thing. I’ve read the interview and some things do resemble our home, but even as a fellow-pastor home, some things do not. The common thread is sinners, saved by grace, but more closely scrutinized