PLEASE NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Redeemer Presbyterian Church does ordain its male deacons. The deaconesses are not ordained.
Tim Keller, bestselling author, church planter extraordinaire, in-demand speaker, apologist for and to Manhattan, and one of the most famous Christians in America. Tim Keller, sinner saved by grace, husband, father, minister of the Word, and servant of Jesus Christ. Within this one person are contained so many things that provoke both positive and negative reactions within Christianity and beyond.
My first exposure to Tim Keller was within the evangelical community, where he is generally beloved. A former pastor of mine loved to reference Keller’s description of the heart as an idol factory (in Counterfeit Gods), an idea that actually originated with John Calvin but is nevertheless powerful. I read The Prodigal God and felt that it contained more good scriptural sense than most Christian volumes being released today. What I liked most about Keller was that despite his growing fame, he seemed to maintain an admirable humility. He did not raise his voice. He appealed to both the head and the heart. He had something to say to this 21st century world.
About six months ago, I was sucked into the Reformed vortex. That is to say, I was introduced to a number of Reformed Christians via the wonders of social media. Tim Keller was not a hero to them. They mocked him endlessly on Twitter for his meme-worthy quotes. In podcasts, they would sometimes speak about him without naming him, as if he were Voldemort and they feared his wrath. They were suspicious of his association with “The Gospel Industrial Complex”. They believed that he had a choke hold over his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, and was leading it down a path to liberalism. Everywhere they looked, they found a flaw.
Could these two Tim Kellers be one and the same? Were his fans ignoring dangerous deviations from Scripture and church tradition? Were his critics unwilling to give him credit for doing anything right? I was troubled, and so I decided to investigate these things. In this series of two articles, I will examine the ten most common criticisms I have heard regarding Tim Keller. I will assess the facts as best I can to determine 1) if each accusation is true and 2) if it is really a problem. Therefore, the title of this article can be taken one of two ways. It can mean, “Is there really anything wrong with Tim Keller? Why would you think that?” It can also mean, “What on earth is Tim Keller doing? This is not good.” That is the duality of the situation, and I hope to analyze it properly.
For those who do not know, Tim Keller was for many years the lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He has recently stepped down from that position to focus on church planting in cities around the world, something that is near and dear to his heart. He heads Redeemer City to City, which trains church planters to reach major urban centers. Affiliated with this organization are the Rise Campaign and The New York Project, which perform similar functions within the greater NYC metropolitan area. He is also a council member at The Gospel Coalition, which he helped to found along with D.A. Carson.
I want to make a few things clear before I begin. First, I believe Tim Keller is a true Christian devoted to the gospel. Compared to some of the other prominent Christian leaders in the world today, I find his personal behavior and demeanor to be rather commendable. On the whole, most of what he has to say is very good. This is not meant to be a witch hunt.
Second, we need to be careful not to blame Tim Keller for everything that happens in the various institutions with which he is involved. While he does bear ultimate responsibility for overseeing any organization that he formally leads, we should not assume his complete awareness of every single thing that happens in that vast world, nor should we assume that he holds the same personal views as every other person in those organizations.
Third, I am not a member of Tim Keller’s denomination. I have never had any communication with him. I own a few of his books, I have heard several of his sermons, and I attended RPC on one occasion: Easter 2008. I was visiting a friend who had made Redeemer her temporary church home. Like me, she was not raised Presbyterian. I suspect this is the case for many people in that congregation, and as a side note, it might help to explain some of the ways in which Redeemer operates.
Fourth, the conclusions contained herein are mine and mine alone. You should take them with a grain of salt, or perhaps a shaker full. No person suggested that I should write this article, and I am the only one who read it prior to publication. I have provided links and citations wherever possible, and I would encourage you to conduct your own research and determine whether or not these things are true. They are important and sensitive issues. Every person deserves to be treated fairly.
Fifth, you may be thinking, “Who are you to stand as judge and jury over Tim Keller?” You are absolutely right. That is not my proper role. I decided to write on this topic after seeing the constant stream of criticism on social media from people who are in no better position to judge than myself. I wanted to speak into that situation with a thoughtful analysis. Tim Keller is chiefly accountable to the following sources from a biblical standpoint: the elders of his church, the PCA, his wife Kathy, and God. That is not to say that no one else is allowed to speak up if he does something out of line with Scripture. However, there are formal authority structures in the world, and I am not part of those formal structures.
Having made those five disclaimers, and with apologies for how lengthy this will be, let’s get started.
Criticism #1: Tim Keller is overly focused on cities.
I mentioned in the introduction that Keller has stepped down as pastor of RPC to focus on urban church planting. Redeemer itself is the most sparkling success story in this regard, having grown from humble beginnings to encompass multiple locations and thousands of people. Through Redeemer City to City, Keller has applied the principles he used in Manhattan to help church planters around the world. But Tim Keller is not dedicating his time to church planting in general. His focus is now and always has been the city.
There is no question that we must take the gospel to cities. The United Nations estimated back in 2014 that 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas and projected that this number would reach 66% by 2020. In 1990, there were 10 cities on planet earth with 10 million people or more. That number reached 28 by the time of that UN article. Urbanization has been increasing practically since the dawn of time, but the Industrial Revolution has pushed it into overdrive. The last U.S. Census found that more than 80% of Americans live in cities. I saw no indication of what constitutes a city in that article, but it did state that there were 486 defined urban areas included in the calculation.
Based on those figures, you could say that when Keller talks about Americans living in cities, he is talking about the vast majority of the United States. However, my sense is that he is not focusing on just any urban areas, but rather the largest of the large: the ones that hold the primary power in terms of politics, finances, culture, etc. I don’t think anyone faults Tim Keller for wanting to share the gospel with city dwellers, but they do fault him for tweets like this:
When I first saw this quote a few days ago, I was rather confused. Did he mean that unbelievers know something of the gospel that Christians miss? Did he mean that the common grace of God has left His fingerprints on much of the universe? It wasn’t clear, but it sure sounded as if he was broadening the definition of the gospel to include things that aren’t really the gospel. The replies to this tweet were truly something to behold, with one popular one asking, “Have you gone completely off the rails?” Keller replied and insisted that this has been his position since 2013. I wondered if the quote would sound as odd to someone else who wasn’t aware of the context. Therefore, I decided to throw it at my husband. Here is how it went…
Me: “Sometimes you bring the gospel to the city, and sometimes the city brings the gospel to you.”
Jai: “Did you see who’s at the rock fest this weekend?”
Me: “Eh hem…Sometimes you bring the gospel to the city, and sometimes the city brings the gospel to you.”
Jai: (continues to stare at phone)
Me: “You know who said that?”
Me: “Tim Keller.”
Jai: “What?! I thought you were quoting a ‘Deep Thought’ by Jack Handey.”
Yes, my husband thought I was joking. It sounded equally odd to him. Yet it does not seem particularly odd when viewed in the context of some of the other things that Keller has said on this topic. The clearest articulation of Keller’s urban theology probably comes in a document titled “Why God Made Cities” that is available free of charge on the RCC website. Here are some quotes.
You can’t say all Christians are to live in cities any more than you can say all Christians are supposed to marry. But no matter where you live, you should be seeking to help restore and rebuild cities. That’s biblical. (pg. 13)
Most of our entertainment, our learning, our politics, and our business are forged in cities, as they have always been. Today you have only to look at the movies and fashion produced in Los Angeles or New York to see how influential cities are, particularly among the young, and particularly in a globalized world. But cities don’t just export cultural products; they export their idols and worldviews too. So no matter where you live, you are likely feeling one of the effects of city living… (pg. 17)
Most of the cities of the ancient world were built around the tallest building, and that tallest building was always the temple of the god the whole city worshiped. Cities were places you went to meet that god. And cities are still places that will not let you sit back and be indifferent, comfortable, and blind to temptation. Cities drive you to sell your soul to something. They always create spiritual turmoil. People are always spiritually searching in cities. (pg. 28)
Historical research shows that the early Christian missionaries in the Roman Empire did not go to the countryside. They did not go to the small towns. Paul was the best example of this. They went into the cities and only the cities to preach the gospel. Why? Because they knew that the small towns and the countryside are places where people are more conservative. They’re not as likely to adopt new religions. They’re not as open to new ideas…In those idyllic towns and suburbs, it can be easier to hide from the rawness of existence, from the wickedness of the heart, from the transience of life. (pg. 29)
Your attitude toward the city is one index of whether or not you know you’re a sinner saved by grace. If you know you’re a sinner saved by grace, you can no longer feel paternalistic toward people who don’t believe or live like you do. You won’t be so absorbed in your own comforts, in all of the things that keep you from loving the city. (pg. 35)
My good friend Bill Krispin used to say that the country is the place where there are more plants than people, and the city is the place where there are more people than plants. Since God loves people far more than he loves plants, he loves the city far more than he loves the country. (pg. 35)
If you win the countryside and you ignore the cities, you’ve lost the culture. But if you win the city and you ignore the countryside, you’ve won the culture. That’s the reason we need to preach the gospel and to live a Christian life in the city. So we’re supposed to love the city. We’re supposed to preach to the city. (pg. 36)
Loving and preaching the gospel without doing something about the fact that the schools are underperforming, that there’s so little affordable housing, that the streets are unsafe…If you don’t do something about it, you haven’t really done what God wants you to do. He calls Christians to stay in the city and to identify with the city. To be clear, I’m not saying God is calling every Christian to live inside the city. But everyone can help rebuild the city in some way. (pg. 38)
I could include a lot more quotes, and I would encourage you to go read the whole document for yourself. It will not take you very long.
Keller is able to provide many biblical passages that talk about how God is concerned with cities, weeps over them, sends prophets to them, etc. He concludes that the message of the Bible is essentially pro-city, even though cities have both positive and negative elements in a sinful world. God established the city and everything is working toward a heavenly city, which is merely a perfected form of the earthly city. In glory, we will all be urbanites. God is solidly on the side of the city, and that is where you meet God.
I do not deny that the Bible has much to say about the importance of cities. However, I could just as easily go through Scripture and pick out verses that would suggest that the wilderness is where you meet God. That is why so many Christians over the years, when seeking to commune with the Almighty, chose to live in relative seclusion. Since Keller is eager to point to Revelation as a defense of cities, I should also mention that this book presents the city of Babylon – probably a symbol of all great cities, ancient Rome, or some supercity yet to come – as a persecutor of the saints that is bent on material gain. (Revelation ch. 17-18) The kingdom of God and the city in which the saints will live are heavily contrasted with the sinful kingdoms and cities on earth.
To many Christians who do not live in large cities, Keller’s constant praise for urban areas can seem like typical New Yorker talk. (I can practically hear my mother: “They think they’re the center of creation!” She is drowned out by Hamilton’s Schuyler Sisters championing “the greatest city in the world”.) There is a major cultural divide in the United States and elsewhere between those who live in the biggest cities and those who do not.
This was brought home to me when I commented to my husband that older voters were much more likely to support Trump than younger voters. He countered that the biggest divide in the 2016 exit polls was not based on age but whether or not a person lived in a large urban area. Cities are without question more politically liberal, more diverse, and at least in the United States, less Christian. They can seem like the enemy of true Christianity. Keller is right that we must not abandon the cities, but has he overcorrected?
Is the accusation true? I would say yes, although we perhaps have to define what the question means. He has not told all Christians to move to cities, but he has declared that it is anti-biblical not to seek their welfare. He has also made a strong link between sharing the gospel and promoting social justice. While I do see concern for the practical needs of people around us and the establishment of justice in society as natural outworkings of a heart that is captive to the gospel, we must also be careful not to confuse the two, or we will end up with the Social Gospel.
I do not believe that Keller overemphasizes the city because he has chosen to dedicate his life to urban church plants. This is a perfectly noble cause, and God may well have given him that special calling. We should not assume that all people are called to that. We should not assume that those who do not campaign against housing shortages in Manhattan are unconcerned with the gospel, i.e. that Jesus Christ died to save sinners. We also should not assume, as Keller seems to suggest, that God loves cities more than the countryside. I do not believe that Scripture teaches any of these things. Now, I do not really think that Keller believes that God loves cities more. He has written about the importance of the rural church. However, this is a world in which perceptions are important, and the perception is that he is elevating cities.
Is is really a problem? Yes, it is a problem. The unfortunate result of all of this is that in seeking to remove a Christian prejudice against cities, we might be creating a prejudice against rural areas. Go back and look at some of those Keller quotes. City dwellers are ambitious producers of societal good. People in the countryside are conservative and closed minded. They are not as aware of human wickedness. They are stuck in some kind of idyllic utopia. The comforts of the country make it difficult to love people from different backgrounds. Yes, God loves the city more than he loves the country.
I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural contexts. I have seen all kinds of culture. None of them had a monopoly on spiritual truth, which is freely available to all. None of them were more precious to God than others. Yes, the people in the country don’t always love their neighbor as their self. Neither do the people in the cities. Should we focus less on people who live in cities of less than 5 million residents? Should we dismiss that portion of humanity as backward and incapable of grasping divine truths? Is there a secret knowledge that can only be found in the concrete jungle?
I am not sure if Tim Keller meant for his comments to be taken this way or if he has any sense how much they offend those who do not live in large urban areas. I do not begrudge him his focus on cities or his call for us to love them. I would begrudge him taking the gospel and turning it into something that plays geographical favorites. Is that what he really meant? Hopefully we will see more clarity in the future.
Criticism #2: Redeemer Presbyterian Church has female and/or unordained deacons.
Some people have claimed that RPC has deacons who are female and that none of their deacons are ordained. Is this the truth, and if so, is this policy in line with PCA rules? Let’s start by considering what Redeemer says on its website.
The Diaconate — a group of men (deacons) and women (deaconesses) who are nominated, trained, elected and appointed by Redeemer elders and members — exists to contribute to the building of a repentant and rejoicing community through loving, truth-telling relationships where practical, visible needs are being met while hearts are being changed through encounters with Jesus and one another. We express in practical ways Christ’s command to all believers to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Based on this description, the church has both deacons and deaconesses. They must be “nominated, trained, elected, and appointed by Redeemer elders and members”. There is no explicit mention of them being ordained, but I have been assured by a Redeemer staff member that the male deacons do receive ordination, while the females do not. Ordination is a very specific process within the PCA which goes beyond simply being elected or appointed. All PCA congregations are bound in these matters by the Book of Church Order. Here are a few sections of the BCO that are relevant to this discussion. The bold type on certain words is not in the original.
9-1. The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.
9-3. To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.
9-7. It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need. These assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church (BCO 7-2) and, as such, are not subjects for ordination (BCO 17).
17-1. Those who have been called to office in the Church are to be inducted by the ordination of a court.
17-3. As every ecclesiastical office, according to the Scriptures, is a special charge, no man shall be ordained unless it be to the performance of a definite work.
Does the diaconate at RPC meet the requirements outlined in the PCA BCO? Earlier this year, the PCA Study Committee on Women in Ministry released a report that addressed some of these issues. The advisory members of this committee were Leon Brown, William Castro, Dan Doriani, Lani Jones, and Roy Taylor. Voting members included Irwyn Ince (chairman), Jeffrey Choi, Ligon Duncan, Kathy Keller (wife of Tim Keller), Mary Beth McGreevy, Bruce O’Neil, and Harry Reeder. Here are some excerpts from the 2017 PCA Women in Ministry Report.
The majority of members agree with the definition below: ‘Ordination, biblically, historically, and with specificity in Reformed and Presbyterian evangelical churches, is the formal setting aside of a called, sent, and qualified man from the fellowship of an ecclesiastical assembly consisting of God’s covenant people to a specific office, with vows affirming the responsibilities, power, and authority necessary for the fulfillment of the specified, ecclesiastical office.’ (pg. 2436)
Some churches have chosen not to have a formal diaconate and instead have qualified lay men and women serve together performing the diaconal work in their churches. Though this practice is not specifically prohibited by the BCO, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the two offices of the church outlined in the BCO. (pg. 2451)
We must also ask whether or not the system currently in place at RPC is in line with Tim Keller’s own views. (Remember, I said at the outset that I would not assume such things unless they could be proven.) In this case, I think we can definitely conclude that his views are the same as RPC. The diaconate was developed in its current form while he was still the lead pastor. He certainly would have signed off on something of that magnitude. It is also noteworthy that Mrs. Kathy Keller was on the PCA committee that considered these issues. Was she part of the “majority of members” who agreed that only men should be ordained to offices of the church? I cannot possibly say. In any case, the WMR is not binding in the same way as the BCO.
Is the accusation true? Redeemer’s diaconate is composed of both men and women. The men are ordained, while the women are not. Therefore, Redeemer has not violated the principle that ordained officers should be male, nor have they, in the words of the WMR, chosen “not to establish an ordained diaconate, even with qualified candidates, because the church wishes to be free to establish a body of unordained servants, both male and female”. (pg. 2460) They have actually established an ordained male diaconate and an unordained female diaconate. The debate then changes to whether or not the female deacons are more like the “deacon’s assistants” permitted in the BCO or the ordained male deacons.
Is it really a problem? The WMR consists mostly of a discussion of what the diaconate was meant to be, whether or not women were part of the original diaconate, etc. It is certainly helpful for confessional churches to revisit their confessions every so often and determine if they are indeed biblical. However, this is a separate question from whether or not Redeemer’s diaconate of both men and women is in line with the PCA BCO. That is the real issue at hand.
The study committee concluded that the absence of an ordained diaconate “seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order” (pg. 2460). I would actually go farther than that. It seems to me that it is not only against the spirit of the BCO, but actually against the letter. The BCO states that 1) deacons are officers of the church, 2) officers are to be men, and 3) officers are to be ordained. When you add those three things together, the principle is entirely clear. However, only the female portion of RPC’s diaconate is unordained. Therefore, the case is not quite as cut and dry.
I am not a member of the PCA, and based upon some differing scriptural interpretations and historic Church practices, I do not believe that having female deacons is necessarily anti-biblical or heretical. Certainly, there are some needs within the church that are particularly sensitive and may need to be addressed by a woman. The PCA BCO does allow for such a thing. My problem is not really with Redeemer’s diaconate model per se. The problem is that, in the eyes of some, it violates the rules to which the church agreed by becoming part of the PCA.
Well, what do I care if Redeemer is not following the rules of a denomination to which I do not belong, particularly if I am willing to bend a little on the issue of female deacons? I care because it could be seen as evidence that Redeemer Presbyterian and/or Tim Keller do not abide by the rules of their denomination, which is concerning inasmuch as it may mean that they are, at least from the point of view of the PCA, beyond accountability. If this is the case, it is not because RPC has gone against the dictates of the PCA, which has evidently informed them that their system is not in violation of the rules. The question is whether or not the PCA made the right decision.
People are sure to arrive at their own conclusions in regard to this matter. I initially believed that neither the male nor the female deacons were ordained, which would be a fairly clear violation of the BCO. However, the situation seems to be more complicated than I was initially told. I still think that female deacons, ordained or not, could be problematic if they are seen as officers of the church. This is another thorny debate, and one that will surely continue. Without a better understanding of PCA rules, I find my hands somewhat tied. I sense that RPC is not in line with the spirit of the BCO if women are actually church officers. If they are more like deacon’s assistants, which is to say they do not hold positions of authority, then that would be another matter.
Criticism #3: Redeemer Presbyterian Church does not follow the Regulative Principle of Worship.
A liturgical dance performance during an offertory at RPC has recently sent the Reformed Twittersphere into overdrive. Why this is happening now when the video was posted last year, I can only guess. Suffice it to say, most of the commenters are not big fans of ballet. I’ve seen the usual jokes about how men who dance must be gay. (Tell that to the guy who ended up with Natalie Portman…) However, the truly biting criticism has to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship.
If you are not from a Reformed background, you might be thinking, “What in the world is the Regulative Principle of Worship? I mean, I hate government regulation.” It’s a fair question. Derek Thomas has written, “Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.” The RPW is often contrasted with the Normative Principle of Worship, which holds that those forms of worship that are not prohibited in the Bible are permissible.
From the beginning, the Reformed branch of Christianity has hung its hat on the RPW, whereas the NPW is more common in American evangelicalism. As a PCA congregation, RPC is bound by two different standards: the Westminster Confession of Faith and the PCA Book of Church Order. Let’s examine what both of them have to say, beginning with chapter 21 of the WCF.
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
That is the general principle behind the RPW: God is to be worshiped as dictated in Scripture. The problem, of course, is that not everyone agrees on what Scripture dictates. The WCF does provide some explicit instructions in this regard, such as the ban on any images depicting a member of the Trinity. (Yes, that includes Jesus.) Chapter 21 also provides some instruction as to what should be included in corporate worship.
The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preachings and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.
The standard elements of any Reformed worship service are the preaching of the Word, the administration of the two sacraments, the reading of Scripture, the singing of psalms and/or hymns, and the offertory. The WCF also notes that some special occasions may include oaths, vows, fastings, etc. On the whole, the WCF is not exceptionally detailed in this area. For example, it does not forbid the use of musical instruments or modern hymns, as some Reformed congregations have traditionally done. What does the PCA BCO have to say about the worship service?
47-6. The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given His Church a large measure of liberty in this matter. It may not be forgotten, however, that there is true liberty only where the rules of God’s Word are observed and the Spirit of the Lord is, that all things must be done decently and in order, and that God’s people should serve Him with reverence and in the beauty of holiness. From its beginning to its end a service of public worship should be characterized by that simplicity which is an evidence of sincerity and by that beauty and dignity which are a manifestation of holiness.
47-9. The Bible teaches that the following are proper elements of worship service: reading of Holy Scripture, singing of psalms and hymns, the offering of prayer, the preaching of the Word, the presentation of offerings, confessing the faith and observing the Sacraments; and on special occasions taking oaths.
Returning to where we originally started, Redeemer drew some heat for having liturgical dance during an offertory. I do not know how common this is at RPC. It certainly did not happen in the service I attended. At the time of the performance, Tim Keller was still the lead pastor at RPC, so we can assume that he approved. If you doubt me, consider that in a blog post for the Center for Faith and Work, he praised the use of the performing and visual arts to benefit the body of Christ.
We cannot praise God without art. Within the Christian art community there is frustration for visual artists who observe the important place of the musical arts in worship. Music is easy to use in worship. It holds a prominent place in worship that the visual arts do not. I believe we have to find ways to use all the arts in worship.
This statement is perfectly in line with the inclusion of dancing in services at RPC. It is why online commenters have criticized not only RPC, but Keller himself. They feel he is ignoring the traditional interpretation of the RPW, which does not include dancing as an acceptable, biblical mode of worship. Again, the issue here is not really whether the Bible allows for dancing, but whether the PCA allows it.
Is the accusation true? I believe that Redeemer has more of a loophole in regards to the RPW than they have with the diaconate. I say this for two reasons. First, both the WCF and BCO list proper elements for a worship service, but they do not specifically state that dancing is improper. Second, the PCA’s own BCO states that the Lord “has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship” but has given the Church “a large measure of liberty in this matter” (47-6). That sounds more like the NPW than the RPW, whether or not it was the authorial intent.
Although Redeemer is, as a member of the PCA, bound by the RPW, we must concede that there are differing interpretations of this principle. Redeemer is not bound by anyone’s interpretation, including the opinions of those who composed the WCF. It is bound by what is actually written in the confession and the BCO. Therefore, Redeemer’s practices may violate the most common understanding of the RPW within the Reformed community, but it is less clear that they violate the BCO, by which PCA member churches are bound.
Is it really a problem? I do not believe that liturgical dance goes against the letter of the law, although it seems to violate the spirit of the law. Historically, Reformed theologians have not listed dancing as an acceptable part of the RPW. That is a legacy that started with Calvin, who insisted that David’s dancing before the ark was not a model for us to follow.
I have not taken an oath to abide by the RPW. This is not because I am opposed to the idea of it, but because I am concerned about some of the ways that it is interpreted and applied. I am willing to give more leeway in regard to what a church can do in a worship service. However, I do not deny that Redeemer and Tim Keller are going against the spirit of the RPW as it has been historically understood. The PCA needs to make its stance clear and hold churches to that position.
Criticism #4: Tim Keller does not speak strongly enough against abortion.
As part of RPC’s campaigns to help NYC, they have focused on a wide array of issues that might fall under the heading of social justice. I have not seen many people criticize either RPC or Tim Keller for wanting to feed the hungry and care for the sick. Rather, their critics object to the idea that this is central to the gospel. They also complain that Tim Keller does not sufficiently condemn abortion because he is too afraid of offending New Yorkers. Is that really the case?
A search of the domain www.redeemer.com reveals that this organization does dedicate itself to helping women with unexpected pregnancies or those who have already had an abortion. Some of these ministries are performed by Redeemer itself, and some appear to simply receive financial support, such as Avail. (It was a bit unclear to me from viewing this website how strenuously Avail advises against abortion, but please keep in mind that crisis pregnancy centers and abortion clinics alike tend to be purposefully ambiguous in their promotional materials.)
There are also scattered quotes by Tim Keller on RPC’s website mentioning that Christians should uphold the sanctity of life as part of a counter-cultural agenda. You will not find a detailed position paper laying out the biblical case against abortion. You will certainly find nothing that promotes what is commonly considered a pro-life political platform. In general, both RPC and Keller tend to avoid things that are overtly political. His opposition to the Trump refugee ban was a recent exception to this.
I think we get a good sense of Tim Keller’s personal view on this issue from what he said about the early Church in an article this year.
It was a community committed to the sanctity of life. It was not simply that Christians opposed abortion. Abortion was dangerous and relatively rare. A more common practice was called ‘infant exposure.’ Unwanted infants were literally thrown out onto garbage heaps either to die or to be taken by traders into slavery and prostitution. Christians saved the infants and took them in.
In another article in February, Keller wrote, “Like the early church, we should be committed to the sanctity of life, and to being a sexual counter-culture.” That is what he believes, and RPC has devoted resources to this issue. The question is, will conservative Christians (by which I mean both theological and political conservatives) be content to hear Keller mention abortion every so often when he mentions racism and poverty all the time? Surely, Christianity has something to say about all of these issues. Keller has not devoted a large portion of his time and energy to the issue of abortion, from what I can tell.
Is the accusation true? Redeemer Presbyterian certainly seems to focus less on combating abortion than some churches, although it must be stated that a visit to my own church’s website wouldn’t reveal any more talk of abortion than Redeemer’s. If the question is whether they have made any efforts to help unwed mothers and counsel them against abortion, then I think the answer is certainly yes. Neither Redeemer nor Keller himself seem to have specifically endorsed pro-life political candidates, but there is more to confronting abortion than that. The answer largely depends on what a person considers to be “enough”.
Is it really a problem? In my opinion, given the scourge of abortion in this country, it might be appropriate for Tim Keller to speak a bit more forcefully on this topic. However, I also believe that God calls different people to different things. There are so many problems in this world that if any one person attempted to devote 100% of their energy to each one, they would surely burst. God calls us to affirm biblical truth on all issues, but He does not necessarily call us to individually devote considerable energy to every issue. That is just not humanly possible.
There are also disagreements among genuinely pro-life Christians as to what is the best method for confronting the problem of abortion: legal battles, practical ministry to pregnant women, education, etc. I am not going to declare that one of these methods is right and the others are wrong. They are all needed on some level. It is possible that Keller feels that rather than placing our hope in Supreme Court nominees (who have proved to be disappointments in the past), we ought to attempt to change individual hearts…and honestly, the root of the problem is sin in individual hearts. Therefore, I do not believe that he is too far off base. I would suggest a few more statements in the public sphere.
Criticism #5: Tim Keller does not speak strongly enough against homosexuality.
When you watch this video of a discussion at the Veritas Forum, you will hear Tim Keller make multiple statements to the effect that homosexuality is not a sin or it will not send you to hell. That should cause us to be wary, but I think we should also be careful to consider his full comments. Keller admits that the Bible lists homosexuality as a sin. He states that it is not good for human flourishing. (Personally, I think this argument against homosexuality is destined to fail in today’s society, because people don’t see homosexuality as a “harmful” sin like they would stealing or murder. It is a sin, quite simply, because it goes against the will of God.) He also talks about the “sin behind the sin”, which is attempting to be your own savior and rejecting the saving work of Jesus Christ. That, Keller says, is what sends you to hell.
I do not disagree with this assessment, and I also understand that he was responding to a rather loaded question: “What do so many of the churches have against homosexuals, and what about your church’s approach to homosexuality? Is it a sin? Are they going to hell?” Nevertheless, I think Keller was a bit too reluctant to call a sin a sin, preferring to talk about how greed is a sin. I do agree with him that homosexuality is not a uniquely heinous sin, we should love all our neighbors, and the sins that are beneath our notice can be the most deadly of all. (Some point to Romans chapter 1 as proof that homosexuality is in its own category of badness, but there are many sins listed there as the result of a mind that has rejected God.)
The next stop on the “Is Tim Keller too nice to homosexuals?” railroad was at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 2013, which was the subject of an article in the Huffington Post. The line in the article that alarmed some people was this: “Keller clarified that ‘you can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.’” The chronological context here is that the Supreme Court had not yet handed down its decision legalizing same-sex marriage, but it was looking pretty inevitable in the near future. The context of the event was that Keller emphasizing the need for toleration of the standard Christian view that homosexuality is a sin, which he argued would not change as quickly as some imagined. Naturally, there were many who took offense, so Keller released a statement responding to the criticism.
A recent article on the Huffington Post reported on a discussion among journalists about how younger evangelicals view the issue of same-sex marriage. I was present, and I said that I have noted many younger evangelicals are taking an Anabaptist-like position; that is, that while they still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation. In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, ‘You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.’ I did say that—but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn’t my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view. I can see how some readers might be confused at these points in the article and think that I support the legalization of same-sex marriage. I do not. I hope that clarifies things for those of you who asked about this article.
Was Tim Keller too careless in his remarks to the EPPC? Perhaps. Did the quote in the Huffington Post take his remarks out of context? Probably so, since they did not even include his entire sentence. When viewed in tandem with his clarifying statement, should we still be concerned? I do not believe so, for Keller makes clear that he was only describing a view held by some evangelicals. (The Huffington Post article also states that he does not prefer the label “evangelical” for himself.)
Keller was also criticized when it was revealed that a Redeemer staff member, Casey Fulgenzi, was connected to various progressive causes, including support for an LGBTQ tolerant form of Christianity. You can practically taste the outrage in this article by the Christian News Network. The writer goes into every detail of Fulgenzi’s social media activity, shares a picture of Fulgenzi and Rob Bell, and even mentions that his wife is “a secular musician who he describes as a ‘bada**’”. It’s a classic case of guilt by association.
There’s no proof that Keller had extensive meetings with Fulgenzi, who has never attended RPC. It also seems unlikely based on his job description that Fulgenzi would have had much effect on church policies. I have no idea how many employees Tim Keller oversees on some level, but it is surely over 100. There is no reason to suppose that Keller’s views are the same as that of a minor employee. Would we assume that a Methodist church that hired a Catholic janitor was reverting back to Rome? I think not.
We must also consider a review that Tim Keller did of two books that promoted the idea that the Bible allows for same-sex relationships. In this article, Keller rejects such a notion and refutes some of the main points made by the two authors. He argues that the current push to embrace homosexuality has nothing to do with the Bible itself.
The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe ‘you have to be yourself,’ that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.
He concludes in that review, “If we believe in the Bible’s authority, then shifts in public opinion should not matter. The Christian faith will always be offensive to every culture at some points.”
Is the accusation true? Some people have gotten rather nitpicky, dissecting Keller’s every word on the issue of homosexuality and taking offense if he says something stronger against racism than he does against same-sex marriage. They obviously suspect him of capitulating to theological liberalism and are just waiting for it to show in his comments. On the whole, I see no great evidence that Keller is teaching something out of line with biblical truth.
His comments at the Veritas Forum are perhaps the most troubling, but I think we need to ask ourselves, “If I was in a room full of people who were hostile to Christianity, who believed that being homosexual was perfectly wonderful, and who expected me to be wishing damnation upon them, might I adopt a different tactic with my comments as well?” That was the situation Keller was in at Veritas. Does it completely excuse some of his sloppy language? No. Does it mean that he has abandoned orthodoxy? No.
Earlier this year, Princeton Theological Seminary planned to award the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life to Tim Keller. After receiving numerous complaints, the president of PTS, Craig Barnes, published a letter informing his community that they would not be awarding that prize after all. The reason? “Those who are concerned point to Reverend Keller’s leadership role in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.”
Yes, while he was still allowed to give a lecture at the seminary, Keller had his prize rescinded in part because he does not accept the ordination of LGBTQ persons. This alone demonstrates that the world perceives Keller as being opposed to homosexuality. With that in mind, and given everything else I have noted, I believe Keller has taken a strong enough stand against this sin. Let us hope he continues to do so in a very hostile situation.
That is the end of part one of this discussion. Come back next week for part two.