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Handling a hostile culture

Assessing how the Church is responding to shifting cultural pressures


Tim Keller Illustration by Kevin McGivern

Handling  a hostile culture
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Part 1 of our Q&A with Tim Keller (Dec. 25, 2021) examined Keller’s childhood and early ministry years. Part 2 focuses on Keller’s reflection on culture, justice, current events, his theology and legacy, and more. 

Many Christians struggle to steward their relationship with the world’s culture. Do you see the world’s culture as becoming increasingly hostile toward Christian values (or perhaps it’s just always been hostile)? Absolutely, yes, the culture is more hostile to Christianity. Whether speaking of the academy, the media, government, business, popular entertainment, the arts, or social media—our culture is growing more hostile toward Christian beliefs and values. It is not the same as it has always been.

The question, “How do you respond to this?” requires a week’s answer or a sentence. I opt for the sentence: First, repent for the ways Christians’ inconsistent lives have harmed the Church’s credibility. Second, love your neighbor as yourself. Third, let people know you are a believer—don’t hide it. Fourth, make sure you are not harsh or clumsy in your words (be sure it’s the gospel that offends and not you). And last, don’t be afraid of persecution. Jesus promises to be with you.

How did you develop your conviction and interest in justice? First, when I began to read the Bible intensively, trying to get through it over and over, I began to see how often the Scripture talks about justice for the widow and orphan, for the immigrant and the poor. It’s remarkable.

Second, when I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan, I had to study the story in depth and I came to see the implications. When Jesus is asked, “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” He tells a story of a man risking his life to stop and sacrificially giving physical and material help to a man of a different race and different religion! Finally, when I began living in New York City, the needs of the poor became even more visible to me.

Give me an example when you needed to take an unpopular stand, either against non-Christians or against fellow believers. I think it is important to understand how radical the entire enterprise of Redeemer was. Every Sunday I preached, every meeting I taught, I took unpopular stands that went against the grain of center-city dwellers. I faced weekly—sometimes daily—opposition and hostility.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is a conservative, evangelical church in secular, liberal Manhattan. Every single week I was telling people things that most considered absolutely outrageous, if not dangerous—Jesus is the only way to salvation; without believing in Him you are lost and going to hell; the Bible is true in every word and you must submit to it whether it fits your opinions or not; sex is only for a man and a woman in marriage; you should be radically generous with your money, and, if you are prosperous, you should adopt a modest lifestyle. And so on!

Planting the church and publicly preaching the Scripture expositionally was and is extraordinarily confrontational. I often had people after services expressing strong opposition. Most were civil, but some were very angry, even cursing me. Some were in tears.

The church has failed to fulfill the Great Commission in our time, in that it has not discovered a way to evangelize a post-Christian, secular culture.

What do you see as the greatest threat to modern-day Christians? In the United States, I think the second-greatest threat is a new progressive, secular ideology that is coming to dominate the academy, the government, the corporate world, and the mainstream media. It is against freedom of speech and deeply opposed to religious people expressing or practicing many aspects of their faith in public.

However, the first and greatest threat is the failure of the American church itself:

› The mainline church wedded itself to liberal political parties, and the evangelical church has done that with conservative political parties, and so we are now seen as nothing but a political power bloc.

› Also there have been numerous egregious examples of hypocrisy with many prominent church leaders being found guilty of various forms of abuse and corrupt behavior.

› Instead of admitting past ways in which the American church has participated in the marginalization and exploitation of various peoples, a vociferous segment of the modern evangelical church has refused to repent and listen, and instead has become harsh and denunciatory in its communication.

› The church has failed to fulfill the Great Commission in our time, in that it has not discovered a way to evangelize a post-Christian, secular culture. (See Les­slie Newbigin’s seminal article, “Can the West Be Converted?”)

If you were to plant Redeemer today, how different would it be, considering where the nation is at now, where you are now (assuming you never had the cancer diagnosis)? The doctrine would be the same (since my doctrine hasn’t changed).

The basic “theological vision” (a term explained in my book Center Church) would also be the same, because while the United States and NYC culture have changed somewhat, it has not really changed direction. It is moving today in the same direction it was going in 1989. So these “theological vision” factors would stay the same.

By that I mean emphases on:

1) reordering the loves of the heart with the gospel

2) loving the city in word and deed

3) contextualizing and culturally engaging without compromise

4) preaching to both Christians and non-Christians at the same time because we welcomed and expected non-believers to be present with us constantly

5) using language that is accessible, not “insider” pious-talk or unnecessary technical doctrinal-talk

6) speaking about non-Christians when they are not present exactly the way we talk to non-Christians when they are present

7) “majoring in the majors” rather than constantly arguing about topics where Christians differ

8) emphasis on surmounting racial barriers and forming a loving multi-ethnic community

9) loving our neighbors through deeds of mercy and justice

10) reasoning with non-believers as Paul did in Acts 17 and 1 Cor 1:22-23, with a strategy of “subversive fulfillment,” that is, showing non-believers that their best aspirations are idolatrous but their true needs can be fulfilled in Christ

11) combining things that confound non-Christians’ expectations—such as:

  • speaking unpopular truth yet doing so with patient, kind, open-to-criticism, non-coercive love
  • vigorous, active evangelism and yet calls for justice
  • strong contention for historic Christian doctrine with and openness to and emphasis on the arts
  • a belief in the authority and inerrancy of the Scripture yet a deep appreciation of and willingness to learn from non-Christian thought (the practice of “common grace”)

12) an emphasis on both deep involvement in church and Christian community with an integration of faith and work in the public sectors of society

13) being “movement minded” and willing to cooperate with other Christians rather than being sectarian and separatist

14) practicing servant-leadership and openness to ideas and criticism rather than coercive, abusive, and top-down leadership.

What has changed since 1989 includes at least the following. Then, secular culture was dominated by the psychological. Everyone was into 12-step groups and talking about co-dependency and self-esteem and other therapeutic themes. Today, secular culture is dominated by the sociological. The emphasis on therapeutic individualism is still there, but it has been somewhat supplanted by group identity and themes of power and justice.

The older liberalism—with its emphasis on individual rights, freedom of speech, and support for viewpoint diversity—is being supplanted by a much more anti-religious secularism that is deeply suspicious of these concepts. Christians now can expect more overt opposition to their beliefs. There are other things happening in NYC as well—racial and class demographics are constantly changing and they need to be taken into account.

In light of these shifts, what would change would be “models” of ministry. That refers to how (not what!!) you preach (what questions to address, what themes and topics to stress, what illustrations to use, what authors and authorities to cite), how you do evangelism (through events and speakers or more through one-on-one friendships and processes?), how you assimilate and disciple new members, how you organize people for pastoral care (through small groups? Through lay pastoral networks?) how you catechize children, how you exercise leadership, and so on.

Examples of model changes: Preaching in NYC will have to “subversively fulfill” cultural concerns and longings for justice the way 30 years ago it addressed longings for self-realization (and preaching must continue to do so). Evangelism in NYC requires more emphasis on one-on-one conversations between Christians and non-Christians. Most non-Christians will need to be in such a process before they can be brought to a Christian worship service.

You probably don’t remember everything you’ve said or written, but is there something you might change now? At one level, times change, and therefore if I look back on things I’ve written or said 20, 30, or 40 years ago, I’m sure I might argue for them differently, or express them somewhat differently—certainly I might illustrate them in different ways.

But when it comes to positions on Biblical and theological issues, I have the same position on most all of them that I did when I left seminary.

On creation and evolution? I believe in an “old earth” and that Genesis 1 is a poetic expression of the meaning of creation, not a recipe; but I also believe in the special creation of Adam and Eve as our ancestors.

On social justice? I believe God does want Christians to work against racism and poverty and create a more just society, but they are to do it scattered out into the world. The church qua church [in its capacity as the church] is to evangelize and then disciple Christians to change the world, but it should not as an institution ally itself to particular political organizations and parties.

On the work of the Holy Spirit? I am not charismatic, but I’m also not anti-charismatic and unappreciative of the strengths of the movement.

On sexuality? I believe sex is only for within marriage between a man and a woman. On abortion—I believe abortion is the taking of human life and therefore a sin and great evil.

On complementarianism? I believe that in the marriage/home and in the Church men are to exercise “headship,” and that headship is modeled on Christ’s definition of authority as the authority to serve and to die. Servant-leadership is never to be used as a power to compel or exercise authority for its own interests. I believe women should not be ordained ministers and elders, but could be deacons. I only put “complementarianism” in quotes because Kathy and I arrived at our position before that word was coined, and often people who use the label throw in lots of extra-Biblical rules for women (such as not working outside the home, or only taking certain jobs, etc.) to which we would never subscribe. We have not changed in our views on this subject since seminary.

I am, if anything, more profoundly appreciative of the wisdom and truth of the Reformed confessions, especially my denomination’s Westminster Standards. On a number of confessional issues—such as understanding how the “regulative principle of worship” plays out, and how we practice the Sabbath—I have not changed my position since entering my denomination.

As I said above, I am always revising my teaching notes so that I can say what I mean more clearly. But that means I would change how I preach, not what I preach. Some people will say that such a lack of change over four decades of ministry is bad, showing a lack of “growth,” and others might think it good (I do). I’ll let others be the judge.

To say Christians must be deeply concerned for the needs of the poor is simply presenting a Biblical truth and is not speaking to political policy.

I have heard many fellow Christians accuse you of being a liberal—both theologically and politically. I should start by reminding us that these terms politically “liberal” and “conservative” are fairly imprecise and subjective. Some years ago I interacted with a minister in my denomination who believed strongly that neither women nor single males should be allowed to vote in civil elections, but only the male heads of households. He believed this was the Biblical position, and it was one of the reasons he eventually left the denomination, saying that 99 percent of its ministers were horribly “liberal.”

Another Christian leader I conversed with told me that tax money should go to nothing but supporting the police and the military. Everything else should be done privately, not by the government. He based this on what he thought was the right interpretation of Romans 13. He believed any level of taxation beyond that extremely low level was a form of socialism. When I said I thought taxes could also go to building bridges and roads, he called me a liberal. Again, compared to him I was less conservative on the spectrum.

What about the term politically liberal? As the term has been used by the great majority of people in the last several decades, I am not politically liberal. I am not a supporter of a highly centralized, government-controlled economy or of taxes at the level of European socialist countries. I am pro-life. I am, of course, a major supporter of religious liberty, a term that the left now puts in scare quotes and a concept it opposes. Political liberals do not consider me politically liberal.

So why have some people called me a political liberal?

The first reason is that, in a highly politically polarized environment, anyone who is not fully, loudly, and explicitly supporting you is now seen as supporting the other side. During the last election I simply said that, as a minister, I could not bind Christians’ consciences (see Westminster Confession Chapter 20) and tell them how to vote. That angered many conservative people who believed that any effort to be “apolitical” was really to be on the liberal side.

The second reason is because I often preach what the Bible teaches about how strongly Christians should work for and support the poor and needy. Even though I simply expound the Scripture and say nothing about government or taxation, many people believe any such emphasis will lead to higher taxes and bigger government and therefore is “liberal.” This is not true, of course. To say Christians must be deeply concerned for the needs of the poor is simply presenting a Biblical truth and is not speaking to political policy.

Third, many believe that if I am not denunciatory and unfriendly to liberals I must myself be a liberal, which is not true. Jesus called us to publicly “greet” and wish peace to not just our own fellow believers but to all (Matthew 5:43-48). Recently on Twitter I congratulated an atheist (Greg Epstein) on being selected as head chaplain at Harvard. He is a man whose views I have publicly debated, and I am on record as having opposed his atheistic beliefs. Yet he has also been friendly to me, and is a man whom insiders know to be more fair-minded and open to allowing all chaplains—including evangelical ones—to do their ministries than some Harvard head chaplains have been in the past. Nevertheless, many on social media expressed their conviction that if you show friendliness to atheists and liberals you must be at the very least a closet liberal yourself. That is not true.

What about the charge of being theologically liberal? I must confess that I am quite perplexed by that one. I am a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is doctrinally quite conservative, and I am satisfied with its theological positions, with the single exception that I would prefer that women could be ordained as deacons. I do not think that makes me theologically liberal in any way that such a term has been used by most people over the past decades. My best guess is that some people think my emphasis on justice and concern for the poor means that somehow underneath, I must be both politically and theologically liberal, despite my orthodox doctrinal beliefs and profession.

Again, these are my best guesses, so it’s possible I’m not fully seeing the picture. But overall, I’m OK confusing people on whether I’m liberal or conservative in their eyes. If a Christian is living in obedience to Scripture, he or she won’t fit into a binary political ideology or party. I’ve come to embrace the confusion.

I’ve also heard people say you’ve endorsed critical race theory and have become too “social justice”-oriented. I’ve already spoken to the issue of social justice under other questions above. I only expound what the Bible says about justice—and it says a lot. I would only add here that some fear that emphasizing social justice leads to a loss of concern for evangelism. Anyone who knows anything about Redeemer or my ministry knows that never happened. I personally am chiefly an evangelist in my calling.

As for the statement that I’ve endorsed critical race theory: First, I wrote a critique of critical race theory with which many people friendly to CRT did not agree.

Second, many people don’t know what critical race theory actually is. Some have a working definition of CRT as “talking a lot about racism.” The Bible at many places addresses the sin of being a “respecter of persons” on the basis of their class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, or any other social status. I have therefore been addressing racism from the Bible since I began my ministry in the mid-’70s. Most people trace critical race theory to the work of Derrick Bell and others beginning in the mid to late 1990s. That means that my teaching about the sin of racism pre-dates CRT.

Nevertheless, I do believe what the Bible teaches (and also what the American black church has been telling us for decades)—namely, that there is such a thing as “systemic” or “institutional racism.” That means there are social structures that disadvantage certain groups or classes of people even when nearly all those working within the structure are not personally and individually racist (or sexist, etc.) in their beliefs and attitudes.

There are many who insist that anyone believing in systemic racism is automatically a proponent of critical race theory. That’s not true. In an article on the subject I show that the concept is taught in Scripture.

A lot of pastors are struggling, particularly after the various shifts during the pandemic. People are leaving churches over pandemic restrictions, the election, racial injustice, political differences, etc. Many pastors are leaving ministry. Have you ever dealt with something like this during your ministry, or is this something unique to our time today? How did you navigate tricky political/ideological waters? I’d say that the culture is definitely more polarized than it ever has been, and I’ve never seen the kind of conflicts in churches in the past that we see today. In virtually every church there is a smaller or larger body of Christians who have been radicalized to the Left or to the Right by extremely effective and completely immersive internet and social media loops, newsfeeds, and communities. People are bombarded 12 hours a day with pieces that present a particular political point of view, and the main way it seeks to persuade is not through argument but through outrage. People are being formed by this immersive form of public discourse—far more than they are being formed by the Church. This is creating a crisis. No, I haven’t faced anything like this in the past.

However, the way to navigate such waters is still to follow the book of Proverbs’ prescription for your words. They must be honest, few, extremely well-crafted, usually calm, always aimed to edify (even when critical) and they must be accompanied with lots of silent listening.

Lots of younger church-planting pastors respect and admire you. Many hold visions that their church would achieve the growth and recognition that Redeemer has today. But that’s not going to happen to all. What word would you give them? It is OK to want to see spiritual and numerical growth in your church. Everyone should want to see people come to faith and grow in Christ and if that happens, church growth happens. (Put another way: You can grow a church numerically without the Holy Spirit changing lives, but if the Holy Spirit is changing lives, you will ordinarily see at least some church growth.)

But to want dramatic church growth as an end in itself, in order to get (as you say) “recognition”—that is spiritually lethal. What you want to be is simply faithful to your calling. Period. If in addition you get recognition, pray to God it doesn’t harm you. John Flavel argues in Keeping the Heart that the second most spiritually dangerous situation to be in is “adversity,” but the first and greatest spiritually dangerous situation to be in is “prosperity.” To quote Jeremiah 45:5 (in the KJV) “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.”

If you don’t seek success (but faithfulness and fruitfulness) then if success comes, it is less likely to harm you by puffing you up with pride and leading you to use power in a self-interested and coercive way. In hindsight, Kathy and I feel we were somewhat shielded by God from the temptations of success because (a) we did not expect it at all—we never wanted or expected a large church, and (b) the success largely came when I was older. I was nearly 50 when the church got large and well known, and (c) I was almost 60 when I started writing books. It’s much harder to handle success as a younger adult than as an older one. (d) Lastly, despite what one might consider “success,” any ministry leader can tell you there are still heartaches, losses, and struggles that come with leadership so the realities of the responsibility continue to humble you.

I’ve read that Kathy Keller played an immeasurable role in your life and ministry. What’s one example? “Immeasurable” is right. When we were still just friends at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, not even “dating,” Kathy was far and away the most instrumental person who helped me see the truth of Reformed theology. She was a convinced Reformed Christian herself, but her arguments for it were extremely accessible, common sense, and practical. I saw how Reformed theological themes were playing out in her life and outlook—and I liked it. I had come to seminary disliking Calvinism but by the end of my first year there, I had completely embraced it.

What about at Redeemer? She was first the unofficial and then the official director of communications. If you were on staff at Redeemer you got used to the phrase, “Speak as if you’re being overheard.” Which meant that at all times Christians should consider what they said about their faith or how they described non-believers as if they were being overheard by a non-believer. “What would the non-believer conclude about Jesus or Christians if they heard what you said?” This was influential not just in staying away from insider speak and Christian jargon, but it also reminded everyone to expect non-believers to be present at worship, in small groups, and at any and all events the church held.

Looking back, what were your biggest challenges as a pastor? Any times when you felt like quitting ministry? In May of every year I was exhausted and tired and toyed with the idea of doing something else (something I think many other pastors do as well), but I never seriously considered it. At one point when my wife Kathy was very ill, I did at least think about going back to teach at seminary. But even then I don’t think she would have let me do it.

Many people know you personally as Tim Keller, a man. Many more people don’t know you personally, and know you as Tim Keller, the pastor and theologian. How would you like those people who don’t know you personally to remember you, long after you’re gone? I want my children and grandchildren to remember the things I tried to teach them by word and example. I want my books to continue to be read because I intentionally sought to present Biblical teaching that I thought would have abiding relevance. But apart from that, I don’t think it’s my job to care about my “legacy.”


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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