Celebrating the life of Tim Keller
A legacy of faithful service—in Manhattan and beyond
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“So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” (Judges 16:30).
Tim Keller was an evangelical megastar. His long ministry in New York became legendary in evangelical circles. His writings reached bestseller status and his sermons were heard by untold thousands. He was irenic and softspoken, relational and urbane. He held to the historic Protestant faith in one of the most secular contexts of our age.
He was a famous preacher but also an ironically polarizing figure. Held up by many as a “nice” conservative or a winsome and urbane representative of traditional Christianity (even a sort of evangelical Calvinism), Keller nevertheless had a long list of critics. At times it was hard to say whether they were more on the left or on the right. The past few years, especially, saw a rise in Christian criticism of Keller from the right.
But now all of that seems like vapor, quickly passing away.
When Keller died on May 19, tributes poured in from virtually every corner of American public life. The New York Times pointed out that Keller held to the traditional position on sexuality and abortion, and yet it still managed to give an overwhelmingly favorable summary of his life and ministry. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was impressed with how Keller called out the idols of our current society. He notes that Keller’s ministry saw such fruitfulness that it resulted in Keller “calling me wanting to buy our sadly shuttered churches.” Even conservative provocateur Ann Coulter praised Keller. Coulter wrote, “Why Keller's church was packed and other churches are empty. If you're not giving us Holy Scripture, I'll go to a movie.”
Such consistent praise from diverse and unlikely sources should put Tim Keller’s significance, and indeed evangelicalism itself, into a broader perspective. To some conservative Christians, Keller was perceived as a moderating influence. To the outside world, however, he was one more member of conservative American evangelicalism. He was an avatar of traditional faith and even Bible-centered Christianity. He was seen as a countercultural prophet who managed to keep the first things first. Non-Christians and Christians who live outside of the evangelical subculture saw Keller as uncompromising in his commitment to the Word of God and the gospel—whether they liked that commitment or not. That’s how the outside world knows him.
Keller certainly had left-wing critics. In 2017, Princeton Seminary revoked the Kuyper prize that it had previously planned to award him. The reason? As then-president Craig Barnes put it, “many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained.” Keller was not fully deplatformed (he was allowed to speak) but he was cancelled in part (he was denied the award). Even now, certain representatives of progressive Christianity are lamenting that Keller either was himself a member of the patriarchy or was a silent enabler. “The left” knew, on a deep level, that Keller was not their friend.
And now in his death, he is seen by most as a gospel champion.
While several of my friends knew him personally and even collaborated with him on projects, I ran in different circles. There were aspects of his church’s missional ecclesiology of which I was skeptical. I thought a good many of Keller’s tweets were frustrating. His books were not formative on me. In fact, I didn’t even read any of his books until after graduating seminary. But the recent rise in aggressive Keller criticism also never sat right with me. It seemed to miss the big picture. Occasionally it seemed opportunistic. And so, I suppose, I evolved on Keller in the opposite direction. I started to take a closer look at the good stuff.
My church leadership recently worked through Center Church. The sophistication of his analysis of the “missional” church philosophy impressed me. He was not an uncritical proponent. Additionally, Keller was entirely clear that the institutional church should stay away from political activism and even social justice works. As I take a second and closer look at more of Keller’s writings, I continue to see the same thing. I found more agreement than disagreement.
The major memorial service for Tim Keller is to be held today in New York City. That service reminds us of the truth that God provides His people with gifted leaders. Tim Keller called evangelical Christians to think about the nature of Christian faithfulness in a secular age. He meant to start a conversation—and he succeeded. That conversation will continue, but today calls for thankfulness and remembrance. Tim Keller preached the gospel in New York City for decades. May the service honoring him be yet another occasion for furthering the gospel in Manhattan. Above all else, Tim Keller would want that.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.