Tim Keller and the Evangelical Elite: Where Are Their Minds?

This is a guest post by my friend and colleague Logan Zepperi. Logan holds a Masters of Philosophy from the Talbot School of Theology, a Bachelors of Science in Philosophy, and is currently a graduate student in Clinical Psychology. His work includes policy and business research, pastoral training, facilitation, and essay contributions to several publications like the Claremont Institutes,The American Spirit.”

Tim Keller: America’s evangelical watchdog?

Recently, pastor and theologian Tim Keller ventured into the Twitter verse to make a new name for himself as an arbiter and diviner of evangelical political engagement. Through hopeful attempts at rational discourse, he tried to balance his personal dissatisfaction with the conservative evangelical electoral bloc while deftly avoiding the relentless barrage of blame from progressive evangelical elites and their ever-watchful eye under which his New York Church flourished. However, last week Keller’s remarks on Twitter on the theological contradictions of conservative and politically engaged evangelical churches should make one wonder if he has finally lost his mind.

Keller writes in his first tweet,

Here are two Biblical MORAL standards: 1) It is a sin to worship idols or any God other than the true God and 2) not to kill. If you ask evangelicals if we should be prohibited by law from worshiping any God other than the God of the Bible, they would say “no”.

He continues this reflection in his second tweet,

We allow this terrible sin to be legal. But if you ask them if the law should prohibit Americans from aborting a baby, they will answer “yes”. Now, why make the first sin legal and NEVER talk about it and the second sin illegal and a major moral/political talking point?

At George Orwell’s 1984there is an oft-quoted line, “The party told you to reject the evidence with your eyes and ears. It was their last, most essential command. The problem in modern political discourse is that we have often emphasized the wrong side of this thinking – Orwell is less concerned with party politics and power than with the supreme authority by which party propaganda convinced the world to deny its own common sense. GK Chesterton makes a similar case in his book, Orthodoxy,

The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid. The determinist makes the theory of causation pretty clear, then finds he can’t say “please” to the maid. The Christian allows free will to remain a sacred mystery; but as a result his relationship with the maid becomes sparkling and crystalline.

The practical objection to Keller’s theory of the world is that his theory seems to prevent him from seeing the practical effects of the world. Is there no practical difference between the woman who idolizes her own dress and the woman who deprives her own child of life? Is there no difference between the man who extinguishes his love for God and the man who persuades a woman to extinguish her child?

Of course there is.

But, for Keller, the problem is not only to deny the practical sense, he is also wrong in theory. If a man’s worship of money causes him to commit fraud or theft, he is guilty before our law. If a man’s worship of Baal causes him to sacrifice his child by fire, he is guilty before our law, even to his own death by capital punishment. The boundary has been drawn, very clearly and for a very long time, between the relationship to God, by which God only can judge our conscience and its relation to society, by which our actions can be judged as a tree is judged to bear good or bad fruit. When one distinguishes between the worship of false idols and the choice of abortion, this principle can be applied, and applied clearly and consistently.

Keller continues in his third tweet,

At the very least, it shows a lack of knowing how to apply the Bible to politics. Since we can’t just say, “If the Bible says it’s a sin, it should be illegal,” how do we choose which morality to uphold politically? Please don’t say “I just want to see the 10

He continues in his fourth tweet,

… the commandments have been law in society. It’s too simplistic and we’re not doing it already. The Bible tells us that idolatry, abortion, and ignoring the poor are all serious sins. But that doesn’t tell us exactly HOW we should apply these standards to a pluralist democracy.

Chesterton once spoke of this kind of “crippling pietism” when he wrote:

The old humility was a spur that kept a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot preventing him from continuing. For old humility made a man doubtful of his efforts, which could make him work harder. But the newfound humility makes a man doubtful of his goals, which will cause him to stop working altogether.

Keller’s argument begins with “How can we distinguish which sins should be legal and which should not” and then ends, “So how could we decide?” He took the complexity of the world as an excuse to refrain from looking for a solution, instead of taking the complexity of the world as an excuse to work harder in the hope of finding one.

As Keller continues in his sixth through tenth tweets,

We must help the poor, but the Bible does not tell us what political strategy (high taxes and government services versus low taxes and private charity) to use. The Bible compels my conscience to love the immigrant, but it doesn’t tell me HOW MANY legal immigrants to admit to the United States

…every year. I know abortion is a sin, but the Bible does not tell me what is the best political policy to reduce or end abortion in this country, or what political or legal policies are most effective for this purpose.

Today’s political parties will say that their most lines up morally with the Bible, but we are allowed to debate it and therefore our churches should not have disunity over questionable political differences! This is also why I have never publicly[sic] or privately tell Christians who they should vote for. Nor have I ever told anyone that they

should vote Democrat or Republican. Depending on politics, we may find more or less alignment with biblical morality. I believe that all Christians should be active in politics, but it is not wise to identify Christianity with any particular party. For more see:

Sigh. People focus on the example (abortion is a physical evil) and not on the principle. You can learn the same thing about gay marriage…why codify this morality in law and not others?

I [Logan] would be hard pressed to be convinced that Keller would adopt the same argument he adopted on abortion, if it were slavery. If a party were for slavery and a party for its abolition, would Keller argue that it’s just hard to know which one to support or which policy to pursue? Would he view slavery or murder as morally insignificant issues that should divide the church?

Instead of comparing one moral dilemma regarding damage to the image of God (i.e., slavery) with another moral dilemma regarding damage to the image of God (i.e., abortion), Keller took a permutation of a familiar argument that atheists have made against Christianity – treating all sins as equal and comparing an atrocity to an offence, or what can be judged by man to what can only be known to God . But then again, I guess such heinous acts against an image of God are far too complex for such a simple guiding principle as this: you won’t kill.

However, there is one criticism that I believe falls squarely on the evangelical academic elite. In the TV series rick and mortythere is a episode which looks more like a parody of WW Jacob’s book monkey paw than Ray Bradbury’s Something bad this way comes. The episode features the Devil opening a trinket shop, selling trinkets that grant his customers wishes with disturbing side effects. During the episode, Rick confronts Summer, his granddaughter, several times working at the Devil’s Trinket Shop. This leads Rick to open his own “de-trinket” shop next door, dedicated to exposing the devil as a fraud. During the final confrontation, Rick, upset with the arrangement, tells Summer that she’s “working[ing] for the Devil”. Summer responds, “At least the devil has a job. At least he’s active in the community.

The evangelical academic elite, for all their libraries, shelves and impressive publication records, have largely failed to fulfill the oaths of office. Our culture is in the midst of considerable and widespread political turmoil, and when the church petitions its academic elites, they are answered with endless shrugs and spectacularly worded “I-don’t-know-c ‘is-complicated’. And even worse, as Keller illustrates, they often land on comments that grossly violate the distinction between how one can desecrate one’s conscience and how one can take the life of an innocent.

To be fair: we know it’s complicated; we know it is difficult; we know that expressing a belief is unpopular. However, what we need is a positive and firm vision of the modern Church. We need someone who will hold to the foundations of a clearly stated, unashamedly affirmed, and unashamedly upheld gospel of Christ – in all its doctrines, especially those concerning the image of God in man. And this is where Keller’s comments are insufficient, very short. His comparisons assume that there is basically little, if any, value in destroying a God-image bearer.

Therefore, in response, I will begin. The church has always believed that abortion is not just a grave sin, but that abortion is murder – it is murder an innocent carrier image of God. And we should, as Christians, explore all possible avenues to reduce or ban it. But more than that, we need to force people to understand why it should be banned and why it shouldn’t be. This is our job as a Church, our role as the prophetic voice of culture.

For some, this will mean the adoption of public policies; for others, it will mean expressing yourself on whatever platform you might have; even more, it may mean spending a late night talking to your friend who thinks abortion is the only way out. More so, it may mean donating a few dollars to help a crisis center; and, again, even more, it can simply mean praying that God will help those who can reduce or ban abortion. As the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates, we need to help our neighbors, those who need help at hand.

If the evangelical elite cannot add or change this statement on abortion, then we have to question the purpose of the academic elite, because they are not even active in the community.

Featured Image: Frank Licorice, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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