Nice Christianity & Complementarian End Zone Dances

J. Gresham Machen famously asserted that the liberalism creeping into the Christian churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not merely another form of Christianity, but another religion altogether. It was not even Christianity. He insisted that believing Protestant Christians had more in common with believing Roman Catholics than liberal “Christians” — even though Machen was a staunch Protestant. Machen identified the root of liberalism as “naturalism,” by which he meant a rejection of the creative power of God occasioned by the rise of modern science. Every assumption of the past, and every institution, especially the Church, had to be interrogated by this new found power. Thus, faced with this scrutiny, “the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities [traditional doctrines] are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting ‘the essence of Christianity'” (Christianity & Liberalism, 6).

While I certainly have some sympathies with the varied warnings from our fathers in the faith regarding “Machen’s Warrior Children” — a certain belligerent spirit that has often infected conservative churches causing them to divide over trifles for fear of the liberal boogyman — nevertheless, and on the whole, my sympathies and loyalty is still entirely on Machen’s side of the field, and the longer I pastor, I’m convinced that it is this same tendency of liberalism — to break toward the general essence and away from Biblical particularities — found in many different Christian traditions and denominations that is the great Satanic threat to most Christians.

When I say “Satanic” I mean that in a rather straightforward, technical sense: the methods of this tendency imitate Satan. They quote Bible verses in order to get God’s people to disobey God. As it is written… Satan says to Jesus in that famous temptation scene: “He will command his angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Mt. 4:6, cf. Ps. 91:11-2). It was for the love of the poor that Judas objected to the extremes of Jesus’ ministry, and Satan entered into him (Jn. 12:4-6, 13:27-30). The demons believe and tremble, but they do not willingly obey Jesus (Js. 2:19). Bradley Longfield argues persuasively that in the case of the 1920s the presbyterians “opted for institutional above doctrinal unity” (The Presbyterian Controversy, 232). In other words, the passages about unity in Christ came to trump other passages on the virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, the resurrection, miracles, etc. It’s a rejection of the particularity of Scripture in favor of general principles. Keep that point in mind.

So, the greatest threat to the Church and her sheep is not people who dress and talk like orcs. There are certainly dangers there, but the really dangerous men are the ones who pastor churches, lead Bible studies, quote Bible verses, and so on:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

Now before proceeding to give some examples of what this looks like in our own day and age, I want to be clear that these examples are not me unilaterally damning anyone to Hell. I’m not saying who is going to Heaven or Hell, or who is regenerate or not. That’s for other men in positions of authority to judge (Mt. 16:19, 18:18). The closest analogy to what I’m doing in what follows is that famous scene where Jesus tells the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to die and rise again and Peter begins to rebuke Him. Jesus turns around and tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man” (Mk. 8:33). What I’m saying in what follows is that there is a Satanic and demonic spirit in this, against which the Church (collectively and as individuals) must imitate her Master and resist and tell to get behind us. In that moment, Peter was a mouthpiece of Satan, and thank God, he repented. But Satan routinely transforms himself into an angel of light. He quotes Scripture and takes upon himself forms of godliness. And we must be on guard, for he prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8).

Which brings us to Tim Keller. Of course we’ve all just been briefed on the doings at Princeton, and Keller is the darling of the conservative church at the moment. If you didn’t catch the story, Keller was given an award by a department at Princeton, but when the openminded and tolerant constituency of the venerable institution got wind, they laid down on the floor in the produce section of academia and kicked their legs and shrieked until the the pencil-necked leaders caved and revoked the award while still allowing Keller to come give a lecture. Now, hear me carefully: I’m very grateful that Keller didn’t cave on his views regarding homosexuality or men as pastors. And to whatever extent this event gets the modern conservative Christian church a little more woke regarding our current position on the cultural battlefield, I am grateful. I also want to make sure that everyone hears me when I say that Keller has said and written some very helpful things for the church. He has a gift for interacting with unbelievers and understanding the questions that even many Christians have. Folks in my church can attest to the fact that I have from time to time recommended talks and books by Keller.

And yet…

I also believe that Keller’s ministry as a whole represents a great deal of what is wrong with the modern church. In fact, despite the numbers of congregants, churches, missionaries, and so on, I am not yet convinced that the fruit of his ministry will be very good at all. We are commanded by Jesus to evaluate the fruit of ministers, and it may be that Keller is aware of some of this bad fruit and is making course corrections. And if so, wonderful. But let me point to a few particulars.

First, it’s well known that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has women serve on their diaconate. You can read Keller’s explanation of that practice here. Now, there are at least two issues here. One is a polity issue; one is a biblical issue. As Keller notes, the Presbyterian Church in America prohibits female deacons, but the northeast presbytery of the PCA upheld the practice of Redeemer to have women who serve on their diaconate called “deaconesses.” So, technically, no women serve as deacons, but clearly they all serve together on the “diaconate.” From their website, it appears that neither deacons nor deaconesses are “ordained” at Redeemer but rather “appointed” or “commissioned,” which would seem to underline the essential equality of the deacons and deaconesses serving together on the diaconate. Now, quite apart from whether there are sound biblical or traditional arguments for a “deaconess” (which there are, but not in the way Redeemer is practicing it), the fact remains that Redeemer is out of accord with the governmental standards of the PCA (see Chapter 9).

Now add to that, coming in the wake of the recent Princeton dustup, this OpEd by an egalitarian woman who served under Tim Keller at Redeemer for a time “to envision and develop an entire ministry to equip and mobilize men and women at Redeemer…” Last Monday, PCA pastor Scott Sauls and Scotty Smith (teacher in residence at a PCA church) were tweeting and retweeting this article, while doing little complementarian end zone dances. It was cute and horrifying all at the same time. My point here isn’t that I could never envision a situation in which a godly minister might hire a woman to assist in the development of some ministry. But my point is twofold: First, hiring an egalitarian woman who disagrees about what the Bible teaches on the roles of men and women to oversee a ministry that equips and mobilizes men and women for anything is a recipe for confusion and disaster. That’s like hiring someone who is a really good conversationalist but doesn’t believe in different blood types to assist a surgeon in the operating room. Second, despite her (admirable) defense of Keller (despite their differences), she is a fruit of his ministry. One result of Keller’s ministry is women like this woman who feel comfortable in his church and can move comfortably over to the PCUSA (or Roman Catholicism), and who feel comfortable letting all of their liberal friends know that Keller isn’t any sort of threat to them at all. This woman is claiming that when it comes down to it, liberals need not fear, Keller opts for niceness over his biblical convictions. And Scott Sauls and Scotty Smith are cheering. And putting this together with the diaconate confusion at Redeemer tells you more about Keller than what he says about complementarianism elsewhere.

Finally, I point you to City Church of San Francisco, which was planted by men inspired by Keller. I grant you that it’s a rather extreme form of what I’m talking about, but over the course of a few years the church left the PCA in order to ordain women as elders before finally becoming an LGBTQ open and affirming church. Now, to be clear, people get inspired by things all the time when they ought not to be. People have probably done dumb and stupid things thinking they were inspired by me! I have no doubt that had the men at City Church asked Keller what he thought of them embracing homosexuality, he would have told them he disagreed (and maybe he did!). But given the other ambiguities sketched above, and despite Keller’s stated disagreements, his ministry is inspiring this kind of church. If the elders of Redeemer feel free to bend PCA polity and make room for egalitarians in leadership, why not homosexuals? Where are the clear and obvious brakes?

My point in all of this is not that Keller is a liberal or that everyone who benefits from him is becoming one. No, but my point is that there’s something in the water. Keller is guilty of Nice Christianity. But that warm, friendly, sympathetic atmosphere is growing more than just Christians. Of course Jesus says that there will be tares that the enemy plants during the night right alongside the wheat, and we must not rip out the tares in a fashion that rips out the wheat along with it. However, that doesn’t mean you just let the enemy have a field day (pun intended). Jesus also told us to practice church discipline, and left us a rather vigorous example of resisting sin and wicked men. Likewise, Paul routinely told his people which men to watch out for, which men deserted him, which men had shipwrecked their faith, and so on.

Keller’s ministry is a helpful case study in how liberalism can creep in through Nice Christianity. It may seem far too subtle to some, but Nice Christianity always opts for unity above truth. It certainly holds to many of the historic truths of the gospel, but when a particular truth is under assault (say the God-ordained differences between men and women), Nice Christianity affirms only the most obvious truths and then wherever possible opts for niceness over truth. And wherever this occurs, we have in small doses, an implicit hermeneutical decision to interpret Scriptural particularity as unnecessary to the “essence of Christianity” at that point. And good men do this. But when we do this, we are failing to guard the flock. Scott Sauls and Scotty Smith are doing the same thing. These are good men (from all I can tell) who are celebrating the thinnest modicum of resistance to the secular culture but not actually guarding the flock of God at the very point where the giants are taunting us. This is like celebrating one of the Israelites who didn’t run into his tent when Goliath came out to taunt. Yes, well I suppose compared to all the rest of the Israelites, we can call that courage, but that isn’t exactly a solution to the problem. And short of that solution, we cannot be surprised if people keep defecting to the Philistines.

  1. Brian April 10

    Feel free to delete this comment, but it should be noted that the word is “Complementarian,” not “Complimentarian.” Men and women may, of course, compliment one another on their hair, but the theological essence lies in them complementing one another. 😉

    • Thanks.

  2. Moses Bratrud April 10

    I find this post, at least the parts that talk about Keller, to be somewhat problematic. It seems to be a little redolent of that “certain belligerent spirit that has often infected conservative churches causing them to divide over trifles for fear of the liberal bogeyman” that you briefly mention. Tim Keller is a rare enough bird, as a famous American pastor who probably agrees with J. Gresham Machen on almost every important theological point. The surprising thing is not that Princeton reversed itself and denied him the award, but that they wanted to give him an award in the first place.

    You say that Keller’s ministry will be judged by its fruits, and you let the reader know that some of these fruits are troubling. You give three examples. 1. His church allows women to hold the office of deaconess. 2. His church once hired a woman who held egalitarian views. 3. His church once planted a church on the opposite side of the country which, several years later, left Keller’s denomination to become “open and affirming” of women in leadership and LGBTQ couples.

    Any of these might be grounds for concern, but that does not mean that together they cast doubt on the validity and value of Tim Keller’s ministry.

    To the first point, you have not established that it is Biblically wrong for women to hold the office of Deaconess. The office of deaconess is usually a non-ordained position that allows women to provide advice and care, particularly to women and children. It may be against PCA guidelines, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong or un-Biblical. That would need to be proved separately.

    To the second point, I estimate that Redeemer has about 150 full- and part-time paid staff (https://www.redeemer.com/learn/about_us/staff_directory/#pastoral). If only *one* of them was an egalitarian while she worked at Redeemer, in Manhattan, that would be surprising. Is there evidence above and beyond the hiring of *one* staff member (.75% of Redeemer’s workforce) that Keller’s style of Christianity, which you deem “Nice,” encourages egalitarianism?

    As an aside, you note that one former attendee of Redeemer became Catholic. I think it would be a hard judgment on the pastors of other churches, such as Trinity, if they were held accountable by their fellow pastors for every convert lost to Rome.

    Finally, Redeemer has helped to start 381 churches over the years (https://www.redeemercitytocity.com/churches/). The idea that one of them (.27% of the total) would leave the PCA and embrace un-Biblical beliefs, perhaps, you acknowledge, over and against the objections of Tim Keller — we’re definitely out on the skinny branches in terms of evaluating Keller’s ministry.

    You don’t indict Keller on charges of theological liberalism, but you say that these three anecdotes prove that he is guilty of “Nice Christianity” which tends to *lead* to liberalism. I think it is true and necessary to say that there is a way of affirming the distinctives of evangelical Christianity while tending to “niceness” over doctrinal purity. I think that’s well put and helpful. But in his bestselling books, Keller does nothing of the kind, nor in the hours of his sermons at Redeemer that I have listened to. I could be wrong — the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but I don’t think you have demonstrated that Tim Keller is guilty of anything close to this.

    • Mos, real quick: the fact that Princeton wanted to offer him the award in the first place *is* surprising if you think that he’s really bold and courageous in his best selling books, etc. But I think that itself is some indicator of the Nice virus. Those people thought he was nice enough to get by the scrutiny of their constituency (but not so!). One clarification: it should be noted that the homo-church was not “planted” by Redeemer; it was “inspired by” Redeemer. I also wrote this post fully believing that I should be judged by the standard with which I’m judging. I do believe I will have to give an account for sheep that have wandered to Rome or Constantinople. And last, I would love to be wrong about all of this, but shepherds have to warn sheep. I’d rather be wrong and sound an alarm than be wrong the other way. Cheers, my friend.

  3. Mayowa Adebiyi April 10

    I’m with Moses here, the charges just don’t stick given the evidence.

  4. Nathan April 10

    I find that there is a lot in Keller’s ministry which stricter or more conservative churches can learn from. I just listened to a speech from Keller at the Gospel Coalition Conference, which was an excellent speech.

    One of the reasons I like Keller is because I see the salt of the gospel seasoning big cities in North America like NY. While conservative Reformed types are fleeing for the hills, men like Keller have stood in the breaches – the gaps where secularism is coming into NA – the big cities.

    I grew up in a pretty rough area of Toronto, a highly multicultural/secular city like NY. Reformed churches have taken a beating, because the devil knows that liberalism can come in there. Having grown up in a similar setting to NY, I have high respect for Tim Keller.

    I think the challenge for our churches is to go back into these big cities, and join the work, while not moving on God’s Word. But sometimes I believe we are more afraid of getting a bloody nose than Tim Keller is…

    • Nathan, I certainly agree that Christians should be a whole lot more bold and courageous about missions to the cities. And I am thankful to have such a conservative, Bible-based ministry like Keller’s in NYC. At the same time, we can’t be blind to the weaknesses, and we shouldn’t justify “ministry” simply by numbers. Wisdom is justified by her children, fruit, etc. I see what *might* be a really good gospel elementary school, but it’s not anything close to a boot camp. Keller’s churches would have been run out of town a long time ago if they were that kind of threat (like Paul).

  5. Daren Fomin April 10

    I was praying for more wisdom in my debates with some “liberal christians” who have been hampering my attempt to preach the true gospel. Specifically, praying to know. Ore of the root of this cancer in our midst. This post has blessed me. Thank you!

  6. Daren Fomin April 10

    Praying to know more*

  7. Kajsa Wilkins April 10

    I think Moses hit the nail exactly on the head. I find this post vague and rather pointing the finger at more dividing and insignificant factors than seeking to enlighten and inform. To use a church that was not even planted by Redeemer but is just inspired by-is indeed a vague and unconnected argument. Redeemer is at the heart of many ministries and is constantly encouraging Christians to go beyond their comfort zones and live out their lives in Christ. Tim himself is stepping down from the active pulpit so as to train pastors and elders-much needed in many cities and churches. Perhaps that should be more the focus rather than arguing that ‘nice Christianity’ will be the downfall of his theology and churches.
    In this day and age, we should seek to be more like Christ in how he ministered to those in the community-to serve and love first, and not be quick to condemn. The truth of sacrifice and living by example speaks far louder than critiquing/arguing amongst the church on all the small points.

    • Kajsa, thanks for the comment. A whole lot rides on our assessment of “small points.” I grant you that it’s true that we should not be wrangling over things that really are small. But I don’t think what it means to be a man or a woman made in the image of God is a small thing at all. Blessings,

  8. Austin April 10

    “One result of Keller’s ministry is women like this woman who feel comfortable in his church and can move comfortably over to the PCUSA (or Roman Catholicism)”

    “I do believe I will have to give an account for sheep that have wandered to Rome or Constantinople”

    The issue isn’t whether pastors will have to give an account, it’s whether you’re using a lost sheep as a rhetorical scare tactic. Going to Redeemer doesn’t allow you to easily transition to the PCUSA any more than going to TRC makes it easy to cross the Tiber.

    • Austin, how do you know that going to Redeemer doesn’t allow you to easily transition to the PCUSA? Also, what’s the difference between a “rhetorical scare tactic” and teaching the sheep to “fear the Lord”? While we certainly do aim to help people understand (as I have here), sometimes fear is a very godly spur on to holiness and wisdom. I certainly hope that people are a lot more cautious about Keller’s stuff. After all the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Blessings,

  9. Steven Opp April 10

    I attended a Redeemer Church plant in Santa Monica for a year called Pacific Crossroads Church. It was a church full of hundreds of young people, growing and expanding every year. From what I sensed there, it was very similar to its mother church in NYC in regards to it’s worship and culture, both good and bad, which included, from my experience:

    -Beautiful music
    -A very well-read, culturally informed, creative preacher (he really is a good speaker, Rankin Wilbourne, check him out if you get a chance)
    -Friendly people

    But I have to say, Toby is right. Tough topics such as sexuality were entered into with a bit more fear and trembling than was necessary, in my opinion. Politics was dodged or attempted to be kept in “balance”. And the pastor and elders did not believe on a literal Genesis 1.

    So, from my personal experience, those are some of the examples of the niceness Toby is talking about. I still have fond memories of my short time at PCC, but I won’t deny her weaknesses, which I do believe she inherited from her mother.

  10. Jfs April 11

    “Winsome” as a Christian attribute is over rated.

  11. Nathan April 11

    Thanks for the response, Pastor Sumpter. I do agree with your points throughout. Faithful ministry is judged ultimately by the faithful preaching of the Word. And often the faithful preaching of the Word scares “nice” Churches. I actually might take it a step further and say that it is the “nice” churches who would throw Paul out before the city would.

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