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.
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.