Keller, Religious People, and the Difference Between Jesus and the Church image

Keller, Religious People, and the Difference Between Jesus and the Church

If you ever want to generate self-loathing amongst a group of Christians, follow these simple steps. (1) Remind them that most of the people who gathered around Jesus were non-religious and very bad. (2) Remind them that most of the people who gather in their church are religious and fairly good. (3) Leave them to work out the implications: that their church is fundamentally unlike Jesus, and that they are probably all Pharisees to boot. QED.

Tim Keller is not trying to create self-loathing amongst Christians. Far from it. But the following section in The Prodigal God bears a striking resemblance to the approach above:

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.

I love Tim Keller. I’ve just done a miniseries on one of his books, and his writings have shaped me more than almost anyone else I can think of. But this sort of paragraph troubles me. It makes some leaps that I don’t think are warranted, and in doing so it reinforces the sense amongst many Christians that, no matter how hard they try, they simply can’t be inclusive like Jesus (or that they should do anything to fill their churches with non-religious people, even if it means changing the gospel). I know that’s a million miles away from Keller’s intention here, in a book that I have found extremely helpful. But let me explain why I think it’s worth pushing back against him anyway.

First, Keller overemphasises the role of teaching in Jesus’s ministry to the marginalised. No doubt there were some who were drawn to him simply because of the content of his message, but a surface reading of the Gospels suggests that they were drawn mostly by his mighty works, his healings, his casting out of demons, and his table fellowship with them. If we assume that it was Jesus’s teaching that drew sinners, and neglect the central place of signs and wonders, we may be inclined to think that we need to adapt our message to become more attractive, rather than concluding that we need increasingly to pursue the sort of power, inclusive hospitality and holistic ministry to the person that characterised Jesus (and, in the early chapters of Acts, his followers). Keller’s focus on the teaching and preaching aspect, for me, unwittingly encourages us to look for answers in the wrong place.

Paragraphs like this (and they are everywhere in popular Christian literature) can also ignore the lack of stickability that seems to have characterised many of the poor and broken who gathered to Jesus. They can imply that the marginalised people who encountered Jesus stayed with him, and that a meeting of his followers two years after his preaching in Sepphoris would have included hundreds of reformed prostitutes - whereas in reality, the vast majority of people he healed, delivered and ate with did not stay with him, and would not have been there after two months, let alone two years. Thousands of needy people left him after his sermon in John 6, leaving only the twelve, and despite the adulation of the crowds in his Galilean ministry, there were only a few hundred with him at the end. So by all means we can contrast the people who gathered to hear him with the people who gather to hear us, but we shouldn’t imagine that they all stuck with it. Many of them, it seems, wandered off, shaking their heads, muttering something like, “this is a hard saying. Who can accept it?”

Third, this sort of point neglects the transformation that takes place through the gospel. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the reason that lots of people in contemporary churches have conservative morals on (say) sexuality is because the gospel has changed them. Naturally, if you did a survey of the members of my church, you would find a significantly more conservative view on various moral questions (marriage, sexuality, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, etc) than you would if you surveyed the local brothel. But that’s because the people’s ethics have been shaped by God’s word, not because the people who come to Kings are stuffy prudes, or “conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people.” Keller, I’m sure, would agree.

Most importantly, though, this sort of writing presents the distinction between those who loved Jesus and those who hated Jesus as if it was about Bible-believing religious versus Bible-rejecting irreligious, whereas actually it was much more about proud and self-righteous versus humble and broken. I cannot count the number of times I have heard people talk like this, arguing that since the thing they particularly object to (religion, knowledge, education in the Scriptures, zeal for God, even Jewishness) was something the Pharisees were into, it must be a bad thing. But this does not follow, not only because it is logically muddled (the Nazis killed people because they were Nazis, not because they were German, or middle class, or white), but also because Jesus himself was religious, knowledgeable, educated in the Scriptures, zealous for God and Jewish. Again, Keller would obviously agree, but he continues to make religion the problem Jesus was confronting, and even belief in the Bible, rather than pride and self-righteousness. This, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is strange and a bit unhelpful.

Much of this is contextual, I know. Keller’s whole approach, which we know and love, is to sit in the middle of every axis going, and deconstruct the weaknesses of both sides, and he does this partly because he is in a left-leaning city with a right-leaning perception of Christianity. But in this case, it feeds something unhelpful. Paragraphs like the above make it look like Jesus put people off if they were religious and welcomed them if they weren’t, rather than putting them off if they were proud and self-righteous and welcoming them if they were humble and broken. And the reality is that a lot of secular and irreligious people are incredibly proud and self-righteous, and a lot of Bible-believing religious people are incredibly humble and broken (and that’s why they became religious in the first place). The contrast in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not that one was religious and the other one wasn’t. They were both praying to Israel’s God in the temple, after all. The contrast is that one asked for mercy in desperate humility, and the other listed his achievements in smug self-righteousness. So to say that the people who gathered to Jesus are fundamentally different to the people who gather to churches, though winsome in a very secular city, is not quite true: the people who come to Jesus, then and now, are those who know they need saving. And to say that our message must be wrong as a result, in my view, risks leading preachers to distort the gospel if they notice their churches do not have enough irreligious people in them, even if many of those irreligious people are just as proud and arrogant as the Pharisees.

Having said all that, our churches should be filled with humble and broken people who know they need rescuing, and we should take a long hard look at ourselves and our gospel if they’re not. And let’s remember: Tim Keller’s church, for all I’ve said here, is very good at this. So he’s probably doing something right.

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