This Was Never a Neutral Culture

Tim Keller is a well-known Christian pastor, bestselling author, and mentor to rising Christian leaders. He planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan in 1989, and it has grown to more than 5,000 worshipers per week in an area that is considered rather inhospitable to the Gospel message. He stepped down from his position as senior pastor in 2017 to focus more on training church leaders. In 2020, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but he continues to minister despite that malady. I follow him on Twitter, where he always has deeply Biblical, encouraging comments. As an aside, his wife, Kathy, corresponded with C. S. Lewis when she was a child. Naturally, I like that connection.

Some, though, who have appreciated his ministry and have generally kind things to say about him, are now saying he is no longer a proper voice for Christians in what they consider to be a new era for the church in America. First Things, a magazine that has recently morphed into more of a Christian Nationalist vehicle, now considers Keller and his approach to be too weak for this new age.

Commentator David French wrote about that earlier this week in one of his Dispatch articles. The problem, according to First Things, is that Keller refuses to be sufficiently tribal in his methods for sharing the Gospel. His desire to be “winsome,” missional, and “gospel-centered” no longer meets the need because we have entered into a different era for Christians. French quotes from the article written by James Wood:

I began to observe that our politics and culture had changed. I began to feel differently about our surrounding secular culture, and noticed that its attitude toward Christianity was not what it once had been. …

There was a “neutral world” roughly between 1994–2014 in which traditional Christianity was neither broadly supported nor opposed by the surrounding culture, but rather was viewed as an eccentric lifestyle option among many. However, that time is over. Now we live in the “negative world,” in which … Christian morality is expressly repudiated and traditional Christian views are perceived as undermining the social good. As I observed the attitude of our surrounding culture change, I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient guidance for the cultural and political moment.

Wood’s bottom line? “The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel can obscure what our political moment requires.” In other words, since the culture has changed and is now so hostile to Christian faith, we must dispense with trying to woo people into faith; rather, more confrontation is needed to combat the culture. It’s time to be more militant.

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French’s response drew from his own experience. He noted, “Let’s begin with the premise that we’ve transitioned from a ‘neutral world’ to a ‘negative world.’ As someone who attended law school in the early 1990s and lived in deep blue America for most of this alleged ‘neutral’ period, the premise seems flawed. The world didn’t feel ‘neutral’ to me when I was shouted down in class, or when I was told by classmates to ‘die’ for my pro-life views.” French has been on the front lines of protecting religious liberty for most of his career, working conscientiously through the courts to ensure that Christians have the same rights as everyone else. And I agree with him that what we are experiencing currently is nothing new. I’m not aware of a “neutral” time that I lived through.

Keller also responded to this new premise, saying, “Respectfully, when we began Redeemer in 1989 we experienced great hostility. We were thrown out of facilities for our faith. We were mocked in the press. Anyone who thinks Manhattan culture was then ‘neutral’ toward evangelical Christianity is mistaken.”

French adds, “And if you want empirical evidence that New York City wasn’t “neutral” before 2014, there was almost 20 years of litigation over the city’s discriminatory policy denying the use of empty public school facilities for worship services. The policy existed until it was finally reversed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015.”

Speech codes used to be omnipresent on university campuses, but through the efforts of French and other devoted Christian lawyers, they have receded considerably—Christians have greater liberty to speak now than they did a couple of decades ago. Most Christians probably don’t realize that the number of abortions is now fewer than before Roe v. Wade. In other words, on some fronts, there has been progress.

Yet the new Christian Nationalism wants us to be more tribal and confrontational. Sorry, but the only “tribe” I belong to is the Kingdom of God through Christ. I have seen the bitterness and terrible attitudes being exhibited by those who have apparently put politics before faith, and I want nothing to do with it. “Increasing partisan animosity is unquestionably mutual,” French explains. “’They’ hate ‘us’”? Well, ‘we’ hate ‘them’ just as much. When it comes to negative partisanship, neither side has clean hands. If we truly live in a ‘negative world,’ then Christians helped make it negative.” The correct—Christian—response is this:

Yet even if the desperate times narrative were true, the desperate measures rationalization suffers from profound moral defects. The biblical call to Christians to love your enemies, to bless those who curse you, and to exhibit the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—does not represent a set of tactics to be abandoned when times are tough but rather a set of eternal moral principles to be applied even in the face of extreme adversity.

I would add this from the apostle Peter:

Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you. But respond with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander you may be put to shame by your good behavior in Christ. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

1 Peter 3:15-17

“Sadly,” French concludes, “this moral analysis is alien to all too many politically engaged Christians. They approach political contests differently from the way they approach their families or even their businesses.”

Engage the culture. Stand firm on truth, yes. But always do so in a spirit of hope and redemption, not with a pugnacious and arrogant spirit.