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On Tim Keller: Yes, Christians should be gracious to unbelievers, but never at the expense of Gospel truth


Editorial Note:The Standing for Freedom Center is aware of Tim Keller’s sensitive health diagnosis, and our entire staff is keeping him and his family in our prayers. We also felt the need to respond to some of his theological positions as we feel that we are capable of doing both at the same time in a respectful manner. Keller is a brother in Christ and has done much to advance the Kingdom, but such an influencer merits criticism where needed as to not misrepresent the gospel. This is by no means an attack on Dr. Keller, but a critique of his position and a defense of truth.

Tim Keller, noted Christian author and former senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, recently called comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert a “skillful example of how to be a Christian in the public square,” despite Colbert’s long track record of profane comments and a career built on a lifestyle that is fundamentally inconsistent with God’s Word and Christian holiness.

Quick Facts

Keller’s social media comments come in response to a video clip in which late-night talk show host, singer, and model Dua Lipa asked Colbert about the extent to which his religious beliefs and comedy overlap. Colbert responded that his faith was “connected to the idea of love and sacrifice being somehow related and giving yourself to other people. Ultimately, I hope with us all being mortal, the faith will win out in the end.” Colbert also added that “death is not defeat.”

Here’s a clip of Colbert’s comments for context:

Keller is basing his reasoning in part on Colossians 4:5-6, which encourages believers to be “wise in the way you act towards outsiders, make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (NIV)”. In addition to citing Scripture, Keller added to his reasoning, “It is a form of witness that culture can handle. We should desire to have more Christians in these spaces and give them grace as they operate. Please do not make the error: if you cite person X at all you must answer for everything person X ever said or did. That’s not fair, I am merely saying, ‘This is a winsome way to answer this question that we should desire to emulate.’”

While we can perceive the logic of Keller’s position, his elevation of Colbert as a model Christian in the public square for others to emulate is concerning at best and seems a moment of profound lack of judgement at worst. Colbert’s entire career has been built on humor and speech that are antithetical to Christian values and clear biblical commands that tell us to use our speech to honor others and glorify God.

Colbert often mocks Christians and conservatives. Perhaps most egregiously in recent memory, he made a profanely crude homosexual joke in 2017 regarding President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which resulted in an investigation of Colbert by the Federal Communications Commission. In addition, Colbert also compared a certain group of Trump supporters to the “Taliban,” the militant Islamic regime known for its brutal treatment of women and its ongoing persecution of Christians and other religious minority groups in Afghanistan. While comedians are often given a pass when making crude and vulgar jokes, that doesn’t mean those jokes are in any way consistent with the teachings of the Christian faith. Christians should correct, not commend, ungodly utterances. 

This also isn’t the first time Keller has seemingly tried to appeal to those outside the church in vague, Gospel-void language or broad religious overtures. Last August, Keller promoted the concept of “interfaith spaces” after he congratulated an outspoken atheist for being elected to serve as the president of Harvard’s chaplain group.

Keller stated on social media at the time, “Congratulations, Greg, on your appointment. Greg is a friend whom I have debated and while I don’t agree with him on many things, I do wish him well.” In an op-ed on “Christianity Today“, Keller defended his support of Epstein, arguing that Christians need to learn to “adopt interfaith spaces, model evangelicals (should) emulate rather than condemn.”

Sadly, in the twilight of his career, Keller’s approach to evangelistic Christianity seems to be increasingly seeker-sensitive at best and borderline postmodern at worst as he appears to try and appeal to the interests and intellects of the secular world.

Contrary to Keller, the Apostle Paul was very clear when he challenged this approach in Galatians 1:10, ESV: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Furthermore, James 4:4 reminds us that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” While no one considers Keller to be an enemy of God, of course, but his disposition and third-way-ism often reveals a tendency towards unnecessary cultural compromise and contextualization rather than the simple, bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Keller’s seeming desire to promote a culturally relevant form of Christianity ultimately undermines its effectiveness by allowing his platform to give undeserving credibility to individuals whose values have more in common with those who want to destroy the Gospel by secularizing the message and society than with Christ. Furthermore, this comes at a time when more and more pastors lack the boldness and conviction needed to rebuke trendy contextualized theological messaging that is not Scriptural but is deceptive to many.

Christian leaders ought to follow the example of Pastor John McArthur of Grace Community Church rather than cultural figures like Colbert, the former having never allowed any challenge to keep him from fulfilling his calling to boldly spread the Gospel without fear — even when Los Angeles County shut down worship services over COVID restrictions. Furthermore, MacArthur ended up winning in court, receiving an $800,000 settlement from both the state of California and Los Angeles County when government officials were found to have violated the congregation’s constitutional right to religious liberty.

Courage, not compromise, is the path forward that Christians need to take when it comes to looking for examples of individuals in the public square to emulate.

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