I have three major concerns with Tim Keller’s Center Church (CC):
- CC and contextualization (which I wrote about here)
- CC and common grace (which I wrote about here)
- CC and the church
Today I want to address this third issue: how Center Church presents the church, and then end with an appeal aimed at pastors who are embracing CC as a guide to their methodology.
CC and the Church:
The Church is the body of Christ composed of repentant believers in the gospel. Those in the church have separated themselves from the perverse generation of the culture around them and devote themselves to the life of the church and the apostles teaching (Acts 2:38-42). The composition of the church reflects the gospel’s work in the lives of sinners. When a professing Christian lives like the world in unrepentance, they are to be disciplined out of the church (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20; Jn. 20:23; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Th. 3:14-15; Tit. 3:9-11). The biblical aims of church discipline are, 1) restoration of a sinning brother (Mt. 18:15b; 2 Cor. 2:5-11), 2) protection of other believers (1 Cor. 5:6-11), and 3) protection of the gospel manifested to the world by the lives of individuals in the church (Acts 5:13-14, after Ananias and Sapphira in vv. 1-11; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Pet. 2:11-12). These goals are undermined if the church includes nonbelievers in makeup, let alone allows their participation in visible, up-front ministry.
Who Belongs to the Church? Christians or Nonbelievers?
CC articulates the need for the church to embrace the contributions of unbelievers in the corporate gathering as a means of continuing to attract other outsiders. Of course Keller affirms that evangelism is not to be discarded, but it isn’t enough. Let me begin by quoting Keller at length:
To reach this growing post-Christendom society in the West will obviously take more than what we ordinarily call an evangelistic church; it will take a missional church. This church’s worship is missional in that it makes sense to nonbelievers in that culture, even while it challenges and shapes Christians with the gospel. Its people are missional in that they are so outwardly focused, so involved in addressing the needs of the local community, that the church is well-known for its compassion. The members of a missional church also know how to contextualize the gospel, carefully challenging yet also appealing to the baseline cultural narratives of the society around them. Finally, because of the attractiveness of its people’s character and lives, a missional church will always have some outsiders who are drawn into its community to incubate and explore the Christian faith in its midst.
So the idea that ‘to be missional is to be evangelistic’ is too narrow. A missional church is not less than an evangelistic church, but it is more. (265)
In the CC perspective, the church must also take its cues from what it learns from the unbelievers. Keller writes:
And if incarnational can be defined as a church that listens to its community to learn what its needs are, speaks and interacts with its community with respect, equips and sends its people out to love and serve—then all missional churches should be incarnational. (265, italics his)
According to Keller, the church must take its directives from nonbelievers as to its approach. What is more, it must also include them in most of the church’s ministry! Notice the inclusive terminology in the following quotes:
A missional church must be, in a sense, ‘porous.’ That is, it should expect nonbelievers, inquirers, and seekers to be involved in most aspects of the church’s life and ministry—in worship, small and midsize groups, and service projects in the neighborhood. (274)
The church must itself be contextualized and should expect nonbelievers, inquirers, and seekers to be involved in most aspects of the church’s life and ministry. (274)
The power of good art draws people [unbelievers/outsiders] to behold it. (305)
Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come… For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will play a major role in drawing them in. (305)
In other words, Keller believers that as unbelievers contribute, serve and add flavor to the art, music, and social ministries, outsiders are drawn into the church due to the excellent aesthetics. CC is calling for the focus of the corporate gathering to be turned away from the in-depth teaching of the Word and Christian edification toward attracting those who don’t love the truth. The Bible is clear—those who make up the church are saints, called by God for holiness and blamelessness, so that they will manifest the difference between the saving grace of God and man’s natural enslavement to sin Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:12; Tit. 2:10-14; 1 Pet. 1:13-21).
To begin to erase the distinction between believer and unbeliever has crucial implications for the clarity of the gospel manifested in the lives of that congregation. Keller’s focus on “evangelistic worship” (307) depreciates the priority of doctrinal teaching, regardless of the offense. In a section titled, ‘WHAT ABOUT DEEPER, MEATIER TEACHING?’, Keller writes:
But why should we spend a lot of time preaching about these distinctives [‘deeper, meatier types of teaching,’ ‘logical distinctives,’ and ‘how the church’s view of certain doctrinal issues differs from that of other churches and denominations’] when many people present in the service do not believe in (or live as if they do not believe in) the authority of the Bible or the deity of Christ? (307)
Keller answers his own question on the following page:
So our counsel to people asking the questions [such as ‘Why don’t we go deeper in the Word?’] is, ‘Go deeper and learn the details and distinctions in classes, small groups, and in individual relationships with pastors and other Christians’ (the lay ministry dynamic at work). (308)
According to CC philosophy, the pastors are responsible to engineer the attraction and pander to the unbelieving constituency of the ‘church’ from the pulpit, while the lay people raise the congregation’s biblical discernment throughout the week. This is the very opposite of God’s purpose for giving the church pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11-13. Besides, the lay people who are faithfully ministering in their occupations and families will only be able to equip at the level to which they are equipped or trained by their own pastors. Eventually, lay people will live at the level of their leadership. They won’t equip anyone at a deeper level than the pragmatic methods practiced by their pastors. This approach cuts the legs out from under the true equipping of the saints. The whole counsel of God is not taught. Since it is profitable for souls, the true saints in the church are ultimately the losers in this approach.
Finally, this methodology for the church introduces confusion about the definition of Christian community. Keller begins chapter 24, “Connecting People to One Another,” with these words: “The gospel creates community” (311). But, Keller defines community as more than a fellowship or sharing in the person of Christ and the benefits of His cross work. For Keller, “Community is one of the main ways we do outreach and discipleship, and even experience communion with God” (311). Keller says that community needs to be understood in a union that transcends ‘fellowship’ and embodies a counterculture. For example, notice how Keller’s horizontal union that embraces those whose sexual patterns differ from us:
As we have often seen in this volume, to be faithful and effective, the church must go beyond ‘fellowship’ to embody a counterculture, giving the world an opportunity to see people united in love who could never have been brought together otherwise, and showing the world how sex, money, and power can be used in life-giving ways…
Sex. We avoid both secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life patterns are different from ours. (311-312)
Keller’s words are shocking when we consider that he said them in the context of defining Christian community. This is confusing for many reasons, but let me mention two: 1) Regarding love, Christians must love those with different sexual lifestyles. But what does that love look like? Biblical love sacrificially serves and speaks the truth of the gospel. For a Christian to hate an immoral person would be wicked and self-righteousness. Keller, on the other hand, believes that we are united together in community in spite of different sexual patterns. But how would this be a demonstration of biblical Christian love? Indeed, instead of showing them their greatest need—to repent and receive the pardon that Christ purchased—I would actually be affirming them in their sin. This is the most unloving thing I could do as a Christian.
2) Regarding unity and community, embracing alternative sexual conduct is not merely going “beyond ‘fellowship’” as Keller says. On the contrary, it destroys the biblical definition of fellowship. True unity exists because of the gospel. The unity Keller talks about is a disguise for the tolerance of destructive sexual conduct. There are times when Keller’s discussion of unity tracks along biblical lines. He goes on to talk about unity in spite of economic and racial differences. This is absolutely biblical. Our church rejoices at seeing the gospel bring a young, black, ex-Muslim into fellowship with a white, middle-aged father of four from the Bible belt—all because of a profound and shared love for Jesus Christ and His grace!
However, to speak of unity as tolerating alternative sexual life patterns as equal with unity in spite of racial, economic, or age distinctions is contradictory to Scripture. Any sexual ethic condemned by Scripture is a sin for which Christ suffered. Christ didn’t die on the cross to save us from our financial status or ethnicity. Therefore, redefining who makes up the church has massive and dangerous implications for the gospel.
Who is Responsible for the Cultural Mandate? The Church Organized or Organic?
For a book devoted to ecclesiology, one of CC’s greatest weaknesses was its inconsistency about the church’s mission. While Keller affirms that there is a cultural mandate, the million dollar ecclesiological question is whether the cultural mandate belongs to the church organized (the corporate, gathered body) or organic (the individuals who make up the church as they scatter into the world). How does Keller answer the question? It depends on which page you read. For example, from the following quotes Keller teaches that the cultural mandate is exclusively the function of individual Christians as they live godly lives in the work place, school, and neighborhood:
…it is important to remind ourselves of the critical distinction between the ‘church institutional’ and the ‘church organic.’ Abraham Kuyper taught that the church institutional was the gathered church, organized under its officers and ministers. It is called to do ‘Word and sacrament’—to preach the gospel, baptize, and make disciples. This he distinguished from the church organic, referring to all Christians living in the world who have been discipled and equipped to bring the gospel to bear on all of life. (240-41)
…it is best to think of the organized church’s primary function as evangelizing and equipping people to be disciples and then sending the ‘organic church’—Christians at work in the world—to engage culture, do justice, and restore God’s shalom. In many expositions of the missional church, this distinction virtually disappears. (268)
So we hold that the institutional church should give priority to Word ministry, but we also teach that Christians must do both word and deed ministry in the world—and the church should equip them to do so. (324-25)
On the other hand, there are other paragraphs where Keller records that the institutional church has a theological obligation to meet the social mandate and fulfill mercy ministries.
…engaging on all of these fronts [evangelism, church growth, church planting, fellowship, community, the poor, social justice, culture, and the arts] is required by the nature of the gospel… What’s more, engaging on all these fronts is required by the nature of our culture. … It is only as we do all of these ministries at once that any of them will be most effective. Success on any one front depends on success in the other fronts of ministry. (291)
…effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, “We cannot do without churches like this. This church is channeling so much value into our community that if it were to leave the neighborhood, we would have to raise taxes.” (305)
But even if we agree these are all essential pursuits for Christians (and they are!), we have not yet answered the question of how the institutional church should be involved. For both theological and practical reasons, I believe the local church should concentrate on the first level of assistance (relief) and to some degree the second (development). At the second and third levels, in the domains of community development, social reform, and addressing social structures, I think it is generally best for believers to work through associations and organizations rather than directly through the local church. (326)
Keller answers the cultural mandate question with his feet, it seems, firmly planted in mid-air. Some portions affirm that this is the responsibility of “the Church organic,” while others answer, “the Church organized.” Therefore, it does seem strange that a book written fundamentally about ecclesiology would waffle so severely on such a fundamental question.
Almost 200 years ago, James Bannerman astutely observed the dangers of elevating the church to the level of a surrogate Christ in his absence (The Church of Christ,1:87). The Roman Catholic Church views the church as a surrogate Savior and Head, distributing out pardon for money and works. The social gospel views church as a surrogate King, reversing the curse, and making the world a better place to live. Let’s be honest—it is just as insulting to Christ for the church to imagine it can forgive sins without the Savior’s merit as it is for the church to imagine it can reverse the curse on creation without the King’s presence. Yet Christ didn’t ask us to reverse the curse, set the creation free, or cause times of refreshing. Only He can do that. He has asked us to testify and witness to the resurrection until He returns.
I believe it is time to get back to the missio Dei as given to the church by Jesus in Acts 1. While the kingdom was a legitimate concern to both Jesus and the disciples, Jesus told them that the establishment of the kingdom to Israel (shalom, social justice, eradication of the curse as a man, Jesus Christ, finally shows dominion over a cursed creation—cf. Acts 3:19-21) wasn’t now—“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7). Instead, the immanent missio Dei for the church was one of testimony, witnessing, declaring in the power of the Spirit that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead until He returns the way he left (vv. 5, 8, 11). Our job is not to pretend that we have the power to reverse the curse—Christ will do that when He returns and brings times of refreshing to earth. We have no right to squander the mandate to testify and proclaim the gospel with supposed illusion of doing kingdom work of the temporal variety now (cf: Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:3-11).
Is it no wonder that Christ never commanded the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, or welfare societies in Jerusalem or Rome? How ashamed would the church be if Christ returned and established His kingdom while were we distracted from the only mission God gave the church? How doubly embarrassing when He reverses the curse on creation and shows our attempts to do kingdom work to be nothing more than what the world can do through philanthropy and government aid. Let us proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
A Plea to Church Leaders
I’m very concerned about the future of the church in America. There is more at stake for the body of Christ than losing popularity. If we follow CC methodology, we go down a path that empties the gospel of divine power. We cannot package the divine message of the gospel in the man-made methodology of a culturally savvy appeal. When we adapt the message to make the gospel attractive, the gospel is diluted and the fruit is superficial. Moreover, Keller’s model allows for us to take credit for the fruit and become enticed by the lure of power and popularity. The gamble of Keller’s contextualization risks power for popularity. In this wager, the gospel always loses.
It is my trust in the very words of Scripture that compels me to write this evaluation. This is no personal attack—I’m sure that Tim Keller is equally convinced of the biblical nature of his position in the same way I am. Many of you have no doubt benefitted from Timothy Keller in other areas. However, I am asking you to consider the biblical merit of the philosophy found in Center Church and weigh it against the face value meaning of the words Scripture. I’m convinced that this approach won’t stand up to 1 Cor. 1-3. If the church sows this seed it will reap the same factions and weakness that Corinth suffered. I’m grieved at the view of common grace which goes beyond Scripture and contradicts its use in Romans 1-2. I’m burdened at the eclipsing of the missio Dei as defined in Acts and the epistles. On every spectrum pertaining to the church, the gospel, and the world, I am convinced that the Biblical side of the spectrum is better than Keller’s compromising “center.” Only Christ, the true Head of the church, can give us balance and keep us centered.
Don’t be ashamed of Christ or His words so that the believers in your care might enjoy every spiritual benefit for their souls.