Last weekend, New York pastor and author, Timothy Keller, died. Since then, many people have been paying their respects and expressing gratitude for Tim’s life. This has included secular obituaries including In the New York Times. However, as I indicated in my own reflections, there was a significant number of people who found controversy in Keller’s writing and preaching. There were those on the cultural right who weren’t happy that he didn’t join in their particular crusades and that he talked about things like racial and social justice. They would accuse him of being liberal, of promoting a social gospel. Of course, those on the liberal end of the scale new that Tim wasn’t one of them. He held firmly to the unique and exclusive centrality of Christ, his death and resurrection, to the Gospel. Keller was orthodox in beliefs and conservative in terms of morality. So, he was frequently criticised from that side too.
If there was been something of a widespread outpouring of grief, then, there has also been a continuation of that criticism, especially on social media. Now, it is probably worth saying that in my opinion, we should not be prevented from engaging thoughtfully with the views and actions of others, just because they are recently deceased. There is of course something in terms of proper decorum but it should not lead to hagiography. Tim Keller was not perfect and did not get everything right. He would have been the first to point this out. Furthermore, whilst some have found some of the comments, especially by Twitter trolls distressing, remember that Tim Keller is likely pretty much unbothered by what Twitter trolls are saying about him now.
One comment stood out for me as worthy of a little bit more response. The author claims to have a PHD and to be a pastor, you would hope that he had better things to do with his time than trolling but here is what he said:
I wanted to respond to it because this is a classic example of the kind of thing people say to sound spiritual when in fact, they are just being mean spirited and talking nonsense. First of all, if you are going to criticise someone, then speak straight, don’t hide behind passive aggressive insinuations. Secondly, think carefully about what you are claiming. Make sure you are speaking the truth.
Is it really true that being eulogised by Babylon is a sign of failure where Babylon represents this world? The implication is of course that if the World around us, which is opposed to Christ, thinks well of us then we must have somehow compromised with it.
Well, Biblically, we discover that the Egyptians joined in mourning Jacob when he died (Genesis 50:3). No doubt, they would have mourned Joseph too when he died. Daniel literally went to Babylon, was appointed to a leading role by the king and rose to third in the kingdom. He held similar prominence in Persia. Esther became a beloved queen, Nehemiah held the respect of the King and so was able to request permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. If all of these people carried respect in their lives then you would expect them to be eulogised and mourned on their deaths. Importantly, they carried this love and respect without compromising their faith in the one true and living God.
However, Moore focuses in particularly on Jesus. We cannot expect more than he did can we? Well, at the crucifixion, where Pilate as the representative of that day’s Babylon had recognised that Jesus was without guilt, another representative of “Babylon”, the Roman centurion looked on as he died and declared “Surely this was the/a son of God.” That sounds like quite the eulogy to me.
The point is this. No, we are not meant to compromise with the World and when this world sees us challenging its idolatry and sin, then it will hate us, just as it hated Jesus. However, at the same time, we are witnessing to the world around us as we live in it and people should be seeing something of the goodness of God in our lives. Peter says that we should live good and honourable lives so that the pagans will be prompted to glorify God because they recognise our good deeds.
Now, most of us will not have the platform that Tim Keller had and so we won’t be getting obituaries in the press, nor will we around to see what people say about us after we die but there is, I think an application to pastors right now. The application is very simple, yes be hated for preaching the Gospel but let the Cross be the only offensive thing about you and your ministry. People should react strongly to that. However, at the same time as you engage winsomely in your community and love the people, then I would expect you to be known in that community. You should have a good reputation, you should be someone that people will instinctively turn to. When its time to move on then people shouldn’t be breathing a sigh of relief that you are going because you should have had a positive impact among your neighbours.
Most of all though, I want to say this. First, that we should not care whether people consider our ministry a success or a failure. Plenty of ministries have been judged failures. Our identity in Christ is not based on success or failure. It’s worth remembering too that Keller encouraged us to move away from such worldly categories as success/failure and think instead about fruitfulness. But what really counts is not what people are saying, even those who set themselves up as the policemen and the church. What will really matter will be what Christ says of me on the day when I see him face to face.