A Critique Of Tim Keller’s Comments About Homosexuality

In full disclosure, the video I’m about to link occurred many years ago.  I believe it was 2008.  But in that video we have Tim Keller being interviewed by David Eisenbach.  In the noted section, Keller is asked a question about homosexuality.

Now what is concerning to me is not only his answer, but the apparent influence it has had on some people in my circle of acquaintance.  I’ve heard some parrot Keller on this point.  Naturally, this had led to a discussion.

In what is to follow, I’ve pasted a letter I’ve sent to one such friend.  It details my thoughts about Tim Keller’s response.  Given the importance of maintaining anonymity, I’ve changed some details and the name and have left out certain parts.

One more matter.  Tim Keller’s view of homosexuality is not in question.  He does not approve of homosexuality.  This is plain from several sources.  But if I could direct readers to merely one, I would point to his review of Matthew Vines’ book here.

With that said, here is the video.  After that, my letter.

 

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James,

After reflecting on the matter of Tim Keller’s answer to Professor Eisenbach further, having listened carefully to the video again, I am very concerned. There is a real and palpable problem. It is objectively problematic. And I’d like to explain why that is so.

The reason I want to talk about this further before Sunday night is because of the seriousness of the issue. This is one of the key issues facing the church. The kingdom of darkness is pressing hard on this matter, and many in the church are capitulating or outright denying the Lordship of Christ.

It is for this reason that I want, so far as it is possible, to be on the same page with you. I absolutely love getting together with the guys and talking shop. It is a huge highlight of the month for me! And I love talking with you about these things! You’re a friend and a brother in Christ whom I already care deeply about.

So if I may, let me share some further thoughts.

(1) Tim Keller did not speak truthfully.

One of the central problems with Keller’s response is that it isn’t factually correct. He says things that are patently false. And while he might be excused for making small factual errors, he errs significantly, speaking falsely about issues central to gospel truth.

What do I have in mind?

Consider the following quotes:

Keller said, “You don’t go to Hell for being a homosexual.”

When asked if committing homosexual acts will get you to go to Hell, Keller shot back, “Noooo. Wait a minute. Wait, wait.”

Keller said, “No, no. First of all, heterosexuality does not get you to heaven. I happen to know this. So, how in the world could homosexuality send you to Hell?

Keller said, “The fact of the matter is…the Bible is much harder on greed/materialism. It’s a horrible sin, terrible sin. Will greed send you to Hell? No! What sends you to Hell is self-righteousness – thinking that you can be your own savior and lord.”

Keller, “But what most Christians mean when they say that and certainly what non-Christians think they hear when they hear that is ‘If you’re gay, you are going to Hell for being gay’. It’s just not true. Absolutely not true.”

Keller, “Being gay doesn’t send you to hell and sin doesn’t send you to Hell like that. The sin underneath the sin is, ‘I am my own savior and my lord’.”

Keller, “We want people to do things that are good for human flourishing. But that’s not what sends you to heaven or Hell.”

Saying greed isn’t a sin that will send you to hell (or homosexuality, or failing to promote human flourishing) is simply false. Paul isn’t afraid to say that homosexuality is a sin that will keep someone from inheriting the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9ff). Jesus also said these words,

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (Rev 22:14-15)

Listen again to the Judge,

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfar. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)
God is painfully plain. Sin is judged. People are sent to hell for their sins. And rather than being sent to hell for nebulous, unnamed sins, or merely unbelief, they are named.

The simple truth about sin is this:

1) Any and all sin is worthy of the judgment of hell.
2) Homosexuality is a sin.
3) Therefore, homosexuality is a sin worthy of the judgment of hell (see also James 2:8-11).

So when Pastor Keller says over and over again that homosexuality is not a sin that will send a person to hell, he is ostensibly wrong. Painfully wrong. And it doesn’t matter what he was trying to accomplish by supposedly highlighting the underlying problems of sin, namely, self-righteousness. We cannot redefine sin or speak falsely about sin as we communicate underlying sin issues. We cannot minimize sinful activities while trying to emphasize heart issues. We cannot speak falsely about the wages of sin. Period.

As an aside, it is also misleading to say that the Bible is “much harder on greed/materialism.” I have no idea where he is getting this. Greed and materialism are terrible sins. But they are terrible sins like any other sins.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. Robert Gagnon, one of the leading Evangelical scholars on homosexuality, who said this about Keller’s response:

“Much of the response had the feel of a dodge and some of what Rev. Keller said is so misleading as to come under the rubric of misinformation. This isn’t justified even when one is in “seeker-friendly” mode.” The quote can be found here: http://www.robgagnon.net/TimKellerHomosexuality.htm

(2) By soft-peddling sin Keller undermined the Gospel.

One of the things you emphasized, James, was that Keller was aiming straight for the Gospel. The problem is that even here Keller fell short. How so? By soft-peddling the seriousness of sin, and in particular homosexuality, Keller didn’t really mention repentance, let alone emphasize it.

Remember how we were talking about Acts 17? Note Paul’s/the apostles’ approach throughout the book of Acts. They continually emphasized the need to believe and repent. Paul was careful to tell people what they needed to turn from.

Consider the following:

1) Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized… (Acts 2:38)

2) “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out…” (Acts 3:19)

3) Importantly, in the first recording of Paul’s efforts among the Gentiles, Luke records Paul as saying, “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the Living God…” (Acts 14:16).

4) Even in the case of the Philippian jailer who heard a very simple Gospel invitation nevertheless heard more. Notice the next verse, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in the house.” Clearly, Paul wanted to fill out the message. Part of that no doubt included the Lordship of Christ and what that entails.

5) Paul said this to the philosophers, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone- an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” Paul directly confronted their idolatry, calling them to repent.

6) Note what Paul emphasized with Felix, “As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave…” (Acts 24:25).

7) God described Paul’s ministry in the following terms, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17-18)

8) Here is how Paul understood it, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”

More could certainly be highlighted. But the point should be plain. Following Christ is just that- following Christ. It requires repentance. Turning away from sin and idols.

It is, therefore, not at all helpful for Keller to de-emphasize the dire consequences of homosexuality. He was talking to a man who has written a book sympathizing with gays in America (in an unrighteous way). Recall David’s opening words, “I wrote a book about the gay rights movement because I was appalled by the oppression and the discrimination against homosexuals in my America.”

David Eisenbach is not like the woman at the well. He is a vocal opponent. This means that he needs to understand, if he is going to really understand the Gospel, what the Lordship of Christ entails. He needs to understand that he needs to repent- to turn, or change his mind. He needs to bow the knee. Granted, one need not club him with it, but when the man asks a very simple question, it is our responsibility to give an honest, straightforward answer. We can give a tactful answer. But it needs to be both clear and truthful. Keller dodged and weaved. And he spoke falsely. The man was clearly confused by what Keller was saying. Shoot, I’m confused by it. Only after reading slowly through the transcript and examining other things Keller has said (for several hour now) do I think I know what he was attempting to do… and even then I find it objectionable.

(3) Keller down-played both the underlying issues of homosexuality and sin in general.

Keller couched the badness of homosexuality in human flourishing terms. While this is true on one level, it comes across as trying to say the least objectionable thing possible, so as to not offend his listeners. Again, tact is a good thing. And we should contextualize issues to some degree. But this is a clear case of soft-peddling. Keller was overly concerned about not sounding a certain way. And it made him compromise.

Paul does not say homosexuality is a failure to obtain God’s best. Nor is it simply a failure of achieving maximum flourishing. Homosexuality is the result of a fallen nature. As a result, we pervert God’s goodness. The autonomous man says to himself, “I am my own God. I determine what is right and good. And how dare anyone tell me otherwise.” That is what is going on with homosexuality. They are men born with a sinful nature that is corrupt. And as such, they (and we) harbor (are even born with) perverse desires. But instead of seeing such desires as perverse, and looking to God for forgiveness and deliverance, they excuse it and seek to justify it. In so doing, they suppress the truth in unrighteousness and further darken their thinking (Rom 1:21). So the problem isn’t merely self-righteousness, as true as that might be. The problem is autonomy. The problem is enmity. Unbelief. Hatred of God. Pride. Depravity. Lawlessness.

But instead of saying anything like that, Keller couched the whole thing in an ultra safe half-truth.

(4) In conclusion, as a minister of the Gospel, Keller failed in this instance.

In an attempt to get his audience to hear more than simply, “Gays go to hell,” Keller tried to frame the matter in terms that would move them to think about heart issues. But in so doing, he failed to “set apart Christ as Lord” as he gave a reason for the hope that is in him. This led to redefinition, falsehood, and a lack of clarity. I don’t presume to know his motives, but he came across as unwilling to say anything offensive, which is painful to witness in our current cultural climate. This is easily one of the key gospel issues of our day. The church needs men and women who will speak lovingly, but plainly and truthfully. We can’t soft-peddle here.

So to be honest, James, it worries me when you see this response from Keller as a 7 out of 10. I don’t think we should view Keller, in this instance, as a model to be emulated. And it concerns me when I hear people quoting Keller verbatim.

Here’s a quote from Spurgeon that I find helpful,

Your friend in Christ,

Austin

“I know of no surer way of a people’s perishing than by being led by one who does not speak out straight, and honestly denounce evil. If the minister halts between two opinions, do you wonder that the congregation is undecided? If the preacher trims and twists to please all parties, can you expect his people to be honest? If I wink at your inconsistencies will you not soon be hardened in them?

Like priest, like people. A cowardly preacher suits hardened sinners. Those who are afraid to rebuke sin, or to probe the conscience, will have much to answer for. May God save you from being led into the ditch by a blind guide.
And yet is not a mingle-mangle of Christ and Belial the common religion of the day? Is not worldly piety, or pious worldliness, the current religion of England? They live among godly people, and God chastens them, and they therefore fear him, but not enough to give their hearts to him. They seek out a trimming teacher who is not too precise and plain-spoken, and they settle down comfortably to a mongrel faith, half truth, half error, and a mongrel worship half dead form, and half orthodoxy.

God have mercy upon men, and bring them out from the world; for he will not have a compound of world and grace. “Come ye out from among them,” saith he, “be ye separate: touch not the unclean thing.” “If God be God, serve him: if Baal be God, serve him.” There can be no alliance between the two. Jehovah and Baal can never be friends. “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” “No man can serve two masters.” All attempts at compromise or comprehensiveness in matters of truth and purity are founded on falsehood, and falsehood is all that can come of them. May God save us from such hateful doublemindedness.”

2 Comments

  1. Thad January 4, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    Excellent analysis. I see Joel Osteen in these replies.
    “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (KJV)
    “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (ESV)
    “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” (NLT)
    Osteen also ‘snaked’ around the same subject with people like Larry King; in the end he agreed that he WOULD attend a homosexual wedding – hence giving his blessing. Keller is in the same camp, despite the claims that he doesn’t support homosexuality – at least in some of his writings. This isn’t the first time that this type of discussion or presentation has ‘graced’ Keller’s lips.
    As James 1:8 makes clear, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (KJV)
    “Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (NLT)
    “he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (ESV)
    “A man unsettled in his opinions is unstable in all his ways.” (WBT)
    “a two-souled man is unstable in all his ways.” (YLT

  2. Nick January 4, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

    I have to agree with your assesment Keller caved to that situation. I think he tried to go a little too deep before just addressing the surface issue of it as a sin. I understand where he was going but he was painted into a corner and wasnt given the abiblity to set up a sermon to clearly state his views, thats why he’s a pastor who preaches and not an apologist who debates. It is a reoccuring message at his church that everyone suffers from a much deeper sin than the surface sin or behavior. I agree, with him there, ultimately we all want to be our own god, (little “g” emphasized.) I think he tried to help the issue of years of church bigotry by not treating homosexuality as any different sin than another and shouldnt be something that is worthy of shunning or discrimination. I think he tried to make the assertion or maybe suggestion that having same sex attraction is grounds for dismissal to hell versus going to hell for acting on those urges . The tough part of churches today is that there has been much damage done today towards many people groups who have been shunned from churches for having certain struggles, something the church should never do given that the person is repentant, something keller didnt address. I think there are a lot of caveats in which there should be room for grace and others grounds for dismissal but all are based off of the individuals repentance. Keller never had a chance to rightly defend his position in full. It seems today there is a divide among churches where speaking truth in love comes only in two forms, 1) truth, 2) love. Very few have been able to speak Truth in Love. It seems to be one or the other. The church has caved in that respect for fear of being portrayed as bigotted is something that cannot be done. The LGBT which by population makes up only 2-4% (roughly) has taken its stand and won its battles simply because it wont bow to the culture and has spent years investing its time into changing public opinion, the church could learn a thing or two from that merit alone by looking to the early church who would rather face death than bow to anything or anyone other than Christ. Nice critique, I wouldnt be too hard on Keller, I imagine no one kicks himiself more than he does for some of his mistakes.

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