Tim Keller, the PCA pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, likely needs no introduction. Though he has his critics (myself among them), he is generally the darling of evangelical gate keepers, New Calvinists, and PCA church planters. His reputation is that of an apologist who persuades skeptical New Yorkers to give Christianity another chance. Add to that his inspirational exhortation for evangelicals to revitalize the city (read New York City — if Keller were talking about or ministering from Chicago, I doubt he’d be all that in demand).
So impressive has Keller been that even Princeton Theological Seminary has invited him to give the annual Kuyper Lecture and award him its prize of Reformed theology and public life. The oldest mainline (for some read liberal) Presbyterian seminary is bestowing its blessing on what used to be regarded as a sectarian fundamentalist, that is, someone who left the Protestant mainline for a conservative denomination.
But this is where it gets dicey. Keller’s communion, the PCA, does not ordain women, nor does it recognize sexual orientation rights. Over these matters Keller could face the kind of reception that Charles Murray recently did at Middlebury College:
I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.). My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings…. This is a giant lecture with a giant whoop-de-doo factor. There’s a place for common ground, but unless Rev. Dr. Tim Keller is prepared to argue for the ordination of all the women students of Princeton Theological Seminary, the The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is not that place in my opinion.
That reaction to Keller’s planned visit prompted this statement from Princeton’s president:
Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.
The seminary has many student organizations and several theological centers that bring speakers to campus. While my office issues the official invitations to campus, I don’t practice censorship over the choices of these organizations, even when I or the seminary disagree with some of the convictions of these speakers. It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.
Instead of making the difference that Keller’s fans think, this impending controversy could indicate that rather than being a church for the Big Apple, Keller should have been thinking about culture more the way Rod Dreher has in his proposal for the Benedict Option. Damon Linker’s recent estimate of Dreher is one that could well come in handy if the students at Princeton turn their back on Pastor Keller:
Dreher’s concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren’t delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements. That has inspired many religious conservatives (and a few liberals, like myself) to demand new laws to strengthen the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, specifically to clarify that the “free exercise” clause is not limited to what takes place within the walls of a church.
Dreher doubts that such efforts will succeed. Gay rights activists, the Democratic Party, the media, universities, big business — all of them are arrayed on the other side.
But what if the efforts did work? What if Dreher and other conservative Christians could know that they would not be forced to bake cakes or provide other services for same-sex weddings, that religious colleges would not be forced to permit same-sex cohabitation, and that employees would not be fired or otherwise penalized for holding traditional views about sexuality? Would that render the Benedict Option unnecessary?
I doubt Dreher would think so — because Christians would still find themselves living in a country in which a range of authorities within civil society constantly convey the message that same-sex marriage is good and opposing it is bigotry, in which pornography is ubiquitous, and in which gender is increasingly treated as a human construct entirely disconnected from nature, marriage, procreation, and a divinely authored order of things.
Has Tim Keller prepared his followers for the situation in which conservative Christians now find themselves? Heck, has he prepared himself for the landmines of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. at Princeton Seminary?