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Can I Get a Witness?: A Response to Tim Keller

November 14th, 2022 | 8 min read

By Kirsten Sanders

In his recent essay, Tim Keller has entered his bit in a persistent dialogue regarding how Christians should speak in public. The players in this dialogue, including James Wood, Aaron Renn, and Simon Kennedy, are working to sort out how Christians should speak outside the church. At odds is not sermonic form or structure, but what it should sound like when Christians are called to “give an answer” (1 Peter 3:5).

Keep in mind that the content of the answer is, for the most part, not up for debate. “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), they all say. But the authors of this piece are not so sure.

Keller has settled on an account of “persuasion” as the form Christian speech should take in the negative world. Though we are no more satisfied with Wood’s account of a more confrontational approach, Keller’s account of persuasion falls flat in the negative world. Indeed at the heart of persuasion, what should be called apologetics, is a functional agreement between the speaker and the audience. Rhetoric has long been studied as an art, a means not of strict coercion but of moving the hearer one step towards the goods that the speaker offers. Successful persuasion, using the art of rhetoric, will achieve the ends of the hearer agreeing with the speaker’s argument.

Apologetics in the form of persuasion is an assumed good with today’s Christians acting as Paul behaved with the Corinthians:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

The argument, as Keller frames it, is between “seeker-sensitive” approaches, which seek to win the listener through an argument that is behovely and winsome, and the “just tell the truth” approach, which doesn’t bother to put lipstick on a pig but “just state[s] the unvarnished truth.”

Keller enters his own strategy into the “public speech” conversation. His theology of public engagement is characterized by affection, resolution, and persuasion. One must be calm, kind, confident, and most of all, strategically persuasive. In Keller’s words, in regard to the stated concern of traditional sexual norms, the Christian must problematize a simple view of Christian belief as offensive or causing harm. Keller suggests that the speaker might raise the fact that a majority of the world’s Muslims also hold what could be called a “traditional sexual ethic.” (Putting aside for the moment that a Muslim sexual ethic also entails beliefs regarding female sexuality that Christians would hopefully find abhorrent).

To Keller, raising this question “uses secular persons’ own cultural narrative (that of diversity and the value of racial minorities) against them.” One point for the Christian side. Keller gives a version of the statement he would have offered, were he given the opportunity to give public witness to his position on sexuality:

The fact is, David, that everyone has a set of moral standards by which they include some and exclude others. No one is completely inclusive..…and yes, Christians like everyone else lay down moral principles for people. We believe they fit in with how God created us and so they will help us thrive. And some people disagree with those rules and principles — but we do not kick them out and tell them they are abominable. We include them in loving community and walk with them as long as they wish us to. We believe that fits in with how Jesus lived and died forgiving those who opposed him.

Persuasion, for Keller, is the goal that both seeker-sensitive and “just tell the truth” confrontational types have missed. Keller seems to see persuasion as the chief end of Christian public speech. But more so at the heart of Keller’s project is a kind of apologetics (what in other places he calls Christian high theory). This is where the goals of the world are actually goals that can only be found and completed in the gospel.

We think that Christians need to continually ask themselves: persuasion to what end? And is persuasion in fact a chief Christian good, or does it undercut the distinctiveness of Christian belief?

In all ages and all times Christians have been bound first of all to their witness. Now certainly this took the form of outward persuasion. Paul in Mars Hill is a great example of this. But often their persuasion was of an ethical or moral kind, and it functioned primarily internally. People were known as Christians because of their distinctive practices, to which they were on occasion called to account for.

But the practices did not exist for the sake of this public account. The public witness, and the potential it might have to persuade others for this means of life, was only incidental. Further, there is certainly a difference between Paul speaking apologetically before the time that Christianity was well established, and Christians seeking to do so after. Put another way, a post-Christian apologetics would certainly look different from a pre-Christian one.

That Christians were primarily known as a people with distinctive practices does not mean they were a more moral people. Of all the traps for modern people, this idea is perhaps a primary one. Being a Christian does not and never has meant, primarily, being a “better person.” It means seeing a better country, and trying to situate your life so that one day you fit there. It is preparing yourself for a different country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11).

Now wedding one’s allegiance to a better country will necessarily yield distinctive practices: charity, almsgiving, forgiveness, repentance, and sexual fidelity among them. But these practices cannot be reduced to “what Christianity is.”

The temptation of Keller’s approach is to cede his point, “he’s just citing the Bible on this.” Certainly such a view on persuasion is one way to read the biblical text. But there are other biblical accounts, too, where Israel encountered a changed world and needed to learn how to live there. Israel in Babylon wasn’t doing a whole lot of cultural exegesis or persuasion. They were learning how to pray while they longed for home.

This is perhaps what Christians today are most at risk of getting wrong. A desire for “relevance” or “value” often seeks to cash out practices that are distinctively Christian and offer them to the culture: See what good neighbors we are! Don’t you see how much we have contributed to the betterment of the neighborhood?

And yet practices should not be severed from witness in this way. To do so is to weaken the Christian call from a whole person to a simple practice. Further, and most dangerously, it is to abstract practices from the worship from which they rightly relate.

If there is one concern that arises from this view of “persuasion”, it is that it requires a common ground on which to speak to cultured despisers (to borrow a Kierkegaardian phrase). Of course language is shared, and concepts are as well. But to persuade a nonbeliever of the goods of Christianity requires that we speak about things that are in fact “goods” to secular man.

And is marital fidelity a good? Is promise keeping? Is forgiveness, and charity? Self-sacrifice and dying to self? All of these principles are quickly diminished in today’s world. Marital fidelity is a drag on the pleasure of polyamory, promise keeping is an onerous burden of care for an individual who has been difficult, forgiveness is possibly weaponized or required in situations where it cannot be reciprocated, charity is so often a colonial response to human need that perhaps unjust structures have created.

No! The secular world will grant none of these Christian values as unimpeachable goods. Persuasion in such a context is likely to fall on deaf ears, at best. The best it can hope to do is win secular man to see Christians as not as bad as he’d thought. At worst, it will thin the distinctiveness of Christian witness to “odd things Christians do.” We must instead speak of a different kingdom.

What is our option then? Witnessing to a different world, another kingdom. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

Christians are often tempted, particularly in this time called modern, to say more than we know. We are so tempted because we fear we do not believe what we say we believe. So we try to assure ourselves that we believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained. As a result we end up saying more than we know because what we believe—or better, what we do—cannot be explained but only shown. The word we have been given for such a showing is “witness.”

Were we on Australian television, asked to give an account for our church’s retrograde practices, we do understand the pressure to be persuasive while doing so. But we remain more concerned that our witness speaks of a different kingdom than that it speaks of a culturally coherent one. “Yes, our church believes many hard to imagine things; forgiveness, turning the other cheek, fidelity and covenant keeping, too. We believe these things because we think this world does not tell the truth. We believe in another kingdom, a heavenly one, where our lives witness to a crucified Lamb.”

What often becomes clear in Keller’s speech and examples is how the church might be able to come alongside the world and narrate its hopes towards a completion in the gospel. Here lies the temptation to think the world just needs to be explained, that what they really believe is what we believe when what we believe is properly explained. There was a time when the church could get away with coming alongside the world, but that time has long passed. It is no longer simply that ‘they want the kingdom without the King.’ It is that the kingdom they want is a thin, malformed view of self-help that misunderstands what a person is, trading finite goods for infinite ones.

We would push Keller and all those seeking to “persuade” to remember that their primary goal as Christians is to bear witness, not to persuade.

To give a biblical example of such an account:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[e] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (Hebrews 11:32-40).

Christians may well be called to give an account for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:5). But that account should seek primarily to be a witness to a different kingdom, a heavenly one. In this way we are not pointing to ourselves but continually to the reign of the one who is to come. This is the One with whom we have to do, before whom all speech is properly witness.

These ideas were worked out in conversation with Matt Shedden, but Kirsten Sanders was the primary author of this essay.

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Kirsten Sanders

Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is a writer and theologian. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.