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On the PCA’s ‘Tim Keller Problem’

September 13th, 2017 | 12 min read

By Jake Meador

Last week Erick Erickson spoke up about a topic that many of my friends have also noticed and been concerned about for some time:

In a denomination with few rockstars and even fewer mega-churches, there are a lot of young and middle aged pastors who want to be Tim Keller. They want to do what he does. They want the large church industrial complex. They want the book deals. They want to go on TV. They’ve metrosexualed themselves, put on skinny jeans and ugly glasses, and fired up power point presentations on stage at church.

But Tim Keller is Tim Keller and imitation may be flattery, but way too many of these young pastors in the PCA have misunderstood Keller’s ministry. As one of my friends describes it, they have started preaching the culture to the church instead of preaching the church to the culture. To draw in crowds and be liked in their communities, they have started ignoring Biblical doctrine that non-believers find offensive. In failing to teach their congregations and guide their congregations with a whole health approach, they’ve selectively taught and are failing to help their congregations deal with a world increasingly hostile to Christian values, particularly the Christian sexual ethic.

Erickson is certainly describing a real problem in the PCA. Without naming names, I think most people with experience in the denomination will recognize what Erickson is describing. I’m not able to say what percentage of people this refers to, but it’s a large enough percentage that someone as prominent as Erickson felt the need to raise the issue and it is a large enough percentage that I can feel confident most people who know the PCA will know pastors like this.

Keller is not the problem.

That said, attributing this problem to “Kelleritis” or “Kellerism,” (another common term and one I have used myself in the past) seems wrong-headed for a few reasons.

First, as Erickson himself notes, there are few people who would be quicker to condemn the sort of spinelessness that Erickson is condemning than Keller. Moreover, though many evangelicals don’t appreciate this because they are not familiar with the scene in New York, Keller is, if anything, a model of courage given his forthright proclamation of the Gospel in a place like Manhattan. What many evangelicals see as him being timid or slow-playing the biblical teachings on sexuality is really just him being sensible about his context and recognizing that, while persuasion on these topics is obviously possible, it is very difficult. The rest of America is not like Manhattan so we should not necessarily embrace his particular approach elsewhere, but in New York his approach to these questions is faithful, sensible, and even courageous. If you don’t understand this point I can only assume you haven’t spent much time speaking to actual New Yorkers.

Second, one of my friends is fond of saying that pupils are almost never as good as their masters. Occasionally it will happen—Augustine exceeded Ambrose as a theologian and so too did Calvin with Bucer. But it’s not normal. Indeed, the reason the master becomes the master is often precisely because they are not normal in their skill set, capacity, talent, or wisdom.

So it isn’t fair to assign blame to a teacher when students do not live up to his standard, particularly in a case like this one where the “teacher” had virtually no personal contact with most of the students and has instead simply attracted a crowd of admirers via publications.

Indeed, if anything I think we should commend Keller for his stewarding of his position at Redeemer. They were very selective in what sermons they made freely available online, he waited a long time to start writing books, and he has put a far greater emphasis on church planting in NYC rather than simply growing his brand as a celebrity pastor. Given what has happened to Mark Driscoll and now Darrin Patrick, we should be profoundly grateful for men like Keller (and John Piper) who manage to be in the spotlight for so long and to do so with relatively little scandal.

So what is the problem in the younger PCA?

It’s not surprising that a conservative critic would miss this, but a more class-based analysis is helpful in assessing the problem.

One of the weird quirks of American Presbyterianism is that we have always existed in a suspended state between Episcopalianism and the Baptist churches. And much of our history is about our struggle to handle that position well, sometimes pulling more toward the hierarchical, upper-class Episcopalians and sometimes veering toward the more congregational, working-class Baptists. My friend Miles Smith wrote a paper on this dynamic in 19th century Presbyterianism which you can read in For Law and for Liberty which shows how old this problem actually is.

This question was near the heart of the PCA’s founding, as Sean Michael Lucas explained in his history of the denomination.1 At our founding, the PCA did not want to be an evangelical denomination. Evangelical was a nicer word for fundamentalistic Baptists and non-denominational Christians. Rather, the PCA, which, perhaps tellingly, was first called the National Presbyterian Church, aspired to be an orthodox continuation of the mainline tradition.

What we are seeing in the younger Presbyterians is simply this generation’s version of the pull toward Episcopalianism.

These days, of course, Episcopalianism does not simply mean snooty, upper-class, and hierarchical. It also includes a deeply progressive orientation that is suspicious of any sort of unchosen identity or any social norms that would constrain individual self-expression. Where this becomes especially complicated, of course, is that there are genuinely unjust social norms which constrain individual liberty, particularly as it concerns issues of race. Moreover, for a variety of reasons, the debate about gender and LGBT has been closely tied to the debate about race for some time, such that support for traditional understandings of sexuality is often conflated with support for racial segregation or other forms of institutional racism.

What this means is that young Presbyterian pastors, many of whom are on university campuses with RUF or working in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, face enormous class-based pressure to conform to certain progressive cultural norms. These pressures make themselves felt in a variety of ways.

First, there is a strong and classic American pull toward being dismissive of the past, toward what is established, and to embrace what is new. This temptation exerts an even stronger pull than normal on many young PCA pastors because many younger pastors and RUF guys have strong entrepreneurial tendencies. While this is often a very good thing—indeed, it’s what makes it possible for them to succeed as church planters and RUF pastors—this same trait can make them naturally inclined to be dismissive toward established norms, policies, and beliefs, especially when they are surrounded by other young people with the same entrepreneurial sensibilities. It is probably not a coincidence, in other words, that the most famous “Kellerite” to go progressive is pastoring in San Francisco, the capital of Silicon Valley.

In addition to the disregard for things that are older, established, etc. there is also strong cultural pressure to embrace a kind of bourgeois bohemian lifestyle—buy a cute house in the gentrifying neighborhood, embrace the careerism, food and exercise regimen, lifestyle trends, and broadly progressive ethos of your neighbors. You can even say you’re just being outreach-focused as you do it. While none of these things are bad in isolation, taken together they’re all steps that involve embracing the norms of a younger bobo sub-culture. And if you’re embracing those norms out of a desire to be liked rather than a pure desire to make the Gospel sensible, it will be disastrous.

But, of course, it is all very complicated: Essentially, these are young pastors being handed different cultural scripts and asked to choose which ones to follow. But these clashing scripts cannot be simplistically labeled “good” and “bad” such that we can tell young pastors to follow the “good” script and avoid the “bad.” It is more complicated than that.

This is similar to the point that Ron Belgau made in his response to Rod Dreher earlier this week: It’s not that we have a legacy PCA script that is unambiguously good that we need to cling to. That script has problems—it’s awful on race issues, for starters. So figuring out the cultural scripts question in the PCA is challenging: The young white bobo script you’re pushed toward culturally and according to class is bad, but then you don’t necessarily have a good alternative script, particularly if you’re trying to plant a church or RUF in a more hostile environment. There simply aren’t good evangelical templates for how to do that because we have for the most part been really bad at it.

In such a situation, the draw toward Keller and the ham-handed attempts to mimic him are quite understandable. What other models do these pastors have? Driscollism? Straight-up progressive Episcopalianism?

Certainly, you can argue that there actually are other models out there—Calvin basically turned Geneva into a booming intellectual hub. Someone like Richard Sibbes was a very successful preacher in Cambridge at the university in the 17th century. Richard Baxter could be helpful in that we know more about his routines as a pastor than any other minister of his era. Bucer and his colleagues in Strasbourg did good and faithful work in a major intellectual, cultural, and scholastic hub. But these examples are all either from radically different cultural contexts, much more obscure, or both.

It isn’t unreasonable that these pastors would look to Keller and, being young and failing to understand their context, fail to mimic him well. But that isn’t Keller’s fault and it isn’t entirely the young pastor’s fault either. It’s a predictable outcome given all the factors I have mentioned already.

This brings us to a second point worth considering: Many of the pastors Erickson has in mind are young and inexperienced. They often have first jobs on university campuses which are particularly difficult places to minister due to the current cultural atmosphere on many campuses. In such a context, it will be extremely easy to be quiet on certain points because you are genuinely (and reasonably!) concerned about losing recognized student organization status, which could in some cases make doing ministry on the campus much more difficult.

Moreover, as an RUF pastor you are often going to be working fairly autonomously. You may or may not office in a church and even if you do office in a church, you may not be in your office that often depending on how far the church is from the campus. You also are not technically part of a session (“session” is the Presbyterian word for “board of elders”), which means you are not part of regular session meetings which draw you into the life of a local church and into closer relationship with other more experienced teaching elders as well as wise, seasoned ruling elders.

Being a young pastor is extremely difficult work. It’s new, it requires a wide skill set, and you’ll feel yourself under a microscope quite often precisely because you are uncertain about how to do all the parts of your job and because you are working so closely with so many people. And, of course, there is the good and right fear that any pastor, old or young, should have given the weight of their calling: Scripture tells us that teachers will be judged more harshly. Being a pastor is a heavy thing.

Third, one of the particular difficulties I have seen in young pastors is a pull toward people-pleasing. I suspect I’ve seen it so much because it’s the natural consequence of these first two points: You’re in this weird denomination that aspires to being the church that can reach secular bobo-types in upwardly mobile neighborhoods but that also aspires to be faithful to theological orthodoxy and even to be theologically evangelical, all the way down to not ordaining women. That is an awkward position to be in from the beginning. And, by the way, we’re going to isolate you such that you won’t have a lot of contact with older ministers. Add to all this the normal pressures of being a young pastor and the pressures of pastoral ministry in general and, well, you end up with pastors who are deeply fearful of offending people. It’s bad, obviously. It does real harm. But it’s not hard to understand how it happens.

In an ideal situation, this pastor would have older mentors helping them to work through that issue. But in the first place many young pastors don’t have that because of either being an RUF pastor or being a solo pastor in a small church. (The average PCA congregation is, if I recall correctly, around 175 people, so in many cases the congregation can only support a single pastor.) Second, quite often older pastors are not eager to provide such mentoring due to how busy they already are or because they simply don’t wish to be involved in such work, which only makes the problem worse as this can lead to younger pastors becoming resentful and even more distrustful toward their elders who they perceive as abandoning them early in the start of a very difficult vocation. Finally, even when you do have older mentors doing that for you, there is no guarantee that they will succeed.


If you have read this far, one question you might be asking is what this lengthy reflection on PCA politics has to do with you, particularly if you’re not in the PCA. The answer is, “actually, quite a lot.”

During times when progressivism is ascendant, as it certainly is in our day, there is a natural temptation amongst conservatives to want to double down on their most strident rhetoric, add purity tests to protect their institutions, and to begin attacking people not only for holding wrong ideas, but for holding ideas which they suspect could lead to wrong ideas (even if they won’t inevitably lead to them).

The effect of all this is that, within the smaller niches of evangelicalism, the Overton Window is shifted hard to the right. One unfortunate consequence of this is that people who are centrists or even just a different kind of conservative and should understand themselves as such suddenly feel themselves to be leftists because that is what some of the conservatives are trying to make them believe. The less careful amongst them will think, “OK, fine I’m a leftist,” and suddenly begin aligning themselves with the people who genuinely are progressive. But we should be clear on this point: Conservatives pushed them there with their own irresponsible rhetoric.

The centrists must resist that move.

When the Overton Window is shifted further to the right then it needs to be, the inevitable result is that valuable allies are alienated and issues which need not be causes for schism suddenly become watersheds in the movement. This is what could happen in the PCA if we are not careful. There is already a great deal of mistrust between the right and left fringes of the denomination, both of which are real and account for some significant portion of the body. My fear is that Erickson’s post is going to embolden the right, causing them to escalate their rhetoric and alienate not only the genuinely progressive people in the denomination, but also the many of us that reside somewhere in the center, resolutely opposed to progressivism but also reluctant to embrace TRism or an odd contemporary version of Carl McIntire’s fundamentalist instincts in order to preserve a faithful Presbyterianism.

The center needs to hold in the denomination.

When irresponsible conservatives run rampant, the truth is lost as quickly as it is when progressives are ascendant. Questions that are rightly the domain of prudence and wisdom become theological litmus tests. Complicated discussions requiring precision and nuance instead become ideological battlegrounds. People who should be ministered to with pastoral compassion are instead treated as enemies. And organizations that rely on trust and affection to function well, as Presbyterianism does, collapse down into bickering and in-fighting, leading to a procedural morass in which the only way anything can ever be accomplished institutionally is through the methods outlined in the Book of Church Order. (The BCO is the procedural rule book for the PCA, basically.)

The PCA is not the only Evangelical institution facing such a reckoning right now. But the center must hold, not because of some misguided attempt to win over long-gone progressives or out of some bland commitment to niceness, but because the excesses of the right can be as dangerous as the excesses of the left. Indeed, anyone with eyes to see should be able to recognize that we are living in a religious landscape that is, in part, the fruit of the right’s excesses of the past 35 years. Because Gospel fidelity matters, because the peace and purity of the church matter, the center must hold.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).