Keller’s Baal Problem
Written by Gabriel Rench on January 4, 2018
Look, I know it’s easy to criticize prominent men. I know it’s easy to point fingers, to blame, to accuse, to read the worst into what people say. I get that. It’s hard to be put on the spot, under the spotlight, and, given that, we really should be willing to overlook infelicities and shortcomings. I also know the warnings of Jesus: the measure with which we measure will be measured back to us. I take that seriously. And at the same time, the Bible says that teachers must be held to a higher standard because they are not only speaking for themselves but influencing and leading many others. And the greater the influence, the greater the risks, the higher the standard.
This is why it needs to be said that Tim Keller has a Baal problem. He isn’t the only one. America has a Baal problem. We have so many high places and so many Baals, we can’t count that high. The American Church has a Baal problem. I have a Baal problem, but I’m trying to quit. So I address Pastor Keller not as though he has some kind of unique blind spot, but rather, I address him as a prominent shepherd in the American church, one that many other shepherds and many more sheep look to for counsel and wisdom, a gifted man, a sincere Christian man. If Pastor Keller could see his Baal problem and change course, he could be used by God to help many other pastors and Christians see their Baal problems too.
So what is this Baal problem I speak of? It is bowing to the moral authority of evil men. The Baals may be environmental gods, sexual gods, economic gods, scientific gods, but their prophets speak and either people give them the time of day or not. People who care what false gods and their false prophets have to say are bowing to the Baals. God never encourages His people to have round table discussions with the false prophets of Baal. He never reminds His people to be sensitive to the felt needs of the Canaanites, given their centuries of Baal worship. No, it’s always: make no friendship with the world, destroy the Baals, tear them down, drive idolatry out of the land. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
So why do I say that Keller has a Baal problem? In Keller’s recent article in The New Yorker, he nonchalantly assumes the utter and manifest insanity of evangelical Christians voting for Donald Trump or Roy Moore. “People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.” Here, Keller simply assumes that Trump and Moore are clearly, obviously, without a doubt immoral people. My concern here is not primarily with that conclusion, but with the standard he’s using to arrive at that conclusion. As it turns out, that particular claim is being foisted down our throats 24/7 by the Media Prophets of Baal. The cries of immorality based on so-called racism, sexism, sexual promiscuity, lies, climate change, and collusion with Russia are entirely hypocritical cries. The same prophets speak to us in quivering tones about the sacred sex of sodomites and the great liberation of men who have castrated themselves and donned dresses and lipstick. Morality? What morality? Baal careth not for morality. The Blind Squirrels of Baal may occasionally and accidentally find a nut, but a Christian teacher has the solemn duty to make it ever so clear that their false god did not show them that truth. Baal doesn’t care about racism, sexism, pedophilia, or Russian collusion. Baal only serves the lusts of flesh, the demands of the now, the tyranny of the mob. To whatever extent Trump or Moore are truly immoral, it is because they have sinned against the God of Heaven, and against His Christ and against His immoveable and everlasting and holy law, and not because they offended a bunch of people, hurt anyone’s feelings, or because they disgusted the cultural elites of New York City. All of this is a very shaky start, but I would be willing to overlook it, had Keller continued with anything that might have resembled biblical fortitude.
What Keller immediately turns to is the authority of a New York Times editorial by Peter Wehner and a vague appeal to “younger believers and Christians of color” who are, Keller claims, abandoning the label “evangelical.” But I want to ask Keller: Who cares what young people and people of color think? Why should we care? As it turns out, I happen to believe that the Bible, the Word of God, does give us some direction on telling the truth, just weights and measures, multiple witnesses, and giving some special care for justice for the weak and marginalized. But the standard for Christians is the Bible. As soon as you start appealing to the New York Times and the “young” and people of “color,” you are appealing to the prophets of Baal. Who taught us that in order to truly be just and equitable, you have to have representatives of different races, different demographics? Who taught us that? Modern multicultural liberalism. Where is that in the Bible? Where in the law of Moses, did God require that the judges of Israel appoint representatives for all of the ethnic minorities, those mixed multitudes that came out of Egypt? Where are they required to have female representatives on their city councils and young people to make sure their interests were not overlooked? Where? Nowhere. The biblical requirement is justice: blind, even-handed justice. This is love for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. The fear of the Lord, love of His law, hatred of covetousness – that is what God requires, those kind of men, wherever they are from, whatever shade of skin, whoever their parents or grandparents were. That is biblical justice. Justice is not concocted from the right mix of special interest groups.
Now, someone may point out that Paul did from time to time quote the poets and/or prophets of the pagans. “… for ‘In him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). Couldn’t Keller merely be appealing to these authorities in order to create a common ground from which to preach the gospel? Yes, absolutely; he could have done that. But he doesn’t. Paul used that appeal in order to tell the Athenians that God cannot be imaged by gold or silver or stone (Acts 17:29) and that He commands everyone everywhere to repent because Jesus has been appointed to judge the world (Acts 17:30-31). Had Keller ended up in a similar place, with a similar claim and a similar appeal, I would gladly allow him ample space to create that common ground. But he never gets there.
And it gets worse: Despite Keller’s attempts to salvage some form of “theological evangelicalism,” affirming the authority of the whole Bible, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and the basic fundamentals of the faith, Keller has already signaled to his audience that his real, fundamental authority is whatever the Baals say. I’ve never met Keller, but I can imagine him and many of his fans (and some of my friends) rolling their eyes at me and shaking their heads slowly – good grief, Sumpter, what are you talking about?! Well, I’m talking about everything I’ve already outlined, but also perhaps the most egregious compromise of all: Despite his attempts to carve out that “little-e evangelicalism” that is defined by orthodox theological beliefs, he is subtly murdering the very movement he claims to want to save. He is doing this by making the distinction between political and theological matters. This “little-e evangelicalism” is not political, he insists, it’s theological. That is the slit in the throat of the evangelical baby on the altar. The prophets of Baal will almost let you say anything you want now. You’ve just ceded the floor, bowed to the Baals, and denied the authority of Christ over all. Now I certainly grant that there is plenty of room to critique the heavily Americanized version of pop evangelicalism that is infected with its own Baals, but you cannot fight Baal with Baal. Baal will always win.
What I mean is the fact that two or three of the biggest “political” issues of our day are also imminently moral and theological issues. The political left has for decades been insisting that abortion, sexual immorality, homosexuality, and sexual perversions of every sort are not moral issues but personal and private issues, and has decried the conservative Christian claim that these have public ramifications. The left has insisted that we are “politicizing” these personal issues. While we, Biblical Christians, have insisted that issues of life and sexual immorality are already inherently political and social issues. What Keller has done is essentially, if somewhat ambiguously, admitted that those are “political issues” that are not as important as our “theological issues.” Whatever Keller meant by the claim, he has communicated that the murder of babies, sodomy, pornography, trans-perversions are “political issues” that are not as important as our theological beliefs. Now I grant that Keller could squirm and still insist that abortion and sodomy are moral issues and that he isn’t backing away from biblical positions on those topics at all, and I would fully assume that’s what he’d say to me or anyone else privately, but when you speak into the microphone in the midst of a culture war, you cannot mumble like this. What you affirmed loud and clear is what the Prophets of Baal have been demanding that we affirm: Trump and Moore are immoral and yay! multiculturalism! You did not challenge their authority. You submitted to the authority of wicked men. The closest Keller got to affirming something unpopular was the passing reference to “multicultural churches” that remain “avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage.” Pastor Keller, with all due respect, you failed to stand with Jesus. You are bowing and scraping and crossing yourself at the altar of multiculturalism, and you did not challenge the Baals at all by referencing that some multicultural churches don’t want to have sex outside of marriage. If you bow at the altar of multiculturalism, you are selling Christianity as just one more ethnic preference, among many. Some tribes paint themselves blue and some prefer to keep their sexual relations in this old fashioned ritual called marriage. And even though I know that Keller doesn’t actually think that, as a teacher and a pastor, he is required by God to see this play being run on him and the American church. As a shepherd of the flock of Jesus, he is required to defend the sheep.
Last thing real quick: Keller is quickly finding himself between two blades that are swiftly closing in on him. This is what fancy theologians and biblical scholars call the scissors (ha, little joke there). On the one hand, Keller has been blessed with an incredible ability to explain theological and biblical motifs in language that is easily accessible and understandable to many. I really mean that. I know for a fact that many of his sermons and books have opened Christianity in an understandable way to many. Some of his writings and talks have helped me. The problem is that Keller seems to think that his audience is mostly made up of reasonable, good-hearted, thinking people just trying to find the truth. But just a couple of weeks ago Keller ran into the buzz saw of this tolerant, benevolent mob when he tweeted: “Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.” And the Twitterverse had convulsions and fainting spells for several hours. Turns out a whole host of the people who are very worked up about Trump and Moore and Evangelicalism are not at all interested in backing away from the “so-called gospel’s” impact on politics. Keller was accused of not caring about racism and bigotry and injustice by emphasizing the immediate goal of forgiveness in Christ. Keller’s own confused responses to the accusations in the thread that followed were curious.
Does Keller really think that the people in the media and at the New Yorker and the New York Times really have no political or moral agenda? Keller is given the time of day because he is useful to their project. So long as he continues calling Christians away from the political sphere – that’s politics after all – and affirms their chief political values of multiculturalism and care for immigrants and refugees and the poor, he can believe whatever he wants in his own head, privately (for now).
So these are the twin blades of the scissors inching closer and closer together: the politics of multiculturalism on the one hand and the insistence that “little e evangelicalism” is not about politics but just theology. You can’t stay there for long. You will either be swallowed by the goddess of multiculturalism and the sexual circus in her pants or else you will be completely marginalized into absolute irrelevancy, a theology that really doesn’t have any political impact at all. I know that Keller would say that evangelical theology has and should have political impact. But, Pastor Keller, the only political topics you touched in that article were the ones the Liberal Prophets of Baal have been instructing us to care about: refugees and immigrants and caring for the poor. God has raised you up and given you a voice before kings in our land. But you must not speak like this. You must speak in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased this world with His precious blood. You must speak according to God’s eternal word. You must challenge their authority. You must call them to repentance for their sins and crimes against our Lord Jesus Christ. Let the prophets of Baal howl and scream. Let them accuse you (and all of us) of being backward hicks and uncivilized brutes. Let them persecute you and us. Let them. For so they did to the prophets who were before us. For so they did to our Savior.
We will all stand before Jesus, and it’s coming faster than we think. And in that moment it will not matter what anyone thought. The opinion of man will not matter. It will only matter what is true, what is right, what is good. It will only matter whether we were pleasing in His sight (Lk. 12:9).