Recently I was killing time by skipping around various blogs and reading. When I’m really tired, burnt-out, or bored, I turn to a perverted habit: reading the comments on blog posts. Most comments aren’t worth reading. Most comments are either “Thanks for that great post!” or some rambling attempt to refute the post. The really interesting ones – at least, interesting in some perverse sense – are when the discussion gets heated. (The more heated the discussion, the better the insults, but the worse the logic.)
On one blog, I read the (unrelated) comment:
Tim Keller is, admittedly, a little weak on homosexuality, but when pressed on it, he admits it’s a sin.
Other people agreed somewhat, but most people seemed to think that Tim Keller being “a little weak on homosexuality” was enough to raise questions about whether Keller is being a faithful gospel preacher. Was he, as some accused, avoiding Biblical truths in order to gain (or keep) popularity?
What Does It Mean That He’s “Weak”?
Some of you have probably heard a similar comment made about Tim Keller or other preachers. Perhaps the commenter is correct. But the comment struck me as odd. Let me explain.
On the one hand, the person is admitting that Tim Keller not only thinks, but will say in public, that homosexuality is a sin. I myself have heard sermons and interviews where Keller will identify homosexuality as a sin. (There is an infamous interview with Keller that, due to his response to a question about homosexuality, led to many people making claims like the comment I quoted above. But even in that interview, Keller says that homosexuality is a sin.)
On the other hand, the person who wrote that comment says that Keller is “weak” on homosexuality. What does he mean by “weak?” Obviously, he does not mean that Keller doesn’t think homosexuality is a sin. Keller will admit that it is a sin.
So what does it mean that Keller is “weak” on homosexuality?
Perhaps this guy means Keller won’t speak directly against homosexuality. But he does, at least in some situations. Again, I’ve heard talks, sermons, and interviews with Keller where he will say that homosexuality is a sin. That’s as direct as you can get.
Evangelicals, Bluntness, and Bravado
So what did the commenter mean when he said that Keller is “a little weak on homosexuality”? I think that the key is in my italicized phrase in the last paragraph. At least in some situations. Many evangelicals get upset when Keller stammers when asked about homosexuality. Or when he qualifies his answer a lot.
There is among some Christian groups a certain amount of bravado. And it isn’t just the harmless bravado like a bunch of college guys in the weight room might have. It is bravado that says that if a person does not state the truths bluntly, then they must be ashamed of the truth. Perhaps the person who is not bluntly condemning homosexuality does not, deep in the recesses of his heart, care more about the truth than receiving the respect of the crowds.
Of course, Jesus and the apostles were courageous in the face of persecution. Even when threatened, they were not shy about stating the truths of Christianity.
But this doesn’t prove that preachers should always state the truth bluntly and with no qualifications. After all, I’m sure the Pharisees criticized Jesus by saying that he did not condemn the tax collectors and prostitutes bluntly enough. (“If he told them the truth,” I can imagine them saying to one another, “the prostitutes and the tax collectors wouldn’t want to spend a second longer with him. So clearly he’s not speaking the truth to them.”)
And Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in Acts 17 is an amazing speech, but he does seem to meet the philosophers where they are and begin explaining the truth to them. There’s no mention of the Bible. He doesn’t directly tell the pagans that they are going to suffer for eternity. As brave as he was, he was not the minister version of Rambo in Acts 17.
And Naaman, in 2 Kings 5, was not told to rebuke his king boldly instead of taking the king into the temple of a false God. He was told, “Go in peace.” He would still be a witness to Yahweh, but that didn’t require maximum bluntness.
Evangelicals need to be careful about demanding extreme bravado in every situation. Sometimes it is necessary to be blunt. Sometimes it is better to present the truth carefully, so that you do not contribute to others further misunderstanding the faith.
Reasons to Speak Carefully
And, since we are talking about Tim Keller and homosexuality, I can think of a few reasons he might have for not speaking bluntly about homosexuality when being interviewed in front of a crowd of non-Christians:
1. He wants to state the truth about Biblical sexuality in a way that won’t cause people to refuse to listen to what he has to say. If he were to speak bluntly, some people who had never heard a case for Biblical sexuality would not listen. I could understand being blunt if they had heard the Bible’s case for heterosexuality but simply didn’t want to listen.
But many non-Christians think the Christian position is hopelessly muddled. “The Bible,” they think, “forbids eating pork, commands the stoning rebellious kids, forces raped women to marry the men who raped them, condones slavery, and supports polygamy. So why are you going to single out the commands against homosexuals?”
People who make these claims need to hear a coherent viewpoint on Biblical revelation and Biblical sexuality. If your tone and approach makes them tune you out, you’ll never have a chance to replace their mischaracterizations about God and our faith.
2. He wants to distance himself from the Westboro Baptist “Christians.” As much as we want to ignore it, we have to understand that our language and actions do not get their meaning from our intentions. The meaning comes from a mixture of our culture, history, social understanding, etc.
Imagine I stood up in my church and announced, “From this day forward, whenever I drop the F-bomb, I mean ‘I love you.’ I don’t want anyone to get offended, because I don’t mean that word to be offensive. Whatever other people mean by it doesn’t matter when I use it. I mean it as an expression of love.”
People would still be right to be offended at my use of the F-bomb.
Likewise, many people in our post-Christian country think that whenever Christians speak out against homosexuality, what we are really saying is, “All gay people should be despised, oppressed, and denied basic human rights.”
As much as possible, we need to try communicate certain Christian truths in a way that won’t be pigeonholed into caricatures of the Christian faith. If we haven’t made that attempt, then we haven’t tried to communicate with people who have been indoctrinated against the Christian faith. And, in some contexts, bluntly condemning homosexuals to hell would cause the listeners to associate the speaker with the likes of Westboro Baptist Church. And we need to avoid that.
3. He wants to make sure that, in expressing the Biblical truth that homosexuality is a sin, he does not communicate a false message about the Bible’s teachings on salvation. When non-Christians hear Christians talk about Christian ethical beliefs, they often think that the Christian position is that if you are good enough (that is, follow these ethical principles) then you’ll make it to heaven. So when non-Christians hear that homosexuality is a sin, while heterosexuality is not a sin, it is easy for them to think that a heterosexual will go to heaven because they are heterosexual. In other words, it’s easy for them to think that salvation is by works. But it’s not.
In the interview with Tim Keller that many evangelicals became incensed about, it is clear that a reason he was speaking carefully was to avoid making people think that you can earn your way into heaven by living a certain way. Ministers have to be careful that their talk of Christian ethics does not imply that we are saved by works. For example, imagine being asked the following question in front of a roomful of college guys: “So if a guy struggles with a porn addiction, he is going to hell, right?” Most ministers in a room full of college guys would qualify their answers as much as Keller did when faced with a room full of non-Christians.
You don’t want your listeners to think that salvation is by works, not by the grace of Christ. That is reason enough to speak carefully in front of a Christian crowd, much less a crowd largely ignorant of Christian teachings.
4. His brother. Tim Keller’s brother died of AIDS after living as a homosexual for many years. He returned to the faith toward the end of his life, but Keller has said that this experience has taught him to address homosexuality with more sympathy. Maybe it’s hard for him to speak with venom against homosexuality as other preachers do. I’ve noticed that people who minister to drug addicts rarely speak against drug addiction with the same venom that other ministers do. Why? Because they understand the struggle with drugs, and they’ve learned how to communicate God’s love and truth to drug addicts more effectively. Speaking carefully and sympathetically to a drug addict doesn’t mean you’re condoning addiction. It just means that you know how to minister to addicts more effectively.
Perhaps Keller’s approach to homosexuality has been shaped, not by trying to appease the crowds, but by ministering to his brother.
We need to be careful what we demand of each other. Let’s celebrate a minister who communicates the Biblical message in an environment more hostile to Christianity than most ministers could imagine. Let’s not disrespect him or tear him down simply because he doesn’t speak the truth in the manner we demand. Down that way lies destruction, not success.