Saturday, May 25, 2013

Critique of the Center Church by Tim Keller [Part Two]


The premise of the book Center Church is that the church should be balanced. Keller has three areas he addresses where the church should strive to find a balance, which form the structure of the entire book: the Gospel, The City and Movements. The three subjects are placed on axes with two extremes on each side that need to be avoided and then he challenges us to find the church somewhere near the center where there is balance. Thus a "centered church."

The balance on the three axes, and in fact the visual summary of the book, are as follows:

Legalism/                                          Relativsim/

Underadapted/                                          Overadapted/
only challenge-----------City------------only appreciate

Structured organization/                                            Fluid organism/
tradition & authority---------Movement---------cooperation & unity

What I found most troubling about Center Church by Keller is his first category–his axis on the gospel. Who in their right mind would challenge Keller theologically on the subject of the Gospel? Well, in this case I will at least make an observation.

Frankly, I have a problem with positioning the gospel as a balance between religious “legalism” and “relativistic irreligion.” The gospel does not belong in such a place as though it is finding the balance between enough bass and treble with your spiritual equalizer.

Yes, the gospel should be at the center of all we think and do, and Keller is right on target in what he says about this. I whole heartedly agree with that premise, but the Gospel is not a balance between legalism and licentiousness; in fact the Gospel is an extreme in and of itself. You cannot get more extreme than the substitutionary atonement found delivered in Jesus’ sacrifice. Salvation by grace through faith is not a balanced compromise in any sense of the word. It is called “the stumbling block of the cross” for a reason and is not a balanced approach between self-righteous works and reckless abandonment to sin. The Gospel is not partly legalism and partly licentiousness. It is none of the above, it contains none of the above, and you cannot find the Gospel by balancing the two. The Gospel is the defeat of sin, whether that sin is legalism or lawlessness.
Dr. Keller knows this. In fact he states as much in a footnote where he says, “putting the gospel between these two extremes is simply a visual shorthand.” Keller says, “The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion, but something else entirely—a third way of relating to God through grace. Because of this, we minister in a uniquely balanced way that avoids the errors of either extreme and faithfully communicates the sharpness of the gospel.”

So I know he understands this, why then would he even posture the gospel on such an axis? Personally, I am a visual learner and that is why this jumped out at me so much. If one reads the book and pays no attention to the diagrams I do not think there would be as much problem. Perhaps that explains why there seems to be nearly 100% positive reviews of the book.

I contend, however, that this “visual shorthand” gives the reader polluted non-verbal signals that can be confusing and can also lead to some very unhealthy reactions. While much of what is said in the book is fantastic, one cannot escape the fact that the entire design of Center Church is built around the premise that we are to find a balance between the extremes on the axes that are presented. This is not a minor mistake; it is the predominant theme of the book, both its title and structure are built entirely on this very premise. For that reason I am very uncomfortable with this “visual shorthand”.

There is much value in the book and I do recommend it. If you are a missionary this book can help you to work through how to redeem the image of God in a culture while also remaining countercultural with the life-transforming Gospel. If you are a pastor but not a missionary you should read this book and start being a pastor and a missionary. Personally, I found the center section of Center Church to be most helpful.

It is just unfortunate that the book is organized with a “visual shorthand” that places the Gospel precariously between two doctrinal heresies. There is none better than Keller at communicating to a highly educated, secular audience the goodness of the Gospel, and he will help you think this through in Center Church. I just wish he didn’t put the gospel between legalism and relativism. The Gospel should be presented in many more places in this world, but not there.


Anonymous said...

Balanced sounds like lukewarm.

Neil Cole said...

It may sound "lukewarm" to you, but I assure you, Dr Keller is not, nor is he promoting such. That, is exactly why I suggest that the way he postures the gospel in such a way runs the risk of misunderstanding!

Robmcd said...

I understand the point you make as far as it is not a balance between the two but yet the two are also two misinterpretations that are opposite from each other that I believe Keller is communicatin. Perhaps concentrice circles or something similar would be a better visual.

Neil Cole said...

Yes, I try to say that I know Keller doesn't view the gospel this way, I'm simply questioning communicating it this way. I would likely see concentric circles just as bad if it implies in anyway that one leads to the other.

Texas Anonymous said...


Great work! I've never seen such a clean way to disagree with someone s statements while still honoring them.

Neil Cole said...

Thnx. I am sincere in my respect for Keller. He is a great thinker and statesman for the church.

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil --

Thanks for your review and I am grateful for critiques by people I respect!

You should be sure to see the footnote no 11 (at the end of the introduction--p.26) where I say that the gospel is not a balance between two opposites as in the other two axes-balances. It is a "visual shorthand".

Tim Keller

Neil Cole said...


Thanks for popping in. And thanks for your influence.

I did read the footnote and mention it above. I know you don't think the gospel is a balance between the extremes. I say as much in the review.


Gary Reinecke said...

I appreciate the way you introduced the topic and found Dr. Keller's response to your critique helpful. You bring out an interesting point Neil. I am curious to see if you believe the continuum between the two extremes, religious “legalism” and “relativistic irreligion", might be fairly represented with "truth" at one end and "grace" at the other - as it relates to the gospel?

Neil Cole said...

Hey Gary! Actually, before I edited down the critique (yeah can you imagine the length?), I mentioned that as a possibility and how Jesus was full of grace and full of truth...but NOT half grace and the other half truth. So even such a scales still incomplete and a msrepresentation.

Neil Cole said...

I'm familiar with Nebel's scale for grace-givers and truth-tellers, Gary, but when we speak if the Gispel itself it cannot be a compromise of the two. It is all grace and all truth, and doesn't consist of just some truth and some grace.

Missional Coach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Cole said...

Could be Gary. Actually I just think the whole model of a continuum doesn't do the gospel justice, which was really my issue with Tim's "visual shorthand". There is no chance of almost being the gospel, or being mostly the gospel. I know Tim agrees, I just think this is the problem w/ putting the Gispel in such an axis. I have one more post for the review which will be posted tomorrow morning where I actually specify where I disagree theologically with Tim and not just take issue with semantics (1st two posts). I've been in Asia and w/out much break this past week so my final critique is coming late.

Gary Reinecke said...

I agree Neil. Makes me wonder if Grace and Truth are at the same end of the continuum and Secularism at the other end. Curious to read your thoughts.

Tim (not Keller) said...

For a fixed visual shorthand, what would you think of a triangle with Gospel on the top vertex, and irreligion, and religion on the bottom vertexes. Showing that both are missing the gospel on opposite sides but the way towards the gospel is repenting from both and moving towards the gospel not balancing irreligion or religion?

Also I get why you say the gospel is not a balance but I've read Keller's paper on the centrality of the gospel and he shows some issues to be a balance for example religious people would tend to see sex as gross and dirty, irreligious people would tend to see sex as a god and the gospel would propel us to see it as a gift. Would it be appropriate to look at that issue as a balance, or would you disagree with looking at issues that way as well?

Carlos said...

Hi Neil,

I am new to your blog bit your post here was as music to my ears!

I am sick, SICK of Sunday emphasizing, pastor centric (as opposed to Christ centered and expressed through the Body), pastor personality churches. So much so that I have no choice but to try and start meeting at a local McDonalds with other, non-aligned believers in the hope that the Lord will mold us into the kind if fellowship He meant for us to have.

Thanks again for posting.


PS. This blog has a severe problem in allowing posts through an iPhone 3GS. Won't let me sign in using Wordpress and stops letting me enter characters. Let me know if you want help ironing those problems out - I'd be happy to help.