Thursday, June 6, 2013

Critique of the Center Church by Tim Keller [Part 3]

In my previous two posts reviewing Center Church by Keller I was actually critiquing the way his thoughts were framed or communicated. The criticism had more to do with semantics than doctrine. Overall I stressed that I agree with him on most all of his thinking, and in fact recommend the book for many good reasons. In this post, however, I will discuss where we differ theologically, and I believe the difference (while a narrow slice) is substantial when talking about church life and movements. I believe that much of what Keller establishes in the first section of the book about being gospel centered he passively dismantles in the third section when he discusses the need for institutionalism in churches. In this post I will demonstrate how I come to see this.

Now in this critique I am actually hoping to expose an inconsistency that is prevalent in the Church, not just in Keller’s book. I am using Keller’s book because he is a respected theologian and his book seems to boldly reveal this inconsistency, though to date, none have mentioned it in reviews that I have found. I hope all understand that I do greatly respect Tim Keller and his ministry.

First a point of reference: Keller is from a Reformed tradition of the church. My spiritual roots, while influenced by reformed doctrine, are more Anabaptist Brethren. Keller is creedal in his faith and puts much more authority in tradition than I (being non-creedal). So we both have different lenses by which we view things as we strive to search the Scriptures for a Biblical understanding of church and that likely serves to explain our differences. 

Is Institutionalism Biblical?

As I read Center Church it is in our views of institutionalism that we differ most, which should not be a surprise to any who read our books. While Keller is clear that a church should err on the side of being organic rather than institutional, he still feels that a church needs institutionalism in order to be healthy and alive. He states: “Churches are and must be institutions.” (p. 344)

Now in my reading of Center Church, the only reason presented to embrace institutionalism as a church is for sustainability and longevity. This is a common defense for more structured institutionalization of the church and its fruit…clergy. Dangerous fruit is oft born on the branch of self-preservation in Christendom. Our roots are either in the gospel of Jesus–granting us life–or in our own efforts, but never both. I contend that if it is our organization and structure that keeps us alive we are dead already. Our faith is either placed in Christ (our life) or in our own organizational mechanism, but we cannot have two masters.

The only biblical support I found for institutionalism presented by Keller is simply the appointing of elders and deacons. In his mind this alone establishes a top-down, authoritative structure for the sustained practices of the church, namely: preaching of the word, baptism, communion and discipline (which he also sees as the marks of a true church). Does the recognition of elders necessitate hierarchical authority and institutionalization? I do not see it that way, and would ask, “Is it possible to have elders and deacons and not have a hierarchical structure? Do elders necessitate institution?” Of course one’s understanding of these roles will influence your view on these questions, but suffice it to say–it is possible to recognize leaders who have spiritual authority but do not hold authoritative positions or offices in a hierarchical chain of command within an institution. Jesus had authority but no office or position in contrast to those who held position in the religious institution (Matt. 7:29).

In Keller's view elders are necessary to preach the word, baptize, serve communion and conduct discipline (p. 314). I would argue that nowhere in the New Testament are these functions delegated only to elders and in fact the Bible seems to clearly grant these functions to all God's people. I would challenge Keller to connect those practices with an elder’s responsibility in the New Testament, and not simply in the ministerial handbook.

  • Jesus did not say, “If a brother sins go and tell the elders.” All of us are responsible for the discipline within the church. Every brother and sister is responsible to restore their spiritual siblings.
  • Baptism is in the heart of the Great Commission, which all are to fulfill. Jesus didn't command us to be baptized, he commanded us to be baptizers. Paul even stated to the Corinthians that he was glad he only baptized a few of them. It is important to note that when Paul arrived in Corinth he was alone without his apostolic band (Luke was in Philippi, Timothy in Thessalonica and Silas in Berea). If he was the only mature leader present, who did the baptizing? The only conclusion you can make is that newly baptized believers were baptizing others. 
  • Communion is something we are all to do, often, in remembrance of Christ. 

There is not a single verse that connects any of these practices solely to elders. So to build an entire ecclesiology on zero Biblical support is quite dangerous indeed.

Institutionalism vs Gospel

In defending institutionalism in the church Keller states: “Institutions promote stable patterns of behavior through rules and policies that change slowly, thereby limiting and shaping people's choices and practices. ...this is a healthy thing.” (p. 338) Quoting Hugh Heclo in defining an institution he says, “Institutions represent inheritances of valued purposes with attendant rules and moral obligations.” (p. 338) He goes on to say, “Institutions rely on submission to an established authority that preserves the values and purpose of the past. Institutions are necessary and helpful, providing established, reliable systems and frames for accomplishing what needs to be done.” (p. 338)

I suggest that this is contradictory to Keller's view that the Gospel should be the center of the church in every way. It seems to me that people doing what the institution says is right by utilizing rules, traditions and practices (vested with hierarchical authority) in order to gain correct behavioral obligation from congregants is the opposite of a gospel-driven church. Keller states that, “the glue that holds the institution together is really rules, regulations and procedures.” (p. 339) It seems to me that we have a choice of having the love produced by the gospel that sets captives free as our glue or rules regulations and procedures enforced by authoritative leaders...but not both. To me, this is a radical inconsistency in Keller’s theology, but it is one that is prevalent in the church at large, so he is not alone.

If indeed the Gospel is the center of the church in how it relates to God, one another and the world (as Keller argues in the first section of the book–and I firmly believe), than the result is love. Love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). Love is the heart of the New Covenant driven from internal motivation, not from external pressure (2 Cor. 3:1-18). It is the only motivation that is true and acceptable (1 Cor. 13:1-13). Love is the glue for a church, not rules and obligation. Behavior that is generated by conformity to rules and procedures enforced by leaders who are over them is the opposite of a gospel-centered church. Rules, traditions and procedures established by tradition and leaders vested with authority will not, and cannot, produce love. Only the Gospel can produce real love. A church held together by less than love should probably embrace dissolution rather than continue to perpetuate a loveless religion. My question is: can the gospel (and resulting love) be enough to sustain a church, a people and a movement? I believe it is and I am willing to bet everything that it is enough. In fact, if love is not enough, than I would rather jettison Christianity than continue to live under the rule of religion held together under the name of Christ but without the power of the Gospel transforming people from within.

You cannot be motivated as a people by the Gospel and by rules at the same time. Galatians is harsh, clear and compelling in arguing this very truth. I suggest that if you accommodate rule driven obligation as a motivation, by necessity you are choosing to not be gospel motivated.

Many suggest that without institutionalism a church lacks any chance of sustainability or longevity. My question is this: do we want something that lacks life and love to be sustained? I would rather a church die than remain by using pressure from authoritative leaders to keep them behaving properly by obligation. I actually believe that Keller's devotion to the Gospel and his devotion to church tradition are at odds and, in my opinion, irreconcilable.

Perhaps some think that a church would have a mixture of some with gospel-motivated love and others that are as yet still motivated by institutional means. That is likely true. Then one may surmise that given time, those without gospel motivated love would catch on and start being motivated correctly. Perhaps, but it is not the institution that will produce such love. As long as you choose the wrong means to incite love you will never get the true fruit. You cannot get an apple from a lemon tree. There are better ways to infect people with the Gospel than the expensive and never satisfied institutional approach. In fact, some can argue that the institution does as much to turn people away from the Gospel as it does to hold them until the Gospel has its desired affect.

There is an inconsistency in Keller’s ecclesiology. He uses strong language about how the gospel is to be our motivation, but then is left defending institutionalization to motivate by other means. He claims that all Christians are priests and to be practitioners of discipline, but then argues that we need elders to exercise discipline. It appears to me that this tension is born from his devotion to two masters: the gospel and his church tradition, and I do not see reconciliation for these two forces at anytime in the future. 

Now Keller truly preaches, teaches and lives out the Gospel. His church does consistently follow Gospel values and most churches would be better off learning from Redeemer Pres' example in NYC. There just seems to be a limiting factor to their Gospel centered ecclesia and that limit is the walls of institutionalism. We all live with inconsistencies that we do not realize are there. That is the fallen nature of mankind and none of us are immune. All this said, I actually do recommend this book. The first two sections are outstanding and the chapters on contextualization are well worth the price of the book.