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. 


Anonymous said...

Christian institutions are funny, especially when they explain their logo in the "about" section of their website. Because of course "logos" is an important term from the New Testament.


Anonymous said...

Neil, I always enjoy reading your posts and books. They have stretched my thinking over the years. I have also enjoyed reading Keller, but I have hesitated to read Center Church since it is doubtful I will agree with his ecclesiology (or care to spend time understanding it).

I think I will go ahead and read it on your recommendation... and with some of your comments in mind. Thanks, friend!

Durand said...

"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."

It's an excellent reminder for us as we disciple others to follow Jesus in such a way that others are led to do the same. There's amazing power that comes from being part of a community of people fueled by the power of the Gospel. It's unstoppable.

Durand said...

Just watched this by Andy Stanley. It's relevant to shaping the nature of the church.

If Christianity was a game of "Jesus Says" (like "Simon Says") instead of an invitation to follow, to be with Jesus, to let his kindness lead us to repentance, then we'd need to focus more on believing the right things and doing the right things.

It's difficult (that's being generous) to affect the condition of our hearts by changing behavior, but the condition of our hearts always effects our behavior. That's a work only being in relationship with Jesus can do. Following him.

sean said...

"With 'Institution' comes many games..."

Anonymous said...


A couple of things...

1) I love what you're doing and the influence you're having, it's a very good thing in my opinion
2) I don't want to defend the institution side of church unduly, but I'm not sure I'm ready to burn it down entirely either.

My understanding is that Jesus spoke regularly in temple during His ministry.

And my understanding is that Paul started with the Jews, pretty much everywhere he went.

If that is true, they both utilized the institution of church as a launching ground, even for the new thing God was doing.

Jesus violently defended what He referred to as "his father's house" with whips and righteous anger to return them to the heart of worship... but He didn't suggest they abandon the house entirely.

The biggest problem I have with this kind of thing, is that there is an assumption that the church is broken and we need a radical new approach for the Gospel to be at full strength.

While I do believe there is a tension between the sideways energy institutions bring (and anyone who's been involved with churches more than 5 minutes has seen this or worse)and the vitality and freedom of God's love in pure form... I have to believe that God knows what He's doing.

He's not surprised by where the church has been, where it is now, or where it is going.

To say institutional church = not gospel church at it's heart is very close to saying, "God doesn't know what He's doing and the way He has chosen to direct His work on earth is deeply flawed."

I can't agree with that wholesale.

I don't think that's what you mean and I don't think you would ever say anything like that... but if you're serious about institution always being bad then I don't know where that leaves the church in current expression, all over the world.

Maybe it would be worth a clarification or an expounding of this at some point. I don't think it is your intent to put several billion Christians outside of the circle of love in terms of them being "really" engaged in what God is doing in the earth?

I agree, we HAVE to love God more than we love the stupid building. We HAVE to pursue the expression of Gospel in life in ways that are nimble and that don't get bogged down in layers and layers of process. We HAVE to stay focused on the eternal and not the tool for the moment.

Yet with Keller as a good example... his church isn't a mire of legalism and bad things. Lots of love and lots of light are shining brightly in his ministry and work at Redeemer.

There has been a periodic refreshing of what "church" means over the generations, and that cycle will continue.

I very much want to separate religion from the gospel in some sense... that's been at the heart of every major revival I'm aware of... but I also want to be careful to not throw the existing church away in the process.

Unknown said...

One example you gave was from Matt. 18. OK, if someone sins than of course anybody in the church can go talk to him about it. And then bring someone with him. But when you get to the level of "telling the church" it seems that the elders should at least know and approve of a church meeting where this is presented and discussed. This is a form of institution, but it is not institutionalism. You have defined "institutionalism" into a dreadful thing, completely devoid of love. Anybody would be against that kind of institution. But if "institution" simply means doing thing "decently and in order" then that is certainly good for the church.

Neil Cole said...

Hey everyone, thanks for chiming in with great comments...even the slight at the logo I designed 15 years ago \;o},

First, I am not saying that if your church is institutional everyone is legalistic within. In fact I think I said otherwise–particularly about Redeemer Pres. What I am saying is that institution is not the means to produce health, life, love or fruit for a church, and if we put our confidence in institution for such things we are putting our faith in the wrong place. Can it be that love in relationship to God, one another and the world is a better base of our formation and longevity than institutional forms? I hope so.

Re. Jesus and Paul's starting with institution. Yes, good observations, but neither saw the institution as a means to spiritual life. Jesus also said that in his generation the temple would be destroyed. It was. He established an entirely new way of relating to God, one another and the world that was far more organic, separate from the temple and the institution of Judaism. In fact, the only people he seemed to speak harshly to/about were the leaders and managers of the institution. So I would not use Jesus as a defense of institutional expressions of ecclesia.

Paul started in the synagogues ...for evangelization of the Jews first, but he didn't stay there long and never saw the synagogue as the means of grace or the glue for the church.

I do not want to throw out the church or leadership at all...but I also am unwilling to call the mechanistic structures we create the church. The problem is that we do that and it leads people to rather unhealthy conclusions.

On church discipline: your understanding of church discipline is subject first to your understanding of church. In the small comment you left, it appears as though you see a worship service as the place where the final step of discipline must occur. I understand why you see it that way, but I assure you that wasn't the context in the NT. It was conducted in a spiritual household of faith, likely not a public event, but an intimate family. So, I do think any believer has a say in such an exercise. You cannot escape the huge quantity of "one another" statements in the NT that are clear–we all have a role to serve in the ongoing health of a body...including discipline.

Hey, great discussions. Keep it up!


Neil Cole said...

On discipline I have one other insight. It appears that even elders are subject to discipline from people in the church family (1 Tim 5) where Paul writes: "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses." All of us are to conduct discipline. As individuals it is our loving obligation to restore our siblings, and as a whole community in those cases where personal and 2-3 witnesses is not enough. I have conducted the third step of discipline in 3 very different church expressions: a mega church, a small community church (120) and an organic spiritual household of faith meeting in a home. I have never seen the effectiveness of Matt 18 more than in a small spiritual family where the people in the church came to Christ within that context. When we see church as an institution, those who reject the voice of the institution can simply go a block away and join another.

Unknown said...

The the anonymous commenter above that said, "they utilized the institution of church as a launching ground," I would humbly disagree. The tabernacle, temples, and even synagogues can simply not be referred to as "the institution of church." New Testament Ekklesia is diametrically opposed to those systems by necessity. For example: The priesthood of the specific few was replaced by the priesthood of all believers.

Unknown said...

I like Keller's books, but also appreciate your wise critique of his eccelesiology. There are too many problems in both camps, and we need to continue to seek mature balance. I think you do that here. Thanks.

Doug said...

Great perspective! Mutual correction is what the Body of Christ stands in need of at all times. This is the activity that keeps the Church on the road. Unfortunately, it is the nature of man to try and "protect" particular views, not promote Christ and trust His driving. Denominationalism is a perfect example of this activity in action. We are to "trust in the Lord" not lean on our own understanding. The result will be liberty, not institutionalism. :)

Dave said...

Everything is institutional, whether the home or a large company. Love has nothing to do with institutionalism or non-institutionalism (which is non existant), so a large institution can be filled with gospel realities and a small (family) institution can be totally legalistic.

I'm sure that you agree with this, but I feel that the argument here has confused social structures in general with the fruit of the Spirit, which is not bound by any structure.

Alan Cross said...


I have been thinking a lot about this over the years. I was at GGBTS in the late 90s and met you then at a church planting party that Linda Bergquist put on. Andrew Jones and Jonathan Campbell were there that night. Your take on Organic Church was thrilling to me and I was sold. I was ready to forgo any type of full-time ministry and do organic church and help facilitate movements. It all made so much sense and seemed so biblical. It still does.

As time has gone on, however, I have come to appreciate institutions if they are flexible and serve the mission of God instead of the other way around. I think that it can happen. I ended up staying in vocational ministry because God would not let me leave. But, I have actually felt bad about it at times thinking that what I was doing was not as pure as what you and others in the organic church movement were doing. But, I am starting to see things differently in that I see value and purpose in having something where people can work together on a larger scale and where they can tell the gospel story from. Is it required? No. We only need the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. But, we are social creations. Institutions are a part of every aspect of life. Developing something that has some stability, whether it is your family, your vocation, your marriage, or civic institutions has great value. My concern with completely stepping away from institutions that serve the mission is that it is difficult for people to find a place to connect that is bigger than what they feel like doing in the moment.

A case could be made that even the Organic movement has forms of institutionalism - that you and your teaching ministry and books and even this blog are a structure that people gather around. The homes and coffee shops that people meet in give support. The teachings and ways of discipleship have a certain form to them that enable things to carry on. Perhaps we are talking about a matter of degree here instead of simply one way or another. I fully believe that whatever structure you have should serve the Gospel and Mission and should not exist for itself. But, some level of organization is needed that can help serve and perpetuate gospel movement - don't you think?

Alycia said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

Denotation / Connotation. What does the word "institution" denote? What does it connote to you? In Genesis, G-d institutes the family. This is His foundation for the (human) world. Is it organic? Yes. Is it an institution? Yes. How do these two forces that are seemingly at odds function together?

Consider the human body as a metaphor. The bones provide rigidity and definition. The muscles provide movement and power. They really cannot function without each other.

One of the things that defines a local church/body/gathering of believers in more of an "institutional" way is shared beliefs. I am sort of a simple/house/organic zealot, but in one of the s/o/h churches we were a part of, the group could not even agree on basic beliefs or practices. After a few months it disintegrated. Without definition and categories, there is no Truth.

Even in the area of just closely held preferences/expression, definition becomes important. Otherwise there is no difference between my OC and "First Community Church" down the block with its own building and choir and everything.

But am I all about "institution"? Consider two men. One Just got out of a WWII Concentration Camp. All you can see is bones. The other is a bodybuilder. He's got rippling muscles everywhere. Which one looks healthier? Which one is more robust? Which one is more able to complete a difficult/challenging task? Which one will probably survive a health crisis?

Everyone admires the rippling muscles and feats of strength. No one (save a skilled competition judge) notices the skeleton underneath that provides form, stability, etc. And that is as it should be. The underlying institutional aspects of a O/S/HC should be relatively unnoticed, rather than prominent. Yet they are there. My wife and I homeschooled our 4 kids. The youngest is now in college. Homeschooling is (or can be) very organic. Yet there are responsibilities, roles, and tasks that are rooted in the institution of the marriage/family.

~Cherry Chip Ice Cream

Bonnie said...

Really excellent critique... helps identify some of the tension I was feeling as I was reading Keller's book.

There was lots of good stuff in there, but I still have trouble with his definition of church, i.e. institution.


Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that the same dude who is decrying the "institutional" church is the same dude who is "recruiting the very best leaders" for his brand new, "global," "decentralized," "enterprise/initiative," and is currently accepting financial support for it and is submitting it to the temporary leadership of another "venture" until said "enterprise/initiative" gets its feet on the ground. Sounds like the birth of a new institution...

Steve said...

I'm a bit slow, but I get the benefit of reading all the comments and maybe getting the last word. :) If I have to choose between two positions, I come down on the side of Neil. One caveat - in the OT God ordains institution, a "schoolmaster" to lead people to Christ and life in the Spirit. I believe the freedom of the Gospel allows us to live BOTH as under the law and as having no external law. It seems Keller's argument for institution is totally pragmatic, not Biblically based. That is a poor foundation for a doctrinal position. It is possible to be institutional for pragmatic reasons as long as you don't insist this is THE way - that crosses the line to a different Gospel.