Princeton Theological Seminary recently invited Tim Keller, perhaps the best-known Presbyterian pastor in America, to receive its annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. We would not expect this to be a controversial decision. But it was.
Keller is a leader in the Presbyterian Church in America, which has taken stands against the ordination of women and of LGBTQ persons. As a result, the uproar against his recognition at Princeton was deafening. One critic spoke for many: “We are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.” As a result, the seminary has rescinded its decision to give Keller the Kupyer Prize, though it has invited him to give the lecture associated with the award.
Conservatives see Princeton’s decision as another example of liberal intolerance and prejudice against conservative values. Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes: “Those who promote tolerance in our time show so little of it; those who call for charitable dialogue do so little to extend it. Biblical sexual ethics is where this take-no-prisoners battle is the fiercest.”
But progressives should be equally troubled by Princeton’s decision. Jonathan Merritt, who calls himself “more progressive than Keller on these issues,” asks, “How does marginalizing Tim Keller make this world a better place? How does it promote unity among disparate churches?” Merritt knows Keller and calls him “eminently reasonable, thoughtful, kind. Tim Keller is no extremist. He is no misogynist. He is no bigot. He is not hateful. Anyone who has paid attention to his Manhattan ministry can attest to this.”
I know Tim Keller as well. It has been my privilege to join him in speaking on behalf of Movement Day in New York City and in Dallas. He is one of the most thoughtful, grace-giving people and ministers I have ever met. I agree with Merritt: “If Christians like Tim Keller are unworthy of honor and deserve to be marginalized, American Christianity is in serious trouble.”
Those who truly follow Jesus have seldom been in the cultural majority. Our Lord warned us: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). The Greek word translated “tribulation” is thlipsis, a term which designated the massive stone used to crush grain into flour. In other words, we should expect the culture to crush those it opposes.
Jesus was clear: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). At the same time, he called us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). We are to defend our faith, but we must do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We are to speak the truth, but we must do so “in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Princeton’s treatment of Tim Keller is not the last time conservative Christians will be treated ungraciously by those who disagree with our values. Now it’s our turn to choose how we respond. For those who champion tolerance above all other values, we have an opportunity to demonstrate a tolerant spirit even as we “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
If Jesus could wash our feet, we can wash one another’s feet (John 13:14).