Tim Keller's Review of Willow Creek: What About Gospel Clarity?

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Our poor friend Tim Keller suffers the fate of having his every word parsed over a thousand times, which is the inevitable result of the vast influence his every word exerts over the Neo-Evangelical, Young, Restless, and Reformed.  For this reason, I try to avoid such parsing, but Tim's recent review of his visit to Willow Creek Church, highlighted for us by our friend Justin, prompts me to ask a serious question: Did one of the founders of the Gospel Coalition (of which I, like many of us at Ref 21, am a member) really just suggest that gospel clarity is non-essential to a church?

I do not think that Tim Keller meant to say that gospel clarity is non-essential.  I think that having just spoken at a massive Willow Creek conference, enjoying the warm friendship of those good folks, and being impressed with much that they do, Tim merely sought to compliment them and defend them from unfair criticism.  If that is what Tim had written, I would have been in hearty agreement (actually, I probably never would have seen it).  Keller writes that he wants "to love and appreciate the best representatives of... contemporary evangelical 'traditions,'" one of which is Willow Creek.  Who could fault him for that?  Not I.  What concerns me, however, is Tim's use of the gee-wizardry of John Frame's tri-perspectivalism to assert that Willow Creek represents "Kingly" ministry, while emergent churches represent "Priestly" ministry, and typical Reformed churches represent "Prophetic" Ministry.  The logical implication is that each are equally valid and equally needed.  So, while not at all wanting to assail Tim's charity, I do think that the resulting assertion is worthy of critique (and, I hope, of being received open-mindedly), as follows:


·         Willow Creek as an example of "Kingly" Ministry.  Here is the question: can a church whose gospel message is crippled by a serious confusion regarding faith and works (Reformed people agree on this, right?) really be fulfilling Christ's "kingly" office?  In other words, is gospel-clarity non-essential?  I know that Tim was being nice, complimenting Willow Creek's expertise in "organizing and leading ministry."  (Hybels is an entrepreneurial genius, without doubt, and Willow Creek's excellence in "leadership, strategic thinking, and wise administration" is justly lauded by business schools around the country.) But didn't Jesus say that His kingdom is not of this world?  (One of the commenters on Keller's blog, who attended the same conference, pointed out that one of the speakers lamented all the time we waste on worship when we could be doing social activism).  Moreover, in the classic Reformed understanding of a true church, isn't the Kingly ministry seen in the faithful conduct of church discipline - something that is not even aspired to under the Willow Creek model?  With all this in mind, and while desiring to be charitable in commending the positives, is it really helpful to laud Willow Creek as a model of Christ's "Kingly" ministry, given the importance of gospel clarity?  Would we want to plant more churches on the Willow Creek model or send a loved one to attend such a church?  I sincerely hope, for the sake of gospel clarity, that we would not.


·         Emergent Churches as "Priestly" Ministries.  Likewise, I was a bit surprised by the embrace of the emergent churches as "Priestly".  Yet, isn't it fair and simply accurate to say that the emergent movement exhibits a tendency to downplay Christ's penal substitutionary atonement (and in some cases to attack this doctrine vigorously)?  Can one be "priestly" while down-playing the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation of sinners to God via the horrors of personal evangelism?   Moreover, in classic parlance, the priestly part of being a true church is to administer the sacraments properly.  But isn't it simply true that the emergent churches often exhibit a questionable approach to the sacraments?  With this in mind, and again, wanting to speak kindly and emphasize the positives, is it helpful to highlight the Emergents as providing a model of Christ's "Priestly" ministry?  Do we want to recommend to young pastors today an emergent approach to being "Priestly"?  I, for one, would not.



·         Reformed Churches as "Prophetic" Ministries:  I would not deny that many traditional Reformed churches (non-traditional ones, too), lack both visionary leadership and real community.  Moreover, I do not mind suggestions that we Reformed should evaluate ourselves by criteria such as these.  But is a failure to be kingly and priestly endemic to the Word -centered Reformed church?  Does being Word-centered foster a danger of being non-kingly and non-priestly?   It sounds like it does - but does it really?


·         Tri-Perspectivalism.  Instead of advertizing the benefits of tri-perspectivalism, I think that this blog entry instead warns us of the dangers of this approach.  The main danger of "perspectivalism" in general is to foster ambiguity rather than clarity.  Here, what God has joined together - a sound church exhibiting a prophet, priest, and king ministry - is separated.  But don't Reformed people believe that a true church must exhibit gospel clarity, church discipline, and faithful administration of the sacraments?  Don't we believe our churches should be strong in preaching, sound in leadership, and warm in community?  Isn't this the very pattern we see in the early chapters of Acts, where the church was "devoted" to the Word, unified through the sacraments, and led into holiness by apostolic discipline?  As we emphasize our Acts 29 context today (I do not refer to any particular organization of that name, but rather to the oft-made point that we are continuing where Acts left off), does it not matter whether or not our churches bear any resemblance to Acts chapter 2?


·         Reformed Distinctives. Lastly, why is it that every time I encounter tri-perspectivalism, the result is to down-play Reformed distinctives?

Posted October 2, 2009 @ 12:31 PM by Rick Phillips

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