Tim Keller: More Than Being Right

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy. He is also the chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which starts new churches and publishes resources for ministry in an urban environment. In 2017, Keller transitioned to CTC full time to teach and mentor church planters and seminary students through a joint venture with Reformed Theological Seminary’s City Ministry Program. 

A New York Times bestselling author, Keller recently released Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking), which explores key questions on what it means to forgive in an unforgiving world.

He recently sat down with Outreach to talk about the importance of forgiveness in life and ministry, the impact of the pandemic on local congregations and what concerns him about the church going forward.

How do you define forgiveness?

Forgiveness means you’re not taking revenge. You’re not holding the perpetrator liable in such a way that you seek payback. When God forgives us, he does not treat us as our sins deserve. That’s what the Bible says. If we forgive somebody else, we don’t treat them as their sins deserve. We say, “I could do payback. I could try to harm you as much as you harmed me. But I’m not going to do that.” 

For those who have been greatly wronged and received no justice, forgiving the perpetrator could feel impossible. 

I would say you can’t pursue justice unless you forgive, because there’s a big difference between vengeance and justice. In the Old Testament, you have that saying about a tooth for a tooth (Exod. 21:24). The reason for that is a tooth for a tooth is justice. But if somebody knocked out your tooth, you don’t want to just knock out one of the other person’s teeth. You almost always want to knock out all their teeth. 

Vengeance not only goes past what justice requires, it’s also filled with anger, filled with very negative emotions that consume you. And so when you are forgiving somebody, you are not getting rid of the pursuit of justice. In fact, I would go so far as to say forgiveness is not a contradiction to the pursuit of justice. It’s the precondition for the real pursuit of justice. 

In our divided society, how do you see forgiveness playing a role in our interactions?

Let’s say somebody has said something to hurt me or has done something that I feel was hurtful. I forgive them in my heart, but I still want to correct them for justice’s sake, for the community’s sake, for other victims’ sake, for the perpetrator’s sake, for God’s sake and so on. Now I have all kinds of reasons to talk to the person that aren’t selfish anymore. 

Of course, the person still may not listen to me. But I’ll tell you, if you go in filled with anger and you talk to the person—even online—it is very clear that you really aren’t just trying to correct them for justice’s sake. You’re really trying to pay them back. And they’re not going to listen to you at all. There’s no chance they’ll perceive this as anything but a vendetta. And then they’ll get their back up, and they’ll pay you right back. And on it goes. A forgiving attitude in the heart when you give up the right to payback, that’s the only chance that anybody will ever listen to you.

For example, if my wife has hurt me, I need to quickly forgive her and say, “Hey, honey, here’s where you hurt me.” She’s not going to listen to me if I come in and shout, “I can’t believe you said that.” She’s not going to say, “Oh, gee, I’m sorry.” She’s going to say, “Hold on. Wait a minute.”

I feel that at the most basic level, forgiveness is necessary because we’re going to get people to listen to us.

We not only have a divided society, we also have a lot of fractures in the church.

Yes. And here’s the danger: During the pandemic, especially in the beginning, we started spending about 10 times more time online because we felt totally isolated. And so we started to get shaped more by online communities than by face-to-face relationships. To a great degree, we found there was a certain pleasure in constantly going to newsfeeds and sites that basically made us feel we are right in our positions. That is confirmation bias, and it feels like a warm bath—it just feels good. 

What advice would you give a pastor whose church has split over differences of opinion? 

I know of a really good church of 500 people or so that I would have considered unified. But when they started meeting again after the pandemic, they immediately split almost down the middle over wearing masks. They didn’t split over theological issues. And that’s what’s so scary about this. These aren’t even ethical issues. It’s not even like there’s anything in the Bible about why we should wear masks or not, but everybody tried to make it into a moral thing. But it wasn’t. And it was horrible. This particular church literally and suddenly went down 50% over masks. Wow. 

If you have a church of 500 go to a church at 250, the pastor might say, “I wasn’t able to hold it together.” I don’t know that this was a moral failing—it was a cultural crisis, and I’m not sure I think it’s a lose-lose proposition for almost any minister. I would say to that pastor, “Stop feeling guilty about it. I doubt very much that you could have done anything about it. It’s a cultural crisis. And God’s going to be at work within it. In some ways you’re a little bit like Gideon. Suddenly you’ve got a smaller church. That doesn’t mean you can’t be victorious.”

In fact, that pastor might look back and say, Lord, I can see where you really worked on us. In many ways, you humbled us. A lot of people had to step up in giving, and a lot of us volunteered because we had fewer people. In many ways, this was good. 

While I would tell that pastor not to feel guilty, at the same time, they need to acknowledge it has been draining. I would advise them to talk to their leaders. Tell them, “I’m going to need more time off this year. Otherwise, I am afraid of just losing my love for this job.”

What are your concerns for churches that have split?

Generally speaking, it is the angry people who have left, and I worry about them. 

Thirty years ago, a very large church had a split over liberal versus conservative doctrine. The conservatives said, “We want our own congregation.” And so a huge number of people left. 

They were all together for about a year and they were excited, but then they began to realize that even though they were all in agreement about what they were against, they had no agreement as to what they were for. They all hated the same thing, and it gave them unity. When they actually started saying, “What kind of worship do we want? What kind of evangelism do we want? What kind of outreach does the community want?” they realized they didn’t believe in the same things. 

And interestingly, the church ended up becoming four churches in a very gentle, careful and fairly congenial way. But the problem is there are a lot of churches that have started or have grown through anger. I don’t know how many of them there are. Churches started on the basis of what they’re opposed to don’t last. That’s my point. So I worry about them now.

In your experience, what role do small churches and large churches play in a person’s spiritual development?

I believe that smaller churches are more formative for a person’s whole life. 

I had a big church in New York. And what was good about that was people could come anonymously. They were not believers, but they slipped in, came for a couple of years and they became Christians. And they probably would not have gone to a smaller church because they would have felt they would be noticed, and maybe they did not want people to come up and talk to them. And so in some ways, there are some advantages to evangelism in a larger church. A lot of large churches can attract people. They also can give you really high-level music, preaching and production values. 

On the other hand, there was a tendency—and I’m talking about myself here—that my very large church was not as good once the person became a Christian in actually forming them. There wasn’t as much informal, attractive accountability. There’s a kind of formal accountability like supervision, where you have to meet with your supervisor and they evaluate you on your goals. That’s formal, and it’s a little coercive.

But in a small church, it’s attractive because everybody knows everybody. And if you’re not there for a week or two, everybody says, “Hey, where is so-and-so?” If you’re suffering, everybody’s walking through it with you, right? And if you are learning something from the minister, everybody’s talking about it, and they’re kind of working it out together and developing ideas about it. 

And so, generally speaking, I have found that smaller churches may not have been as good at producing converts in a given year, but they were really good at deeply forming people. And I think right now that’s almost as big an issue. 

We are declining in this country because we are not evangelizing like we should. Others say that right off, but we’re also declining in this country because a lot of people are just walking away from the church. I think it’s partly because they haven’t been formed as Christians. They’re much more formed about the world than by the truth, by the Word and by community. 

I think both larger churches and smaller churches have very good things to contribute, I’d say equally. Honestly, I really don’t believe one is really a lot better than the other.

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