Sheep may safely graze (5): the consumerist church

New Warhorn Media post by Tim Bayly:

‘Trust me, men like Tim Keller, Rusty Moore, Al Mohler, Rob Bell, Charles Stanley’s son, Carl Trueman, and (pick-your-current-name) are fads. Styles. Brands. Go down to Half-Price Books and watch as the shelves bend under the weight of their quickly-passing masterpieces. Soon they’ll be weighing the shelves down right there next to Gordon MacDonald, Robert Schuller, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, and Norman Vincent Peale.

Go back home and pray that the Lord will send a true and humble shepherd to pay you and your family a visit. At night. At your house. With tears. Someone you can love and trust for life. A real shepherd.‘

That’s a haunting reminder. And the rebuke that cigars or single malt don’t make a man a pastor.

May God help those entrusted with the care of souls to be faithful and to be ready to give a good account when the books are opened.


Tim, could you expound further on this statement?

It’s high time we realize that the church’s theology and leadership mirrors scholars and their publications: as Chesterton put it, all the talk of what’s latest is nothing more than a giggling excitement over fashion.

I want to better understand the indictment here. Is it the specific books themselves? The fact that we have Christian leaders who are held up as celebrities within our little niche? The publishers’ push for money and acclaim? Those who will not endure sound doctrine and heap up teachers for themselves because they have itching ears? A lack of discernment in the pews that takes in these teachers/books without much thought? The pastors who readily hand out a book like Gentle and Lowly instead of intimate involvement with the sheep in the ways you have described here and elsewhere?

Another aspect I would like to hear you speak on is the posture of Christians toward Christian writing in general. As a writer yourself, I know you are not advocating against new Christian writing/publishing altogether. How do you discern between needed works and those that are merely fashionable?

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Dear MD,

Sometimes it’s the books themselves. For instance, I was sitting in fellowship over a meal with a former mafia man who is now a Christian and member of KB Church here in Yilan County, Taiwan, last week. He was talking about how he came to this church after rejecting all the Penecostal churches because their message wasn’t the message he read in Scripture. Then he transitioned into his reading habits, saying his job of some time ago had allowed him to read five hours a day for many years. Then he brought up reading a guy named Tim Keller, and how this guy was so bad. Soft and deceptive.

He knew nothing about me or what I’d written against Tim, so why did he see it when educated and bright Reformed men and women in the US can’t see it? This bears much thought.

It’s my judgment this is simply because he isn’t caught up in US fads. Styles. Religious pedigrees and trademarks. He isn’t a member of a good-old boy club down south where everyone loves Tim Keller for representing them up north–in Manhattan, no less—in a sophisticated way, removing some of the opprobrium which has always attached itself to the southern secessionist PCA.

So in Tim’s case, it’s not just Tim, but also his books. This guy has no skin in American cultural religious styles. He just reads and knows he’s reading an effete man who lacks courage and writes what he writes from those sins and weaknesses.

Must also say, though, that it’s not just a function of Taiwan’s distance from US, but also the fact that this man is former mafia and therefore has courage and faith that is not womanly, but manly. So he recognizes who and what Tim is. Innately.

As I’ve been warning for over two decades, we should have nothing to do with Tim Keller or his acolyte pastors all across the PCA. It has destroyed Reformed preaching, polity, the doctrine of creation, Biblical anthropology, the doctrine of Hell, and shall I continue?

But of course, everyone has to keep their mouth shut about Tim Keller if they’re going to be welcome into the good old boy club, and I can’t get hardly anyone to say goodbye to that club because they think their future depends on hanging with the cool kids on the junior high school playground and making friends with their lieutenants. So the warnings aren’t given by anyone and the PCA is Revoice, now.

And the crud is spreading across the world. Think about our responsibility flowiing from our silence and refusal to discipline Tim Keller and his Kellerites in our presbyteries now having led to the fact that some former mafia man in Yilan County, Taiwan, is reading his books. I mean…

So yes, “our little niche” if we’re trying to minimize our responsibility for this man’s destruction across the Westernized world.

Yes, all that list of questions you write, but let’s focus on this one:

“The pastors who readily hand out a book like Gentle and Lowly instead of intimate involvement with the sheep in the ways you have described here and elsewhere?”

Not “instead of intimate involvement” in this case, but instead of howling from the rooftops that this book is heresy. Warning was what the Apostle Paul said he did, so why do we refuse? Super-apostles like Tim and Dane Ortlund were whom the Apostle Paul warned against and fought, but look at us. “Breer Rabbit, he lay low.”

As for discriminating between truly useful and trendy writing, note that trendy writing scratches the target market where they/we itch. Lots of writing postures itself as prophetic when it is merely scratching. Take the UK “spiritual friendship” shysters. See how popular they are in the conservative church, and why?

Because like Mrs. Butterfield, they know precisely where and whom and how to scratch. There is a Side A market segment and Boswell scratched them. There is a huge PCA/TGC Side B market segment and the UK guys and Revoice and ESV men scratch them.

It’s really so elementary. The vast majority of the reformed world today thinks it’s enough to keep the outside of the cup (arsenakoitai) clean while letting the inside of the cup (malakoi) remain morbidly filthy.

Thus the way to test writing on sexuality is whether or not the writing deals with the inside of the cup. Not just “we absolutely condemn homosexual copulations” and “we absolutely condemn homosexual marriage,” but also "we absolutely condemn and repent of homosexual aesthetics and lifestyles and all softness so pervasive in the church today which is promoted by and characteristic of gays and straights alike.

What we must discern is whom the writing and preaching is warning against and condemning. Are the bogeymen outside our church or inside our church? This question must be answered truthfully.

If the warnings and condemnations are focussed outside the congregation or marketing segment of the woman or man’s target audience or market segment, don’t bother reading him. He’s merely a pundit; not a shepherd.

Maybe an easier rule is the one Roger Nicole told me about his bookbuying: “Don’t ever buy a new book. Wait ten years. Then, if it’s good, it will still be around—and cheap.”



Thank you for taking the time to give that thorough response. To your point, let me share this very recent story from the evangelical machine that proves your point.

A great deal of work is going on right now to try to ensure Keller’s influence continues after him. He continues to write and publicly release his thoughts, including an article in The Atlantic that feels like his last words to the churches as he nears the end of his life. You might have heard about the new TGC initiative to create the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. The video explaining the Center drips with arrogance.

The Center is brand new, with the press release going out about two weeks ago and all the Keller fellows (Collin Hansen, Sam Allberry, Rebecca McLaughlin, etc.) hyping up the project. Earlier last week, however, the Center found itself in its first bit of controversy. TGC ran an article on their site from one of their fellows, pastor Joshua Butler. The article was an excerpt from Butler’s upcoming book about sex titled Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything. In the article, Butler makes several crass comparisons between sexual intercourse and hospitality and the church’s union with Christ. The article was widely shared by the regular TGC puffers.

Screenshot of Brett McCracken tweet calling Butler’s book the “Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for”

The article was met with a flood of criticism, some of it predictable pearl-clutching from feminists, some of it coming from a better place. The outcry caused TGC to replace the article with a quick disclaimer and a link to the entire intro and first chapter of the book (stating that the article “lacked sufficient context to be helpful in this format.” Later, the article and link were completely removed with a new statement from TGC president Julius Kim saying that the Keller Center needs to “develop better review systems” and “publication processes.”

Furthermore, Joshua Butler resigned from the center and would no longer lead the online cohort he had planned or speak at the TGC23 conference. At least two people who had endorsed Butler’s book wanted to have their endorsements removed. They admitted only reading about 25% of the book (although, by implication, not the first chapter where this problematic excerpt came from). The self-congratulatory tweets of McCraken were replaced by the showy confessions of quarter-read manuscripts and confessions of “poor judgment.”

The tide turned quickly against Joshua Butler. They were able to clean up the outside of the cup well enough to keep going.

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So discouraging. All the usual suspects will put on hissy fits about crassness when you can bet your whatever that the really awful sin of the project is denying God’s Fatherhood in man placed in His order of creation. And the lies of blurbs. That was the most scandalous thing to me about Gentle and Lowly: who had done blurbs for it. I’m assuming none of them read the first chapter there, either, since that was such a denial of the orthodox doctrine of God. Can’t tell you how disgusted I am and have been for decades by Donald Carson.

How do you motivate yourself to keep up with these huckster-shysters, MD? Love,

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And the lies of blurbs.

I just wanted to highlight this statement as deeply pertinent to your original post on the consumerist church. Both people who have retracted endorsements did so without mentioning the sin of lying. Their retractions read as a different form of posturing—after reading the room and determining that the association with Butler’s book is bad and the retracted endorsement allows for a public display of “humility.”

Their reasoning was simply that they shouldn’t have endorsed a book they merely skimmed. One called it “foolishness” to have done so. The other said he found sections to be “pastoral and nuanced” and thereby “in good faith” he endorsed it. He wanted to make sure every woman reading his retraction knew he stood with them and that the book was “dangerous” in that it “creates conditions for sexual harm.” Both found ways to prove themselves to the mob.

When you have Senior Editor of TGC Brett McCracken describing “the magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for” and then deleting the tweet (the tweet that was taken from his glowing blurb for the book) and thereby silently removing his endorsement from the book, you get a keen insight into what is happening here. How is the book no longer the magnum opus he first claimed? It’s posturing. He either read it and thought that or he didn’t and lied. The only difference is there is now a Twitter mob formed against Joshua Butler that wasn’t there before.

How do you motivate yourself to keep up with these huckster-shysters, MD?

It is one of my attempts to protect my sheep. I view it as an apologetic mission at this point. Actually, maybe it’s the other way around: keeping up with the huckster-shysters reminds me of the ever-present dangers and motivates me to keep on-guard.