The True Liberal/Conservative Divide


You heard about Princeton revoking an award to Tim Keller because of his beliefs on women and LGBTQ people in ministry? And perhaps you read Jonathan Merritt’s criticism of Princeton for “marginalizing” Keller, a conservative? And if you did, no doubt you got sucked into debates about whether Princeton did or did not marginalize Keller, and if it’s appropriate to critique a theologian based on his secondary theological beliefs concerning minorities, and whether beliefs concerning minorities are secondary.

I’ll show my hand: I feel like Princeton had a right to revoke the award and choose to celebrate only those theologians who affirm inclusiveness; I think it was sloppy to award Keller and then revoke the award; I do not think Keller is a misogynist and homophobe; and I think Princeton could only be considered intolerant and close-minded if it refused to allow Keller to speak on April 6, which they did not.

Here’s the thing. Christianity has always had problems with celebrated theologians who held questionable, if not outright deplorable, beliefs. Many have pointed out that Abraham Kuyper, the theologian after whom Keller’s retracted award was named, was racist and supported apartheid. If you do any sort of digging into Christianity’s past, you will find theology and theologians shaped by all kinds of pettiness, politics, personal disputes, and prejudices. Christianity does not have a perfect moral track record. Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And I don’t need to tell anybody that Christianity today is not in all issues united against every Christian’s personal or collective idea of injustice.

That’s something Christians need to own, because Christians need to deal with it. They need to deal with in-house immorality and injustice.

Many Christians try to deal with it by committing the no true Scotsman fallacy — well, no true Christian would support x, y, or z. True Christianity stands with a, b, or c. And that’s why there’s thousands of denominations and denominations within denominations and emphases within denominations within denominations. Christians split into their own true or truer communities that affirms the “true Christian social ethic.”

But Christians squarely within orthodox belief do believe questionable and/or deplorable things — including that only men should be leaders within the church and home or LGBTQ people are abominations.

Even more frustrating, said Christians do have historical precedent, tradition, and Scripture supporting their beliefs because, as mentioned above, Christianity was not always, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

For better or for worse, Christianity has or has had oppressive views about women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, etc. that technically count as Christian — if we’re defining Christian by what Christians have traditionally believed and taught.

This is not to say those beliefs are true. This is not to say those beliefs are consistent with Christian charity, ethics, or common decency. This is not to say those beliefs are supported by correctly interpreted and applied Scripture. This is simply to say that the Christian church was not, in all eras, in all issues, united against bigotry, genocide, patriarchy, and oppression.

And this is also to simply say, that no matter how wrong-headed or bigoted those beliefs or those people are, they still fall within Christianity, and Christians have to engage with them as Christians. Christians cannot write off other Christians as not Christians. Certainly, Christians can critique other Christians and their beliefs as not being in line with Christian charity, ethics, or Scripture. But they cannot shrink the definition of Christian so small as to exclude the majority of Christians.

As hard as it is to admit, Christians, as Christians, as wonderful, decent people who love the Lord and mean well, can believe horrible things.

Such is humanity. Such is Christianity.

That’s why I support Princeton’s decision not to celebrate Tim Keller. That’s why I also support their decision to still allow him to speak. Christian institutions, churches, and individuals must find ways to critique each other’s beliefs while still acknowledging the Christianity of the other.


As evenhanded as this sounds, I’m chafing as I write this.

It’s so clear to me that certain social justice issues are not merely “secondary theological issues” or even “theological issues,” but rather human rights issues. It’s so clear that while privileged people (including myself) are feeling good and open-minded and ecumenical with their discussions about whether a woman should be a minister or whether gay people should marry or whether there’s racial prejudice still around, real people are suffering.

There’s a loud, clamoring part of me that wants to say that nobody who oppresses or limits others can be a true Christian or a decent human being or a good theologian or a man after God’s heart or whatever. And there’s a smaller, more fearful, but calmer part of me that says, “But Bailey, you know that’s not true.”

Because I know these good, true, decent Christians who believe oppressive things.

And I know there’s a difference between good, true, decent (and ignorant) Christians who believe oppressive things because they think the Bible says so, and false, ugly “Christians” who believe oppressive things because they hate women, gays, and minorities.

I think Christians need to start discerning when a Christian is operating out of hatred and when a Christian is operating out of a wrongheaded love for God, especially via a love and obedience to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

For sure, there are those who trash talk women as deceivers, weak, gullible, and unfit for leadership. For very sure, there are those who despise the LGBTQ community’s existence. And certainly, there are those who seek the destruction of minorities and the “other.” Those people, motivated as they are by hatred, deserve neither applause nor a platform.

But there are others who believe their oppression comes from love — love of others, love of God, love of the Bible. The logic goes like this: God is a loving God, and his commands are loving. No matter how unloving his commands seem, they are loving. In order to love others, we must introduce them to this loving God and his loving commands. That is the most loving thing to do.

And that’s where you get Christians who genuinely believe gay conversion therapy, rigid gender roles, slavery, or any other controversial measure is not only true but inherently loving — God’s best for others.

Why don’t more Christians question these “loving” beliefs, particularly when so many of those affected by those “loving beliefs” decry them as unloving? Fundamentalism is a closed system. You cannot question certain beliefs because those beliefs have been hammered home as orthodox. In this view, theology is systematic — one premise builds upon the next. If you question those “secondary theological issues,” Christianity collapses.

Confronting a Christian on his insensitive beliefs is literally asking him to reconsider his entire systematic theology — at least, that is what it feels like to him.

This complicates matters, when two different Christian sides see God clearly saying, “This is a human rights issue” or “This is a secondary theological issue attached to the sum of the Christian faith,” which amounts to one side saying, “You’re clearly a bigot” and the other, “You’re clearly a heretic.”

Neither are accurate labels. The truth is, both sides believe they are following the heart of God, Biblical mandates, and Christian ethics. Both think they are right because of either their moral or their theological superiority.

And both sides are going to get nowhere in their efforts to unite Christianity against evil until they recognize that what divides them is neither hatred and bigotry nor rebellion and heresy, but rather the ignorance, blindness, misunderstanding, and sin that has always plagued true Christianity.

PC: Religion News

8 thoughts on “The True Liberal/Conservative Divide

  1. Abigail

    Personally, I greatly admire Tim Keller. I hadn’t heard about this controversy — was there anything specific that he said which Princeton found offensive or degrading, or did they just take issue with his general stated beliefs?

    As you said, you don’t believe that Keller is a misogynist or homophobe, but I think it’s also worth noting that in many of his writings, he very specifically and purposefully affirms the spiritual equality and practical contributions of women in the home, work world, and church. In his book “The Meaning of Marriage,” for example, he clearly explains that there is nothing inherently superior about men, and condemns the ways that men have misused biblical passages to abuse/suppress women. He explains that the concepts of headship and submission are rooted in the Christ/church parallel, with the message that husbands and wives should both serve each other in mutual submission within their roles. Certainly, many would argue that there shouldn’t be distinct roles in marriage, but Keller wasn’t imposing rigid gender stereotypes on anyone. In fact, he specifically speaks against them, saying that at one point during his ministry, he was a stay-at-home dad and his wife worked outside the home.

    I know that your purpose in this post wasn’t to criticize Keller’s views, but it concerns me that people who aren’t familiar with his work could conflate your descriptions of Christians holding problematic views with the current controversy surrounding Keller. I wouldn’t want someone to be turned off by his work on a variety of noncontroversial subjects because they think he’s promoting oppression the way that some other Christian leaders have. (Unless, of course, there’s a specific offense I’m not aware of.)


    • Bailey Steger

      I’m glad you took the time to write this comment, as it is an important addendum. Like you said, my intention was not to condemn or critique Keller, who is indeed a well-written, thoughtful theologian who has never spoken ill of anyone and deserves to be recognized for his contributions to theology. My point was to draw a distinction between problematic people and problematic theology — in Princeton’s eyes, Keller has problematic theology, but Keller should in no way be viewed as a problematic person. I have never found his writing to be controversial or bigoted or oppressive (and I’ve read most of his major works). The issue with Princeton is that Keller believes, on principle, without malice, that women and LGBTQ people should not be in ministry — meaning he stands opposed to many of the individuals receiving training and education at Princeton and to the inclusive values Princeton holds. He has not committed any particular offense or even made it his platform to attack women and LGBTQ people in ministry. So I’m glad Princeton is still letting him speak.


      • Abigail

        Okay! Thank you for the clarification. I’m also glad that Princeton is letting him speak. It’s a just, evenhanded way for them to support freedom of conscience and freedom of speech while also maintaining their own ideological and theological stances.


      • Bailey Steger

        Exactly. To be honest, I personally wouldn’t be too upset about him receiving an award for theological excellence, but I respect that many of the female and LGBTQ students felt that awarding him was incongruous with Princteon’s mission statement. I like how you phrased it as both a freedom of conscience and a freedom of speech.


  2. ChrisW

    I’ll be interested to see if/how your view of Keller as a person, and his theology, shift once I’ve got my teeth into The Meaning of Marriage. (Planning to blog a take-down of it. It made my husband angry beyond words.)

    Thanks for writing this Bailey. Even the greats have had theological problems, so I have to approach my life with an element of fear and trembling, because hey – I could do the same.

    But I do believe that smelly theology breeds smelly practice. I don’t think they can be separated. The weird part is that we are capable of both good theology/practice and bad. Even as Christians. That’s baffling and disconcerting – and what we need to wrestle with. (As you are.)


    • Bailey Steger

      I’d be interested to read your review. I read that book only a few years ago, when I strongly identified as egalitarian, and don’t remember anything that controversial about it.

      I agree that bad theology leads to bad practice, but like you implied, people are often inconsistent and practice things inconsistent with their beliefs or vice versa.

      Liked by 1 person

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