“Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 4 “The Church’s Mission: Sent to ‘Do Justice’ in the World?” (Peter J. Naylor)

After a few days off, Missio Confessio is back to review Engaging With Keller, and today’s chapter, written by Peter Naylor, critiques Tim Keller’s thesis on generous justice and the mission of the church.  This chapter encapsulates, I think, one of the more central concerns of Reformed and confessional churches concerning Keller’s teaching.  The reason for this is that Keller is critiquing notions such as the ‘spirituality of the church’ ‘two kingdoms’ (of an Escondido sort) and ‘ordinary means of grace’ ministry (or rather ‘only means of grace’).  In addition, Keller sometimes sounds like he is leftist trying to trick conservatives into buying into a socialist agenda. (Which Naylor seems to think.) So, I hope this review of this chapter is helpful to many.


Naylor critiques what he calls a ‘dual-track mission’ espoused by Tim Keller.  If Keller contends that the church’s mission is to “preach the gospel and do justice” (p. 136), Naylor wants to substract the latter half.  He lays out some presuppositions of his ecclesiology such as Kuyperian sphere sovereignty (p. 140-41), the distinction between the church’s body and the church’s members (p. 141), and Jesus’ mission is not identical to the church’s mission (p. 143).

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Naylor weaves quotes of Keller with Scripture to demonstrate that the Great Commission is only about gospel proclamation, that the church has no obligation to care for the poor outside its walls, and that Keller’s model and practice makes the church unbalanced and deficient in its gospel proclamation.  I’ll deal with these three aspects in order.

I. The Great Commission

Similar to Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s infuential book, What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Naylor contends that Jesus’ mission for the church is to preach, baptize, and make disciples.  As the chapter progresses it seems that this mission is only for the so-called church corporate (what Keller and others call organized or gathered).

My immediate question in reading the chapter was whether Naylor had read Keller’s Center Church or paid attention to Keller’s interaction with Michael Horton on this issue.  Keller, taking his cue from Kuyper, speaks of the church organized and church organic (or gathered and scattered, in Naylor’s chapter).

Naylor thinks that Keller backtracks from his supposed dual-track mission and contradicts his previous work.  Yet, the problem may be that Naylor isn’t always careful when reading or writing about ‘church’.  I noticed that Naylor speaks of ‘church’ mainly in the gathered, organized sense.  Yet, Keller is more consistent with Scripture to not merely see the church as ‘body’ and then the members go live their individuals lives outside of the gathered setting, but the church is described as both organized and organic in Scripture. (The organic descriptions seem to outnumber the organized descriptions.)

So, if Keller maintains the organized/organic distinction and says that the organic church (i.e. ‘members’ scattered but together) does mercy and justice, then I don’t see the relevance of Naylor’s critique (especially since he concedes on p. 144 that Christians should strive for justice in this world).

Yet, I think Naylor doesn’t see the stickiness that remains with an ecclesiology of gathered/scattered or organized/organic.  Although I find the distinction helpful and biblical, there are issues such as allocating funds in the church budget, the church gathered promoting something the church scattered is doing, etc.  It is very likely that the Bible is working with something different than our categories.

II.  The Poor

Naylor’s main contention is that the church organized is supposed to only do justice and mercy ministry for those within the covenant community.  Leaving that point aside for the moment, what does one make of Naylor’s critique of Keller’s use of Scripture on this topic?  I have no interest going into the exegetical details, but I find Naylor’s explanation of the relevant texts to be very neo-Platonic.  For example, Naylor claims that Jesus had no interest in alleviating physical poverty or injustice but that his mission and kingdom was “spiritual in nature and eschatalogical in its full accomplishment.” (p146) The poor, brokenhearted, and captives are to be taken as signs of true spiritual condition with no concern for the physical in Jesus’ ministry.  The miracles of Jesus alleviating physical poverty are merely a sign of a future eschatological fulfillment.  While it is true that the miracles are signs of Jesus’ present and future reign, the physical ailments are pointers to our spiritual condition, etc. Naylor isn’t sufficiently faithful to these texts.  To say that Jesus’ signs and miracles had no concern for physical well-being of others makes his weeping over dead Lazarus somewhat silly.  In addition, the miracle signs are indeed signs of the kingdom, and that kingdom will be consummated at the end of time.  But Naylor should go farther and recognize that the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, consummation shows that Jesus came not only to save souls but to also reverse effects of the fall.  This is the OT storyline carried into the NT.

Indeed, Naylor is concerned that people who read Keller will take the cosmic justice and redemption motif as more important than individual salvation (I share the same concern), but Naylor shouldn’t ignore such a significant biblical motif.  In dismissing these things, he is reading the Bible like a platonist that shows no concern for the material creation.  I don’t think Naylor is a platonist, but I think his chapter plays to much into the pragmatic platonism of broader evangelicalism today.

So, if Jesus really does care about the poor, even the poor outside the covenant community, it isn’t a leap to say that the church (at least the church scattered) should imitate Jesus in this way.  The Apostles (and non-Apostles) are imitating Jesus in these ways all the time in the book of Acts.  In addition, while Naylor quotes offhand Gal 6:10 on p. 163, he never considers whether Keller is merely calling the church scattered to live out that passage in doing justice and mercy.

Another muddy point by Naylor is that Keller’s citation of OT texts aren’t relevant since those only applied to Israel in the Mosaic covenant, so we aren’t to imitate OT Israel’s care for the poor, widows, and strangers.  Yet, Naylor doesn’t give any hermeneutical guidelines as to why we shouldn’t imitate Israel at some points in caring for the marginalized.  The issue of OT-NT continuity and discontinuity is not an easy topic, and even Reformed covenant theology doesn’t decide all these issues.

Another criticism I have of Naylor  is how he presents Keller as someone who is against private proverty and is for compulsory socialism.  Naylor eventually concludes that Keller contradicts WCF 26.3 where the confession states that Christians in communion aren’t obligated to give up their property.  Yet, I have never read anything from Keller indicating he is for socialism or compulsory giving.  Even if Naylor wishes to critique the notion of ‘generous justice’ and Keller’s equating a greedy Christian with a robber (p. 153), both Naylor and Keller agree that a Christian who isn’t generous with their resources is in sin.  And that  point is really what Keller is trying to get across in preaching on greed and justice.

III. Word and Deed…Imbalanced?

Naylor ends his chapter in claiming that a church seeking to be socially active in deeds of justice and mercy is “unbalanced” (p. 163) and that a church’s energies will be absorbed and prohibit it from fulfilling the Great Commission (p. 162).  I don’t doubt that some, perhaps many, churches resonate with this, but has Naylor looked at Keller’s church?  Redeemer Presbyterian Church is well-known for its diaconal ministries, but Redeemer gets the most press for Keller’s contextualized gospel-centered preaching and his apologetic work with skeptics.  So, while there is plenty of deed ministry going around, there is even more Word ministry happening.  Perhaps that testified to John Stott’s insight that Word and deed ministry must always be kept in step or else you will lose the power of both.

In addition, Naylor is stretching it in saying that a church engaging in justice and mercy ministry is trying to take on the role of the state.  Such an assertion is never backed up with evidence.  In addition, Naylor’s comment that the apostles never sought to change the political climate (p. 160) isn’t well-thought out.  If Naylor means that the Apostles didn’t lobby on Capitol Hill and have rallies, then he is correct.  But political subversion is done in a multitude of ways.  The Apostle Paul was subverting the cultural institution of slavery in writing to Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and to not punish him.  The book of Revelation is a very politically charged book (though not ultimately about politics).  The early creed that “Jesus is Lord” had many political ramifications in it.  The church (organized and organic!) challenged, subverted, and witnessed against the political climate of the age in a multitude of ways.

IV. Conclusion

In reading this chapter, I wonder if the essential disagreement between Naylor and Keller is their definition of a disciple of Jesus.  If the Great Commission is about making disciples (who, in turn, make more disciples), the question is, what is a disciple?  Jesus gives a clue in Matt 28 in saying that disciples should be taught everything commanded by Jesus, then it seems that Keller believes that Jesus calls his disciples to do justice and mercy.  If that is the case, it isn’t unbiblical for the church organized/gathered to promote, pray for, and support such endeavors.  I can’t see the Galatian Christians reading Gal 6:10, gathering together to talk about what it looks like to do good in their community so that they have an inroad to gospel proclamation, and then Paul comes in and says, “No! No!  Don’t get together and do this…just do it as individual members.”

So, when even Reformed people talk about the Great Commission, it seems that the primary emhasis should be on disciple-making, with gospel preaching as one (major) avenue to produce disciples.


2 thoughts on ““Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 4 “The Church’s Mission: Sent to ‘Do Justice’ in the World?” (Peter J. Naylor)

  1. I looked through this today and was astounded at some of the gross misrepresentations of Dr Keller’s work. Although I would agree with Peter Naylor that Dr Keller over-emphasises the role of the church in poor-relief, nevertheless, the accusation that he is opposed to private property is totally ridiculous. Trying to marshall the Westminster Confession against so-called wealth redistribution (i.e. poor relief, care for the weak, and so on) is really quite self-defeating. The Westminster Confession was the Confession of the Church of Scotland, whose Second Book of Discipline demanded that the magistrate fund poor relief and works of mercy. Indeed, paternalistic civil government is part of the establishment principle which is enshrined in the original Westminster Confession. See this post for more: http://reformedcovenanter.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/libertarian-theology-and-the-covenanted-reformation-towards-a-reformed-political-theology/

  2. Interesting. Substract really is a word (though autocorrect doesn’t recognize it). The only other person I’ve seen use it was my Dutch Economics prof at BU. And I thought it was just his accent. You are in rather elite company. He too, I believe, was a professing Christian based on one conversation we had.
    Odd that he thinks that by doing mercy we are taking over the role of the State. I’ve always seen it the other way around. Mercy is our responsibility. We also have a place for pursuing justice.
    The chapter on hermeneutics should examine this guy’s hermeneutics. Is there any place for 2 Tim. 3:12ff. Is not the OT supposed to make us wise for salvation and also prepare the godly man for good works?
    Sad that he would essentially make false accusations. I’m sure Tim loved reading this part wondering if they understood anything he said. I have no worries of a social gospel or the emphasis being on cosmic justice because he so frequently discusses justification and the gospel in his ministry of the Word. One book and a few lectures does not make one out of balance.

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