3 questions with Tim Keller

Communications Staff — May 19, 2009

Tim Keller serves as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, N.Y.

Question: What do pastors need to be doing to lead their flock out of idolatry and into Christlikeness?

Tim Keller: The subject of idolatry is a lot more nuanced and complex than I could possibly get across in my talk at the Gospel Coalition conference. I made an allusion to the fact that idolatry sometimes is talked about in the Bible under the heading of spiritual adultery. It is also sometimes talked about under the heading of spiritual mastery and slavery. When Paul talks about those who are slaves to sin: all of those categories are actually talking about idolatry.

Most preachers feel like ‘If I‘m going to preach about idols, I have to tell people what an idol is.’ What they don’t have in mind is: idolatry is at the root of all of our psychological problems, moral problems, cultural issues, our political problems. It is such a pervasive category in the bible. For example, at the end of 1 John 5, even though idols have not been listed — he has been saying, ‘Walk in holiness,’ ‘Walk in the light,’ ‘Walk in love,’ ‘Walk in truth,’ — at the very end he says, ‘Keep yourself from idols.’ The word idolatry isn’t anywhere in there before the last verse. What that means is, we don’t think deeply enough. We just look at the behavioral level and say ‘Stop doing this, start doing this,’ and we don’t realize that there is an idolatrous reason behind each behavioral issue. For example, behind the belief that women should be ordained is the need for power and a love for feeling in charge.

To get a grasp on the pervasiveness of idolatry, I would say the first thing you would need to do is that you need to get a better grip on the subject. Most of the Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF) stuff on changing, talks about idolatry, particularly about psychological idols. You could read a politically liberal Christian or a political conservative to understand what’s going on in culture. There are a whole lot of other books that are now being produced on the idea of idolatry in the church…and I think what a minister needs to do is get that into their bloodstream so they are always preaching with idolatry in mind. I think you have to understand the concept pretty deeply and then it will influence the way in which you preach and the way in which you pastor.

Q: What safeguards should 20-something pastors have in place to avoid the idolatry of ministry fame and the attitude of big numbers equals success?

TK: If you know it is a danger, that is a very important start. Additionally, when you find yourself unusually discouraged because things aren’t growing or people aren’t listening to you — you have to catch yourself. You have to realize ‘This is an inordinate amount of discouragement, which reveals the idolatry of justification by ministry.’ Meaning, you say you believe in justification by grace, but you feel like and are acting like you believe in justification by ministry. You have to recognize you are making something of an idol out of ministry. When you do experience inordinate discouragement because things aren’t going well, you need to say, ‘It’s okay to be discouraged but not to be this discouraged. This is discouragement that leads to idolatry,’ and you repent.

Additionally, idols create a fantasy world. You may think that you are just thinking about ministry strategy, but it could be you’re fantasizing about success. So be careful about doing too much daydreaming about success, what you would like to see happen. Because it’s really a kind of pornography. You’re actually thinking about a beautiful church and people acclaiming you: be careful about fantasizing too much about ministry success and dreaming about it and thinking about what it’s going to look like.

Q: What are your favorite and least favorite elements of New York city?

TK: New York city is the greatest place to live. As my wife would say, there would be no better place to live in the whole world as long as you have someone following behind you with a wheelbarrow full of money. What I like about it is its diversity and vitality, but what I don’t like, frankly, is how expensive it is.

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