The Church: Cancer? or Blessing?

The conversation below between Tim Keller and James K.A. Smith is wonderful discussion about the church and our culture that will appear in this Fall's Comment Magazine. This is an important read for all of us. I hope you will be challenged and encouraged as well as humbled and inspired. The church matters not only for the sake of our souls, but for the preservation of society. 


Why the church being the church is a gift to society.

by Timothy Keller with James K.A. Smith                                                         August 17th, 2017


 Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan might be famous for its recently retired preacher, Tim Keller; and many Comment readers will know Redeemer as the home base for Kuyperian endeavours like the Center for Faith and Work. But in a recent conversation, Dr. Keller and Comment editor in chief James K.A. Smith discussed how the nitty-gritty work of pastoral care and church discipline is fundamental to the church's witness in a globalized world. Here's the first part of that conversation. The rest can be found in Comment's upcoming Fall 2017 issue, A Church for the World.

James K.A. Smith: In our Fall 2017 issue we're considering the church as a crucial aspect of what we call "social architecture." To use a helpful distinction from Abraham Kuyper, we believe that the church as "institute"—the people of God gathered around Word and sacrament—plays a role in the common good and in the public good. It's not just the church as an "organism" —the "sent" church—that has a public role to play. That's why the health of the church is actually important for society. What do you think about that formulation? Is there anything about it that makes you nervous?

Tim Keller: No. There's a place where Lesslie Newbigin says there's a name for cells in the body that only reproduce and don't do anything else for the rest of the body: "cancer." If the church is an alternate world, if it's supposed to be what human life would look like under the lordship of Christ, if it's supposed to be a counterculture, it should be filled with people who are reaching out and who are repairing other people and repairing neighbourhoods and so forth.

The danger would be saying that the purpose of the church is to serve the world. Actually it’s not; it’s to serve the Lord. But it will serve the world if it’s serving the Lord.

It certainly would seem that, automatically, if the church is the church, it helps the world. It has to. But the danger would be saying that the purpose of the church is to serve the world. Actually it's not; it's to serve the Lord. But it will serve the world if it's serving the Lord.

JS: That reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas's concern about turning the church into a chaplain for the state. You're saying that if the church is serving the Lord, and if it is forming disciples who are seeking God's glory, by virtue of our vocation there's going to be a spillover effect that should contribute to a wider good.

TK: Yeah. There's a place in Calvin's Institutes where he says, "You may not think you owe your neighbour anything, but because of the image of God in your neighbour, you do. Because you see God in your neighbour, because your neighbour's made in the image of God." He even goes so far, I think, to say, "Don't look at your neighbour and say, ‘What does my neighbour deserve from me?' Say, ‘What does God deserve from me?' and then when you see the image of God in him there he is."

He says that on the "creation" level, so to speak. At the level of redemption, you have a man, Jesus Christ, who died for you and poured himself out for you while you were an enemy. Your neighbour is probably not even your enemy, he's just not a Christian. Calvin essentially says you owe your neighbour a great deal. You owe him help; you owe this person the sacrifice of service. You are not neutral.

Our thanks to Aaron Burden for the photo from Unsplash

Crosland Stuart