A recent article by James Wood recounts his evolution from a fanboy of Tim Keller to a critic. His argument sparked a flurry of responses, both positive and negative.1 Though I think enough has been said about Wood’s general argument, there is a particular line of thought found in his article that demands further attention.
Wood states that for years he loved Keller’s approach to politics which was winsome, missional and gospel-centered. But Wood is concerned that the time for winsomeness has passed. Not long ago, we lived in a “neutral world” that viewed Christianity as an idiosyncratic lifestyle option. Now, however, we are in a “negative world” where Christianity is perceived as immoral and undermining the social good.2 Wood feels that Keller’s model was well suited to the “neutral world” but that it is no longer viable in the “negative world” that now dominates our culture. He worries that winsomeness, when it meets with hostility, tends toward self-doubt, weakness of conviction, and succumbing to accommodationist temptations. These are hardly the qualities that our cultural moment demands of faithful Christians.
Wood is offering a pragmatic argument against winsomeness. He is not opposed to it in theory. At times it can be a very good approach. He just believes that this is not such a time.
As a person who has written books titled Winsome Persuasion and Winsome Conviction,3 this is the sort of argument about which I should care. Although I’m tempted to take up the gauntlet and argue that winsomeness is more pragmatic than some think, such an argument would miss my primary concern, which is that gentleness and respect are clearly taught, modeled, and commanded in Scripture. We can’t opt out for pragmatic reasons. The real question we should be asking ourselves is, “Have we become moral relativists when it comes to biblical teaching about gentleness?”
Moral relativism doesn’t reject biblical teaching out of hand, just when it is inconvenient or unhelpful in reaching a desired outcome. A moral relativist on biblical sexual ethics, for example, may happily follow biblical teaching as long it agrees with what he or she wants to do anyhow. I see this sort of relativism regarding biblical teaching on gentleness. Gentleness is fine for small talk about small matters, but when the stakes are high, the battle must be won by any means necessary. Outrageous times demand outraged responses. It happens across the political spectrum. For progressives, it looks like this:
You can’t invoke gentleness and respect when someone’s knee is on your throat. In fact, the real reason people appeal to gentleness and respect is that they don’t want to confront the structures of oppression. Civility is a tool that is used to silence the voice of the disenfranchised.
Conservatives have a similar line of thought:
When elections are stolen, there is no time for gentleness. The time for civility is past. We aren’t going to bow to the cultural elite any longer. We have to “own the libs,” boldly speak conservative thought in ways that are infuriating, flummoxing or otherwise distressing to liberals.
The middle has its own problem with gentleness. It is not that the middle refuses to speak with gentleness, it is that they don’t speak at all. They see strife and animosity permeating our conversations and they simply opt out. They choose to be silent. Unfortunately, that leaves only the most polarized and disdainful voices to be heard.
If we quit thinking pragmatically about gentleness, and lean in to thinking biblically about it, here’s a few things we discover:
Jesus models gentleness. In Matt 11:28-30, describes himself as gentle and lowly in spirit, and he does this in a context where he is asking us to follow his example and take on this yoke.
Jesus’s gentleness is a fulfillment of prophecy. One might think that gentleness was just a personality trait Jesus happened to find on his Strength Finder test. But just a few verses after Jesus describes his gentle yoke, we discover that his gentleness was actually a fulfillment of a prophecy:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
…I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory; and in his name Gentiles will hope.” (Matt 12:17-21)
In our current circumstances, what is most shocking in this passage is not that gentleness was prophesied of the Messiah, but that it was Jesus’s favored way to advocate for social justice.
Gentleness is also the plea of the apostles for the Body of Christ (Eph 4:1-3). Paul urges us to walk in a manner worthy of Christ. In light of what we have just said about Christ, it is unsurprising that Paul characterizes a Christ-like manner by humility and gentleness.
Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:25-6). Gentleness, and a host of other gentle-like virtues such as patience and kindness, are listed among the Holy Spirit’s fruit in our lives. The proof that the root of the Holy Spirit has taken hold in our hearts is that we bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives–and that fruit includes gentleness.
The list goes on and on. Gentleness is a necessary qualification for Christian leadership (1Tim 3:3). Gentleness is essential for our response to non-believers (1 Pet 3:15). Gentleness is essential for restoration from sin and failure (Gal 6:1). Perhaps most relevant for our times, Paul even suggests gentleness be applied to even the most extreme cases, cases where people have been snared by the devil and captured to do his will (2 Tim 2:24-26).
Finally, in James 3:13-18 we are offered a contrast of divine and earthly wisdom. Divine wisdom is peaceable, gentle and open to reason. Earthly wisdom is false to the truth, unspiritual and demonic. James denounces earthly wisdom with terms normally reserved heresy or apostasy. He suggests that persistently and unrepentantly refusing to practice gentleness and respect toward others is a mark of a person who follows an earthly wisdom that is false to the truth, unspiritual and demonic. James didn’t appear to be a moral relativist when it comes to gentleness.
Having spoken about this publicly in many settings, I have discovered that there is drop-the-mike rebuttal to this line of thought: “Jesus turned over the tables in the temple!” But let me pick up the mike and offer a few words in defense of gentleness even in wake of overturned tables.
Yes, Jesus did say and do some hard things that don’t appear to be gentle. Paul did likewise (Gal 5:12, Acts 23:3) and so did James (James 5:1-6). But this is a tension for all of us. If Jesus turned over the tables, we all have a problem with his teaching of gentleness; if Jesus was gentle and lowly in spirit, then we all have a problem with his turning over the tables. This is only a drop-the-mike argument if we are content to cut something out of Scripture. If we want to take all of Scripture seriously, we all have to think about this a little more deeply.
Here’s a few thoughts to get us started. First, gentleness does not mean, it cannot mean, a lack of discernment and an absence of moral conviction. It cannot mean a denial of final judgment, or even a refusal to speak hard words of temporal judgment. Perry Glanzer helpfully describes gentleness as the sensitivity and willingness to forego power for the sake or benefit of another. Gentleness is a caring, calm, humility that allows one to see others as God sees them. In short, gentleness is not about whether we say hard words, it is about how we say hard words. Gentleness is not a refusal to engage, but a posture of engagement. What does gentle engagement look like? Honestly, one of the best places I could point you is to Tim Keller’s track record over 40 years of public ministry.
Furthermore, if one appeals to Jesus as an example of jettisoning gentleness because of extreme circumstances, it would be good to attend carefully to the circumstances. Who was he responding to in his apparently ungentle moments like cleansing the temple and speaking woes to the Pharisees? Matthew describes these people as “shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and who neither enter, nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matt 23:13-14). To put it simply, what is at stake is a matter of eternal destiny not a mask mandate.
The Gospels are also fond of noting that Jesus “knew what was in their hearts.” Jesus knew when someone was resisting the Holy Spirit or on the verge of committing an unpardonable sin. He wasn’t just angry; he was making a considered moral judgment based on real knowledge. This does not mean that we must have divine knowledge to speak a word of judgment, but we should at least make a concerted effort to know and understand the other person before calling them a white-washed sepulcher or turning over their tables.
In conclusion, I suggest we take Jesus’ yoke upon us—the yoke of a gentle and lowly spirit. In so doing, we will find rest for our souls. And a community of souls who have found rest is the surest road to becoming a community of peace.
- To offer just a few: David French, “A Critique of Tim Keller Reveals the Moral Devolution of the New Christian Right,” https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/a-critique-of-tim-keller-reveals; Rod Dreher, “Tim Keller & Myxomatosis Christians – The American Conservative,” https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/tim-keller-david-french-myxomatosis-christians/?mc_cid=b2aa2f25ac&mc_eid=7086c53d9c; Samuel D. James, “Is It Time to Move Past Tim Keller?,” Substack newsletter, Insights(blog), May 8, 2022, https://samueldjames.substack.com/p/is-it-time-to-move-past-tim-keller.
- Wood is using these terms in a technical sense that is drawn from Aaron Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism.
- Tim Muehlhoff, Richard Langer, forward by Quentin J. Schultze, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World(Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017); Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2020).