8 things I learned from Tim Keller’s leadership: A personal tribute

November 22, 2017

I first met Tim Keller 11 years ago. I believed it then, and I still believe it now—he is the best English-speaking Christian preacher, thinker, and visionary of our time. And yet, having also gotten to serve “up close” under his leadership, there are other things about Tim that endear him to me, even more than these things. I suppose that now is as good a time as any to tell about them, because that’s what you do when one of your mentors announces such a significant transition (Tim announced his retirement from pastoral ministry this past summer). So here are a few important things that Tim’s example has taught me:

1. First, in this weird and troubling age of Christian celebrity where platform-building, fame-chasing, green room-dwelling, and name-dropping can easily replace gospel virtues, Tim Keller inspired me with his reluctance to participate in or even flirt with the trappings of Christian celebrity. He never chased the spotlight. He never tried to make a name for himself. The counsel of Jeremiah to his secretary, “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jer. 45:5), seemed like a life philosophy for Tim as well. Always shy about himself and boastful about Jesus, his ambition is to advance Jesus’ kingdom spiritually, socially, and culturally—whether through Redeemer or (notably) through promoting and supporting other churches and leaders.

2. Second, Tim Keller waited until he was almost 60 years old to publish his first trade book. Humbly, he wanted to wait until he was old and wise enough to write the best possible book he could on any given subject. No doubt, his book writing pace since then has made up for lost time.

3. Third, in a time of posturing, comparing, and competing—a time when many pastors see each other as obstacles to overcome versus kingdom co-laborers to pray for and applaud—Tim has always been the latter. Instead of trying to position Redeemer as New York’s Walmart of churches that would swallow up “the competition” with its superior offerings, Tim consistently leveraged time, resources, and energy to build a church planter training organization through which to bring more church planters, and with them more churches, into the city of New York. He was happy to see other NYC pastors succeed and other NYC churches thrive, even if it meant that Redeemer’s “slice of the pie” might become smaller as a result.

Tim Keller never had a market share mentality about Christians in his city, and he never targeted members of other churches, either overtly or covertly, so as to lure them to his own church. Instead, he focused on reaching the unreached, paying special attention to the skeptic and the seeker. If someone left Redeemer for another church, rather than getting snippy or defensive about it, Tim would say something like, “Well, that’s a good thing. It’s going to make [that church] that much stronger. And that’s what we want—for all the churches in New York to be stronger. Redeemer is a sending church, after all, and this includes sending some of our best members to other NYC area churches.”

4. Fourth, even though Redeemer grew and grew (and grew and grew and grew) under his gifted leadership, Tim never embraced the mindset of “bigger and bigger.” Rather, he emphasized quality of ministry over quantity of seats filled (ironically, it is virtually impossible to find a seat at the typical Redeemer service). Early on, his and Kathy’s vision was to plant and pastor a small to medium-sized church in a single neighborhood of Manhattan, with maybe 350 or so people as their community. They never aspired for Redeemer to become a megachurch. Instead, they preferred to be one of many contributors to a broader movement of churches and denominations that would, together, serve their city.

Even now, they talk about their hope that the future Redeemer under the leadership of four congregational pastors—David Bisgrove, Abe Cho, John Lin and Michael Keller—will emerge into a movement that is not mega, but rather a network of numerous, well-contextualized, mid-size churches that serve New York’s many unique neighborhoods. Tim is finishing pastoral ministry with the same mindset with which he started—not to turn Redeemer into a great church, per se, but rather to participate as contributors to a broader movement to make NYC a great city that resembles the City of God.

5. Fifth, as Tim’s influence grew over the years, so did his dependence on and personal engagement with the hidden, ordinary graces, such as daily Scripture reading and prayer. His long-time habit is to pray through Psalms every month and read the entire Bible every year. He also maintains, at age 66, a youthful posture of learning that has him reading about 150 books per year. The prayer that I began praying for myself when I began writing books and serving as pastor of Christ Presbyterian, “Lord, give me character that is greater than my gifts, and humility that is greater than my influence,” was inspired chiefly by what I saw up close in Tim.

6. Sixth, Tim and Kathy have a strong marriage. They live their lives together and not separate—face-to-face in friendship, and side by side in mission; and that makes such a difference. Rumor has it that they speak Tolkien’s elvish language to each other in the privacy of their home (yes, they have some quirks). One of their favorite things to do is read and discuss books together. A little-known fact is that Kathy is equally as smart as Tim, if not smarter. As I understand it, Tim graduated [second] in his class at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. The person who graduated [at the top of the class] was Kathy. No wonder their kids are all so intelligent. It is rumored by some that Kathy is the ghostwriter for Tim’s sermons (not really, but she could be). And yet, Tim holds his own. The man can write a book faster than most of us can read a book.

7. Seventh, and as I have mentioned before, Tim Keller is one of the best examples I have seen of covering shame with the gospel. In five years of serving under his leadership, never once did I see him tear another person down to their face, on the Internet, or through gossip. Instead, he seemed to always assume the good in people. Occasionally, he would talk about how having the forgiveness and affirmation of Jesus frees us to “catch people doing good” instead of looking for things to criticize or be offended by. Even when someone had truly done wrong or been in error, Tim would respond with humble restraint and self-reflection instead of venting negativity and criticism.

Like the grace of God does, Tim Keller covered people’s flaws and sins, including mine on more than one occasion. He did this because that’s what grace does—it reminds us that in Jesus we are shielded and protected from the worst things about ourselves. Because Jesus shields us like this, we of all people should restore reputations versus destroying reputations, protect a good name versus calling someone a name, shut down gossip versus feeding gossip, and restore broken relationships versus begrudging broken people.

8. Finally, Tim Keller could receive criticism, most of which came from the outside and was almost always unfair, and it would bring out the best in him rather than bringing out the worst in him. By his words and example, he taught me that getting defensive about criticism rarely, if ever, leads to healthy outcomes. He also taught me that our critics, including the ones who mischaracterize and falsely accuse us as pastors, can sometimes be God’s instruments to teach and humble us as persons. In Tim’s words from one of my favorite essays of his:

First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides . . . So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.

If the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know you at all [and often this is the case on the internet], it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views [and motives] that I do not hold at all. When that happens it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. “Pathetic . . .” you may be tempted to say. Don’t do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace.

A decade or so ago, I moved with my family to New York City thinking I was going to get to serve alongside and learn from one of the greatest preachers and visionary leaders of our time. Indeed, I did get to do that, along with a few others. But even more than this, the man gave me (and us) what McCheyne said is the most important thing a minister can give to his people—his own holiness. For me, Tim’s life has painted notable pictures of integrity that exceeds  imperfections, character that exceeds giftedness, prayerfulness that exceeds pragmatism, others-centeredness that exceeds personal ambition, generosity that exceeds personal comfort, and humility that exceeds (even a stellar) impact.

And now, Tim is beginning to paint for us a picture of what it can look like to finish well. He is providing glimpses of what it can look like to say with one’s life and not merely with one’s lips, “I am, and always have been, unworthy to untie the straps on Jesus’ sandals. He must increase, and I must become less.” And yet, in becoming less, the man is becoming more. For as the man himself has said in sermons, “The less we presume to act like kings, the more like kings we shall be.”

Thank you, Tim, for helping me want to be a better pastor, communicator, and leader. Even more than this, thank you for helping me want to be a better man. I know that you’re not done running the race just yet, and that there is more to come from you in the training and equipping context. But I’m still going to miss you, sir.

This tribute is an excerpt from Scott Sauls’ new book, “From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership.” Used by permission from David C. Cook.

Scott Sauls

Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  A graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, Scott is married to Patti and is dad to Abby and Ellie. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24