Princeton and Tim Keller: Why complementarians need to realise graciousness cuts both ways

The conservative backlash against Princeton Theological Seminary's recent decision to rescind the Kuyper Prize awarded to Tim Keller has proved to be a fascinating insight into what happens when the views of the status quo are challenged – no matter how graciously.

Two emails sent by seminary President Craig Barnes to the Princeton community, detailed in a blog post by PCUSA pastor Traci Smith, could not give a more different impression about the situation than many of the pieces written about it as the outrage in support of Keller mounted.

Tim Keller was denied an award by Princeton Seminary because of his complementarian views.Facebook/Timothy Keller

'Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions,' wrote Barnes, discussing the fact that while Keller will not receive the prize, he will still give a talk at the seminary.

'So my hope is that we will receive Rev Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.'

Both emails make it clear that while Princeton Theological Seminary respects Keller and his ministry, it was felt it would be wrong to give the Kuyper Prize to an individual who so publicly stands against certain core values of the institution – values that have most likely made many students feel unwelcomed by the Church.

In contrast, a number of pieces written in the aftermath of the decision being made public have painted a picture of 'left-wing intolerance' and 'gender fundamentalists' whose 'petty' and exclusionary behaviour should 'outrage progressives'. 'Nothing matches the closed-mindedness of the supposedly open-minded,' opened one article, while another claimed that the decision shows the institution believes more conservative Christians are 'unworthy of honor' – a sentiment completely absent from the emails sent by Craig Barnes, which explained that: 'In the grace and love of Jesus Christ, we strive to be a community that can engage with generosity and respect those with whom we disagree about important issues.'

There has been talk of Keller being 'bullied' and he and his views being 'marginalised' – a laughable accusation when the man in question is one of the most famous and well-respected ministers in the USA, whose views on gender and sexuality are completely in line with those of wider evangelical culture. Recent research from Barna Groupfound that just 39 per cent of evangelicals surveyed would be comfortable with a female priest or pastor, compared to 62 per cent of practising Christians overall.

As Keller himself has commented, his views on gender roles are actually considered 'liberal' by many evangelical churches, because he believes that the only role in a church not open to women is that of an 'elder' and claims to take a view that is far from a 'traditionalist' or hardline complementarian one.

A notable feature of support for Keller has been the calls for 'unity' and inclusivity across theological divides – that something widely acknowledged as not a 'Gospel' or 'first order' issue should not divide Christians to such an extent. This isn't unusual. Time and time again, Christians who support women's ordination and leadership are implored to think of unity and put aside their beliefs in order to work with and include those with more traditional views on gender. This would, perhaps, be less of an issue if complementarian evangelical churches and organisations were willing to extend the same courtesy to egalitarians.

But in US evangelical culture – the culture of Tim Keller and organisations such as The Gospel Coalition(TGC), which he helped found in 2005 – this 'unity' across the divide of beliefs about gender and sexuality is often absent. Egalitarian and LGBT-affirming views are unwelcome; conservative gender theology is a key part of statements of belief; an affirming stance towards women's ordination is often cited as the first step on the slippery slope to heresy and the downfall of churches.

No-one is surprised when TGC's conferences fail to give a platform to anyone who does not completely align with their beliefs, despite this week's calls for egalitarians to stop being so 'exclusionary'. It simply does not happen.

If unity and acceptance is key here, it has also been interesting to note that several pieces written in support of Keller have been overtly disparaging of the progressive views of Princeton Theological Seminary, painting egalitarian and LGBT-inclusive beliefs as hallmarks of a 'failed and dying' Church, even a 'non-Christian' one. Conservatives cannot make demands for inclusion and unity from more progressive Christians at the same time as expressing such sentiments. They cannot expect to make no attempt to include those who hold different beliefs until they find themselves in the same situation.

The furore over Keller has also shown that there is still little understanding of the structural issues behind how conservative teaching on gender roles can impact people, sometimes leaving them deeply hurt and traumatised. Many of his supporters have bristled at Carol Howard Merritt's description of complementarian theology as 'toxic', jumping to Keller's defence to state that he is absolutely not a misogynist and in fact a good person who would never oppress women. One piece written partly in response to Merritt's suggested that her use of words such as 'abuse' is offensive to those who have experienced 'genuine abuse' and that terms like 'toxic theology' should be reserved for teaching that goes against the Gospel.

Tim Keller may not be the most conservative high profile complementarian you can think of, but there is no doubt that complementarian teaching and practice – highly patriarchal and oppressive at its most extreme – has caused deep hurt to many Christians. To critique this is not to slam Keller's ministry or his personal actions; it is simply fact.

Countless people have been left wounded by hardline teaching on gender that has the potential to impact so many aspects of church and family life. It's not just a question of who is permitted to lead a church – although for those called to leadership, having this dismissed and ignored is undoubtedly damaging too. To say that Christians need to focus on supposedly more important injustices instead gives out an unpleasant message that minimises the pain caused to so many.

Perhaps those upset by accusations that conservative teaching on gender is 'toxic' should focus their ire on the damage caused by the more extreme end of the complementarian spectrum rather than on those hurt by it. Minimising the problem by saying that those sharing their experiences are 'overreacting' will never build trust and unity across theological divides; in fact it's more likely to give the impression that maintaining a position of power is what's truly important to complementarians.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge