The problem with ministries as honorifics

The Gospel Coalition have announced the opening of the Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics. You can read about it here. And I know lots of Brits are dunking on this at the moment, but there is a good reason.

The vast majority of the conservative evangelical world have a lot of time for Tim Keller. I know not everyone agrees with everything the dude says. But, knowing none of us are perfect, he’s a good man who has served the church well. He is someone who most of us have read, given away books of his and used his courses in our churches. Many conservative evangelicals have benefitted in some way from him. But good as he may be, naming a new ministry/centre after him is not.

I know this issue is not a uniquely American issue. But there is no doubt it is a particular thing to which Americans seem drawn. I can’t say what the motive is here for sure, but I’d be willing to bet it is an attempt at honouring a man they respect. Keller is a good man, he has served the church well – particularly in the area of apologetics – let’s name our new endeavour in honour of him. It should be said, the impulse – of itself – is not a bad one. I get the impulse, I really do. Honouring people is right and godly when done in appropriate ways. But I think when it takes this form it is a mistake, one to which the American church seems overly prone.

For one, much as we may want to honour people this way, when we tie their names to particular ministries we necessarily centre the ministry with them. What is the first thing you think of when you hear about the Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics? I suspect it isn’t Jesus. Nor does it sound like it is pointing us to Jesus or anything associated with him. The honour in the name is all Keller’s. That isn’t to say you have to shoehorn Jesus’ name into stuff, or you can’t ever have a ministry with another name in it, but you would hope a ministry name would do more to put you in mind of what it is about rather than seeming to centre on a particular individual.

That aside, we all know the recent problems that have come from ministries centred on one man, named after particular well-known living men. It is interesting to see some of the names involved in the Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics are some of the same people involved in Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). It is really difficult to see how the lessons of that unfortunate episode in modern Evangelical history have so quickly been forgotten by those who were themselves associated with it.

Even if we reckon the primary issue with RZIM is that it was built around one unaccountable man – and I trust the Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics will not be that – it doesn’t take a genius to see how this naming convention may cause problems. Tim Keller would be the first to admit – along with anyone else with a modicum of understanding of what the Bible says – that he is a sinner. Not only a sinner, but a sinner who is still very much alive and capable of falling into sin. At a minimum, we might want to be asking questions about the wisdom of naming a ministry in honour of a sinful man who – and we trust this will not happen – has not yet run his race.

Whilst any of us might fall, some of us seriously and publicly so, it does seem the bigger your public profile, the more Satan sense value in painting a target on your back. If a particular individual is closely associated with a specific ministry, especially if their name is enshrined in the organisation’s branding, if that bears any fruit at all, might we be unnecessarily tempting Satan to do his worst?

If (and I am choosing to believe this was not Keller’s own decision) you are opting to name a ministry after yourself, why on earth would you want to make yourself a target like that? If (and I suspect this is more likely) others have decided it is a good idea to name something after you in your honour, why would you do that to someone else? Why would you actively choose to make their spiritual life harder that way for no discernible benefit? Particularly someone you love and admire! If, God forbid, there is some serious sin, why would you tie the fortunes of your organisation – which I assume you want to be fruitful and to achieve something valuable for the kingdom – to the actions of a one man so tightly? Don’t you want the fruitful work (such as there is any) to continue entirely apart from what one man does or doesn’t do? These things all seem unnecessarily unwise to me for minimal, if any, particular benefit.

I am not of the view that it is always wrong to name your ministry after someone. But I am of the view that it is a mistake to name a ministry after someone because it is a way to honour them. I am of the view it is unwise, and potentially dangerous, to do that whilst such a person is still alive. I struggle to see how it isn’t a matter that will only tempt towards pride, with little value in the actual act itself, and runs the risk that sin may yet be crouching at the door and bring down your whole enterprise because you associated it so closely with an individual. And, much like the story of the fox and the scorpion, what exactly do we think is in the nature of a sinner? Why actively create a scenario where such things might be at issue when they can be avoided with no loss of value?

There are many other things we might want to say about this endeavour, not all of them bad by any stretch. But in the end, we have to ask what do we want our ministry to be known for? If we don’t ultimately want it to be about a particular man who is still around to see it, then we probably shouldn’t write his name into our nomenclature. If we do want it to centre around a particular man, we have no business calling the thing a Christian ministry (unless, of course, that man is Jesus).

I can see we may choose to write in the name of a bloke who is no longer around to be puffed up with pride. But if we are going to use such a person’s name, I still can’t see how it is helpful to do so as an honorific. If we are just venerating a dead bloke, I struggle to see how that is particularly better than venerating a living bloke (even if it is marginally, and I emphasise marginally, less dangerous). If we are using the name of someone from the past (particularly if they are largely unknown) for whom something happened which exemplifies what our ministry is about – and it isn’t particularly venerating the man themselves – I don’t see an issue with that. I don’t by any means think it is always wrong to use a person’s name in our title. There can be good reasons that are no issue at all. But if we are just venerating people, and using titles and organisations to honour their legacy (whether dead or alive), I just don’t see how that is helpful for anyone or wise for your organisation.

I think the key questions are: why are we using this person’s name? Why this particular man or woman? Are we trying to venerate a particular person? Are we trying to gain a hearing for what we’re doing by basking in the reflected glow of their celebrity? Are we expecting people to listen more to what we’re doing because we are associating ourselves with someone they respect? I am all for honouring and respecting those who have served us well. Truly I am. But I just don’t think this is a helpful or wise way to do it (if that is what we’re doing).