On naming ministries after individuals (again)

Here we go again.

Let me get the usual disclaimers out the way first. I like Don Carson. I think Don Carson has been a gift to the church. I think Don Carson is an excellent and helpful theologian. I am thankful for the life and ministry of Don Carson. I nevertheless think naming a Centre for Theological Renewal after him is a very bad idea.

If you think all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We of course had Ravi Zacharias International Ministries named after Ravi Zacharias and built around Ravi Zacharias and ending in the ministry disgrace of Ravi Zacharias. We then had the Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics named after Tim Keller. This time, not built around Tim Keller per se, but so-named as an honorific. That got into hot water no sooner than it began thanks to one of its number writing a less than well received book. But pay no attention to those missteps, for TGC have now launched the Carson Centre for Theological Renewal. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, notwithstanding the specific above examples, I wrote a whole blog post when they opened the Keller Centre on what might go wrong. You can read that here. But to save you the trouble, and rather than re-state the whole thing again, some choice excerpts are below.

There is the issue of who were are actually putting front and centre in our ministry:

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. 

There are the issues evidently associated with sinners in general:

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.

There are the issues of making someone a target for Satanic attack:

Whilst any of us might fall, some of us seriously and publicly so, it does seem the bigger your public profile, the more Satan senses 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?

There are the issues of ongoing fruit for the ministry if a man should fall:

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?

There are the evident problems we may induce for an individual:

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?

I think there are a range of questions it raises and the possible answers often not good:

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? 

Even if you think most of these concerns over-stated or unwarranted, the truth is there is no need for any of these things to be at issue at all. We can name our centre or ministry whatever we want without a man’s name in it. We can free ourselves from these concerns and avoid them altogether by just not putting an individual front and centre. The discernible value of doing so (and I’m not sure what it is) weighed against the potential problems should make it a no-brainer.

I am sure the purpose behind the centre is laudable. I am sure it could be a real gift to the church in its own right. But we can have those things without linking it so tightly to an individual and their legacy. Names do matter, at least a bit. They certainly convey things. Those things may be helpful or unhelpful. Our name fronts what our ministry is about. Making it about the honour and glorification of the individual you have named it after seems sub-Christian. I am sure those same people whom we are trying to honour are lauded by us because their own ministries existed to point people to Jesus. It would do everyone good if our nomenclature was concerned with doing that too, pointing people to Jesus or the things associated with him, rather than making much of individuals who are lauded only because they wanted Jesus to be made much of too.


  1. More like Lancastrian realism. Thoroughly agree. All leaders write and speak into their generation, so they haven’t left and can’t leave an unchanging legacy.

  2. I will soon be announcing The Stephen Kneale Centre for Contrarian Common Sense…

    1. The Tim Challies Naming Centre for Naming Things After People will be a vital cog in evangelicalism’s endeavours to name things after people unhelpfully and unnecessarily.

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