The Heterosexuality of Tim Keller

The Heterosexuality of Tim Keller
October 26, 2021

By Gregory Coles. Greg is a Senior Research Fellow at The Center and is the author of Single, Gay, Christian and No Longer Strangers.


A few days ago, I stumbled across this video of Tim Keller making the following statement about human sexuality:


“If I was perfectly sanctified, I would have no ability to even… sexually desire a woman other than my spouse. But the fact is, because we’re not perfectly sanctified, all heterosexual men who are married have that ability to desire that, and that is illicit. And we have to be very careful not to say, ‘Well, to desire a man is unnatural, to desire a woman is natural, so one of those is a more sinful desire than the other.’ This text is actually saying ‘No’; that basically, they are both equally illicit, they are both equally wrong.”


The “text” Keller refers to is a lengthy report created for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) by their Ad Interim Committee (AIC) on Human Sexuality—a report of which Keller himself was a key author. Indeed, this particular video was created by Keller and fellow committee member Kevin DeYoung as part of their presentation of this report to the PCA’s 2021 General Assembly. Because I try (as much as humanly possible) to limit my commentary on denominations with which I’m not personally aligned, I won’t pretend to rehash all the controversies surrounding this particular document.

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I’m not even interested, for our present purposes, in dealing with Keller’s claim that the mere ability to experience sexual desire outside the covenant of marriage is itself sinful. (This view requires believing, as Keller argues later in the same video, that Jesus never experienced any sexual temptation. I confess I have difficulty squaring his argument with the assertion of Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus was tempted “in every way, just as we are” (NIV). Keller seems instead to propose that Jesus was tempted only in some ways, not precisely as we are. I prefer to interpret this biblical text more literally than Keller does—though I’d also readily admit that Keller’s theological mind is undoubtedly superior to mine in a multitude of ways.)


Rather than tackling any of these issues, I instead want to call your attention toward two notable features of Keller’s statement:


First, note the hand motion Keller makes at this moment in the video. As he says the phrase “all heterosexual men,” Keller holds his hand against his own chest, indicating that he is part of this category. He self-identifies with the label “heterosexual.”


Second, note the admirable way in which Keller levels the playing field between straight and gay followers of Jesus. He recognizes in humility that his own ongoing experience of attraction to the opposite sex (in ways that exceed his covenant marriage with Kathy) is “equally illicit” to another person’s ongoing experience of attraction to the same sex. In Keller’s framing, none of these experiences is more fallen or more in need of repentance than another. They are “both equally wrong.”


As a long-time appreciator of much of Keller’s work, I’m delighted to see him confess these two truths. I’m delighted by his recognition that his own built-in experience of sexuality is neither better nor worse than the experience of those who land on the other end of the Kinsey scale; and I’m likewise delighted that he’s comfortable naming his experience of sexuality with one of the most culturally familiar words for that experience: namely, “heterosexual.”


I confess to being a bit disappointed, however, that Keller does these things while defending a document which advises self-identified gay Christians to “leave behind identification language rooted in sinful desires” (in Statement 10 of the AIC report, p. 12). The heterosexuality of Tim Keller apparently exists in a world where my own homosexuality should be left unnamed. If Keller indeed believes that his own sexual state is no more or less rooted in “sinful desires” than mine, it’s difficult to see why I must abandon identification language when such language is still available to him. Why does Keller consider “heterosexual” an acceptable adjective for a Christian who experiences fallen sexual desires, if “homosexual” (or its contemporary counterpart “gay”) is not an acceptable adjective for a Christian who experiences fallen sexual desires?


Far more concerningly, I wonder why a report coauthored by Keller would imply that a same-sex-oriented person’s sanctification process might move them towards heterosexuality, when Keller himself seems aware that opposite-sex orientation is no more sanctified than same-sex orientation. Part of Statement 7 of the AIC report states:


“[T]he process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction).” (p. 10)


I appreciate this statement’s acknowledgment that discipleship for same-sex oriented people is not reducible to the realm of sexuality, and that movement towards heterosexuality should not be seen as the goal of that discipleship. Yet the statement nevertheless suggests that sanctification may indeed manifest itself in a shift towards opposite-sex attraction, even if sanctification cannot be “reduced” to this. I’m left wondering why, if Keller truly believes his spoken statement about the spiritual equality of heterosexual orientation and homosexual orientation, he imagines that a hypothetical progression from one orientation to another would have any bearing on a person’s sanctification.


To be clear, my goal here is not to pick on Tim Keller, for whom I hold great admiration (as well as some measure of disagreement). Nor is my goal to enumerate the strengths or weaknesses of the AIC report, which is part of an already-internecine PCA debate I have no desire to enter or exacerbate.


My point is simply this: Tim Keller seems to be okay using sexual identity language about himself and recognizing that same-sex orientation and opposite-sex orientation are both equal in their relationship to sinfulness and their capacity for holiness. I wish that more Christians of Keller’s ilk believed the truth of Keller’s words in this video—including Keller himself.