On August 30, 2021, Tim Keller, the Christian apologist and former senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, congratulated his friend Greg Epstein on Twitter for being elected the president of Harvard’s Chaplain group. The controversy for some reading Keller’s tweet is the fact that Epstein is an outspoken atheist.
Keller’s post read: “Congratulations, Greg, on your appointment. Greg is a friend whom I have debated and while I don’t agree with him on many things, I do wish him well.”
Some of Keller’s followers were confused by the best wishes tweet and responded by asking, “Pastor @timkellernyc, would you help me understand why this should be celebrated?” and ” Do u [sic] really think the apostle Paul would be congratulating him???”
“Congratulating a man who doesn’t believe in God to teach and represent as a man of God is antithetical…do better Keller,” another wrote.
Keller directed unhappy commenters to an article Pete Williamson, the team leader for InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Harvard, wrote for Christianity Today. Williamson’s article explained what being the president of Harvard’s Chaplain group entails.
Williamson Explains Voting for Atheist Chaplain
Williamson, who for the last seven years has worked at Harvard as an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship evangelical campus minister, explained in an op-ed for Christianity Today why he voted for Epstein to be the president of Harvard’s Chaplain Group.
The campus minister said his reasoning is based in the “unique, decentralized approach of the Harvard Chaplains and how that group of leaders from many faiths (or no faith) has opened doors for gospel-centered ministry on the campus of a prestigious Ivy League school.” Williamson blasted the media’s coverage regarding Epstein’s hiring, saying, “The real Harvard Chaplains Group—not the one poorly represented in the media—tells a different and very significant story of how evangelicals can flourish in interfaith spaces without compromising faith, truth, or mission.”
But Williamson also said he might have had the same negative reaction as people who only read the media reports had he not been in the “room” when the vote took place. “That room was of course a Zoom call.” Williamson along with the group of about 30 chaplains voted for Epstein. Epstein had been Harvard’s humanist chaplain for 15 years prior to being voted in as the president of Harvard’s Chaplain Group.
Williamson also attempted to clarify what the president’s role is comprised of. Williamson said, “Harvard has no ‘chief chaplain,’ and the president of the Harvard chaplains does not direct spiritual life on campus.” Explaining that the group is a “decentralized, nonhierarchical community of independent chaplaincies, with about 40 chaplains spanning roughly 25 denominations, organizations, traditions, and religions.” The president coordinates, assembles, and leads meetings, is the spokesperson between the chaplain group and the office of the president of Harvard University, and sometimes is the group’s representation at certain events.”
Williamson said presidents are “selected because they are trusted and competent members of our group.” He shared that his vote for Epstein was “motivated in part by my desire to build trust in an interfaith space where people hold sharply conflicting views and do not pretend otherwise.” Elaborating on why building that trust is important, Williamson said without it, “evangelicals would be relegated to the fringes. Instead, we are at the table, discussing truth in partnership with our fellow chaplains and being looked to for leadership in the diverse religious life of Harvard.”
Epstein’s mission as a chaplain isn’t to persuade others to become atheists, Williamson pointed out. The new president is there to serve students at Harvard who are without faith.
As the team leader for InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Harvard, Williamson boldly but gently rebuked some evangelicals’ reaction to an atheist being name the president of Harvard’s Chaplain Group. “Underneath the overreaching headline is a model of how evangelicals can flourish in interfaith spaces and do so without compromise. It’s a model evangelicals would do well to emulate rather than condemn,” he said.