A Response to “The Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell”
Up until now I have stayed almost completely silent, at least in a public sense, about Rob Bell and any of the controversy surrounding him. He’s certainly been a figure that has garnered a fair share of debate, praise, and ire. I’ve tried to follow it all from a distance, as best I can. I have had many thoughts about it all, but have chosen not to say much about it. Today that is going to change.
To be clear, I’m writing mainly about Rob Bell, but more specifically in response to a piece that John Pavlovitz penned called “The Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell, and What It Says About the State of Modern Christianity“. You can read it for yourself by clicking on the title. I will attempt to respond to some of the points by posting quotes and interacting with them, but keep in mind that reading the full piece will give good context for the quotes as well as getting a feel for the tone. Nevertheless, what quotes I share here should be able to give you a feel for it – at least I am aiming to that end.
One point of full disclosure up front: I don’t know John Pavlovitz, nor have I ever spoken with him in person or even email. Ditto for Rob Bell. So I am writing from a distance, and I hope to be careful to treat these people and their views fairly. I don’t feel that responding publicly to them is out-of-step, despite not knowing them, because they both shared their views publicly, which warrants a public response. For whatever it’s worth, I give my 2 cents.
On to the article!
Let’s begin with the main point of the piece. The title suggests that the author is drawing attention to the current state of Christianity based on its response to Rob Bell – specifically, the “continued crucifying” of him. I think it would be fair to sum up the main point of the article something like this: Christians are often pretty mean to each other, and it shouldn’t be like that. The way many Christians have treated Rob Bell is a prime example. Pavlovitz states:
It all illustrates the sad state of the core of Evangelical Christianity in America, and why more and more people outside of it want no part of it.
We’ve lost the ability to welcome diversity of thought. We’ve made the Church a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and the most rigid understandings of God and Scripture.
We have two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy.
Specifically, the response to Rob Bell is called a “continued crucifying”, a stretch of terms for me but I get the point. Why did this happen to Bell? Pavlovitz explains:
Rob Bell’s sin, was simply that he didn’t stick to the script.
He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain.
In other words, because of Bell’s departure from what some might call orthodox Christianity, he was vilified, and ousted from the Evangelical world. Presumably this response could be restated something like this: “You don’t think like we do, Rob, so we’re voting you out.” Pavlovitz concludes his article by suggesting the way the watching world will view this whole thing:
I wonder what our response to Rob Bell is teaching them about us. It’s probably not good.
I think the main point of the article – that Christians don’t always respond to each other charitably, especially those who disagree with us – is extremely valid. Christians don’t always act in love towards one another, and perhaps especially so those who are most unlike us. This is not right. As Pavlovitz points out, loving one another is a core Christian virtue, and there are no conditional clauses added. We are to love everyone, those like us and those unlike us; those who agree and those who don’t. This is clear from Scripture, and it is true that the Church has not always acted out these values well. In a general sense I would agree totally.
Yet, based on many of the specifics that Pavlovitz shares in relation to Rob Bell, I must disagree. I don’t think that the general principal of love is broken by the way many Christians have handled Rob Bell, at least not in the way Pavlovitz characterizes it. Oh, certainly, I know there are Christians who have treated Bell wrongfully and spoken of him in ways that are sinful. Yet that seems like a small minority as I can see. Let me deal with some of the points raised in the article to show what I mean.
For starters, I get the sense that Pavlovitz and I might disagree on what exactly love is. He states early on:
For a people [Christians] whose go-to ideas are love for God and love for others, we Jesus folk are often pretty horrible toward one another, especially to those of us who attain any sort of position in the larger culture.
Based on the rest of the piece, it is suggested that the way Bell was/is treated is unloving. In what sense though? Christians who hold to certain truths about God and the Bible grew concerned with what Bell began teaching over the course of time, and determined that he was straying from Biblical truth. Wether you think that to be true or not is besides the point. If Christians begin to think that a person of Bell’s massive influence is starting to err on important, central Christian truths, would we not expect them to want to distance themselves from him? In particular, pastors, who are called to care for and shepherd their people, would want to protect their flock from influences they deem to be off-base. Is that unloving? In principal, no. That is part of their biblical calling as pastors. But how it is done could be unloving. Yet even in the Bible, false teachers are called “wolves”, along with a host of other unpleasant descriptions. If someone genuinely thinks that Rob Bell has become a false teacher based on their understanding of Scripture, should we be surprised that they would want to distance themselves from him and warn others to do the same? Even to label him a “false teacher”? Is that unloving? In my estimation, no. Even the humble apostles felt it necessary to call out false teachers, and they did so without ever feeling like they were betraying the command of their Lord to love one another. As Christians, we have to have some allowance for pointing out false teaching, imperfect as we may be at doing it. It can’t be true to assert that calling someone a “false teacher” is incompatible with loving one another. If that is the case, Scripture is inconsistent and contradictory, because both things are commanded. To completely ignore false teaching is to err just as much in the other direction, completely overlooking a legitimate danger that the Bible calls us to pay attention to and act upon.
Pavlovitz suggests the reason Christians have responded to Bell harshly is because he “sinned”. To be fair, I can’t tell if he means that term in a mocking sense or not. This is the context:
Rob Bell sinned.
But his offense wasn’t a moral lapse of any kind. It wasn’t an abuse of power or a sexual transgression or some financial misdeed, or any sort of ministry impropriety. (These had been, and continue to be the hallmark of so many Evangelical leaders, so that would be natural to assume).
Rob Bell’s sin, was simply that he didn’t stick to the script. He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain.
While I’m not at all aware of any moral lapses from Bell, would it not be fair to call false teaching a “sin”? If Bell actually is erring from biblical truth, which many Christians feel he is, then he would be sinning. I get the sense that Pavlovitz probably doesn’t think it is a legitimate sin, since he describes this “sin” as challenging the status quo. Of course, everyone knows that “challenging the status quo” is not a sin. But I would argue back that Bell has done more than simply challenge the status quo. Despite Bell’s best efforts to hide behind language like “starting a conversation” and “merely asking questions”, he is doing more than that. Rob Bell is teaching. He is not merely asking thoughtful questions. He is attempting to answer them, despite often declaring otherwise. He simply does so in a veiled way that intentionally avoids declarative statements of truth.
Part of the issue that many have with Bell is this intentional avoidance of making definitive statements. For instance, when recently being interviewed by Oprah, he responded to the question “Who is God?” by saying:
God is like a song that you hear in another room, and you want to get into that room and when you do, you turn all the knobs to the right, because it is so beautiful, and then you open the windows, because you want everyone to hear.
Liberal and conservative Christians alike could agree with this statement. Yet many, such as myself, are left saying “Yes, but what else?” The answer is too vague. What is God like? What are his attributes? What does he do? What does he not do? What is his nature? Give me some clarity! Despite the fact that it is impossible to truly define God, the Bible does give many clear statements about him. The Bible is meant to reveal God in ways that are understandable. He is not just a mist that we can’t latch on to, one we see with foggy vision and little clarity. No, the God of the Bible is knowable and desires to be known in at least some definitive ways. The entire point of the Bible is to distinguish God from false gods. Bell’s constant refusal to try and pin down as many biblical truths about God as he can is frustrating for those who want to know God, not just ask questions about him that remain unanswered.
This is a major reason why the response to Bell has been so negative. He poses thoughtful and probing questions, posits a quasi-answer, and then leaves it at that. Those who are sick of Christianity’s dogmatism eat it up, while others who want more substance are left wanting. After a decade of this coming from Bell, in increasing measure, on increasingly central doctrines, many Christians are fed up. And who can blame them? The authors of Scripture clearly intended Christianity to be an unchanging message that is passed on intact (1 Corinthians 15:1 for instance). Yet Bell seems disinterested in pursuing this goal. Or, at the very least, his desire to ask questions without pursuing definitive answers leaves those of us who are committed to truth frustrated at best and worried about his influence as a teacher at worst.
The relationship turned toxic when Bell wrote a book called Love Wins, in which he challenged the idea of Hell; a seemingly untouchable, immoveable pillar of the Christian worldview. He asked a ton of really natural questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God, and he examined matters of life and faith that had become foregone conclusions to most believers.
True, Love Wins seems to be the straw that broke the camels back. Yet why is this surprising? In the book, Bell tackles one of the most central subjects in Christianity (hell and the wrath of God) head on and does nothing but try to uproot traditional thinking without suggesting much of a clear alternative, other than the vague, meaningless statement “love wins”. Not only this, but Bell was writing this as a pastor. This is no small point. It is one thing to write such a book as an itinerant speaker, but the role of a pastor is to teach. It is not the role of a pastor to publicly question core doctrines and give no real response. To do so is a serious misuse of the pastoral office. The best thing Bell did was quit the pastorate. As a writer and new TV show host, he is in a better place to “start a conversation”. It is simply an irresponsible move to pose questions without answers as a pastor. That is not what a shepherd does, one whose mandate from God it is to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2).
In our modern Evangelical Christian subculture, well that’s simply not something we tolerate, and it wasn’t long before Rob Bell was being crucified by his peers.
Pastors began stepping over one another to speak out against his dangerous teachings.
Crucified? Please. Rebuked? Yes. And why not? Bell has done nothing but stir up a bunch of questions without giving much help in answering them. Is it not the responsibility of Rob’s peers to challenge him when they feel he errs from Scripture, or when he uses his God-given teaching office to intentionally not teach people? To say this is crucifying him, or acting unloving, is not true. I’m not saying it can’t escalate to that point, or that for some it didn’t, but overall what happened in the Evangelical world was a response of pastoral rebuke that was biblically warranted.
How did Bell respond to this rebuke?
Only Bell didn’t do what his critics wanted.
He didn’t tearfully repent and beg to get his club membership renewed. He didn’t fade into oblivion. He didn’t fall apart or fight back.
As so many of his brethren mercilessly attacked him, he simply turned around, stepped out through the dust-covered doors of the suffocating Christian bubble, and spoke to those who would still listen.
It turns out, there are a lot of people still listening.
I think that when Bell did this, many Christian leaders let out a collective sigh of relief. We all know Bell is free to say and write as he pleases. But it’s not exactly like that in a pastoral role. This is the centre of the issue many have had with Bell. He was not functioning as a pastor is called to do in Scripture, and so others called him on it. Now that Bell has moved on to other endeavours on Oprah’s network, the criticism will back off somewhat. That is not to say that people will not want to continue to call Rob Bell a false teacher. It’s just that he will be called a false teacher in the same sense that Oprah is. It is one thing to espouse unbiblical teaching as a pastor, and quite another as a TV show host. Christians are primarily responsible to label false teaching within the Church. Now that Bell has stepped outside of the Church (at least as a recognized leader), he is not held to the same level of accountability. Of course, he will still be very accountable to God (as will all of us), despite his change of platform. But false teaching that comes from a secular platform is not nearly as serious as false teaching that comes from a Christian platform. I think Scripture makes that clear.
As for how many people are listening, who really knows? A lot of Bell fans jumped off the bandwagon with Love Wins. Probably some more also jumped on. It’s impossible to quantify. Now that Bell’s primary audience will be unbelievers, it won’t take long for them to realize that, despite his continued connection to Christianity, he is really not that different from other quasi-spiritual teachers of today. He may have a bigger audience, but I doubt he’ll make a bigger splash, because his message will sound similar to everyone else’s. “Believe in God, love people, keep an open mind” – what spiritual leader in the secular world of today isn’t already saying that? The reason Bell made such waves is because his message was new inside the Church. People got excited about his fresh perspective. But on the outside, it really isn’t all that new. It’s not that fresh. I’d be surprised, despite a bigger audience, if Bell is able to have a greater impact in his new digs.
Bell’s been doing something braver than most of the pastors overseeing churches in this country would ever do, yet the same thing that so many in their congregations wish they would do.
He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith. He’s looking to separate what in this religion is of God and what is of us. He’s asking why we believe what we believe, and asking believers to do the same.
I can’t speak for every church everywhere, but it’s really not all that uncommon for churches that one might call “orthodox” to ask the big questions of the faith. It’s just that they also provide an answer – and for lots of young Christians, that’s not what they want. Open-ended conclusions are exciting to many. Yet that is not the purpose of the Church. The Church is meant to be a pillar of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), a place where questions find answers and inquiries are guided toward conclusions. I commend pastors who are taking their calling to be teachers and those who can defend the truth seriously. It’s obviously not wrong for Christians to ask the big questions. But it’s not healthy for a pastor to be doing that while functioning as a pastor. Thankfully, many pastors wrestled through these issues before they got into the ministry. They have posed the big questions and found big answers, and now they can build their ministry upon the truth they hold so strongly to. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, as long as pastors are sensitive to allowing their people to grapple with the big questions and be patient with them in coming to conclusions. What almost seems to have happened with Bell is he had not wrestled through many of these issues ahead of time, but rather was in the middle of pastoring a church when his probing led him toward conclusions that were questionable and frowned upon. It was only a matter of time before he would step down or be fired. One can’t have that kind of faith-shifting while simultaneously leading a people into the truth.
That’s the heart of the problem here. Rob Bell was and is, a bright, reasonable, thoughtful pastor, whose extensive exploration of the Scriptures, and whose life and ministry have yielded for him lots of questions, and some answers that far too many Christians just don’t want to deal with….
He’s simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really pisses off Church people.
I don’t think it’s fair at all to say Bell’s answers are ones “Christians just don’t want to deal with”. In fact, they have been dealt with, as evidenced by the numerous blogs, sermons, and books that aim to tackle Bell’s teachings head-on (not to mention Christians of centuries ago who dealt with Rob’s recycled ancient heresies). The second statement is closer to the truth, that Bell has “reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach”. That is precisely the point. There is such a thing as truth, and when someone doesn’t affirm it, their teaching can’t be tolerated. Why is that so unloving? In fact, it is the opposite of unloving. It is loving to guard the truth and protect people from error. It is unloving to let false teaching flow unchecked. Obviously, not everyone would deem Bell to be a false teacher, but that is besides the point. Christians, by and large, have responded negatively to Rob Bell because they fear he is out of line with the truth. Such a thing should be addressed, albeit in as loving and patient a fashion as possible. The negative response to Bell did not happen overnight. It started for some with Velvet Elvis and has grown with each subsequent book or sermon series that questioned classical Christian doctrine. Love Wins was the breaking point for many, who had worries about Bell for a long time and addressed them in fairly patient and accommodating ways, giving him the benefit of a doubt. It was not an instant vilification of someone who, only the day before, was thought to be on the right track. The fact that it was a process matters, because there was lots of time (years!) for Bell to respond and clarify and defend his views. In the end, many found his responses wanting, and responded in the only way they thought they could: by saying “farewell”.
It comes down to the reality that Rob Bell has simply taken too many stances that are either questionable or downright unbiblical and dangerous. This whole thing did not come on suddenly and unexpectedly, but rather is the natural progression of people leery of seeing red flag after red flag in reference to how Rob Bell views the Bible. A few specific examples come to mind.
In Velvet Elvis, Bell ponders what would happen to Christianity if the virgin birth of Jesus were not true. He says:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?
…I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . .
But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?
Many jumped on Bell for this assertion (despite him affirming the traditional view), and rightly so. What if Jesus was not born of a virgin, but actually was conceived by some dude named Larry? Well, a few things come to mind if that were the case.
- The Bible would contain falsehood and not be trustworthy
- Mary would be a lying adulteress who slept around on her betrothed
- Jesus would not be born of a virgin and Isaiah’s prophecy would fail to be fulfilled
- Jesus would be just an ordinary human, not God in the flesh
- The angel who spoke to Mary and Joseph would have lied
- Jesus’ death on the cross for sin would be nullified because he wasn’t a fitting substitute
In other words, the whole Christian faith crumbles if the virgin birth is not true. Is it wrong to question if the virgin birth is true? Of course not. Is it wrong to suggest that we wouldn’t lose much if it was false? Absolutely. For one who questions the virgin birth, is there a conclusion that they can come to that would be unacceptable? Most definitely. Anyone can believe what they want, but you can’t take away a core teaching of the Bible like the virgin birth and still call it “Christianity”.
Not only this, but Bell’s attitude about the virgin birth is awfully flippant. He suggests it is merely one tiny spring among many that support the Christian faith, and that Christianity is durable enough to bear its loss. If Christianity is true, it will bounce back, he posits. That may have some merit, but to suggest that the virgin birth is just a small spring among many is a false assertion. It is a core pillar that upholds the Christian faith. Christianity does crumble if the virgin birth is not true (as shown above). In other words, Bell’s whole attitude to Christian doctrine is that it’s not all that important, that we can question it and have a skeptical disposition about key truths while still expecting it to stand. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. Christianity is built upon foundational truths. These truths are subject to questioning, and have been pummelled with skepticism over the years. The reason Christianity still stands is not because key truths can be pulled out with the structure still standing, but rather because these key truths have been protected and sustained by God. They have stood the test of time. Christianity remains intact because truth is truth, and God upholds the truth at all costs. And he does so, at least in part, through believers who will take a stand for that truth.
Another example of Bell’s disappointing view of Scripture comes to mind. In the video trailer for Love Wins, Bell says the following:
What gets subtly, sort of, caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as nothing but an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and say “Why would I ever want to be a part of that?”
I can’t deny that many people reject Christianity because they find it irrational, confusing, and absurd. Even the Bible expects this response: “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). I ask then, ought our response be to re-shape the Christian message so that it seems more palatable? Or should we continue to hold fast to the gospel as revealed in Scripture, and pray that God would open the eyes of the lost to see the truth?
Bell directly addresses the thought that Jesus’ death was rescuing us from God, and then asks, “What kind of God is that?” Based on the wording of Bell’s questioning here, it can be inferred that he believes Jesus’ death was not for this purpose and that a God who is like that can’t be “good” and can’t be “trusted”. Except there is one problem with this thinking: that is the God of the Bible! Jesus did die to rescue us from God. The Bible can’t be any more clear on this matter. Romans 5:9 states “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” In other words, at the very heart of the Christian message is a God whose wrath is burning towards sinful mankind, and Jesus dies to appease that wrath. Jesus does save us from God. More to the point, since Jesus is God, it is true to say that God saves us from God. Mankind needs to be saved from God, and the good news is that God does that work for us.
With Rob Bell repeatedly espousing views that flippantly disregard plain biblical truth, is it any wonder that Bible-believing, truth-honoring Christians take issue with it?
They’ve [Rob Bell critics] dissected his interviews as a lawyer parses a legal document looking for loopholes.
Hardly. It’s not true to assert that people are being nit-picky with Bell. He is a man who has repeatedly, and with various levels of clarity, not only questioned core biblical teachings but suggested they are dispensable at best and ridiculous at worst. Initially, people seemed to give Bell some leeway, but over time, as his trajectory of theology became more and more clear, many Christians wanted nothing to do with him as a Bible teacher. I can’t say I blame them. Over the last ten years or so, Bell has only pushed the issue farther and farther to the point where many believers can’t consider him to be a voice of truth. To then pull back from associating with him, at least in a teaching or leadership sense, is totally natural. It’s not unloving. This whole thing hasn’t happened overnight because someone split hairs over an off-handed remark that could be taken the wrong way. No, Rob Bell has strayed away from a truly Christian view of the Bible, as has become more evident over time. One can only hope that he does not continue down this path, that his understanding of the God of the Bible becomes restored by the truth.
I don’t hate Rob Bell. I love Rob Bell. I love him as a person, but not as a Bible teacher or Christian leader. I can’t affirm him in that way because he treats the truth of God’s Word too casually. He’s not willing (or so it seems) to affirm some key realities of the gospel. To simply say “we need to love God and love others” does not make your message distinctly Christian. There is more to it than that. What is the nature of this love? What does it look like? Where does it come from? How does it relate to God’s love for us? The answer, at least in part, is that God’s love required the shedding of the blood of Christ as a payment for sin. Jesus’ sacrifice paid the penalty for sin and absorbed the wrath of God for all who have faith in Christ. Is that a God who is good? Is that a God who can be trusted? Is that good news?
You’d better believe it!