Why we shouldn’t be so quick to set sail with Rob Bell

Branson Parler

Christian Bell
March 20, 2013

I’m glad somebody has picked up on Rob’s comments, because this is a discussion worth having.

Parler writes, “To my ears, it sounds like he [Rob Bell] is saying ‘our culture seems to be headed this direction; therefore, because of this, Christians should embrace this position.’” I assume this is how many people are hearing Rob’s comment, and to be sure, his choice of words was rather incautious. But I suspect what Rob actually meant was, “our culture seems to be headed this direction; therefore, because of this, Christians are likely headed this direction too.”

The difference, though minor, is not insignificant. Whether or not we like to admit it, our Christian morality is formed, in part, in conversation with the world. Even the most cursory read of church history shows how Christianity’s values on all sorts of issues have changed back and forth over the years — often loosely in parallel with how those values changed in the world.

That’s not to say that the clear call in Scripture to live counter-culturally should be ignored; quite not. Rather, it’s to be realistic about the way in which our values often take shape, regardless of whether we “reason based on the authority of Scripture” or come from “hermeneutically-naïve communities” (to mention again an incautious choice of words).

March 20, 2013

Great job, Branson. Whether culture and Scripture agree or not, our touchstone is Scripture.

That said, there is a Scriptural model for appealing to culture, of course. Paul did it in Acts 17 when speaking to the Athenians at the Aeropagus. He appealed to their religion and their poetry, and used these cultural aspects to focus the people on Christ.

That's how one appropriately appeals to culture for the kingdom of God.


Karen Swallow Prior
March 20, 2013

Thank you modelling a reasoned, loving, and correct approach that should be applied to so much of what we are grappling with in the church.

William Harris
March 20, 2013

Another way to understand Bell's comment is through the lens of "the end of Christendom." The idea of a normative, Christianized sexual ethic has indeed sailed, and that has two implications. The first is to somehow try to bring the idea back to port, to reclaim the Christian vision as normative for society as a whole. Can that be done? There is very little in the way of evidence to suggest that such a development is culturally possible. The ship has sailed.

But if this is the end of Christendom, then we need a new understanding of social theology. The Kuyperian models we so love are soaked with the nature of Christendom. The alternative is to leave behind normative "Christian" social structures, and turn to think of the Church in a counter-cultural mode. From within the land of the Christian Reformed, that will be some time in coming.

There's a third, natural way of reading Bell's comments that has not been explored: he's thinking missiologically. If gay marriage will be part of the landscape the church deals with, and with it the understanding that being gay is deeply an orientation, perhaps more so than simply an ethical practice (sexual plumbing, as it were), then the church will need to have new things to say. The 13-year old with the painted nails is not a child of Beelzebub, but a child of God, and we need a way of speaking to his growing life and to his adult life.

And if we are going to be a witness in this world, with the recognition of the gays around us -- well, what else can we do, but look, ask, embrace and affirm these lives?

March 20, 2013

The notion of infinite punishment inflicted upon those who sin against the infinitely holy God (and only one Way to escape said punishment) is unpopular. Rob Bell to the rescue! With Love Wins he utilized exegetical error to accomplish the neutralization and re-definition of Hell, while simultaneously dismantling the exclusivity of the Gospel message through a soteriology of (eventual) universalism.
Now the notion of marriage being limited to one man and one woman (as defined by God at Creation and affirmed by Christ in Matt 19) is increasingly unpopular. Again, Bell is on the scene to set us "straight". Marriage is in need of re-definition, and I'm sure Bell could employ his mastery of out-of-context verse-quoting and exegetical gymnastics to make a strong "biblical" case for gay marriage.
The fact is that Scripture is clear on many of the issues Bell challenges us to "wrestle with". But since he abandoned Scriptural authority long ago (see Christianity Today, 11-04), these matters are, to him, up for debate. As Bell continues his journey away from biblical truth, he also distances himself from the biblical Jesus, whose Word he is denying.

Esther Aspling
March 21, 2013

I think it's important to take a fresh look at things and try to find our reasoning for why we do things the way we do. I think evangelicals have a hypocrisy in how they expect say, Catholics to re-look at their beliefs, but then we don't believe we need to search out why we do the things we do or believe the things we believe.


March 21, 2013

Instead of making a theological mountain out of a mole hill of a quote, maybe you'll engage Bell's more developed statement?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
March 21, 2013

Do you mean the video interview that's linked to in this piece, Eric? If so, what parts would you say clarify Bell's position further? If not, can you point us to the statement you mean? Thanks

March 21, 2013

I had in mind the third paragraph from the transcript of the interview:

"And I think that’s one of the things you’re seeing right now, is you are seeing God pulling us all forward into a greater realization that we need more love. We need more fidelity. We need more monogamy. We need more people who are committed to each other. It’s not good for us to be alone. So this is a huge moment when I think lots of us are realizing the old way of seeing things doesn’t work. It causes so much pain and heartache. And God’s inviting us to see things in new ways. And we need to say yes and then we need to step into the future together."

Granted, this is not a treatise on the topic. But it is much more theological than the "sailing" metaphor that this article is preoccupied with.

Branson Parler
March 21, 2013

I'm totally on board with recognizing the end of Christendom and the need to approach things missiologically. I think Paul's words in 1 Cor. 5:12-13 are very instructive: we should worry about judging those inside the church who do not live, preach, and teach a disciplined life. We don't expect those outside the church, however, to live by the same standard. Way too many Christians get this totally backward, at least from my perspective. So, if we're ministering to a polygamous culture (and by the way, our culture is "serially polygamous" in the words of Stanley Hauerwas), the first word we say is not an absolute critique of polygamy, but the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to remember, though, that the first words out of Jesus' mouth after he proclaims the presence of God's kingdom is "repent and believe!" If we affirm non-Christians without also calling them to repent, then we're not really loving them and we're not proclaiming the same kingdom that Jesus did.

Branson Parler
March 21, 2013

I guess I would also want further clarification on what he means. Is he equating "It's not good for us to be alone" with a "new way" of seeing things? I thought it was the old way of seeing things (so old it's on the 2nd page of the Bible). I think he's right that our culture is recognizing now the massive implications of the way that infidelity (understood in the broadest possible Wendell Berry-esque way) causes complete cultural breakdown. But I worry that as long as "love, fidelity, and monogamy" are subject to a belief in human plasticity rather than finding ourselves within a broader order, we won't really overcome the root cause of our current cultural heartache.

March 21, 2013

My point was more basic, actually. Your article critiques Bell for following culture, for failing to engage in theological reflection. Here, though, Bell is engaging in theological reflection, however incomplete his thoughts are. Yes, further clarification is needed; I just don't see Bell appealing to culture to settle the debate. Much less see him becoming a mirror image of Dobson.

Idle Chatter
March 21, 2013

I too was pretty surprised to see Bell and Dobson compared. Kept thinking "I bet that's not happened before."

To act as if religion exists in a culture-free vacuum seems intentionally naive. 200 years ago, one could talk about OWNING AND SELLING OTHER PEOPLE with no one batting an eye- even in church. The same forces that increase our understanding of the world change our interpretation of the Bible.

To make culture the initiator, rather than expanding human understanding and wider discourse, seems erroneous. Culture may change faster than religion, but they both seem reactive in nature.

Dave McManus
March 22, 2013

I don't think "the ship has sailed" is simply a comment on where to take our bearings from. The church has for many generations very unthinkingly adopted the cultural panics and taboos from the society around us. However when at least a major part of the society around us shifts, and moves prophetically, and calls the church to account - for its hatred and fear of this minority group and its attempt to love - then we should be big enough to (a) be self-critical in assessing where we have made this group "untouchable" and have tried to justify our fear and hatred from a culturally conditioned reading of the scriptures and (b) be willing to admit that we need to re-assess our practice and our reading of the scripture in the light of the leading of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we condemn our sisters and brothers by our lack of grace, love and wisdom. In that sense let us not miss the boat. We have a kairos moment, and need courage to stand up to our own bigotry in the past. However let us also be clear that we in the church, like all of society, has taught others by deed and word to do as we do and say. And in turn we have been taught. And therefore there is a very ingrained tradition that very painfully we must unlearn and unteach, rather than think we can quickly and with summary judgement "unteach" or very easily re-direct, simply because "We the newly enlightened" have seen differently. Perhaps more than some in society, we in the churches have prided ourselves on grasping firmly the definitive and lasting truths "that have been, are now, and ever will be....." (Amen!!???) So with great gentleness as well as humility, if we venture to teach individuals or groups something new, different, or revolutionary and shocking, it is incumbent on us to plumb our very depths to show Holy Spirit that we have stumbled, fallen, and in that very human way, attempt to portray a new way. But nevertheless, unless we do take a new way, we will continue to crush and deny the tender humanity, solitary longing for companionship (cf. Genesis, God's words about the Adam human being, the still yet one alone who was neither male nor female as yet) and God-likeness of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. The world will not understand if we drag our feet un-necessarily to recognise what God is doing in our day.

April 18, 2013

It strikes me that Bell has taken 1 Cor 9:20-23 to the point of absudity. Yes, enter the world of the secular to reach others for Christ, but not to the point of compromizing my relatioship with Christ. The ends do not justify any means. If the means I have to reach others are inadequate in my eyes, I can rest in assurance that God has other means and it's not my problem, it's God's problem (thankfully). I do not need to compromise -- to do so is in effect saying to God "I need to bend the values a bit, but don't worry, it's all in a good intention".

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