Before Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” has even made it into print, the trial by media and blogosphere has already begun, and those of us who presume to be jury need to be aware that we too will be judged, not only on the content of our conversation, but also on the tone of it. I have already begun to see the sparks flying, and am concerned that if these are ignored and allowed to catch light, or deliberately fanned into flame, damage may well be done to our church; some people may get burned, others may get burned at the stake, digitally speaking at least. As someone who believes that we need to listen to and to love Christian brothers and sisters from the right and left of the evangelical spectrum, I would humbly offer the following questions as a way to encourage a graceful and honest conversation.
Questions to the RIGHT
1. How do we deal with those we disagree with?
If we believe a brother or sister has stepped away from orthodoxy, what is the correct way to deal with him? Is it to publicly humiliate them, wash our hands of them, or charge them with preaching a false gospel before the facts are made available? What does Paul and Peter’s disagreement teach us about how to handle controversy and confrontation with wisdom, grace and submission? How can we help people to express their concerns in a helpful way? Have we given people the benefit of the doubt? My fear is that if we on the right react in harsh and unloving ways those in the middle will be pushed away not because of our doctrine but because of our behaviour.
2. Is it fair to attribute guilt by association?
I have been on the receiving end of suspicion regarding my evangelical credentials several times, and it is not a pleasant experience. Usually the critics are not concerned with the gospel I am preaching, or the evidence of my doctrine in my writings, or the fruit of my ministry. Instead it has been ‘guilt by association’, because of people I have chosen to quote. Sadly, these critics consider a quotation an endorsement of someone’s entire theological system. But just because I quote NT Wright, does not mean I affirm his views on paedo-baptism. Quoting Wayne Grudem does not mean I believe Global Warming is a myth or I share his views on the millennium. Quoting Brian McLaren and Lesslie Newbigin does not mean I endorse all of their views. I have yet to meet an evangelical who is not a fan of CS Lewis – his books are cited and recommended almost universally, yet his views on salvation and hell are pretty similar to the accusations being made against Rob Bell. Is it fair to write off the whole of someone’s body of work because you disagree with one part? Hasn’t finding truth in people’s work and commending it got biblical warrant even if you have disagreements elsewhere? (the Apostle Paul can quote pagan prophets approvingly in Acts 17, and in his letter to Titus.) How can we help people to express their appreciation without being afraid of being branded a heretic by a McCarthian witchhunt?
3. How can we be discerning without being judgmental?
How did Jesus handle the criticism of guilt by association when the Pharisees shunned him for hanging out with Samaritans, tax collectors, women and sinners? Interestingly Jesus did not drop the friends that the Pharisees were criticising, instead he rebuked the Pharisees’ judgmentalism. What does it mean for us to remove our own planks, instead of other people’s specks? What does it mean for us to love our enemies as well as our friends? What does this mean when we come across people whose theology we find difficult? How can we love our neighbours even if we disagree with them? How can we remain discerning, without becoming judgmental?
4. How can we prevent the fire being fuelled?
Whenever there is controversy, whether it is over the manifestation of spiritual gifts, the place of women in ministry, or the question of penal substitution, I notice that suddenly the topics crop up in a lot of sermons, and that is not necessarily wrong. But suddenly it seems that the whole Bible revolves around that point of theology. No matter what passage people are preaching from suddenly the theological controversy of the day becomes the only thing that the Bible teaches. It feels like preachers want to demonstrate their orthodoxy on this subject, to let everyone know which side of the fence they are on. Are we pandering to those listeners who police our theology? Are we not allowing this one controversy to stop us from preaching the whole counsel of God and instead we just preach a narrow slice of it? I would warn us to not let the latest controversy blow us off course. I have heard a number of high profile preachers end up distorting the Bible by forcing a topic onto a text that simply is not there. Thus ironically those seeking to preserve orthodoxy sometimes end up doing it at the expense of upholding biblical authority and modelling good biblical exposition.
Questions to the LEFT
1. How do we deal with the negative responses?
If someone whom we admire is criticized, our automatic response is to jump to their defense – it’s part of what it means to be a family. Because emotions run high, this can move quickly from a tense conversation to a mudslinging match. The more personal and uncharitable the attacks, the more personal and uncharitable the counter-attacks, and the more polarized the two sides become. But could there be a grain of truth in the criticism? How can we find that grain through any mudslinging, judgmentalism, superiority complexes and ‘holier than thou’ attitudes? How can we avoid becoming self-righteousness about others’ self-righteousness. Isn’t being lead only by an emotional response and not engaging our critical faculties to explore the scriptural arguments a sin of omission? There is such a thing as the gospel, and there is such a thing as heresy, and each of us must have limits to the generosity of our orthodoxy. If someone has stepped away from the gospel, how do we humbly and graciously seek to understand and correct them?
2. How do we honour our heroes without worshiping them?
The danger of having heroes is that we tend to retreat into our camps. The Paul versus Apollos mindset can easily carry over into a Piper-versus-Wright, or Driscoll-versus-Claiborne division of God’s people. Could it be that all of them have their different strengths and weaknesses? If a Bell bandwagon emerges, how will we remain discerning? I am convinced that only the scriptures are infallible and no matter how talented or persecuted or articulate or critical, all of our heroes have their theological weaknesses. With growing biblical illiteracy, how can we avoid the temptation of letting our heroes do our thinking for us? How can we make sure we have a firm grasp of what the Bible says about a subject rather than just backing our heroes uncritically? How can we graciously disagree without being disloyal?
3. How can we prevent the fire being fuelled?
Gossip and rumours need us to be ruthlessly gracious and graciously ruthless. If we hear something being said about a Christian brother or sister, relating to their orthodoxy or their character, how can we put the fire out quickly? How can we protect our neighbours from false accusations and character assassination? Questions like “are you sure?”, “how do you know?”, “have you spoken to the person concerned about it? , “can I check that out and get back to you?” can go a long way to help us “make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit, the bond of peace”. How can we avoid unhelpful and unflattering caricatures from spreading about those with whom we disagree?
4. How can we seek and speak grace and truth?
There is a danger that for a while all Christians to the right on the evangelical spectrum will be tarred with the anti-Bell brush, while all those on the left get tarred with the Bell-worship brush (guilt by association again), leading to less cooperation. How can we get to a position where we recognize that there may end up being a whole range of views and nuanced positions? How can we be quick to listen and slow to judge? Recognising that none of us are theologically infallible is a good start, but equally none of us are morally infallible either. How can we demonstrate the fruit of the spirit in our conversation – kindness, gentleness, self-control, even when others fail the moral test?
Paul told Timothy to “watch his life and doctrine carefully.” Often “conservatives” focus on Christian truth (doctrine) and the “emergents” focus on Christian character (life) – the Bible says we need both. Therefore we need each other to move towards genuine Christian maturity. We need each other if we are going to work with God’s Spirit on God’s mission for our world. We need to be working shoulder to shoulder to commend the gospel to our nation. How can we speak grace and speak truth? How can we seek grace and seek truth?
It is my prayer that whatever the contents of Rob Bells latest book – that we evangelicals on the right and the left can have gracious and truthful conversation and seek God’s truth together.