Grace, Truth and Rob Bell

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?

Conclusion

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.

40 thoughts on “Grace, Truth and Rob Bell”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post Krish. As someone on the far left of the evangelical spectrum (I sometimes think Rob Bell is too conservative), but wanting to stay in the fold and be part of the dialogue, I’m challenged and a little provoked by the questions.

    I think I speak for a lot of people of all theological shades Krish when I say your tenacious commitment to unity is deeply valued and appreciated.

  2. Thanks a lot for such a thoughtful and perceptive piece of writing. We spend far too much time defending what we believe to be the correct position and not nearly enough time sharing and modelling the love of Jesus to a world that knows how to tear itself to bits. it needs to be shown how we love each other – new life, new lifestyle!

  3. (From the right) Thanks for having been able to step back from this and address all sides in a clear but gracious way. You challenge us well. Thanks for what you said about the guilt by association bit – an easy temptation on the right!

    I suppose I would make one comment on the Paul/Peter issue – there seems to have been a public confrontation because Peter’s behaviour was having a public impact.

    Blessings as you speak truth with love

    1. thanks for your encouraging comments Alan, yes i think there is a place for public challenge, but when the Mt 18 principles have been applied.
      blessing mate
      krish

  4. Hi Krish – thanks for an excellent and thought provoking article. I, personally, have found much good in the writings of Rob Bell, not that I agree with everything that he says. I’m no theologian and therefore could be easily sucked into a poor theology. I would much appreciate to here well laid out arguments against any possible false teaching, but most of the attacks that I have read of Rob bell (and not just his theology) do not clearly point out where people think he is going wrong. Some seem to hold theology as some sort of idol elevating it to a place above it’s station. I have always believed that it is better to have a poor theology and a good relationship with god and our fellow man than a good theology and a poor relationship with God and our fellow man. After all it is possible to have a perfect theology and not translate that into any faith whatsoever. I would also come back to the passage in Mark 9 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
    “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

    I would love to here you critically review Rob Bell’s new book when it’s available to give people like me an idea of what to look out for and what to possibly be wary of.

  5. Well said Krish. If we only quoted the people who are infallible,with a perfect understanding of God the only quotable resource would be the red letters in our Bibles!

  6. Thanks for this Krish, a brilliant blog post. For me, the most important thing you said was “With growing biblical illiteracy, how can we avoid the temptation of letting our heroes do our thinking for us?”
    I know that I can easily end up quoting Keller more than the bible, and asking myself what Keller says about an issue, rather than what the bible says :-)

    1. thanks for the comment Jamie – so great to work with you mate, really excited by the Cafe ideas you have – would love to chat more about that with you sometime.
      Lets stay in touch – blessings
      krish

  7. One article I read from the right described those who were defending (or at least engaging) with Bell’s thoughts in the video as ‘followers of Bell’. I’m fairly sure most of them would describe themselves as followers of Jesus rather than of Bell. Takes us right back to Paul vs. Apollos etc.

  8. How strange that we can effortlessly post our views into the vast arena of the blogosphere – and yet find it so hard to speak face to face with our neighbours about Jesus and who He is. How true what Jesus’ younger brother said about the tongue (or fingers to keyboard) being able to set the whole world on fire (Jas. 3.6).

    Blessings from Bharat – Andi and Sheba Eicher

  9. I was astonished at huge amount of noise over the book. I’m actually thinking about writing my MA dissertation on based on this – I have three questions that I’m considering.
    (1) Is Rob Bell actually saying anything new? My theory is that generally he’s not saying anything astonishingly original, rather his skill is in synthesising and popularising the more academic writings of others.
    (2) What is it about the claim of ‘universalism’ that pushes the buttons of christians on both sides of this debate – in a way that other issues that affect the church do not.
    (3) More generally, what are the ways that believers respond to ‘new’ or different teachings. I may use case studies from scripture and 2000 years of church history both of teachings that are broadly affirmed and those classed as ‘heresy’. I can then look at what are appropriate responses to new teachings, whether false or not.
    Any comments on these questions and any other ones?

  10. It amazes me that the book in question has not been published yet and the whole controversy stems from a promotional video.

    This is a well balanced blog. I whole heartedly agree that we must be careful in not judging Rob Bell and that we have to be discerning and get back to what is imprtant which is the word itself.

  11. Thanks for this post i’ve been both amazed & saddened at the way the controversy has been handled in the states surely we have to find better ways to handle our disagreements especially high profile leaders I agree completely with what you say and I hope here in the UK we must find a better way; 2500+ blogs & top ten twitter trend is not good with the world watching on, the bottom line has to be “they know we are Christians by the way we love one another!”

  12. Thanks Krish, this is really helpful, and I reckon it will be even more helpful when the book actually comes out! It’s an important point that we’re all prone to react in ways which aren’t that helpful. And even if we end up completely disagreeing, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that.

  13. Excellent counsel! This should be published more widely!! Seriously!
    It is so sad that as Christians we so often have more success in damaging the reputation of Christians and Christianity than the secular media. We need to learn to love and value one another with the same grace, humility and mercy we see in Jesus.
    Don’t understand the meaning of being “the left” and “the right” though – and am somewhat saddened by the way we perpetually label ourselves and one another!

  14. Thanks for this Krish – so far not very contentious at all! I think the comments show (so far) that we have a slightly different culture here in the UK. When Rob comes over in April, I suspect the placard-wavers will be few.

    One thing I do think we have in common with our American brothers and sisters is a naive denial of our susceptibility to Christian celebrity. Our tendency to idolise particular individuals is very human, a fallen part of our God-image. Yet we seem even more vulnerable to log-in-eye-ness over this: we find it much easier to see others’ idolisation of a person we don’t align ourselves with, than our own adherence to the values and pronouncements of those we trust. There is no doubt that I travel further off the beaten track with certain speakers and writers, because I know them, tend to agree with them, and trust their hearts. Likewise, I am unlikely to walk far with someone who I don’t trust, and will probably look down on those who do trust them.

    I shall declare my colours. I think Love Wins is a great title for a book, and – like Rob’s previous books – I suspect it will be considerably more conservative than it sounds. I very much doubt Rob is a univeralist, but if he is, I look forward to hearing him show me where he found it in the scriptures.

    As has already been said, Rob’s ‘sin’ is in popularising scholarship that has been freely available in all but the most fundamentalist seminaries for many decades. Many evangelical theologians today would suggest that the ‘second death’ is final and permanent, but you wouldn’t know that from visiting evangelical churches! Steve Chalke got into the same trouble for popularising the open secret that penal substitution is not the only (or even the predominant) biblical interpretation of Easter.

    On a human level, I believe that it is a glory of our faith that it continues to evolve, and – like The Reformation – each moment of (r)evolution is really a going back to the source. If Rob can in any way peel back two thousand years of religion and show us something about Jesus and his good news that we haven’t seen before, I will be forever grateful. I pray it will be so.

  15. Thanks Krish for your very helpful post. I’d like to pick up on your second point, which has helped to crystalise something that’s been on my mind for a while.

    The problem with ‘guilt by association’ is that, as you say, it is based on the assumption that by aligning with one part of a writer’s theology, someone is buying into everything else they have ever said or written. Saying I like a particular author is then a shorthand way of telling someone my whole theology. It allows them to categorise me and enables me to categorise them according to how they respond.

    But the danger, of course, is that this leads to laziness, whereby I read someone not to honestly enquire but to ‘catch up’ with what I believe. It’s all too tribal. It’s all too easy. Does it also suggest an insecurity? It’s much tidier to have my theology contained within the known parameters of writers who are approved by those around me. And this, of course can happen at any point on the so-called spectrum. Every school of though has its canon of acceptable writers.

    It’s not a perfect parallel but I’m reminded of the Wisdom writers in the Old Testament who felt more than happy to incorporate non-Israelite wisdom texts into their writing (into Scripture). Yes, they did so through their Yahweh-shaped worldview, but they didn’t seem to worry that their readers would think they were adopting the other culture’s worldview wholesale. (See Chris Wright’s The Mission of God, pp441-453, for more on this).

    One of my favourite writers is Walter Brueggemann. I don’t agree with everything he says; in fact there’s a lot that he says that doesn’t quite sit right with me.
    But much of what he says I find to be incredibly thought provoking and beneficial. By steering clear I would be missing out.

  16. Krish I’ve been meaning to read this post for some time and I am very glad I finally got around to reading it. This post was beautifully written! The questions gracefully encourage both sides of the spectrum to put down their swords and beat them into plows as they learn to listen and love one another in the same generous way that the Lord listens and loves them. I heartily agree with one of the other comments — this post needs to published and widely distributed. May the Lord continue to bless your heart, mind and pen. ~Mike

  17. I do have one query about the nature of Paul and Peter’s dispute.

    It doesn’t seem to me to be the most graceful or submissive. I’d probably say it was wise though.

    It sure seems to me from reading Galatians that Paul just slugged it into Peter.

    But I guess we could also look at Paul and Barnabas’s dispute, and see what that teaches us about how to resolve a conflict.

    It sure seems to me that you are making the assumption they did it kindly based on the fact they are the church leaders, and then telling us we should do it kindly because they did.

    I fully agree we should wait to read the book before criticizing it. But I don’t think your argument about Paul and Peter holds any water.

    1. Helpful comments thank you.
      I guess Paul went direct to Peter , to his face.
      There was an aim at restoration not just saying farewell to him as a lost believer.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment
      How did you get on with the rest of the post?
      Blessings
      Krish

  18. I did find the article helpful. I probably should have said something along those lines in my first post. Sorry.

    Certainly is a question of priorities. The Unity of the Church has always been under threat. I read another blog which basically said, “Quit showing off about being right and start praying for people” referencing Abraham and Sodom.

    And guilt by association certainly needs to be dealt with, I don’t think there has been a remarkable leader in the church without something we would see as odd in their doctrine. But still God raised them up for that time.

    Anyway, said to much now.

    blessings.

    matt

  19. Krish this is such a helpful post – I hope it will be read by many who have been caught up in the brouhaha over Rob’s promotional video.
    I think it’s always sad when those who are held in high regard by other christians publicly criticize another leading christian in such strong terms – not least when the book at the centre of the storm has not yet been published.
    I am reminded of the puritan leader, John Robinson, who sent the Pilgrim Fathers on their way to the “New World” in 1620 with a stirring sermon that included these words:
    “the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.”
    Humility seems to me to be the touchstone of our search for truth – and I guess I’m a little uncomfortable with anyone who says “This IS THE Word of God” as though they have it all sewn up!
    I look forward to reading the book and joining that more informed discussion.

  20. Thanks Krish, really appreciated this. Glad to have found your blog after the Spectrum conference in Bury St Edmunds the other day.

    OK to reblog it..?

    Phil

  21. Just wondering Krish if you’d change anything written here now the book is published and presumably you’ve read it?- (obviously that’s a slightly intrusive question and if you’d rather leave this one and not poke around anymore I understand!)

    Thanks!

    Kath

  22. As a convinced evangelical for the last 40 years I’m now tentatively edging towards an evangelical universalism (salvation for all through Christ)and am finding i) that it is a bit scary stepping out of the boat on this one, ii)many Bible passages have taken on a richer, deeper and fuller meaning,iii)my worship is being enhanced and iv)I am finding that through all of these my love for God and my neighbour is growing – partly evidenced by a fresh impetus for evangelism. So my question is What would Gamaliel have done when confronted with this (far from new) understanding of the extent of the atonement?

  23. Excellent post, Krish.

    I, too, get concerned about the polarising that happens over these issues. We retreat into ‘camps’ and then have to quickly announce which ‘side’ we’ve taken. Equally concerning is the reaction to the ‘other’ side’s arguments. Doctrinal questions raised by one are passed off as ‘conservative reaction’ or ‘judgementalism’ (or, worse, simply being ‘un-cool’. Because, you know, Rob Bell is cool and his Nooma videos are funky), or the deep concern to communicate the Gospel into contemporary hopes and longings is passed off as ‘wishy washy liberalism’ or ‘relativistic heresy’.

    As you’ve alluded to, Jesus came full of grace *and* truth.

    These questions of yours are most helpful in keeping that ballance.

  24. My problem with the whole Bell issue (well one of them) is that I really really REALLY don’t want to be in bed (forgive the metaphor) with many of the opponents of bell even though on this issue I agree with them!
    I made my own comments here http://jtsblogspot.blogspot.com/ but the heart of my concern is the widespread seeming inability or unwillingness of so many in the 20s-30s age range to in any way treat the scriptures as authoritative in any meaningful way. The lack of any kind of scholarly or biblical references in ‘Love Wins’ simply excacerbates the problem!

  25. Just a further comment on ‘universalism’.
    My route involves Brethren beginnings (non Church background) and then House church/Restoration for many years. Moving from a dispensational to a ‘Laddite’ eschatoloigy type (lol) -G E Ladd!
    I have come to believe that Restoration (of all things) is the pupose of God and we as his people the Church play a role in this (Rom 8 ‘….sons of God to be revealed). my understanding of the gospel has shifted too. Its size is in my mind not limited to ‘me’ and ‘my’ relationship to him, its truly cosmic. Now I dont know if I have been innoculated against this pull of universalism, but if our view of the gospel is truly BIG then its not a case of ‘street level, individualistic evangelicalism’ and ‘universalism’ but a robust, BIG, engaging and thrilling sense of Gods Restoration of all things. The biblical data to my mind clearly states that SOME will NOT be ‘saved’, I think even Bell agrees to this. This stopping point Restoration but not Universalism I think is intellectually, emotionally and biblically satisfying. I commend to you !!

  26. Excellent blog Krish. I guess I am one of Jesus more conservative sunbeams, so I am well familliar with the over-reactions of the “heresy police” when a controversial issue comes up. I’ve also seen people with fantastic theological knowledge spiritally crash and burn due to a simple lack of love for Jesus. I’ve also seen some wonderful Christlike attitudes form people who’s theology is kind of raggedy round the edges.

    That said I think this whole thing does raise the question: how far is too far? Scripture does tell us to beware of false teachers and Christian leaders do have a responsiblity, in love, to refute heresy, privately where possible, publicly where necessary. Sure there are issues where there are many different views and are open to debate in christianity (creation v evolution for example.) There area also issures where if you don’t agree, you shouldn’t really call yourself a Christian (existance of GOd for example). So my question is, is there a line to be drawn and if so.. where?

    In love
    Electrogoth

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