My friend, Tim, was the first to respond to my post on Rob Bell’s comments on gay marriage in his post “Why Rob Bell Matters to Me.” In his post, Tim put Tony Jones and himself (?) on one side of the debate and David Fitch and I on the other. In Tim’s words, he and Tony believe Rob Bell matters but David and I don’t. Then my friend Greg jumped in with an indirect challenge to evangelicals (and me?) in his post “Rob Bell Has Come Out…with a new book. O yea, and as affirming of gay marriage, too.”
I’d like to respond to both thoroughly but as pastors they only work on Sundays , and I’m busy Sundays so I will offer a brief response here. I also wanted to say something to the effect of “Shut up, you stupid heads,” but that argument stopped working once I went into seminary.
First, Tim. Tim among other things suggested I didn’t believe Rob Bell matters and challenged my (and David’s) understanding of community accountability when he said:
I think what else bugs me is this “Who holds him accountable?” question that’s been circulating feels a lot like “Who can we contact to get him in trouble because he has stepped out of line?” or “To whom do go to tell on him?” As part of the generation who is suspicious of “organized religion” I like there are people who are working outside the system. As one who is employed by the system, I hope to bring redemption/reformation to it.
I never claimed Rob Bell doesn’t matter. I actually think he does. If Rob Bell came out and said he loved the Philadelphia Phillies, I’d buy the same hipster glasses and potentially ruin my 20-20 eyesight in his honor. However, when any Christian makes divisive statements, they should be held accountable. Scripture claims that Christians belong to one another. So, yes, Rob Bell belongs to me, and I to him. If we treat his statements like they happen in a vacuum, we are in dangerous waters.
Also, anyone’s claim that Bell’s readers hold him accountable is like saying that social media is real community. Community guides us and oftentimes slows us down. I’d hate to have said what I wanted to (as many might say, speak authentically) ten years ago to have been heard out loud. I’d might not have the job I have now if I did that. Community can actually slow us down and sometimes that’s a good thing.
Let’s also not forget that the community help Rob Bell get where he is, and now we are upset that he’s being critiqued by those same people? Community’s a give-and-take. It’s a back-and-forth. That’s what makes it ugly sometimes, but other times it makes it beautiful.
I don’t want to have someone to “go tell on” Rob Bell. As much as it might sound like that to Tim, that’s not my intent. Tim could be accused of stating, “You can say whatever you want, and we don’t care.” These reactions to criticism of Bell can stem from a poor understanding of sola scriptura, believing that the sense of Scripture can be understood apart from the Church. Where’s the concern for faithful reading? Where’s the concern for the body?
Now, Greg seems to think Rob Bell and Barth sound similar. I at times believe Greg falls subject to thinking that Barth was the first to say something and so anything that sounds like something Barth said came from Barth’s head. Greg also think evangelicals have pushed Barth, Origen, Richard Rohr, Hans urs Von Balthasar to the margins. This is untrue. I’m reading Balthasar right now! Has Greg ever been to an evangelical-missional conference? If so, he wouldn’t have made it through a day without Barth or Rohr quoted.
However, that’s a point for another day. I’d like to challenge Greg’s point about:
I also think what many are talking about is envy and fear. Critics are envious of his ability to speak with authenticity and clarity what many of us, maybe most of us, are actually thinking. They envy his ability to communicate the gospel in a way that actually draws cynics and skeptics into the community of faith others have been trying to preserve and defend for so long. Many envy his creativity and reputation with artists, poets, film makers, the Dalai Lama, and Desmund Tutu, who are working for the transformation of creation. Many may envy that God is actually at work in the other, the different, the liberal, and those who do not fit within labeled theological boxes.
Sounds to me like Greg needs a hug from an evangelical. (I would be glad to impart this to him if he would ever get back to me with a date for lunch!) Sure, some of Bell’s critics (read for Greg “evangelicals”) are fearful and envious. However, some of his critics don’t know they are critics because they don’t know Bell exists (for those people Bell doesn’t matter, Tim!). And some of his critics just don’t agree. And some of his critics like me love him and just disagree with his method here. We could reverse Greg’s argument back to Greg that critics of evangelicals are envious of the growth of conservatism globally.
Ultimately, my concern is pastoral. Rob Bell can say whatever he wants, but pastors and church leaders (people who are connected to a larger body) have to deal with his statements on Sunday. Rob Bell is like the guest speaker at a retreat. He can say whatever he wants and walk away (don’t get me wrong: I love that about guest speaking!). When the speaker leaves, the body is there to discern, sift, and engage the information, but the speaker goes home and sleeps through the night. As pastors (well, Greg’s a director, technically…but not for long!), I’d think Tim and Greg would resonate with that.
In summary, Rob Bell matters to me: (1) because he is a brother in Christ and we belong to each other, (2) because community matters, and (3) because of the pastoral dilemma his statement creates.