Why Rob Bell is Right

Recently Rob Bell was quoted as saying some rather provocative things about the church, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the irrelevancy of the Bible. As has been the case for the last few years, whenever Bell speaks there is a minor firestorm that erupts. One of the unfortunate aspects of the firestorm is at some important truths often get lost in the conflagration.

In this case, Bell was making the case that it is inevitable that the church at large will come to accept gay marriage. Bell said, “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”

Without getting into whether or not it is inevitable that the church at large will adopt gay marriage as acceptable and without dealing with the crux of the issues regarding homosexuality, I want to focus on Bell’s statement about the Bible. In many ways it was what most set people off. I can understand that. Here is Bell, a former darling of the evangelical camp, all be it a more progressive strain of it. He was hailed as a preacher and Bible teacher for a new generation. Now here he is pointing out the irrelevance of the very scriptures he made his teaching reputation. The sense of betrayal that Christians feel when one of our own turns on the things we hold dear and believed he taught only adds to the blaze.

But let’s try to set all that aside for a moment as look at what Bell is saying from the perspective of the secular world we are trying to influence for Christ. When Bell says, “the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense” he has a point that we need to hear. If you are a follower of Christ I would hope that all you need is the truth of those letters in the Bible written 2,000 years ago. They are the eternal truth of the Word of God and they have authority in our lives, something every denomination and church from liberal to conservative has in their creeds in some fashion. But if you look at it from the perspective of the person who does not believe the Bible to be the Word of God and to have authority in our lives then yes, quoting 2,000 year old letters carries no weight, it has no influence. People are just not there. It is comparable to a Muslim quoting the Quran to a Christian. The Christian would consider it irrelevant because they do not consider the Quran to have any weight or authority. That is where many people are today and have been since antiquity.

It needs to be noted that the Apostle Paul understood this. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens, the center of philosophical learning, debate and even academic snobbery. After spending a few days getting a handle on the culture of Athens Paul begins to speak and debate the leading thinkers of the culture. He wants them to understand the Gospel and embrace Jesus as Lord. When he speaks he starts not by quoting the Bible, in this case some things written by Moses and other prophets between 400 and 2,000 years earlier. Rather he begins by quoting a Greek philosopher named Epimenides who lived more than 600 years before Paul. What Paul does is appeal to an authority that his audience would respect and then uses what they already agree to as a bridge to get to the truth of who Jesus is. Simply quoting the Bible to his audience would have gotten Paul nowhere fast. He was not denying the Gospel. He was being wise in how he presented it in order to best communicate with his hearers.

Bells says that if we are quoting the Bible as our best defense we are going to be increasingly irrelevant. He is partly right. Ultimately the Bible is our best case for the truth of God. It is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and will cut between bone and marrow, to quote Hebrews 4:12. But it is not our only tool and it is not always the first one we should use. For Christians to truly impact the world and people in it we need to understand what they hold as authoritative. What carries weight with them? What truths are to be found in their thinking that lead to the truth of Christ found in the Bible? Those truths are there. Paul says in Romans 1 that the knowledge of God is present within every human being but we suppress that knowledge to follow gods of our own making. That residual knowledge makes itself known in various ways, in little truths and in the yearnings in the hearts of men and women. We need to be students of the culture like Paul was in order to show people exactly why the Word of God is their best hope for finding truth and living life as it was meant to be.

Unfortunately, the reaction to Bell’s statement is typically to shout our Bible verses louder and with more anger in our attempt to prove to people that the Bible is relevant to the subject at hand. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. It is always relevant. Certainly getting angry over it doesn’t serve us or Jesus well. What we need to do is show the culture that much of what they already believe is contained within the Bible, just as Paul did in Athens. I may disagree with Rob Bell on many, many things. But we need to hear what he is saying from the perspective of a disbelieving culture so that we can better communicate the truth of God to people immersed in it.

WIthin his statement we can see what drives Bell. It is the people standing in front of him. I think he has an incredibly compassionate heart. As his famous books says, Love Wins. Bell is right that Evangelical Christians could take a few lessons in love, especially loving your neighbor who is a complete and total enemy of the things of God. Where Bell goes astray is thinking that you can have a loving God without also having a holy God, a just God, a God who gets angry over evil and injustice. We Christians are big on speaking the truth to people. But we are called by the truth of Scripture to “speak the truth in love.” Incidentally, that also applies to how we speak to and about Rob Bell.

The Beatles said “All you need is love” and then they broke up!

Those words come from a song by Larry Norman. It was his album, “Only Visiting This Planet”  that provided me, a Led Zeppelin listening new Christian, with some great rock n roll that focused on Jesus. That quote from the Beatles and the commentary on their eventual inability to work together tells us something of the worlds shallow and impoverished view of love. Being that it’s Valentines Day it seem appropriate to take a look at what ideal of love really is. For that there is no better place to look than the words of Jesus.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13

Those words point clearly to the ultimate expression of love and as such point us to what love is really supposed to be all about. To hear people talk of love today, and talk of their experiences of love, you would be convinced that love is this fickle, emotional, euphoria that sweeps over you without your control. It is a sense of joy and delight that you experience in relation to another person. It is great when you have it but it may come or go on a whim without you being able to do anything about it. It is something you “fall into” and can just as quickly “fall out of”. If life with a person is light and breezy then you must be in love. If it starts to get hard, they disappoint you, you have a difference of opinion, then love must have moved on and you are now no longer in love with them. All I can say to that is “horse-hockey”. (to quote Colonel Potter from M.A.S.H)

That definition of love should have been left behind in 8th grade. It is the stuff of giddy school girls and overly optimistic boys hoping for some action at the school dance. It is a step above the passing of notes that ask, “Do you like me?” Check, Yes, No, or Maybe. It is a sad state of affairs when a vast majority of our culture is stuck at a middle school level of emotional understanding.

The love that the Bible and therefore Jesus, speaks about is a love that is deep and strong and will last through the most difficult of times. It is a love that is not concerned about what we are getting out of the relationship so much as it is what we are investing in the life of the other person. Think about the love of a parent for a child. We have all seen unhealthy examples of parents who derive their emotional sustenance from their children. Their children become little emotional booster shots for them. They find their validation as a person in their children because they make them feel so good inside. When the child starts pulling away or rejecting the parents oversight in some way, their world collapses and they give up being a parent. A healthy love for ones child means that a parent is going to do all the hard things needed as a parent so that their child can grow to love and follow Jesus. They are going to sacrifice their time and energy and heart. They are going to risk angering their child by requiring certain behaviors from them. They are going to have nights of tears and days in prayer over their child. Much of that time will be devoid of warm fuzzies and joyful tingles. It will be hard work. But it is love as Jesus speaks of love.

The same is true of spouses. Paul makes it clear when he writes to the Ephesians in chapter 5 that husbands and wives are to submit their lives to one another. He speaks specifically to husbands saying they are to lay down their lives for their wife, just as Jesus did for the church, His bride. The greatest expression of love comes when we sacrifice for another, not when we get all warm and starry eyed thinking about them.

When we sacrifice for those we love and do it without expecting them to return the sacrifice, then our love for them grows even deeper. There is a very real sense in which love properly understood and properly given gets stronger in the giving. On the other hand love improperly understood and improperly given is drained away and dies a slow death with each expression. The reason for that is the love that focuses on what we feel or are getting out of the relationship can never be satisfied. It is like a drug addict who develops a tolerance to the drug. Over time he needs more of the drug in higher doses to get the same euphoria. If he does not get it, he dies. Self serving love needs more and more of the experience of euphoria to sustain itself. But like a drug it consumes the consumer. Love that looks to give itself away in service to another is something that according to God’s economy, keeps giving and getting stronger the more it gives itself away. To quote another of my heroes, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, “It is not logical, but I have never the less found it to be true”.

The more you give yourself away in love and in the power of Christ, the stronger your love grows. The more you focus on the needs of the other, at least as much as you focus on your own, your love will get deeper. The more you look for ways to honor your beloved and sacrifice yourself for them, the more you will experience being blessed. Because you see, the love that sacrifices for another finds it’s highest reward and blessing in the benefit of the other.

How different might the music scene have been if the Beatles had learned that all you need is love that puts the other person first and sacrifices for them, instead of love that always measures if you are getting more out of the relationship than you are putting in?