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.

Newsweek Magazine and the Case for Gay Marriage

The cover story for the upcoming December 15th issue is titled, “Our Mutual Joy”. The subtitle contends that the Bible is actually supportive of gay marriage and that opponents of gay marriage don’t understand what the Bible teaches. While I will admit that many opponents of gay marriage don’t understand what the Bible teaches, after reading the article it is clear that supporters of gay marriage don’t either. I went to the article expecting it to wrestle honestly with the biblical texts that usually get debated when talking about homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular.

Much of the article is a look at two things that really are not relevant to the title or the issue of gay marriage. One is examples from history when people used the Bible to justify things that were wrong, the south and slavery prior to the Civil War loom large here. The fact that people in the past used the Bible to falsely support a position, while a good warning to us to not do the same today, does not have any bearing on the substance of the issue. Just because a theologian in 1850 used the Bible to justify the owning of slaves and was wrong, does not mean that in 2008 a theologian is automatically wrong to use the Bible to condemn homosexual practice.

The second issue comes up when the article also correctly points out that examples of a solid marriage between one man and one woman are hardly common in the Bible and that in fact polygamy was common in the Old Testament.  But here is another common mistake made when people deal with the Bible. In an ironic twist, it is the same mistake that many supporters of slavery made in the past. They look at the narrative portions, the stories told in the Bible about everyday life and elevate them above the clear teaching passages that are supposed to guide us to the ideal behavior in life. It is the mistake of taking the “descriptive” and making it “prescriptive”. Another example of this in the article is when it pulls into the discussion the fact that Jesus was never married and neither was Paul. While I commend the willingness to go against the flow of current conspiracy theorists who are sure Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, Jesus or Paul being single has nothing to say about what a marriage is or should be.  And it is certainly not an argument, as is implied, that marriage is not to be held up as some virtuous institution.

The article does deal with some of the relevant texts from the Bible. But at times it does so in a way that lacks credibility. In referring to some of the clearest statements that define homosexual behavior as sin, those in Leviticus 18 and 20, the author dismisses these passages as “throw away lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world.” If you did not know what the rest of Leviticus 18 and 20 deal with you would think from that statement that they are full of things that have no relevance what so ever for modern people living in America in the 21st century. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rest of those chapters forbids things like having sex with your son or daughter. That is hardly a throw away line only relevant for ancient Jews. It also forbids having sex with some other person’s spouse or with your sister or brother, all things that still today even the most irreligious among us do not condone.  These verses have great bearing on the position Christians should hold. One can not deal with them simply by dismissing them.

There are other passages that are brought into the article that have a bearing on the subject. Unfortunately not in the way the author presents them. The goal of using these other texts seems to be to show that the biblical mandate to love our neighbor should somehow translate into acceptance of gay marriage. I quote, “In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins..” The author then goes on to reference Jesus speaking to the woman at the well. She is a woman who has had many husbands and even now is living with a man to whom she is not married. This is seen as evidence of “Christ’s all-encompassing love”.

Here is the heart of the problem, Christian and non-Christian alike fail to make a distinction between how we are to love others and at the same time hold to standards of behavior that people fail to live up to. Many Christians want to hold to a standard of behavior when it comes to sin, including homosexuality, but they fail to live up to the standard given by Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. Many others want to simply accept and love people just as they are and not expect any adherence to a life that tries to live with some measure of holiness. I have three sons. I love each of them deeply, but if one of them lies, or steals, or fails to show compassion to another person, I don’t ignore the behavior in some twisted demonstration of love. Instead as a sign of my love for them I go to them and with all the grace and mercy I can muster, I tell them what they should do and how they should change, repent, for Jesus.

The article rightly calls on us to show the love of Christ to everyone. The provocative Christian life is one that does just that. We are all in the same boat in that we are sinners in need of the grace and mercy and love of God. If you are a Christian you first experienced that grace, mercy, and love in another person whom God was working through. You must, absolutely must be willing to pass that on to others. Our churches should be filled with homosexuals, adulterers, thieves, liars and cheats. Actually they already are; it’s us. Maybe if we were a little more willing to admit our own sin we would be able to be more loving to other sinners and they would want to be around us. You see we will not change the world by being holier-than-thou and spouting slogans or protesting lifestyles. We will help change the world by fulfilling the command Jesus gave us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus had an open heart for the outcast, the sinner, the rejected of society. He loved them. But he also challenged them to live differently. There was another story of Jesus and a woman that completes the picture. It is the woman caught in adultery in John 8, just four chapters after the aforementioned woman at the well. In John 8, Jesus shows incredible love and mercy to the woman. So much so that her accusers leave in disgrace. But in His closing line to the woman, as He says, “neither do I condemn you” He finishes by saying, “Go and sin no more”.

Here is a link to the Newsweek article: http://www.newsweek.com/id/172653/