Rob Bell latest: devil’s in the details

I’ve been fascinated by the Rob Bell no-one-goes-to-hell controversy, and I was particularly captured by this lede from the Associated Press:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

The lede just doesn’t explain why Holtz would lose his job, at a United Methodist Church no less, for simply voicing support on Facebook for Bell’s book. It doesn’t say he was preaching that there is no hell, or beating people over head with it, or that he doesn’t believe hell is real. It merely quotes Holtz saying he doesn’t believe God would subject any of his people to “an eternity of torment.”

So I’m left to wonder why he was fired.

The pastor declined to discuss the situation with AP reporter Tom Breen, and I could sense from the start that Breen was writing around some ambiguity in the details. But this paragraph further down in the story casts real doubt on whether Holtz was fired simply because he “lost his old belief in hell.”

Church members had also been unhappy with Internet posts about subjects like gay marriage and the mix of religion and patriotism, Holtz said, and the hell post was probably the last straw. Holtz and his family plan to move back to Tennessee, where he’ll start a job and maybe plant a church.

Ahhhhhhh. So this was, as I suspected, likely about more than just supporting Rob Bell’s view of hell.

It had to be, as the inestimable Ann Rodgers noted in an insightful comment on Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s Facebook page:

Polity problem here. Unless there has been a change I don’t know about, a United Methodist pastor can’t be fired. He or she can only be removed by the bishop, and then is guaranteed another appointment somewhere. I would suspect that if the bishop moved so quickly after these complaints, that there might have been some previous controversy in the congregation.

The Sanctus blog, written by a former United Methodist minister, echoes Rodgers and goes all GetReligion on Breen’s story.

Under the normal procedure, Holtz would simply be sent to another church or, if worst came to worst, be given a desk job at the conference office. The fact that he is moving out of state and starting a new church is all the more evidence that this story is about a lot more than a Facebook post.

In short, Holtz couldn’t have been fired for supporting Bell’s concept of heaven and hell. He likey wouldn’t even have fired for his other views. There was a lot more to this story than what simply meets the eye.

That’s not necessarily the easiest thing for a reporter to see. After all, Breen is presumably not Methodist and even if he was he likely is unfamiliar with church polity; more importantly, the pastor has refused to speak with him and the subject of the story, Holtz, is the one who gets to frame his leaving the church as a firing.

One thing Breen could have done — it’s something I used to do when I had the time and when I was reporting on a religious issue that I wasn’t well-versed in — was consult with a third-party to see if what Holtz was saying made sense. This could be a Methodist scholar or simply an unassociated Methodist church leader or informed lay person.

That might seem like an unnecessary luxury when on deadline. But it’s no less so than double-checking names and titles, even if a little more time-consuming.

IMAGE: A little satire from Collideoscope

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  • Matt

    Rogers and Sanctus are only partially correct. Holtz was not “guaranteed” an appointment because he is an MDiv student and classified as a student local pastor. The only people “guaranteed” an appointment in the UMC are ordained elders. It sounds like he’ll go back to his home conference after graduation which is far different than getting shipped off to another conference.

    (I’m not in that conference but am an elder in the UMC)

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I don’t think I missed that detail. Something that should have certainly been in this story.

  • Matt

    I could have kept my mouth shut an linked to Holtz’s blog :-) He addresses some of what I wrote there:

  • James Gibson

    Matt [1],

    That certainly clears things up a bit. I have updated my blog accordingly. Thanks!

  • Scott Parrish
  • Daniel

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  • Bain Wellington

    Part of my trouble with all this, is that I have little idea what Bell and/or Holtz meant (or mean) by the “hell” they no longer believe in. Is this just about abandoning the fire and brimstone hell so memorably immortalized in chapter 3 of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (although, to be sure, the material hell described there is less graphic than the description of spiritual torments later in the same chapter)? Or are they abandoning the doctrine of final judgement? I remember being comforted as a child on being told that the Catholic Church recognises saints, but has never concerned herself with who precisely (if anyone) has gone to hell (still less has she ever condemned anyone to hell as some sects seem to do – consider the spiritually cramped (and possibly fictional) community in that memorably outlandish 1996 Oscar-nominated movie Breaking the Waves standing around a coffin as the words of damnation were pronounced over the unlucky corpse. In this regard, the Catholic Church’s teaching on hell required little re-calibration post-Vatican II: see §§ 1033-1037 of the Catechism.

  • David

    I was surprised that in the United Methodist News Service article linked to above, it stated, “A particular belief about heaven or hell is not part of the denomination’s baptismal covenant, and therefore is not a requirement for membership in The United Methodist Church.”

  • Joel

    In the book, Bell criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven while everyone else is tormented forever in hell.

    It sounds like what he’s disputing isn’t the existence of Hell but the Calvinist perspective on it. While I know Methodism isn’t a Calvinist offshoot, that theology is becoming more prevalent the last few years. No wonder John Piper was so dismissive of him.

  • Steve Martin

    Our generous reason and our desire to avoid offense, will bring more and more liberalism with respect to what the Bible actually says.

    Eventually God will be just another god of our own image, cooked up inside our “reasonable” gray matter.