Rob Bell, Pharisees and Sacrifice

The recent scrum between Rob Bell and Andrew Wilson is educational. (Check it out on The confronting issue, as they say, is gay marriage. Bell, apparently, has come out for it, or, at least, as he says, is in favor of “monogamy and fidelity and commitment and the world needs more of that and I think that promiscuity is dangerous and destructive, some people are gay and they should be able to marry. ” Bell is in favor of faithful and loving relationships whether they are gay or straight.

Enter Andrew Wilson, who I don’t know, but who is the perfect interlocutor for this contest. He is the prosecuting attorney, trying to extrude from Bell a confession that God no doubt thinks a “guy having sex with a guy is sinful.” Notice, of course, relationships are reduced to the sexual parts, as if, one might say, heterosexual marriage is about a man and woman “doing it.” Yikes, okay, well I think what Wilson wants to do is to get into an exegetical debate, which no doubt, based on Wilson’s vast knowledge of scripture, he will destroy Bell. Bell refuses the invitation and, I would argue, avoids the ploy. And it’s just that.

I want to suggest that while the presenting issue is gay marriage, this is really about competition and conflict between people who, for all intents and purposes, have 99 percent of things in common. It is what Freud so perfectly expressed as the “narcissism of small differences.” But it really goes beyond that. The same problem existed between Jesus and the Pharisees. They too were very similar. The Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus, to get him to fess up that his ability with the law was weak at best, and the Pharisees, being the keepers of righteousness, were duty bound to protect every jot and tittle. And so we see Wilson going at Bell with everything he has, “Is it sin?” “Are you saying the church for 2,000 years has got it wrong?” Bell refuses to bite, more on this later.

Up pops Rene Girard, the scholar on violence and the sacred (check out Girard’s lectures on scapegoating here: Girard argues that social conflict (or mimetic crisis) is solved, ordinarily, through sacrifice, the death of a victim. Humans have used religion as the way to justify this killing, by sacralizing the violence and then, after the sacrifice, divinizing the victim. It works, for a while, then you need a new one and the process continues. They did this to Jesus, but he was innocent and, as Girard argues, Jesus reveals the whole system as a bankrupt and tragic way to live. Jesus argues that we should solve our conflicts nonviolently and be reconciled to one another. Clearly, humans, including Christians have not figured this out.

I would argue, in a polite and righteous way, Wilson was sacrificing, using Girardian terms–scapegoating Bell to resolve what has become a social crisis for the evangelical community. We can’t have a gay marriage lover in the family, Bell fails in his biblical exegesis; he needs to be expunged.

Bell, with a phlegmatic demeanor, neither takes Wilson’s bait, nor accepts his expulsion. He turns to Wilson and says, “Andrew’s my brother, if we got out the bread and wine, we’d both take it…. Is there something that trumps the differences we have? I think that’s the question.” Bell brilliantly shifts the conversation back to whole point of the Christian message, “Be reconciled to one another.”

It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Mark 2, when confronted on why he is picking heads of grain on the Sabbath, without even blinking Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The law is but a guideline, human flourishing is the hermeneutical key, always, and Jesus does this over and over again. Human healing and reconciliation are always what actually matters. I was listening to the gospels on tape while exercising the other day, and I thought, “My God, Jesus is a walking hospital.” And it’s true, he just keeps healing, forgiving and feeding people wherever he goes, and the righteousness of the person or the group does not matter.

So, in that sense, maybe the sexuality of the person doesn’t matter. And that’s the point, fidelity and commitment and reconciliation do matter. Bell neither wants to debate the text or debate the relative merits of the sin, he wants to affirm a reconciled relationship of love and commitment. Love wins; I guess you’d say.

So, I would suggest that the Pharisaical way of nitpicking sin, is the way of traditional religion, it always ends up with somebody dead or expunged from the community. It works for a while, but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Check out my Rob Bell and a New American Christianity to explore Bell’s hermeneutic of reconciliation:



  • Kevin Miller

    Great observation, James. I felt that Rob Bell was being scapegoated in a similar way regarding the reaction to Love Wins.

    • James Wellman

      Hi Kevin: Agreed, really enjoy your work… would be fun to connect one of these days!

  • Chris Naish

    Really nicely put.

  • Phil Whittall

    James, the snide comments about Andrew Wilson aside, a question: how do you determine and assess the reasons and ground for someone’s convictions, especially if they’re purported to be scriptural, if there’s no comment or clarity on exegesis?

    So Wilson made the point that he didn’t want to critique a view Bell didn’t hold but Bell didn’t explain until the end that his reasons weren’t actually exegetical in nature at all. They’re missiologically focused, ie being seen as ant-gay (whether you are or not) puts people off the church & Jesus so let’s not be against gay marriage.

    Time will of course tell.

    • James Wellman

      No, not snide, Andrew has his big boy pants on, as do I, and he wanted to prooftext Bell out of the church, that’s not snide, that’s what ‘normal’ religion does, to prove who is right, and then to expunge them or, if they have power–which, in the past, some have had, Calvin for instance (in my tradition) and others in the tradition (as well as in many religions), one can be killed, and so violence is called a sacrifice for the truth, check out the life and death of Servetus; and so it goes. It seems to me, Jesus was not so interested in being right, prooftexting people into the kingdom, but in making them well, refusing to scapegoat, and walking in the way of nonviolence.

      • Phil Whittall

        Apologies for misjudging the comments and therefore you. I’m not sure Andrew was tryng to prooftext Bell out of the church for a whole variety of reasons, having read much of what Wilson has written that’s not his style. What I think he was trying to do was to understand the basis for what Rob was saying. So if you don’t understand these texts this way (tradition etc..) how do you understand them?

        Wilson, a pacifist ( would most likely agree with the way of non-violence. But your assertions on Jesus seem challenged by a lot of his comments, that brings a sword, calls leaders white-washed tombs or a brood of vipers or by his insistence that they did not know the scriptures or the power of God. A frequent challenge back to the pharisees was that they had misused scripture. Not so very different to today.

        • James Wellman

          Well, as they say, you have to judge people by their fruits, I wrote a book on Bell without any real sense of him at all, that is, I let the cards fall where they may, and his fruits are pretty clear, as it looks like Wilson’s are as well. As I always say, I may be wrong. Peace.

  • S_i_m_o_n

    The issue is not specifically gay marriage. Wilson’s questions, especially the very last one at about 19:15 in (to which Bell replied ‘Well said’) all speak to how Rob Bell got to his position. I think what Wilson was trying to establish was whether there was a common view between them on the Bible and it’s authority. If there was, and we don’t know because Bell never revealed his view, then I think Andrew would have said fine, let’s do lunch sometime and dig into scripture and see what each other sees. What Wilson, and many others suspect is that on this issue Bell is bowing to culture. Wilson’s problem is that this seems to be a shift in how we discover truth.

    • James Wellman

      Do you mean adrift? Well, we all are, read my book on Bell, I think he discovered, as we all must, is that we are culture, we are the language of our culture, there is not culture-free space, the Bible has many cultures-some we barely have a sense of, that is we don’t know where the thoughts came from, or there were subcultures that have disappeared, so it really is, I’m afraid to say it, but silly to think we can finally establish “the truth”… look at the broad spectrum of biblical scholars, not just conservatives, they make an absolutely compelling case for multiple perspectives; read and listen to the Gospels, as I recently did, the Gospels are quite different in their sensibilities, Luke so different from Matthew, maybe they dovetail… but really, “the truth”…. For Bell, the TRUTH only happens when people ‘literally’ live out their faith in compassion and justice, that’s it, otherwise, as he says in his last sermon, he just dogs doing smell circles, trying to get one up on somebody else… so, really this is an epistemological problem over what constructs truth; making it pretty plain, propositions aren’t truth (that is holy spirit inspired actions of lived compassion), they are words, that often cause people to kill each other…. so, yes to truth, I think Bell would say, yes to sitting down confessing our limits, caring for one another, doing justice together, but you’re not getting a propositional sheet of truths from him. Incarnation, incarnation, incarnation, if its not lived out, its not truth. So, we might say, making up a word, he’s into truing… it must be done, otherwise, its just words.

      • S_i_m_o_n

        So if ‘propositions aren’t truth’ is a proposition in itself then it’s not truth and propositions may in fact be truth? Am I reading you right?

        • James Wellman

          It’s not as if propositions are not true, some are more accurate and more subtle than others, but from an incarnational form of Christianity, which Bell follows, they only become true as one lives them out in one’s life.

          • S_i_m_o_n

            So which ones should we be living out? Is it all just relative? Which is coming back to what Wilson was trying to establish.

          • James Wellman

            Jesus is calling you to live out a life of justice, compassion and nonviolence. That is a LONG way from relative. My friend, read Matthew 25, as you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me; if you do not do it unto the least of these, you do not know me–and I never knew you. Are you serving the vulnerable? are you caring for the orphan and widow? Are you faithful to your primary relationships? Do you do justice in your public life? Do you take stands against unjust violence of the state? Do you store of wealth in your barns? Do you give most of what you have away? This is a long way from relative. Calling what I or Bell are saying relative is whistling in the wind. Read my book on him; all the ministries to the poor, the lost, to the stranger, to Africans–he didn’t remodel or build a cathedral; he moved with his family into a ghetto; he’s been faithful to his wife and family.
            Relative, hardly. Peace be with you and hope you follow Jesus into the vulnerable in you and around you.

          • Thursday1

            This sounds like interpreting Jesus message through a W.E.I.R.D. psychological perspective.

            It just doesn’t seem plausible that Jesus was a W.E.I.R.D.o before his time. We should see more evidence.

      • Ginny Bain Allen

        JESUS IS THE TRUTH. Period.

  • Thursday1

    The differences over this issue really come down to ethical intuitions, and they are actually quite profound, which is why people tend to talk past each other on these issues.

    On the one hand you have people who believe or at least intuit that ethics can be boiled down to happiness and suffering and how to divide those things up. For these people, it is obvious that there is nothing wrong with gay sex per se.

    On the other hand there are others for whom there are other ethical implications than whether something hurts someone else. For these people, ethics may, for example, be about realizing an ideal or essence rather than promoting happiness per se. They tend to live in a thick, sacred cosmos where particular forms (like male and female) contain deep meaning that is independent of human desire. Therefore, for them, though they would rather people be happy than not, ceteris parabus, it does not necessarily matter that gay people would be happier if they have gay sex, because that’s not the ultimate moral standard.

    The former are often horrified that anyone would put anything else before the happiness and suffering of human beings, while the latter are horrified that anyone would radically empty the cosmos of meaning.

    I have to say the latter tends to go along with any religion, at least psychologically, including Christianity, a lot better than the former. Trying to stake out a middle position strikes me as inherently unstable. The correlations found by Jonathan Haidt suggest this as well.

    • Thursday1

      So, I don’t actually think they have that much in common. They use the same names: “Jesus” “God” etc. but how those things are conceptualized do seem to be quite radically apart.

      Anyway, I would advise you to read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.

  • Daniel

    If you watch the whole interview I didn’t feel that Bell faired well at all. His foundation for his argument was, “I think it’s great” and as Wilson so elegantly said that he wanted to hear that Rob came to this conclusion by diligent study of Scripture not by observing his friends. If you have read Rob’s books the issue is very apparent that he believes culture defines scripture not the other way around. His starting point is the current culture: he then adds scripture to it. Wilson was saying you have to start with the scripture.

    People keep arguing that Jesus was a pacifist who never confronted sin. Just not true. “unless your righteousness surpasses the Pharisees…” and “he says go and sin no more” like Andrew, Rob says go and keep sinning. Jesus first coming was as a lamb. His second will be as a lion. Are we clearly not ready for that version.

    • James Wellman

      Daniel: Thanks for proving all the points I made in my original post. Time to sacrifice someone.

  • Daniel

    I would also point out that if you said “it’s not a sin to worry” that would be just as big of an issue. If your going to call something not sinful that has been held sinful for so long you really need some scripture to back your point. I would be fine with this if Bell had some scripture but he didn’t. He just said “I have lots of friends…”. .. Bad starting place Bell.

  • gimpi1

    I think you made your point very well, Mr. Wellman. I, personally don’t follow your path, but I might be more inclined it give it a look-see if a bit more of the most public Christians took your and Mr. Bell’s tack. You catch more flies with honey, after all.

    I just recently tried to explain this to a fellow who started with the “all you need is Jesus” line, and then proceeded to tell me how every opinion I had, and most of the facts that back them up, were somehow evil, and that following the letter of his doctrine mattered just as much or more. He was rather snarky as well. I have to admit, after being told I must adopt beliefs that right now seem cruel, (discriminate against gay people) silly (always vote republican, no matter what) or just plain crazy (young-earth creationism) I just tuned out. Many people do.

    If you want to reach us, you and Mr. Bell will do a much better job than Mr Wilson.

  • Al Cruise

    The irony here is, what Bell is saying and writing about, is what millions of people, evangelicals included, were already feeling in some form or another. For Wilson to try and destroy Bell is a joke. Remember in the fifties and sixties what they said about Rock and Roll music, now its used in worship services.

    • James Wellman


  • Jerry Lynch

    Being a pacifist for the last forty-five years, I have met many times the likes of Wilson and the accompanying tribunal mindset, though Wilson appears less strident. It has always been a curiosity that I mostly get accused of liberal theology with my stance against war and political involvement, while I think of it as conservative.
    My pacifism goes against the culture and would seem to be unwelcoming to soldiers and politicians, even any voter, a judgment on both their character and actions, though I feel no hatred or condemnation of them. It is my conviction and I lean on Romans14:1: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Of course, “whose faith is weak” appears a judgment or at least a pat on my back for having Truth with a capital “T.” And I must admit that I do not feel this is a “disputable matter” but central to being as Christ was in the world, a “citizen of heaven.” Still, this is nothing that should separate me from my brothers and sisters or be used against them.
    I never preach my stance but only share when directly involved in conversation or in group study. Oops, that’s not exactly true. In church services or other congregation affairs where the Pledge of Allegiance or patriotic songs are sang, I will not join in. This does not go unnoticed and I have been asked to leave not to return a number of gatherings. Should I lighten up for culture sake? Or mine? Am I missing the point?
    Being shunned and scapegoated for most of my life, or just simply thought the fool, by the vast majority of my fellow Christians has not turned me off to Christ. Or Christians. I hold no grudge against the Church. I live by my conviction because I am unable to do otherwise, it being so strong in me. Just as for so many involvement in politics is strong, a must. It seems we can be reconciled in our love of God and let him weigh our heart.

    • James Wellman

      Much respect for you. Violence is integral to an empire; so to stand against empire is to stand against violence, and America is an empire of sorts, with a happy, innocent face.