Rob Bell Fallout

I received this note from a reader, and I’m tossing it out there to see if anyone is experiencing this. Some of you my have to write anonymously or pseudonymously to protect your job …

Dear Scot,

I know of a handful of folks who work at churches who have been asked to appear before their senior pastor and asked to give their view on Rob Bell’s new book. One pastor I know had a promotion taken away because of what he said to his senior pastor.

I would love to hear stories on how those who have supported Rob in the past and used his materials in ministry, if they have been “forced to come out of the closet” on any of their theological beliefs, or if they have been talk aside and grilled.

I’m not sure if this discussioin is fruitful but I think it needs to be exposed or at least discussed.

And yet another angle on the fall out of this book: My friend who lost the promotion essentially said when advertising the book Rob perhaps didn’t stop to think how it would affect the rest of us.

Are there any stories out there?

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  • Robin

    NO stories regarding Rob Bell, but when I was at Southern (Louisville) my fellow M.Div students would regularly discuss what the fallout would be if people at their churches discovered they were calvinists. They didn’t want to preach through TULIP or the Institutes, they just wanted to be faithful to their view of scripture when doing expository preaching and not get fired for it.

    That said, I never recall one of them getting summoned to give their views on John Piper or R.C. Sproul.

  • None come to mind.

  • E.G.

    “My friend who lost the promotion essentially said…”

    But, the question is, does the friend really want the promotion in an organization like that? Maybe it’s a sign that it’s time to look for another church.

  • This reminds me of the following passage. Jesus set us free from the Law, then the church put us back in bondage with its creeds.

    Lk 11:24-26 “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. “Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”

  • Scot,

    I don’t know of people being called before a board or staff and asked about their view of Bell, but here is an article about a NC pastor fired for his views on Bell’s book. Holtz is a finishing his MDiv at Duke.

    “Chad Holtz wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting Bell’s questioning of traditional Christian views of hell. Two days later, he was dismissed at Marrow Chapel in Henderson, N.C., and has discussed the firing in a video ”

  • thanks, David. I see my little joke in #2 above was somewhat missed 🙂

  • Bob

    I used to work at a church and part of my responsibility was to direct the small group ministries. An interesting conversation came about from the senior pastor and I about Rob Bell. Long story short, he found out that we were communicating his video series (Noomas) to our groups as a possible group resource and he banned them from our church, along with his book. I’m not sure exactly how you enforce that but that’s what he said. This was way before Heaven and Hell (sometime after Velvet Elvis was released). Needless to say, the conversation was tough and revealed a lot of things to me that I wasn’t aware of. I did my best not lash out in this conversation for fear of loosing my job, so I simply remained silent. However, there were a lot of things I wanted to say. In the end, I decided it was best to leave the church not solely because of this issue but I’ll admit it did play a part.

  • I assume you’ve already heard about Chad Holtz (, the United Methodist pastor who was pushed out, in part because he posted something in support of Rob Bell’s views on the Emergent Village website? His story ended up making the national news. (

    BTW, I also wanted to say that blaming Rob for the inquisitions being leveled against those who support him is grossly unfair. Do you blame Dr. King for the violence leveled by white racists against those who followed him? Rob, like King, is simply speaking the truth as he sees it. Don’t blame him for the ecclesial “violence” of those who are unwilling to coexist in the same community with people who share some of Rob’s concerns.

  • @Chad… that was funny 😀

    I actually saw your story first at Rachel Held Evans blog. Take care…

  • Ah, I see both Chad and David beat me to the punch 🙂

  • Tim

    It’s a shame anyone would lose their job over expressing an opinion. I would say most leaders wouldn’t share their opinion/views based on the consequences. I was ordained in a denomination where fellow colleagues would discuss among themselves about their difference of views/doubts on certain articles of faith yet would never dare share those views publically, nor with the denomination leaders who asked allegiance to them every year. You wouldn’t be around very long.

  • Chad #2: Good joke.

    In other news, the university I went to in South Carolina had quite a bit of support from a large, well-known church in Atlanta pastored by a recent SBC president whose name I won’t mention. This church actually began asking the administration if the school was teaching Calvinism.

    This began a period of Calvinist witch hunts that the administration went on, basically checking to see if any of the professors were teaching Calvinism.

    What is funny is that some of those who were questioned (because they were known as Calvinists at the school) have been as hard on those who appreciate and/or approve of Rob Bell as the administration was hard on them back in school.

  • Why stop at firing? Can’t we find a good stake and some kindling?

  • EricW

    Torquemada lives.

  • Karl

    I have used Rob’s Nooma videos in our home group in the past, and have also recommended some of his other material, such as “Sex God” and “Everything is Spiritual” (my pastor is in our home group). Many of my church friends and both of my pastors also know that I was at Wheaton at the same time as Rob, in the same dorm in fact, and while I didn’t know him personally our circles of friends overlapped a little bit and I feel a little bit of a connection to him as a result of that, in addition to the fact that coming out of a similar milleau I can relate to a lot of what he says even when I don’t fully agree with him.

    So, with that being the case I have had several people come up to me with varying questions along the lines of “So what do you think of your boy Rob Bell NOW?” That is my tongue in cheek take on it – nobody has really said it that way, but I’ve had several people including both of my pastors ask me if I have heard about Rob’s new book and what I think about it. I haven’t suffered any negative ramifications as a result of my cautious replies (I understand where Rob is coming from but disagree with him in places . . . I wish he’d be more clear and less coy at times . . . I’m an inclusivist, not a universalist . . . I think he’s raising some important questions and that some of the answers aren’t as clear-cut as many evangelicals think they are . . . I wish his critics would take a more irenic tone with Rob similar to the tone CS Lewis took toward George MacDonald’s universalism, which Lewis couldn’t agree with in spite of his love and respect for MacDonald etc.). But then again, I am not a paid staff member; those same replies might get me in a little bit more hot water if I was on staff.

  • When I came to faith that Jesus really is the savior of all humanity, I was excluded from a fellowship, asked to resign from the board of another ministry, some lobbied to have me removed from another ministry (my primary support), and some of my family and friends have falsely accused me and taken steps to cause me problems and set others against me as they can. It’s been very sad. But this all came about several months ago before Rob Bell’s book. For many people it seems that the doctrine of Hell is unquestionable, and anyone who does question it, much less disagree with it, is liable to face severe consequences. It seems that the doctrine of Hell often brings out the worst in people; but that’s what fear does. I find faith and love much more positive and enduring motivators.

  • Scot,
    As a Senior Pastor of 28 years, I would ask whether or not the staff member agreed to uphold a doctrinal statement upon hire. It is not uncommon for churches to have in place personnel policy manuals that prescribe that employees uphold certain standards such as the church’s governing documents and some sort of doctrinal statement. If the staff member’s theology has changed to the degree that it places him or her in disagreement with what they orginally committed to uphold, then I would think he or she would willingly step down so as not to demand their individual liberties as the expense of the whole.

  • Chad #2 – thank you for allowing a chuckle at your expense. May God bless you with a great new post.

    Karl #15 – Could you direct me to a source for Lewis’ comments on MacDonald’s universalism?

    Scot – Thank you for your leadership in this conversation. Lord bless you –

  • Of course, we’d also like to know of any stories the other way. The left can be very intolerant too.

  • Karl

    Tim #18, I think Lewis explicitly mentions MacDonald’s universalism and his inability to agree with it almost as an aside in one of his letters. I’ll check when I get home tonight and see if I can find it.

    But aside from any direct comment on MacDonald’s universalism, it is clear from his writing that Lewis himself wasn’t a universalist. In a few places (without mentioning MacDonald) Lewis says that in spite of wishing it were otherwise he believes that Hell is real, is taught by scripture, and that it will be peopled with those who are “successful rebels to the end.” Yet Lewis consistently praised MacDonald and honored him as his spiritual mentor.

    To listen to most of Rob Bell’s harsh critics, this should be unthinkable – to honor as a mentor and spiritual father someone who was a rank universalist! Horrors! Yet here is Lewis, doing just that. It makes me think that if Lewis’ disagreement with MacDonald on this issue wasn’t enough to make Lewis trash MacDonald, then maybe Bell’s critics should take a little more Lewisean approach to their disagreement with Rob.

  • Robin

    I was part of a church shortly after it got planted. We were committed to reaching the hipster part of town with the gospel. The leader of the plant was a young guy out of seminary and we were meeting at the facilities of the local liberal baptist church (maybe GBC denomination but I’m really not sure). Everything was going swimmingly, we had even opened up an art studio and music room down the road until the baptist church found out that we believed that homosexual acts were sinful.

    We were immediately forbidden from using their facilities. Luckily the local Mennonite congregation shared our passion for that part of town and were closer, doctrinally, to us and let us use their facilities..

  • Terry

    Chad, I appreciate the irony of #2, and your good humor; I’ve been praying for you since I read the news, remembering your being a commenter here at Jesus Creed.

    I have no first-hand experience with Love Wins, but was beat back into a corner and threatened when I admitted to having read the slipper-sloped Velvet Elvis, and not being grossly offended by it. Within my denomination I must remain quiet at this time, regarding what I am reading or am open to thinking-through, to keep from from stirring up all kinds of controversy which would “cause others to stumble” and likely result in my being removed/defrocked.

  • Kenton

    As a layperson I realize I have more “first amendment rights” than professional clergy do. The fact that I can come out and say how much I love Love Wins and not worry about what my employer thinks is not lost on me at all. That’s partly what makes me quite vocal about it. I figure if the laity don’t speak up, the heresy police – both professional and lay – will quash the message.

    Props to Chad, Sherman, who are willing to really stick their necks out as it were.

  • Terry

    Of course, I should say, that being a a commenter on Jesus Creed, if it was known, could have the same kind of fall-out. 🙂

  • Karl

    ChrisB in #19 you make a valid point. I’ve seen it on both sides, having sojourned for a while in the Episcopal Church (USA). The velvet glove of progressive niceness often contains an iron fist when prevailing orthodoxies are questioned. I saw numerous priests lose their jobs and lay leaders lose their position, for articulating beliefs which were by evangelical standards pretty middle of the road but which were contrary to the decided direction of the denomination.

    It was ironic that in those congregations one could get in trouble for citing NT Wright (who was articulate in opposition to ECUSA’s Gene Robinson decision), just as one can get in trouble in some conservative circles for citing Wright.

    But we digress, I think. This post doesn’t really seem to be about that. I don’t think Scot’s main purpose in the post is to suggest that conservatives are more intolerant of disagreement than progressives. I think he knows better.

  • When I got resigned from pastoral ministry at a Baptist church, it was for stuff WAAYYY less “heretical” than anything Rob Bell has said recently (of course, I’m at least as heretical as Rob these days, but not back then).

    However, as regards inquisitions over the Hell issue, I was examined a bit by the denomination I moved on to after getting kicked out of the Baptist church. I had posted some stuff on my blog and on an atheist blog asserting an “inclusivist” position. However, with this new denom (which was still fairly conservative evangelical), all that happened was a conversation over lunch with some of the regional officials, where I clarified my position, asserted a strong inclusivist stance, and that was good enough for them. It was disappointing to me that they even had to bring it up, but I thought they handled it pretty well overall.

  • JoeyS

    ChrisB, why make this a partisan issue?

  • Scott Eaton

    Some of the comments here are deeply troubling. I cannot speak to what specific senior pastors are doing. However, good pastors have the impulse to protect. It is true that sin sometimes distorts that impulse, but the good pastors I know want to protect the flock entrusted to them by God from what they consider to be error. If a staff member is promoting error (whether from Rob Bell or anyone else), the pastor has a responsibility to protect the flock.

    Yes, care must be taken not to go on witchhunts or set up an inquistion. It is also true that the threshold for truth is different from congregation to congregation and denomination to denomination. But if a pastor believes (as I do) that what Rob Bell is teaching is dangerous, heretical, contradictory to the gospel and Scripture, he has a responsibilty to make sure that it is not taught to God’s people in the place where he is called as shepherd.

    This kind of unpopular stance and courage should not be condemned, but appreciated.

  • Phil N

    I’m church planting now, but in a previous position used the Nooma materials and was criticized by a few. My senior pastor was pretty much unaware of the controversy, but would land fairly conservative and baptist in moderate evangelical denomination. I would land very moderate in this issue, but am sure that if I remained in the old position, there would be those seeking to remove the Bell stuff from the library, etc, and my position questioned, possilby even formally, but I kind of doubt it. Regardless, I would most likely find myself in a minority.

  • I find myself in grudging (certainly not wholehearted) agreement with #28. Not so far as to say such unpopular stances should be appreciated, but I can’t find it in myself to condemn them, either.

    Churches will have different opinions on many matters, but while I would hope that those we use as “litmus tests” are few, it is not inappropriate to have them. If a doctrine is something we consider essential, exercising responsibility to ensure that those doctrines are consistently taught can be not only permitted, but required.

    Most evangelicals would, I suspect, insist that those with teaching responsibility in their churches teach that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, for example, and that the resurrection was a physical event (and not purely a spiritual reality). While there is room for theological disagreement on just how these things took place, a teacher who insisted on more docetic interpretations of Scripture would rightly be challenged.

    What I see happening re: Rob Bell isn’t quite the same thing, however. Challenging Christians to rethink exactly how God responds to people re: their eternal destiny isn’t to become “universalist,” per se (leaving aside the discussion about whether being “universalist” is hetero-orthodox), and that seems to be all that most who would defend Bell’s book are doing (indeed, I’m not sure Bell himself is doing anything different). People are in danger of being cast out before they’ve even been clearly understood.

  • Les

    I pretty much agree with #17 Tim. Seeing most of the comments makes me wonder what, if any, doctrinal standard Bell supporters have.

    In any case, in my denomination, the PCA, if a man who has taken vows of agreement with our doctrinal standards and then his views change away from those standards, he has vowed to make those changes known to his brethren who then judge whether he is still in conformity with those standards. If he is judged not to be, he must step down or be deposed.

    This kind of doctrinal integrity is essential to protect the church from false teaching.

  • Someone help me out regarding comments above. If Rob has said he is not a universalist repeatedly, why are we still using that as a designation for him? Why not be more aware of the theology he is proposing: Hell as self-incarceration?

  • I am thankful I am a pastor in the organization I am in. It is guided by centered-set principles and does not tend to take hard positions on doctrinal issues. Therefore, eschatology is left fairly open ended in our movement. On one hand, this allows for ambiguity, but on the other, it keeps us from having inquisitions.

    What I have found as I have studied theology, especially concerning non-essential doctrines, is that opinions are diverse and it takes doing some homework to understand the diversity. I appreciate the diversity. As I read Bell’s book, I appreciated the fact that he teased readers with the truism that there are multiple angles to the doctrine of hell. My hope is that people would be intrigued enough to walk away from the book and look into it further. I think Bell is saying, if this is what keeps you from faith in Christ, you should rethink? That is invaluable.

    This discussion points to something that younger evangelicals (emerging/emergent types) have been trying to bring to the church’s attention in the last decade. We are tired of the church and it’s leaders (here stuffy senior pastors) guarding us from the what it or they think is dangerous! Let us think for ourselves. Let us deconstruct our faith a bit. This conversation is EXACTLY the point of Bell’s caricature (don’t you get it!). The church and it’s guardian pastor’s/theologians think they can do God/Jesus’s job for him and protect the doctrines of the church from heretical questions we might ask. Are you kidding? What is at risk? As Rob says in the book, I think Jesus can take it.

    I’m afraid if the church entrenches itself even further over issues like this, it will have the reverse effect they want. I want to pastor people who can think for themselves. I want to give people the options and talk openly about the different ways the bible can honestly be interpreted. I don’t want to act like we have all these things figured out and there is only one way to figure it out.

  • Karl

    Les #31 I can’t speak for all Bell supporters, and I myself am not a “Bell supporter” in the sense of agreeing with all that Rob says. But my guess is that many are like me in having a doctrinal standard that is fairly stripped down to a historic, credal Christianity stated broadly enough to encompass most if not all of orthodox Christendom. Something along the lines of Mere Christianity, if you will. Or Stott’s “basic Christianity.” Or the little saying popular among many nondenominational evangelical churches: “in essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

    Of course that begs just what the “essentials” are. But Rob’s “defenders” would argue for a smaller “box” of essentials than you would find at most PCA churches (for example), more liberty on other matters, and a much higher degree of charity than has been exercised toward Rob by some of his Christian brothers and sisters. And that takes us all the way back around to one of the questions Rob wants to stir up. IS exclusivism an “essential” part of the Christian faith? As Scot is asking, let’s be honest about what we believe about that question, its implications and ramifications.

  • Phil U

    I, too, agree with Mark (#30) and Les (#31). I would also say the same goes for the other direction, meaning if a church is more “liberal” in its stance and does not agree with a more “conservative” teacher, the “liberal” pastor has the same obligation to his/her flock.

    I also tend to agree with the original post questioning whether Rob thought through how he advertised his book would affect people. While I don’t think direct blame could be laid at Rob’s feet, we Christians don’t operate in a vacuum. Of course, I have no idea how Rob approached this, so for all we know he could have thought long and hard about it.

    For the record, I enjoyed last year’s blog through The Evangelical Universalist, and found myself resonating with a lot of what MacDonald said.

  • Ben Wheaton

    Karl, you make some good points, and you also mention a dividing line: what are the essentials? In many people’s opinion, an eternal hell is an essential, like the Trinity or the incarnation. When people disagree on these things, all the talk about “let’s agree to disagree about secondary matters” means nothing.

    Firings, refusals of promotion, etc. will all occur because of this disagreement. And rightfully so. Theology has consequences, including some very concrete ones.

    Also, even if this is a secondary matter (I think it’s not), aren’t secondary matters things which are “church-dividing?” I wouldn’t want a paedo-baptist preacher to be a member of the elder’s board at my church.

  • M.B.K.

    As someone newly in ministry and engaged fully in seminary, I find myself wondering where and how I can really discuss these topics without fear of fallout (besides with seminary classmates). I’ve had many people approach me through social media, asking my opinion about Bell’s book. And while I have opinions and thoughts, I hesitate to say anything definitive one way or the other. Will I be labeled a heretic simply for reading the book…for agreeing with some of Bell’s questions….with suggesting that we consider the historicity of these discussions? Do I really want to be part of something that is so quick to label and persecute people simply for asking questions and admitting the issues aren’t as black and white as we may pretend or desire?

  • DRT

    It seems to me that there is a large contingent of people in the world who adopt the stance that we must teach people facts that they know, and another set who believe we should teach people how to think about the issues.

    Those who teach doctrine without opposing viewpoints and stifle those viewpoints are in the first group, and those who have centered set theology and are willing to explore are in the second group.

    Is there any actual information (studies etc) that can illuminate us as to which circumstances each approach works under? Anyone want to fund me? j/k

  • DRT

    For those who have not read it, here is the theology statement for Rob’s church.

    We believe God inspired the authors of Scripture by his Spirit to speak to all generations of believers, including us today. God calls us to immerse ourselves in this authoritative narrative communally and individually to faithfully interpret and live out that story today as we are led by the Spirit of God.

    In the beginning God created all things good. He was and always will be in a communal relationship with himself-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created us to be relational as well and marked us with an identity as his image bearers and a missional calling to serve, care for, and cultivate the earth. God created humans in his image to live in fellowship with him, one another, our inner self, and creation. The enemy tempted the first humans, and darkness and evil entered the story through human sin and are now a part of the world. This devastating event resulted in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation being fractured and in desperate need of redeeming.

    We believe God did not abandon his creation to destruction and decay; rather he promised to restore this broken world. As part of this purpose, God chose a people, Abraham and his descendants, to represent him in the world. God promised to bless them as a nation so that through them all nations would be blessed. In time they became enslaved in Egypt and cried out to God because of their oppression. God heard their cry, liberated them from their oppressor, and brought them to Sinai where he gave them an identity and a mission as his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, a holy people. Throughout the story of Israel, God refused to give up on his people despite their frequent acts of unfaithfulness to him.

    God brought his people into the Promised Land. Their state of blessing from God was intimately bound to their calling to embody the living God to other nations. They made movement toward this missional calling, yet they disobeyed and allowed foreign gods into the land, overlooked the poor, and mistreated the foreigner. The prophetic voices that emerge from the Scriptures held the calling of Israel to the mirror of how they treated the oppressed and marginalized. Through the prophets, God’s heart for the poor was made known, and we believe that God cares deeply for the marginalized and oppressed among us today.

    In Israel’s disobedience, they became indifferent and in turn irrelevant to the purposes to which God had called them. For a time, they were sent into exile; yet a hopeful remnant was always looking ahead with longing and hope to a renewed reign of God, where peace and justice would prevail.

    We believe these longings found their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, mysteriously God having become flesh. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted and set captives free, proclaiming a new arrival of the kingdom of God, bringing about a new exodus, and restoring our fractured world. He and his message were rejected by many as he confronted the oppressive nature of the religious elite and the empire of Rome. Yet his path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation. Jesus is our only hope for bringing peace and reconciliation between God and humans. Through Jesus we have been forgiven and brought into right relationship with God. God is now reconciling us to each other, ourselves, and creation. The Spirit of God affirms as children of God all those who trust Jesus. The Spirit empowers us with gifts, convicts, guides, comforts, counsels, and leads us into truth through a communal life of worship and a missional expression of our faith. The church is rooted and grounded in Christ, practicing spiritual disciplines and celebrating baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The church is a global and local expression of living out the way of Jesus through love, peace, sacrifice, and healing as we embody the resurrected Christ, who lives in and through us, to a broken and hurting world.

    We believe the day is coming when Jesus will return to judge the world, bringing an end to injustice and restoring all things to God’s original intent. God will reclaim this world and rule forever. The earth’s groaning will cease and God will dwell with us here in a restored creation. On that day we will beat swords into tools for cultivating the earth, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more death, and God will wipe away all our tears. Our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation will be whole. All will flourish as God intends. This is what we long for. This is what we hope for. And we are giving our lives to living out that future reality now.

  • Marc

    Tim #18, you asked where Lewis spoke of George MacDonald’s universalism. The reference is in his novel The Great Divorce, where Lewis asks MacDonald

    “In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”

    “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

    “Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

    “No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of things as it WILL be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears…

    …every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same?”

    It’s quite interesting what Lewis has MacDonald say.

  • Jason #33 makes a good point about the questions being asked of younger generations.

    I am in my mid 20’s and grew up in a church where this conversation was all hush-hush, and if you did bring it up the conversation was quickly changed. My generation is drawn to what Rob Bell and others are writing because we like that they are willing to ask the hard questions. Many of my friends, my husband, and I are tired of doing things because we’re supposed to, we want to know why.

    My husband and I recently were attending a church and were willing to stand up and ask questions on why certain practices were down, especially amongst the young-adult ministry and outreach ministries. We were actually told by the pastor that the ministry and church would probably not be a good fit for us anymore. And our story is similar to one’s I’ve heard from many others my age.

    What is disappointing for me in all of this is that I know several people who won’t even read Rob Bell’s new book because they would prefer to remain innocent in their opinions. I have read the book and found it intriguing and thought provoking. It led me to open up my Bible and read passages I’d never read before, and I think that is the point.

  • Mark E

    I know this is a bit off Scot’s topic, but some of the comments prompted me to comment.

    I am with Jason (#33). The internet and information age has leveled the playing field. The pastor is no longer the arbiter of what theological positions the congregants are to be exposed to. If pastors want to “protect the flock” they would do well to fairly present the diverse positions that have been a part of the church’s history so that their flock can think for themselves. Failing to do so does little to prepare the members to deal with the differences in positions and opinions that they most certainly will encounter if they have any interest in maturing in their faith, despite the pastors’ attempts to “protect.”

    As a long-time church-goer, I would say to pastors: thank you for wanting to “protect” us, but we can handle Rob Bell on our own. We are going to read and discuss his ideas if we choose. We see enough acrimony in our lives, we don’t need it in church. What would help is engaging with your staff and us on the ideas we are exposed to – not dogmatically, but with fairness, grace and humility. If things are not a good fit with the staff, work it out in a way that impresses us with your spiritual maturity. That’s what you’re paid to do. The rest of us schmucks have to try and do it for free. 🙂

  • DRT

    Mark E#42, yes, exactly. I thought about couching this argument as an age thing, but that’s not it, or an education thing, but that’s not it, it is more of an inquisitiveness gap.

  • Robert

    As a pastor with several ministers under my supervision on staff I regularly dialog with our leaders about the major issues going on. As a minister on our staff we expect that you have your major doctrinal issues squared away before joining our staff. In the interview portion we make sure that each staff member understands our position and agrees with our foundational doctrinal stances.

    The nature of salvation is important for us. We are asking these ministers to lead and equip lay people. That is a special responsibility.

    If a pastor on our staff came and said they agreed with Rob’s stance (or if they changed in a major area like this) we would appreciate their honesty and allow them plenty of time to find a new position, fully compensated, and given as good a recommendation as the had earned through their service.

    The Church is that important imho. As pastors we hold a sacred trust to lead and equip people underneath our ministry area. I am convinced of my beliefs through prayer and humble study of Scripture. We aren’t being wrong in keeping these standards.

  • Marc @39 – “…what Lewis has MacDonald say.” Well put. In his Unspoken Sermons, MacDonald speaks very differently, insisting that the love and wisdom of God will finally persuade every person to repent, though it take a thousand eons.

  • Mark Z.

    Les #31: This kind of doctrinal integrity is essential to protect the church from false teaching.

    I agree completely. Matt. 7:15:

    “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their lack of doctrinal integrity.”

  • rjs

    As Tim and Les and Robert (and perhaps more) have noted – holding to standards is expected, not censorship or abuse of rights. There must be standards.

    But I wonder what the right standard is and how tightly it should be held.

    I have no interest in working for a church or even for many church related schools.

  • Ima Pseudonym

    I am aware of a situation. I am no longer in formal ministry and so I am not afraid to give my opinion on a matter and 99.9% I’ll use my name and affix my blog site. I’m taking you up on your offer to be anonymous so that my friend isn’t indirectly identified or guessed by association with me.

    A pastor in an evangelical association which sounds like the Christian Science and Missionary Appliance was “turned in” by a colleague who observed this christian worker making a social network post that indicated support of Bell’s book as opposed to some who were outright condemning him.

    As a result of that post, which took no position as to the theology of the book and said nothing directly or indirectly about hell, another worker, without addressing the person in question, sent an email to the District Superintendent with a link, accusing this person of not holding a traditional position on the existance of hell as opposed to the statement of faith.

    This worker was required to provide assurance that their position had not changed based solely on the fact that they had had the timerity to speak a word in defense of Rob Bell. Had this not been done to the satisfaction of the DS the next step would have been a hearing before the credentialing committee of the district.

    Makes me glad not no longer be in formal ministry and to have the ability to express an opinion without being hauled before the inquisitors.

  • A good friend of mine was asked to leave his ministry position because he was reading Bell and asking questions. This was a few years back. He had a “Love Wins” bumper sticker in his office.

    Because our ministry not financially supported by a formal church or denomination (by design), we have a lot more leeway in telling the truth in public.

    I’ve found most people are tied to their paychecks (for good reason!) and keep quiet. It isn’t worth it.

    I’ve spoken to evangelical leaders who have told me there are things they cannot talk about openly because of the fallout. I think the church would be amazed, in general, by what it’s “leaders” honestly believe. The lesser educated pushes around the more educated. The flock bullies the shepherds. Still largely connected to the paycheck and wanting a certain kind of reputation among the perceived flock…


  • Scot McKnight

    I’ve been tied up all day, but a few comments:

    First, the issue in the letter has been more one of guilt by association, and a desire for leaders to run from anything Rob Bell writes or any of his videos. That’s what I see as the major impetus of the letter.

    Second, I’m with any church for holding firm to its theological statement; I sat in an Episcopal church one Easter weekend during which services we had some marvelous reading of the Scripture accounts of the resurrection, wonderful recitation of creeds, and then a homily that said the Easter message is that love goes on but that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. That’s denial and equivocation. If you don’t believe, don’t recite the creeds.

    So, I’m all for confessions and for pastors to be theological leaders and guardians.

    Third, when younger pastors are probing ideas, they deserve both some freedom and some mentoring and, in some cases, some clear parameters. But inquisitions don’t produce healthy theological environments. But, to be sure, what some see as mentoring others see as inquisitions.

    This has been a helpful discussion.

    Last night I spoke on the phone with a pastor who was now suspect because he had a stock of Nooma videos, and the person holding him to account had never seen one, never read a book by Rob Bell, and had heard he was a heretic. That can easily become a toxic environment — guilt by association is not a wise procedure. But the evangelical church today has turned into too much tribalism.

  • John W Frye

    The Shack. Remember? It was a polarizing book imagined a very different Trinity. Were there public lynchings of Young and dismissals from church positions for having read or blogged about that book? I know pastors who read Stephen King novels. Should they be booted out? This thing is getting ridiculous. All you need is a computer and FaceBook page and, viola!, you’re a theologian.

  • Nathan

    I know that my attendance at the old emergent conventions and association with certain people was used as fuel toward my feeling like I was no longer welcome at a previous position I held. what’s crazy is that it was all guilt by association and because I had the temerity to read some books and check out some videos. a very famous pastor even was acquainted with an elder at our church LA and told him to quote “fire” me because of even associating/exploring certain things.

    my point is that these kinds of inquisitorial impulses have always been present. it’s one thing to contravene understood theological commitments. it’s another to penalize people for honest inquiry and curiosity OR failing to be sufficiently indignant to the satisfaction of others.

  • Cody

    What if I worked at a liberal mainline church and my senior pastor called me into her office and asked me what I believed about Hell? Or what if she asked me what I believe about same-sex unions? I could go on and on, but I have known many friends that have been pushed out of liberal churches, Disciples churches, and others because of their orthodox theological beliefs.

    They did not meet the litmus test of their their liberal bosses and were marginalized and then shown the door.

    Pastors have every right, as they shepherd their flocks, to know what their leaders and staff are teaching.

    Personally, I would not fire a pastor at my church for liking Bell’s new book, but I would have reservations about promoting him to greater influence. I would want to reason with him from the scriptures and see if we could come to a consensus.

  • DRT

    Scot, we need a link to Atheist TV to watch Chad!

  • EricW

    This is another example of why and how American Evangelicalism is becoming increasingly irrelevant and provincial. I give it maybe 50 years.

  • Kelley L

    Chad #2 — Made me laugh. Thanks for that.

  • crm

    it’s flat out unfair that folks have quickly jumped to “Rob Bell supporter/listener” = heretic. i’m a Bell supporter, fan, listener, but not sure i can agree with all that he says in the book. guess what? i actually enjoy thinking, reacting, being forced to deal with the BIBLE! it’s an amazing thing! instead of being force fed the “truth” i am joyfully searching the Scriptures to see what they say about heaven/hell. what a concept!

  • Forrest Long

    It’s crazy the amount of publicity raised for Rob Bell by many who probably haven’t read the book. My copy is on order from and I look forward to reading it. But with all the crap out there in Christian book stores that passes for sound Christian writing today, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. Rob has put the discussion topic on the table. Don’t shoot the messenger; engage the message and examine your own faith on this. We’re getting more like lemmings all the time!

  • Long ago, there was a fierce debate among “evangelicals” between Norman Geisler and Murray Harris over the nature of the resurrection body, with charges of heresy and name-calling going on. It was then that I realized two things: Evangelicals have a self-appointed “Orthodoxy squad” that will fire you, malign you, and make you an outsider if you deviate from their “norm”. And second, I realized that I could not, on these grounds, consider myself an “evangelical” anymore.

    There is room for diversity, for discussion, for nuance – really, there is. This whole debate is disturbing. The reaction of senior pastors to staff members who are “for” Rob Bell – threatening their “jobs” is so not-how-it’s-supposed-to-be” (in my opinion). We are a sad lot. Why is it so important for so many of us that so many will suffer in hell? What’s that about? I’m so sorry for that perspective. I truly do not understand it at all. I’m sorry.

  • Tom

    I’m a pastor who mentioned to my senior pastor that I thought Love Wins was a good book in the sense that it asked good questions and provoked much-needed discussion. Well, I’m currently now in hot water trying my best to nuance my support of the book in order to protect my family. It’s a horribly suffocating situation. What’s ironic is that my senior pastor hasn’t even read the book.

  • To expand further on what crm said in #57 – it’s flat out unfair that folks have jumped to “Rob Bell = heretic”. I mean really? For the small percentage here that have even bothered to read the book and not just take Piper/Taylor’s word for it, is what Rob is suggesting really so far outside the bounds of your evangelical worldview that you can’t even consider it an acceptable possibility? Why have we automatically accepted the Rob Bell = universalist = heretic narrative? The problem is not just with these inquisitions for supporting Rob Bell. The problem is that supporting Rob Bell is being considered unacceptable in the first place. Frankly, if contemporary evangelicalism can’t find room within the supposed “big tent” for those of us who actually agree with Rob and aren’t afraid to admit it, then here you go, you can officially take my evangelical card once and for all, ‘cuz I clearly won’t be needing it anymore.

  • EricW

    So some or perhaps many American Evangelicals are warning their flocks and fellow Christians against Rob Bell, and lowering the boom on those who express some sympathy for Bell’s views or questions.

    But based on how they live their lives and spend their time and money, and the popular Christian books they apparently read, etc. – i.e., based on what they DO and not simply on what they say – do most of them actually really believe in the hell they preach or claim to believe in, the hell which they accuse Bell and his sympathizers of not properly believing in?

    Or are they instead reacting defensively and self-preservationally against the fact that Bell’s book makes them uncomfortable because they don’t want to face or struggle with the implications of their beliefs, as Scot’s “Exploring Love Wins” posts point out about Bell’s book?

  • Pastors are teachers of doctrine and God’s Word. If they have views that are different from the doctrinal statements of the church they teach in, then they should not be employed there… it doesn’t matter if it’s Rob Bell or John Calvin. If they agree with someone who teaches something different than what the church’s doctrinal standard are, they are presenting themselves as something they are not.

  • A Reader

    @Tom 60.: God protect you and your family while you look for another job.

  • I cannot presently think of another vocation where someone might get fired for their opinion of a book. On the face of it, that looks bad.

  • Richard

    Some thoughts after having read through the post and the all of the comments:

    1) I hope this senior pastor doesn’t have any CS Lewis or Billy Graham on his shelf since Bell falls into a strong inclusivist position, not universalism.

    2) This senior pastor needs to be a real leader. If he views this as a threat to his flock he should be telling his subordinates why they won’t use Rob Bell’s materials in the future, not punishing staff for using Rob Bell’s materials in the past. If there are serious questions about whether this associate meets the doctrinal standards of the church then the conversation should center around, “should you continue working in this church?” not, “should we be paying you what we owe you as a worker?”

    3) For those citing the role of pastor as guarding the flock: when you’re the lead guy, your associate staff is part of your flock, not enemies of it and not mercenaries to be dismissed on a whim.

    4) If you’re withholding pay, you better have a good paper trail of how this staff member isn’t worthy of a promotion. At that point you’re messing with a family’s livelihood based on something you had no prior issue with (or else you would have banned Bell’s materials earlier)

    5) To the OP, laying this at Bell’s feet is ridiculous. If you agree with him, that’s on you and your own convictions, not Bell. On the other hand, if you don’t want to be associated with him then do your own bible study instead of relying on his curriculum.

    6) There needs to be some conversations about how this church rewards/punishes performance and some sort of appeals process (frankly, that’s an issue that needs explored at all churches). I can’t imagine, as a lead pastor, thinking this is a reasonable behavior that a neutral party wouldn’t question.

  • Jeremy

    Tony (63) – While I agree with you to some extent, I think pastors have the greatest responsibility to push the envelope, even if it’s counter to their denominational faith statement, if they see biblical error. Their job is not to tow the line, and thus spiritually stagnate the church in an orgy of incestuous, blind obedience, but to teach God’s Word to the best of their abilities. If what you say were completely true, then many of the pastors in places like Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa should have just sat down and shut up rather than work tirelessly to undermine what they saw as evil, but their churches thought were completely in line with biblical teaching.

    While I think pastors need to be careful not to push too hard too fast, it seems to me that one that just rolls over to whatever the congregation or other pastors want is utterly failing at their job.

  • Timothy

    How homogeneous are our congregations? How homogeneous are pastors within particular denominations/traditions?

    I find a spectrum of political and theological beliefs in our congregation. We preach, teach, and confess from a particular theological tradition. However, the congregation’s “ideal” theological convictions are not perfectly shared by the members.

    When I look at pastors from my tradition, I also find a variety of perspectives even with a common DNA. There are “sub traditions” within my tradition. Even the Catholic Church, even with its magisterium, hosts priests, religious, and laity across a wide spectrum. I know they kick people out, and… that seems very rare.

    So, yes, let’s have standards. And maybe it is better to have conversations with one another rather than giving each other the boot as a first response to differences (but rather a last, avoid-as-much-as-you-can-response).

  • Alan K

    There comes a time when one wonders about the ethos of evangelicalism. From a pastoral point of view, evangelicalism seems riddled with insecurity. Why is that so? Why does the publication of an average book set off alarm bells? One can only conclude that there is far greater doubt hidden in our hearts and considerable unbelief as to Jesus’s victory over sin, evil and death than we are willing to admit. How else does one explain how unsettled people have become over a matter that has more to do with the age of social media rather than healthy theological discourse. Fellow evangelicals: do we believe our message? If yes, then let us chill out!

  • Nick


    you said: “Third, when younger pastors are probing ideas, they deserve both some freedom and some mentoring and, in some cases, some clear parameters. But inquisitions don’t produce healthy theological environments. But, to be sure, what some see as mentoring others see as inquisitions.”

    True. But I’m sure that there are a lot of situations in which discipline/warning for incorrect or unhealthy theology has been mistaken by the one receiving it as an “inquisition”. Most people who feel a certain, perhaps unhealthy, theological freedom see others as narrow minded and unloving.

  • Jon

    I don’t get it. Pastors should be allowed to secretly harbor heresy and continue teaching a congregation without being “forced out of the closet”? When did honesty, integrity and theological accountability become bad things?
    That said I don’t think anyone should be fired based on their view of Rob Bell, but on their view of scripture.

    But I guarantee you if an elder in my church began defending universalism or even ceased to defend the biblical doctrine of hell (which is in our church doctrinal statement so he would already be a hypocrite) I would have to have him removed for a time, mentored and hopefully down the road reinstalled. But an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word AS TAUGHT” and there are certain men that we must “command not to teach”.
    And no, pastoring is not a normal job. That’s why James warns that not many should be teachers because they will be judged more strictly. To remove someone from a teaching position for teaching contrary to scripture is to save them from a much stricter judgement in the future. Its an act of grace.

  • I’m aware of a nearby church that sent out a message to all staff to put a freeze on any use of Bell’s materials. I suspect a similar decision may be made other churches and colleges in the area. But no official fallout in terms of people’s jobs, etc.

    This was, however, the one concern I had when Bell’s book first hit the blog circuit and airwaves.

  • Kristen

    Wait a minute.

    I’m not a pastor, and I find myself in the broad “not a strict inclusivist but a fellow traveler” sort of camp.

    There are plenty of churches where this is just fine and grand and the norm. There are plenty of churches where I may be pushing the edges but am still within “the family.”

    There are other churches where the dominant theological ethos of the congregation is strictly exclusivist, and anything else is tragically compromising the Gospel. I think they’re incorrect. They may be good people, they may be children of God, but this is an important issue where we just don’t see eye to eye. I may or may not belong in the pews in such a church. I certainly don’t belong in leadership there.

    And, if I were a senior pastor and found out that the youth minister was teaching that all their non-Christian friends were hellbound unless they make an explicit profession of Christian faith, well we’d be having some conversations on that score. And I’d try to be as gracious as possible but I’m dead certain it would come across as “inquisitorial.” Because that’s how humans are.

    Big tents are good things — but there do need to be some limits somewhere. And barring a system of bishops (which has its own problems) — who is there to set where those limits are, other than the individual congregation?

  • Jeremy

    Jon – I hear what you’re saying, but here’s where I disagree. There is an undercurrent to your statement that worries me. To whom does a pastor owe his loyalty first? Does denominational doctrine trump all? Is the only answer to perceived doctrinal error to abandon one’s position as pastor?

    We seem to have moved to a place (always been there?) where doctrine is God and denominational statements can brook no questioning. In essence, right or wrong, Bell has ripped the mask off of an idolatry that runs so deep, it is truly terrifying. None of the opposing pastors in this and other threads has said “lets wrestle with this seriously and see what comes of it.” Instead, it is a position of arrogance that presumes to have the right answer and you will conform or be excised. The answer to the question is a forgone conclusion, taboo to even the most serious theological exploration.

  • P.

    I’m not sure if I agree with Rob Bell or not, but speaking as a lay person, I really don’t care what the staff at my church think about hell. As long as they uphold the divinity of Christ and uphold the Trinity, then we’re good.

  • P.

    Oops, I forgot to include the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. Those are also in my must-haves.

  • Matt

    Jon @71 – Totally agree with your statement, that’s where we are as a church right now too. We’ve actually used the occasion to start talking about doctrine and where people stand. Your point about hypocrisy is important. We have a statement of faith (we’re not a denomination) that talks about the doctrine of hell in a way contrary to these teachings. So…why should pastoral staff get to secretly hold on to a belief system contrary to what they KNOW church church requires and still collect a paycheck from them? If that’s how they feel that’s fine…just don’t pretend like it’s no big deal when you know full well it will be.
    DC @72 – We’ve pulled Bell’s curriculum from our recommended list. That’s the point of a recommended list. They are things we…well, recommend. Given the question of Bell’s theology but more importantly his loose methods of exegesis when approaching DOCTRINAL issues, we can’t recommend them anymore. But we’re not having a Bell book and DVD burning anytime soon. People can do as they please on their own.
    Mike @8 – I hope I misunderstood your statement. You weren’t comparing Bell book to ML King’s courageous stand for the rights of African-Americans were you? You probably don’t mean it this way, but that’s inflammatory and disrespectful to that particular issue and family. We can talk about the issue without bringing that kind of stuff in can’t we?

  • Matt

    I don’t see where this has been brought up here, but it seems that Zondervan has said some interesting things too. I know they weren’t offered the chance to publish it, but their remarks about if they would have are telling.

  • Richard

    @ 78 Zondervan would have if HarperCollins had told them to. They’re owned by HarperCollins. Zondervan’s just covering their bases, hence the conflicting reports of “we had passed on it” vs. “we never looked at it but wouldn’t have done it” in second link you posted. Not to mention that Zondervan is perfectly content publishing (and profiting) from everything else Bell has done previously.

  • Matt

    Those are good points Richard. I was merely saying Zondervan felt that they had to cover their bases for a reason. They didn’t say, “We would have published it without hesitation.” The quote of “we probably wouldn’t have” was on the first link also.

  • DRT

    I have not experienced broad swaths of evangelical churches, but the ones I have observed lead me to these observations.

    – The churches seem to be dominated by about 2 or 3% of the congregation and, generally speaking, those folk are the ones that give about 60% (or more) of the money.
    -Those people look at the church as an investment in getting their perspective out there for the community, it is a power play, or an altruistic play, depending on your perspective.
    -The pastor and staff of the church are humans who need a job and understand who their paycheck comes from. They are in an extremely compromised position in unhealthy churches because of the inherent conflict of interest they are put in.
    -This conflict of interest leads to all sorts of bad behavior.

    Most of the conversation here seems to be focused on the Pastors. But are they really the ones with the power? Aren’t they just caught in the difficult situation of making a call for the KoG vs. feeding their family?

    I cannot condemn the Sr. Pastors since it is quite human to follow those who are paying you. They are, no doubt, in a difficult position of weighing a fight based on principle (or theology) or having their family quite pissed off at them. Like my wife once told me after I negotiated an exit scenario from a company “you were the only one unhappy here, the rest of us loved it!”. Its tough to take a stand on pricipal.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t know if I’d go that far, DRT. That’s a pretty broad brush you’re using there. I’ve spent most of my life around pastors and most are not that way. Yes, some are and it isn’t all that unheard of for big tithers to lean on the church leadership over certain issues, but for the most part, I’ve seen that particular fear resisted, even when it cost the church a lot of money.

  • Richard

    @ 80 Matt

    I would totally agree that Zondervan felt a need to cover their bases. I missed that in your original post. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Fred


    I find the opposite to be true. In my experience, so many of them are arrogant and enjoy the power they have. They treat their church as their own little laboratory. I once read a Peanuts cartoon (thirty years ago) where Linus was going to write a book for pastors. He agonized for days over the title but finally settled on “Have You Ever Considered the Fact That You Might be Wrong?”

    There are far too many leadership teams that are weak and too afraid to stand up to the “expert” with the MDiv, except in extreme cases. Egoism is rampant in the church.

  • Just a few odds and ends and observations:

    I have tended to agree with Rob on a number of issues in the past, and have defended some of his materials. When I read the pre-publication materials from HarperCollins, I was prepared to write a rather strong rebuttal if he was embracing CU/UR in the book.

    But I waited to read the book.

    Having done so, it’s become fairly easy to recognize folks who haven’t read it (i.e. pastors making it a litmus-test of sorts), because they tend to be the ones who talk about “Rob Bell’s belief about hell” or “agreeing with Bell’s position” or “Rob Bell’s universalism”… As a number of reviewers (across the spectrum) have pointed out – Bell doesn’t really claim a specific view of hell as “his own” in Love Wins, and he as refuted most of the inaccurate characterizations, publicly, since its publication.

    I will agree that in many cases, it is not necessary to read a book (*cough* Tolle *cough*) to know that it is heterodox and ought to be avoided. Love Wins is not one of those cases, though. I do disagree with some of what he presents there, in laying out opposing views for example, but it is more a book about wrestling with the right questions than with delivering definitive answers. (And that’s OK.)

    To extrapolate, putting out an order to “freeze” use of all other past materials, like NOOMA’s that don’t come within miles of the doctrine of hell (ex Flame) seems like overkill.

    But – per the OP – if you’re going to hold someone to account (via employment/pay/other consequences) in something like this, you have no business doing so if you’ve not read the book they’re accused of agreeing with. Arguing for unwavering epistemic closure on doctrinal matters beyond a bare minimum (Jesus’ deity, the resurrection, etc.) and punishing epistemic humility (even with a 99.9% firm position taken on such matters) misses much of the point of discipleship.

    The questions Bell raises in Love Wins (none of them being all that new) should lead us to the Scriptures, not to “agree” or “disagree” with him, but to agree on what is written and discuss how it might be interpreted. And if we’ve not read the book, we should be very careful in the ways we characterize it, as we should be with any work we are criticizing, lest we malign or slander a brother, and lest we find ourselves battling a straw man created in our own mind.

  • I was fired after being employed for five years as Pastor’s Assistant because I posted blogs against the doctrine of eternal torment and claiming Jesus is Savior of all (especially those who believe). Several people made it clear to me that I was no longer welcome there and even refused to speak to me. I was forbidden to be involved in any ministry, including making photo copies for the children’s church! I was kicked out of the band (I had been in it for over ten years). This was two years prior to Bell’s book. This church regularly showed Bell vids in youth group meetings and small group classes. I am wondering how they are reacting to all of this. But not wondering enough to go back to that church.