a critique of David Fitch’s critique of Rob Bell

a critique of David Fitch’s critique of Rob Bell March 20, 2013

I find David E. Fitch’s post about Rob Bell interesting. You can also read Tony Jones’ response to it. Even though one might initially suppose Fitch questions Bell’s affirmation of gay marriage, what he really takes issue with is Bell’s lack of accountability:

More and more I’m seeing Christian leaders who have no congregation/people they’re accountable to (who yet carry media/publishing driven leadership) create division with pronouncements.

Fitch says that more and more he’s seeing, etcetera. Does he mean that more and more Christian leaders have no congregations and people they are accountable to, or that he is finally seeing that this is happening? Although I believe it is true that more Christians are leaving the church, including its leaders, it is also true that there have been important Christian writers who have not been accountable to a certain church or denomination. In fact, there is a rich heritage of theologians from the beginning who, even though many have been brought into the fold posthumously, at the time of their teaching experienced ridicule, rebuke and rejection in the same way Bell has.

Is there something wrong with being an ex-pastor who writes theology? Fitch would say yes. But what does Fitch mean by accountability? What would this look like? Does he mean that the theologian’s work should be censored or edited by the church? Does he mean that if the work falls outside of the spectrum of the church’s theology then it won’t be published or that the leader must resign? Does it mean that if Bell was accountable this “nonsense” would never have got media coverage?

Or does he mean that, like the Roman Catholic Church, a theologian’s work must receive the nihil obstat, the imprimatur stamp of approval that declares the book may be published because it doesn’t contain anything damaging to the church’s faith or morals? His immediate use of the Pope as an illustration might suggest this when he writes:

I can listen to the Pope differently because he stands within 2000 years of a tradition so that he cannot make statements without being accountable to it.

Is Bell not accountable to his statements? Or does Fitch mean accountable for it? Does Bell not stand by his words? Yes, the Pope is also accountable to and for his words. But the Pope also makes statements that other faithful Christians find damaging to the faithful. So I’m not sure what Fitch means here by “accountable to it”. Punishable? Corrected? Censored? Edited? Banned?

I’m guessing, in the end, Fitch believes that if Bell was accountable to a congregation he wouldn’t have made, or wouldn’t have been able to make, his statements concerning gay marriage. He asserts such teaching “creates division”. My question is: Is it creating the division, or articulating a division that already exists? I think this is where the distinction finally needs to be made.

I suppose if it gets too impossible to manage what writers write then perhaps the next step might be to manage what readers read.

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  • Chris Wynn

    It’s difficult to be prophetic about an important issue when you rely on a church for you and your family’s livelihood. John the Baptist operated outside the temple establishment of his day. Such is the life of a prophet. It’s just up to the rest of us to “prove all things, hold fast that which is good.”

  • Ciera

    2000 yrs of tradition…I have a problem with tradition for traditions sake. But that’s just me. Lol

    We become sooooooo wrapped up in doing things the way that we’ve always done, that we shut the door to new ways. Not necessarily better, just new and different!

    Some of the best Christmas or Easter services I’ve ever been a part of, managed to be new but still paid honor to the old.

    If you find that a little off topic, I apologize. That’s just what struck the biggest cord with me. I don’t care if Bell has anyone to watch over his shoulder or not, I find it a touch ridiculous. But that’s just my opinion lol

  • Good thoughts, David H. Interesting thoughts from D. Fitch as well, but I would lean more towards the idea of “Christianity” as a -revolt- against religious power by committee — more about individuals loving other individuals. I think Rob wrote a book about the preeminence of love, which drew a lot of anger from the same people who rely on institutional mandates for their spiritual legitimacy. Candidly, I’m rather surprised to see this particular leaning from D. Fitch.

  • Yes, it is an interesting twist John. Perhaps just throwing out a bone? Dunno.

    Thanks for your thoughts Ciera. I agree.

    Chris: i thought about the prophets as well, but didn’t want to be taken to mean i believe Bell is a prophet. i’m not saying he is or isn’t. i just didn’t want that to be a part of my argument. good thoughts.

  • dave paisley

    Hmm, C. S. Lewis comes to mind… I don’t think he was “accountable” to anyone for anything he wrote (as it should be).
    And are televangelists really “accountable” to their followers (I hate to call them “congregations”). I think the answer is clearly no.
    The basic objection here is that Bell is publishing ideas that the establishment fundagelicals don’t agree with. Time to get over yourselves.

  • Kirsten Mebust

    Thanks, David. A lot of us don’t “lead” congregations and have studied the theological tradition and present context with passionate concern for how the two can intersect in our time. I appreciate Bell’s very pastoral concern and courage – didn’t know much about him before LOVE WINS, but appreciated its accessibility and affection for both a living tradition and peoples’ real experience. As a Lutheran, I’m often puzzled by the Evangelical right’s need to control the message and assumption that no one who is not pre-approved by a vetted authority can interpret the Scriptures and preach the Gospel. Wasn’t the point of the Reformation that we all have that calling? I’m a little more uncomfortable with the rejection of a need to be involved in an interpreting community. Maybe I just have more self-doubt than you do. But there are so many things I learn from hearing others’ perspectives and sometimes they involve a level of discomfort that I wouldn’t impose on myself, and that I wouldn’t sit still for if there wasn’t already a relationship there. That said, I’m increasingly interested in how you and others are interacting with new forms of community among people who have been evicted or voluntarily left the ones that they can no longer endure, and I think you could write more on what accountability might mean in the future.

  • Hey Kirsten. Thanks for your comment. And I wholeheartedly agree. I haven’t given up on local experiments with community. But as you probably know I have launched a new experiment online called http://TheLastingSupper.com that is working out very well. In past churches I have pastored I have enjoyed moments of genuine community that I would love to try to see happen again in the future. Maybe even locally. We’ll see! But I definitely will be writing more on community because it is something I’m very passionate about.

  • It really chaps my hide to have someone claim that if you haven’t jumped through the right hoops and made it past the gatekeepers and have a flock who you are supposed to be PASTORING to, then you can’t have a voice in Christianity. Heck, Bell actually has jumped through the hoops and made it past gatekeepers already, but apparently that’s not good enough. And the rest of us who have been busy having families and walking with God who will never have the chance to jump through those hoops? It doesn’t really matter how called and gifted we might be – we can pound sand while the approved professional guild performs their song and dance for us, I guess. Who knew paying audience was the proper role for 99% of the body? Whatevs, Mr. Fitch.

  • Thanks Rebecca. I guess theology is to be left to the paid and positioned professionals.

  • I like pounding sand.

  • David: I’m biased, as I’m a huge Rob Bell fan – and that just recently. I like that his work challenges the way I think and believe. I like the fact that his books are not just re-packaged theology. And I love the fact that his stuff causes others have their undies in a bunch. And lets face it, we need a good undie bunching every once in a while. Otherwise we begin to believe our own theologies and never bother to question whether they are ‘God’ inspired or Dr. So and So inspired.

    I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirty’s and forty’s that I began to realize that there was a lot of things I was taught that just don’t line up with scripture. So much for accountable theology.

    Do I disdain accountability? Only if it means that someone else has to ‘okay’ what I say or write before I can say or write it. Do I believe in accountability? Yes. Within loving communities where we recognize that God is intentional and not one-size fits all. Do I believe in the innerant Word? Yes and no. It is God breathed, but man interpreted, and so I enjoy reading and listening to others interpretation of it, including, but not limited to Rob Bell.

    And I appreciate what Kristen had to say about Luther and the Reformation. Trailblazers are never liked, because they invariably upset everyone’s apple cart. The kingdom is always advancing – never stagnant. And that often means our theology has to advance as well.

  • Brian P.

    In the US of A this is very much about the first amendment, both in its freedom of speech and its freedom of religion. Bell can believe and think and say what he wants. Fitch can too. And Jones. And you David. And your readers too. And even me! Combine freedom of speech with freedom of religion I can pretty much say that “God says” whatever I please. And I can also say, that I really suspect some of the voices in this are pretty much full of it.

  • Syl

    When I read or hear statements to the effect that ex pastors or non pastors should not write (or, by implication, think seriously) about theology, or that “accountability” to an organization is some sort of requirement for legitimacy, my baloney meter starts to get all tingley and the bullshit sniffer begins twitching. The implication – if not outright statement – is that intelligent, thoughtful, responsible adults can’t or shouldn’t think for themselves and without the oversight of the guardians of tradition and doctrine, we’ll go running willy nilly into the arms of seductive “error” – which is tidily defined as anything not in line with tradition and doctrine. Such logic, which bypasses the mind and circles back into itself. It does tend keep the ducks in a row, however – all the easier to be picked off for adding to a nice duck stew. Or herded like a plump sheep for roasting. Spare me the herd and give me some thoughtful dialog with a serious thinker who’s not afraid of the big bad wolf.

  • Chris E

    ” In fact, there is a rich heritage of theologians from the beginning who, even though many have been brought into the fold posthumously, at the time of their teaching experienced ridicule, rebuke and rejection in the same way Bell has”

    I don’t think that there are as many as this statement implies – there are a few theologians in this category. OTOH, on accountability I don’t think David Fitch really thought things through.

    There are plenty of conservative evangelical *pastors* leading independent churches to whom they aren’t really accountable in any real sense. Some of David Fitch’s fellow travelers spring to mind. This is before we get to evangelical radio personalities – the James Dobson’s of this world etc.

  • Wayne R

    I predict that we are going to see and hear much more of this as the church, especially the evangelicals, collapse in on themselves.

  • Andrew

    You really felt like you had to write a critique of a critique? Christian culture now consists of a bunch of dudes who sit in their office looking for someone to critique instead of looking for the lost to share the good news to. Send him an email and be about something more important.

  • Andrew: If you followed the links you would have noticed that David Fitch invited responses on Facebook in a friendly manner, and I informed him in a friendly manner that I responded as invited. I think you got lost in there somewhere and didn’t see that. It’s called conversation.

  • Brian

    I’m an ex-born again Christian. Sorta what happened to a lot of us who came out in the 80s. In my current atheistic and post-Christian state, I have to say that this whole snit pitched by Mr. Fitch is, well, kinda tone-deaf. He is angry at a man (Rob Bell) who had the unmitigated gall to say something nice to me (as part of the LGBT community) for what appear (from the outside) to be trivial theological quibbles. Does Mr. Fitch really hate me that much that he must be enraged by someone’s kindness toward me? Because it didn’t meet his expectations for protocol?

    Talk about Pharisees…

  • That’s an interesting spin on it Brian. Thanks!

  • Brian

    If I may expand just a bit… when Massachusetts allowed us to marry legally we did so, on our 18th anniversary (so coming up on year 27 this summer). What took me by surprise was what it felt like to receive validation and celebration of our relationship. And then it bothered me that such support, taken for granted by my heterosexual peers, should be such a novel experience. So for me, the further insult of Fitch’s outrage is that he should get all bent out of shape over what is, and has been, denied me consistently, heartlessly, relentlessly **for my entire life.** He begrudges me the drink of water because apparently Rob Bell used the good goblets.

  • Elderyl

    I left a church several years ago when a misogynistic complementarian came into power, I mean became the pastor. He still refuses to visit the ill, counsel the suffering, and do what i believe are pastoral duties, because he was “called to teach and preac only.” I’ve lost count of how many books he’s written in the past 9 years, and his blogs alternate between more preaching about women’s roles, random silliness, and how wrong Rob Bell is. If anyone shouldn’t be writing to and about the church, in my opinion, it is this guy. The church pays his salary so he can have time to write to the masses of Christianity. The sad thing is, Conservative Christians are listening and he gets a lot of press. If they only knew what he was like as a pastor of his

  • I do not scripture in anyone’s theories. I just see opinions. Having a car that sits in garage doesn’t accomplish anything, being a Christian with no Word just makes you opinionated – you don’t accomplish anything.