Why Rob Bell Matters

Why Rob Bell Matters March 20, 2013

My dear, curmudgeonly, friend David Fitch posted the above on Facebook yesterday. Before I respond to David’s question at face value, let’s get some things out of the way:

1) David could possibly be accused of professional jealously. Both he and Rob Bell had books come out last week. Both claim to say something fresh about God and the future of the faith. Rob has been on Morning Joe, Fox News, and many other outlets. David, uh, has not. (I have recently been accused of professional jealously of Rob and other authors, so I know that this accusation stings.)

2) David and I and others have a right to be frustrated by Rob’s style. I started reading Rob’s book this morning. 90% of the paragraphs are one sentence. It’s typeset in a san serif font. There’s a double carriage stop between each paragraph. There are no footnotes — Rob doesn’t show his math. Who is he reading? Who is influencing him? We’re left to guess and surmise. It’s not how I write books, but it works for Rob.

3) David and I and others have a right to be frustrated that Rob doesn’t engage with us. David and Rob and I are all the same general tribe of Christianity: post-evangelicalism. I engage with David (here) and he engages with my work in his book. Rob doesn’t engage with either of us, at least not in his writing. I got word to Rob this week that I’d like to interview him about his book on this blog, and I heard back that he’s not interested. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. But it doesn’t engender warmth either.

Nevertheless, Rob Bell matters. Here’s why:

Many Christian leaders are completely hamstrung by their employers. Yesterday’s post showed that, and it’s a well-known fact. When you work at an evangelical church or college or non-profit and you’ve got progressive views, you must engage in constant self-censorship. (No one has written about this more forcefully than Peter Enns.) Rob no longer suffers under the watchful eyes of an employer.

Rob Bell became a leading spokesman for evangelical Christianity because 1) he planted and quickly grew a mega-church, 2) he wrote best-selling Christian books, and 3) he spoke captivatingly at all of the top pastors’ conferences. Rob was A-list in all these venues — David and I were B- (or C-) list. Rob’s brilliance was quickly recognized by the kingmakers of evangelicalism, and he attained a big platform very quickly.

David may not like the fact that Rob has largely maintained that platform, even since he’s left the pastorate, but he has. Platforms sometimes evaporate very quickly (just ask Jay Bakker). But Rob’s hasn’t. Reports from those who attended his recent 2-day creative jams on the beach were overwhelmingly positive. He can still pack out a theater for a book release event. And he’s getting national media attention for his book and his affirmative statement about gay marriage.

Honestly, David Fitch’s Facebook post sound like sour grapes, and I really don’t think it’s professional jealously. In David’s new book, he takes his usually radical, anabaptist stance toward church and culture. But he takes a surprisingly narrow, conservative — dare I say, retrograde — stance toward human sexuality. It’s surprising because David (and his co-author, Geoff Holsclaw) seem willing to rethink just about everything else in contemporary evangelicalism, except homosexuality.

To whom and for whom is Rob Bell speaking? Modern-day Americans, many of whom love God and Jesus but feel less and less connection to any organized form of Christianity. Make no mistake, the rise of the “Nones” is due in large part to the retrograde sexual ethics promulgated by evangelicals, Fitch included.

Rob Bell, no longer shackled to the conservatism of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Mars Hill Bible Church — yes, MHBC is a conservative congregation — is free to speak his mind on many issues, including heaven and hell and the nature of God and human sexuality. And thousands (millions?) of people are listening, much to the consternation of evangelicals.

Further, I think that David’s implicit accusation that Rob Bell lacks accountability is a bugaboo. Years ago, a Christianity Today reporter called me and many of my friends. She was preparing an article on my divorce, trying to make it a news story. I asked her, “What’s your angle? How is this news?” She told me that my divorce shows that the emerging church lacks accountability; had I been in a denomination, I would have been put under church discipline and my marriage might have been saved.

Of course, this is bullshit. I received more support and love and care from my friends at Solomon’s Porch and emerging church leaders around the country than I ever would have gotten from a denominational bureaucracy. (The story never ran.) You don’t need a local congregation or a larger denomination or network to have personal accountability. Rob is accountable to his readers. If he stops being relevant to their needs, they’ll stop buying his books.

Finally, this: Rob Bell has a special ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. More, it seems, than David or I or many other authors, Rob is able to sense what questions people have, and to provide a poetic meditation that they find helpful. We may get frustrated with his style or his lack of engagement us, but, as I’ve written before, Rob Bell doesn’t care what you (or I) think. He’s happy to speak with and for millions of others.

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  • Thoughtful, clear-headed, honest analysis,Tony. Thanks.

  • Regarding the lack of footnotes, Rob does include endnotes that show some (though likely not all) of his cards.

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  • Brian P.

    Why should I care what Bell thinks and why should I care what Fitch thinks about about what Bell thinks and why should I care about what Jones thinks about what Fitch thinks about what Bell thinks and perhaps more significantly, why should you care what I think about all of that. Except for the munching of popcorn and I suppose that’s reason enough.

    • Brian! This is hilarious. Thanks for posting this! Couldn’t agree more.

    • I suspect that Brian reads this blog for more than just entertainment. No matter where you stand, you can’t miss that Christianity is still around and is still a major influence on important debates. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be aware of every detail of the back and forth between all the Christian players. Having an independent theologian around who is gaining a following is a major shift from just a few hundred years ago when making such statements could get you burned at the stake. It’s worth noting and worth understanding, even if you don’t agree with either side of the debate.

      • Brian P.

        I suppose a bit more than entertainment, but honest… Mostly for entertainment. Having lost belief a number of years back, finding amusement in the drama of these things has actually helped in my healing and recovery.

    • Andy

      Here, here. Thanks Brian. Bell and Jones are increasingly showing their irrelevance to orthodox, historic Christianity.

  • The role of professional jealousy in pastoral ministry cannot be overstated. We should all own up to it.

  • Tony I have been reading your blogs and books since 2006. This is one of the best columns you have written in a long time. I bless David who was one of my profs at Northern Seminary, he does have some great insights on missional church in our contemporary culture. But knowing Northern Seminary, I am sure some of his retrograde on sexuality is due to their stance and the stance of the CMA where I believe he is ministerially credentialled.

  • I was wondering what the hell David Fitch ate for breakfast yesterday to make him write that post.

    • This made me chuckle.

    • Brian P.

      Corncob perhaps.

  • Great post. For me, Rob Bell has really opened my eyes to different “christian” perspectives. Before reading Love Wins I was pretty confident about my perspective on the world, but now I find I am not nearly as certain on most things. In fact, I’m learning that there are little to no churches in Montana that we feel comfortable calling home. So what are we going to do? We have a plan in the next few years to move to Minneapolis, partially because we want to go to Solomon’s Porch. All of this change first started with Rob Bell questioning everything I just “assumed” was true from my evangelical upbringing.

    • Look forward to having you here!

    • SM

      Herein lies the problem.
      Rob Bell is not a Theologian and in fact is under the care of a Psychologist and is largely lecturing on his own thought processes too. He is clearly sorting them out as he goes along. Additionally, Tony’s post gives credence to the modern angst of commitment and certain truth oriented thinking of days gone by. In the conversation of his post, popularity seems to be the lithmus test for having said something meaningful and or Christian and the criticism of David’s statements are negative because he isn’t all that popular by comparison. Rob Bell is popular therefore he is what – Correct??
      I think it is awful that Chris Roane has “eyes open” without an end in sight and is even willing to move in order to follow a guru of sorts in order to determine the answers to his/her questions. Donald Trump is exceedingly popular should all Christians move to New York to find out what he has to say and teach? Roger Moore is popular too… Are you going to move to follow him?
      All of this speaks to the lack of conviction for framing ones beliefs within the context of certainty and solidly upon a certain foundation. Well spoken of by Frances Schaeffer some 30+ years ago. When we allow the masses to lead us we will be lead as the swine over the cliff or more appropriately as sheep in terror looking for the biggest most confident sheep in front of us so that we can be safe all the while missing the Shepherd who has our best care in mind.
      People are leaving churches because they are wanting to remain comfortable in their own isolated lives without too much commitment or too much angst or pain. Rob Bell is likewise unwilling to entertain too much of a challenge to his thought process as he is not firmly planted anywhere and will most likely be “found out” or discovered. It is really easy to side with the majority and the majority is getting further and further afield of real Christianity everyday. Narrow is the gate… and wide is the path that leads to destruction. The path is wide for a reason, it will be full of all the sheep who follow the wrong leader.
      Jesus had entire communities who refused to listen to Him and according to this post He was wrong. What on earth are you espousing and why are you espousing it for it is far afield of the truth. It saddens me that it has lead Chris Roane to teeter or what was long ago described as: to stumble.

      • There are alot of people who seek out therapy to be more healthy and whole. I find it really offensive, as a pastor, that you have taken his openness about that to discredit him. Would you discount Martin Luther and John Calvin because they had bouts with depression? This is just seriously disappointing.

        • SM

          It is a shame that a pastor can not see the flock that is being lead astray or into confusion such as the blogger above stated. To put something into perspective is neither an attack or the act of discrediting. To state a fact that is obvious but not necessarily obvious to another is likewise not necessarily to discredit something or someone. Chris Roane is ready to disrupt his entire life to follow someone who has confused him, this begs for clarity. The concern is for a potentially lost sheep. The idea that you see the comments as discrediting rather than clarifying for the blogger is telling about your inner questions.
          The truth shall set us free, is that not the goal. Of course we can read about a considerable amount of information about Luther and Calvin which only serves to encourage many who struggle with some sort of therapeutic concern. That however, in context, is not the focus of the discussion here. The focus rather is on a person who might in fact be being lead astray. Jesus did after all concern himself with the one lost sheep did he not. It is a shame that you would side with a perceived slight rather than be able to see the actual damage that might be occurring and side with the lost sheep given that, as you state, are a pastor.

        • SM

          Seriously. It is a shame that you would take offense with a perceived slight rather than share a concern for the potential lost sheep. It is likewise telling that you take the discussion as discrediting rather than informative for the blogger above who is willing to disrupt his entire life after being entirely confused. Clarifying is not necessarily discrediting. Stating the obvious for someone who might not be able to see the obvious is likewise not necessarily an act to disparage or discredited. The truth shall set us free, that is the goal is it not. Of course, we can learn much from the struggles of Luther, Calvin and others who have gone before us and their stories can serve to bolster many with therapeutic concerns today but the concern here is not with the the leader of the confusion but with the potentially lost as a result. Jesus did concern himself with the lost sheep over the 99 did he not.

          • Just want to make sure that the fact that someone consults/seeks help from someone in the mental health field does not serve to discredit them as valuable in the Kingdom– or as a leader in the Kingdom. If I misunderstood you, my apologies,…if I didn’t- I remain concerned (and unashamed).

            • SM

              I appreciate your concern for those of us who might seek out council but if you reread what was originally written you might see that there was not any discredit to seeking counsel. As you may know the original comment was a clarification of the position which Mr. Bell has made public on many occasions. It is a necessary clarification since much of his performance based presentations are an acting out of a therapeutic process and the “buyer should beware.” It is disingenuous to fail to recognize that if someone is in the middle of sorting out big issues or problem that they might be acting out or upon that changing footing or foundation. And, that another who might be inclined to follow may indeed be hurt.
              The idea that a person can not find one Christian church in all of Montana to call home after losing their sense of understanding and so they want to move to Minnesota is a good thing is pretty sad and that point is, well, missed.

              • Don Elser

                Thanks for the clarification. It seemed to be a way to discredit Rob. It still reads that way to me, but I appreciate that wasn’t your intent. Can you unpack the “performance based presentations which are an acting out of the therapeutic process” and how “the buyer beware” comes into play? I’m probably more familiar with his regular Sunday morning teaching and though I have read his books and seen the NOOMA series, I may be just missing your point here? On the disingenuous section,…in my years in church work, and my experiences with leaders and teachers, it has seemed that MOST people are working through something or out of some kind of brokenness and so I wonder at focusing on this in Rob Bell versus alot of the other people that I’ve observed over the years that seem to have some real issues but aren’t seeking help? He just doesn’t seem exceptional to me. Also…I am curious about what qualifies someone as a theologian in your way of thinking? On the people who want to move to Minnesota to be part of a faith community that they fit with doesn’t seem off to me necessarily. Dramatic and out of the ordinary…definitely…but hard to know what or Who may behind that.
                In all of this, I’m not a debater- my divinity school daughter would be much better in this whole dialogue! I genuinely apologize if I’ve misunderstood your points or focused in on a minor one. Interacting in this kind of forum is new for me, but the conversation is interesting and because Rob Bell has been of particular help to me (mainly in his Sunday morning messages) I probably am a little more emotionally invested and might not be the most objective on this. I hope you’ll pardon me if I have reacted vs. reasoned at times, and that you’ll be patient with my questions about your comments. I fully agree that humility works both ways.

                • SM

                  When I originally wrote the response I debated including the part that caused you to respond but it could not be left out. The intention was for Chris Roane and others to be spurred to critical thinking. Rob Bell is a guy who is a good communicator who may or may not be correct in what he says and does (i.e., for heaven sakes don’t up and move, your process is inside of you not outside of you, it is about you and God not about you and who it feels good to follow! Buyer beware, in other words, know who you choose to follow, it is your responsibility not his). Mr. Bell has included material from his therapy process (perhaps as a type of disclaimer, he is walking a path too and doesn’t have all the answers??) in his NOOMA presentations which are tailored to a young audience, an audience starving for leadership and direction. The “conferences” I have attended were described to me by young new Christians as that of a “great philosopher” and then much later I heard the term changed to theologian. There is a clear effort to cause a mood of awe and wonder not at and with God but at and for the presenter and his presentation. And, there is a tight control over the conduct of the audience from multiple persons at every aisle to mood lighting and staging as with a performance. It is a planned performance much like a one man play.
                  Finally, I read through many of the posts in this blog and was troubled and not for the first time to see the lack of real communication that is typical outside of the church but not quite as acute within the members of the church as a loose rule.
                  We are being divided by conventions that are not ours.
                  I had hoped that Chris Roane would stay connected to the discussion even if challenged by my entry. To become confused without a solid foundation and then make a huge life decision to move is well remarkable (and not unique) and Mr. Jones either missed or dismissed the underlying thing going on. It is a blog after all is said and done.
                  Mr. Bell put himself out there in making a statement, that is most likely calculated, regarding gay marraige and therfore made himself a kind lightening rod and so this blog necessarily is a discussion about his direct comments and opinions which it seems no one is allowed to critique or ask him about thus the commentary on accountability. Although, there are many who come to his aid and speak for him.
                  A different blogger later said he wondered what was appealing about this blog that would attract others from outside. Matthew Carpenter has carried on a terrific debate but keeps getting sidelined into the far right and Dean Chang says, “I like it that’s all” regarding listening to Mr. Bell. And, then Kellyeel compares Rob Bell to a prophet.
                  The implication in all of this is that we do not have a cohesive, satisfying, strengthening, consistent, guiding faith to live by and that each of us must struggle to determine and find our own way without the aid of either the Bilbe as truth or Pastors and Teachers who study as a vocation and avocation for the sole purpose of guiding us the flock. There is an underlying current that nothing is reliable and no one has any answers that are real. Then, there is ultimately a sense of hopelessness and emptiness and people are want of more and more to fill it in (and so they move on to a newer and better things [or churches]). We have succumbed to the culture at large which in some sense is a consumer based me, me and more me only interested in appearances culture always wanting newer and better. And, it seems that many in the church are right in the forefront (on the cutting edge) of ever changing stuff in order to, get the seats full, pandering to this state.
                  Theology is the study of the things of or relating to God so in some sense most of us are theology students. But, a Theologian has at least 8 years of graduate and post graduate study of God’s intervention and interaction with mankind including precise study of the doctrines and tenants outlined within the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, German and quite often Latin) espoused by the church over time. Doctrines such as Sin, Creation, Salvation, etc. These are not moveable changeable things but their application and study may be since we are limited in our actions and understanding. Hopefully, Theologians maintain an acuity of understanding that gives direction to both teachers and adherents of the faith alike.
                  Thank you for the discussion and for hanging in there with us.

      • Matt Purdum

        “People are leaving churches because they are wanting to remain comfortable in their own isolated lives without too much commitment or too much angst or pain.” UH, NO. –People are leaving churches because they are tired of affluent Americans spending money on sanctuaries, sound systems, and carpets; Because churches lie about the Bible and say it opposes reason and forbids alcohol; churches teach that if you don’t believe YEC or the Rapture, you’ll burn in hell; and because pastors make too much damn money for such a cushy job. We have found there are real hurts outside the church door, and the world needs us. We Christians who’ve left the church are the fasting-growing group of Christians today. As long as churches base themselves on the corporate-American model rather than the New Testament model, we will remain outside this very worldly system of “churches.”

        • SM

          What was meant by “people leaving churches” was actually the overwhelming phenomenon of church shopping and hopping as well as the flight to mega para church associations such as Chris Roane suggested in his statements.
          I agree that many followers of the way are leaving the formal modern churches in search of meaningful service and community involvement. Udo W. Middlemann wrote a book entitled the Market Driven Church which also addresses the concern you raise. It is awful that many are using the Christian message and using new or ill-informed Christians to profiteer and become popular entities in this society driven by consumerism. What is equally awful is the damage and pain that is being caused in their wake.

  • Destiny

    The thing about Rob Bell, even when he isn’t personally engaged with me, it certainly feels like he is when I am listening to him or reading one of his books. He is an amazingly gifted story-teller. As a reader and listener, I’m always wondering, “Where exactly is this going?” and I am hooked. I must know what the point is. Some people have this gift of communication. Some don’t. Rob Bell has it and then some. For a lot of people, Rob was an introduction into the emergent movement, and he was giving new angles to look at the bible, and new ways to see the story that weren’t being talked about, and he did it in a way that made people feel engaged with him.

  • Thank you for this Tony. Along with RollieB, I appreciate your honest We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves with others, which leads to jealousy. We want what the other has. Rob Bell is an A lister? You claim to be a B-.(or C-). Well, goddamn. I’m not even on the list! Comparing ourselves to one another in this way leads to resenting one another and being against one another. What I love about Bell, especially in this new book, is that he claims God is *for* us. Of course, that’s nothing new, but when a Christian claims that God is for all humans just as we are, it shifts us from a mentality of us against them into one that is for one another just as we are. I suspect God’s *for* all of us is one reason Bell is coming out as pro gay marriage.

    Last question (somewhat in jest) – Tony – Will you be on my radio show? It’s called Voices of Peace and deals with spirituality, violence, and non-violence. We’d love to have you, because in my view, you’re a total A +.

    • Sure. Send me a query thru my website.

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  • Very good analysis Tony. However, to be fair…For those of us who have known Rob since before his “fame”, know that he was a product of a big push in the mega churches of Grand Rapids to start a progressive church. He was given his membership by these mega churches; hence, he was given his platform from these churches.

    Sure, he is a great communicator, interesting, and provocative. And to be fair he did grow his church beyond what he was given. However, I am not sure this earns him any authoritative rights (at least the rights attributed to him).

    And…by the way the fact that he is an A-list speaker also doesn’t automatically grant him any authoritative rights. You could very well have more authority than him (which you do) and yet be only a B-list speaker at pastoral conferences. Perhaps, B-list is better than A-list.

    • Good point, Eric. I think it’s a well-known fact that Mars Hill got a big push from Calvary when it started, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it grew to 12K primarily because of Rob’s speaking. And I heard him absolutely wow audiences at the NYWC for years. In front of a group of 3,000 people, I think he is unparalleled.

      • Thanks Tony…Rob is a wonderful speaker. But, to me this doesn’t make him authoritative. His numbers grew to an incredible amount because of that fact – he was a great speaker and Mars Hill was a huge Grand Rapids fad. Mars Hill was the lunch table where the “cool Christians” ate lunch (as it were).

        However, The church’s discipleship was terrible, it lacked a clear cohesive mission, and there were many problems behind the scenes.

        I would argue that you have long held more “authority” regarding the “voice” of a group of Christian people based upon the CONTENT of what you say (preach), not upon your popularity. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear you speak, but have read much of what you have written. You could be an awful speaker for all I know, yet you still hold a spot of authority within my contemplation and church ministry.

        CONTENT PEOPLE, CONTENT…Where has all of the content gone? Ugghhh. 🙂

        • Rob

          Define “authoritative”, and what gives Tony more than say you, me, or Rob Bell?

          • Ultimately, it comes from God. However, culturally, it is developed through the agreed upon social conventions of the sub culture. When that sub culture puts their trust in the content of a particular person that person is said to have authority within that group.

            Now, if someone either claims to have authority within a particular group; or, they are perceived to have authority within that group (presumably, by some other group), when they actually don’t, then it becomes problematic.

            I think the rub with Rob Bell is due to the later of the two.

  • Thanks for this, Tony. I was troubled by Fitch’s comments and you help me understand why.

  • ‘ But he takes a surprisingly narrow, conservative — dare I say, retrograde — stance toward human sexuality.’

    You’re making the assumption that acceptance of certain stances on sexuality in some corners of the church is a forward movement against which Fitch can be said to be retrograde. That’s a big point of contention – but then I’ve not read you on this topic to evaluate your exegesis on this. I assume there’s some solid engagement somewhere on Paul, more than arguments from silence about Jesus and a good engagement with the science. Keen to be pointed at this.

  • As a former “evangelical,” one raised in a nearly fundamentalist setting, I’ve viewed the response to Bell’s two latest books with interest, even as I’ve watched the current crop of post-evangelicals (we were called that too, back in the early 80s)… because their experience has similarities to mine (the intellectual doubt, rethinking Biblical authority, and relationship to the church), as well as profound differences (I moved to the mainline, progressive end of things, becoming ordained in the United Church of Christ nearly 30 years ago, while many of today’s folk engage in conversations about non-denominational and emerging Christianity, etc.). That said, I agree with your frustrations with RB’s writing style, etc. (I find his books frustrating for the same reasons you do), and affirm his right to speak for any audience willing to let him… his paying book readers, etc. Further, that whole conversation about accountability that came out of the FB rant, and your response has interested me… as a non-author, who just pastors a modest UCC congregation in Dayton, OH, I’ve said in sermons and elsewhere many of the same things that have made Bell a media star… I am accountable, but affirmed by my congregation (they have not fired me yet), and back in the day when I survived my own divorce, I did receive support and encouragement from my congregation and the denominational representatives who had “oversight.” All of which is to say, for those who have abandoned organized Christianity but hunger for Christian community that isn’t divided around dogmatic cat-fights, this all must look pretty confusing and unattractive.

  • Patrick Marshall

    Why the concern about who Rob is speaking *for*? The way he answered the question at Grace, it sure seemed like he was speaking *for* himself.

  • jasonashleymorriss

    nicely done tony. i took every class fitch taught at northern. i love him. but to say that bell no longer matters is small. jealous? not sure. but small.

    • I think we are conflating the title of Tony’s post with the content of Fitch’s remark.
      Fitch never said that Bell “no longer matters.” He was simply raising the question of whether we should all flock to Bell’s latest semi-controversial publiclity stunt, and whether or not the fact that Bell is no longer a pastor of any specific congregation should change how we view him.

      We can debate that. But let’s not make Fitch out to be the villain.

  • Thanks Tony for your post which I occassionally come in to visit. Rob was my pastor at Mars Hill and continues to intrigue, provoke, and conflagate ideas that have provided blessing and reproach to my heart and life. I appreciate him for who he is, nothing more, nothing less. He’s burden to speak for the voiceless and for that I’m thankful. His road isn’t necessarily clear, and it isn’t necessarily my road either. But it is for me to determine with my Lord my heart’s condition and faithwalk. What I can use from Rob I will… what I can’t I’ll admit or disagree with… and should, because not all is theologically clear when he wishes to be obtuse to those listeners around him wishing to kill his message of hope and life in Jesus. He likes the conflict, he likes to provoke, and for me, I wish only to hear Jesus from him and nothing else where I can. For it is up to us, the listener, to figure it out in the Spirit of Christ, searching the Scriptures, and opening up our fellowship to those unlike ourselves, and learning to serve in a postmodern humanism that I think is very open to the gospel of Jesus given its choice of itself and atheism. Envy cannot be a word we bear on our spirits lest it break the bonds of our fellowship with one another as you have well pointed out. Speak as you know how to speak and let God use the fullness of His remnant’s voice unto salvation and renewal. Thank you again.

  • Thanks, Tony. I think this is, as usual, interesting and well written. Glad your friends with David, since you are frank about his views. Good stuff to think about, and helpful.

    Except the main point of Fitch’s position, a critique of free range individual Christian leaders who get a platform and say whatever they will. If they are making a publisher money, that publisher helps them, often without scruples, and Fitch seems right to raise this. I’m a fan of Rob at this point, so I’m not busting on him, but it does seem to me that you fudged on David’s concern, saying it was a bugaboo.

    You said Bell is “accountable to his readers.” What does that mean? Sure, if they don’t find him useful they will stop buying his books. But other people will. That’s a market matter and fails, I think, to really reply to David’s concern. What/who gives anybody the “right” to pontificate on behalf of God’s work in the world and be taken seriously? Who gets to be famous and why and should we play along with the assumption, then, that if you are an A list speaker, that these folk are therefore worth listening to? You are as aware as most of how many fraudulent leaders and bad books there are. I’m not sure the question ought to be one of accountability as much as authority. Who has authentic authority, speaking with validity? Anybody can get a radio talk show and publish a book and seem like a rock star (if they are hip-marketed and crowd-sourced and branded properly, that is.) And, increasingly, it seems, publishers want their authors not merely to put out a humble little book but to be a star, with a blockbuster, who gets on the morning shows (etc) and does Big Things so People Listen. This whole “star maker machinery” is part of David’s question. Who has authorized Bell to be a star? (That he planted a church is part of that, and those darn fantastic Noomas. But that’s all over now.) Again, I’m glad the branding gods did all this, in this case, but it is a valid question, and I don’t think you grappled with it much. Saying you got more support in your divorce from your local community than a denomination bureaucracy is sort of beside the point to this question, I think. Fitch says he’ll listen to the Pope since he represents some weighty tradition. But not so much R.B. This is fascinating, but saying it is a bugaboo isn’t enough. Can you say more?

    • Phil Miller

      Asking who has authorized Rob Bell to be a star is a bit like asking why professional athletes are paid so much. The answer to both these is the same thing. These things are like this because this is way want them, more or less. Or at least it’s the way that most people want them.

      • Byron, what Phil said. It’s an unanswerable question, which is why it’s not a fair question for David to ask. Why did David get hired by Northern Sem? Why did he get tenure? These are processes that more or less work by mechanisms that are in place but hidden from our eyes. Is the tenure committee at Northern Sem a more serious community of accountability than Rob’s hundreds of thousands of readers?

        Or let’s take Andy Stanley. Dave implies that if you’re a pastor of a church, you’ve got more accountability than a free range author. But do you really think that a megachurch pastor like Andy (or Rob) has a lot of accountability coming from the congregation? No way. They’ve got a Board of Elders who, much like an editorial board at a publishing house, has financial sustainability as their first priority.

  • Phil Miller

    Why should I care what anyone thinks? Why should I care what the Pope thinks? Because he wears a funny hat?

    I guess the only reason any of care what anyone else thinks is that we decide on some level how much authority or sway a specific person will have with us. Really, I think the question Christian leaders need to ask themselves is what make people want to listen to Rob Bell opposed to listening to me (or anyone else)? I don’t think it all comes down to charisma or popularity either. I think Tony is basically right when he says Bell possesses the ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment.

  • Isaac Gould

    I’ve never put it together before today: Rob Bell is a theological honey badger.

    • DJ

      HA! Love it!

  • I haven’t read all the comments on this post (which makes me an irresponsible blog reader most likely) so I might have missed where someone has already said this. Nevertheless, this statement got me thinking. You wrote that ” Rob is accountable to his readers. If he stops being relevant to their needs, they’ll stop buying his books.”

    This is true in some respects. However, given his celebrity and his sheer presence and ability as a communicator isn’t it possible that his readers might be manipulated into agreeing with him on a surface level without examining all the implications of the shifts in thinking he might suggest. I’m not speaking specifically about his views on homosexuality – views with which I would likely agree – but more generally. The idea that “readers” can hold him accountable assumes a level of critical engagement with popular spirituality that I just don’t believe exists – especially not among evangelicals and many of the folks in Bell’s readership. I guess what I’m saying is that I have a far lower view of the typical reader’s ability to critically engage with a skilled communicator like Bell.

  • Tim Webb

    “Rob Bell is accountable to his readers.” Bullshit. Sorry. That proves he’s accountable to nobody. He’s his own pope in his own kingdom. And I like the guy!

  • Tony, I’d like to hear more about how Rob Bell is accountable to his readers. Buying and then not buying his books?

    This friendly row reminds me of when one of our previous bishops in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference wrote a book, which sniped at UMC conservatives (Good News, Confessing Movement), and basically called them “idolaters” because of strict adherence to particular understandings of doctrines like the virgin birth. Oh brother, what a brouhaha that created! In the end, I think we had a fruitful dialog about the tension between our “Articles of Religion” and “Confession of Faith” and the Discipline’s “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task” and the role of bishops “To guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition …” Disagreement is good, sniping not so much. 😉

  • I absolutely agree w/ you Tony that Rob is accountable to his audience…which is a ton of people! I personally find Rob’s books a bit ‘light’ but I LOVE the conversation they stir and so I read them to engage others who find the books stimulating/intriguing/thought provoking.

  • Great article!

  • I, too am angry with Bell over a Facebook post. Before Rob Bell spoke in Nashville last week, I made a post asking him to join at my home for scotch and hot dogs after the talk. Would you believe he never got back to me? (true story).

    Great post Tony. Your use of the word “bugaboo” thrilled me.

    • In support of Lee’s point, the hot dogs were apparently delicious.

  • I’m with you on the fact that Fitch’s post comes across as sour grapes.

    However, I can’t agree that Bell has real, authentic accountability. How can Bell have personal accountability to his readers? This isn’t a personal relationship at all. It is a consumer relationship. The very way you set it up – “if he stops being relevant to THEIR needs, they’ll stop buying his book” – is miles away from what real, personal, ecclesial accountability looks like.

    • Dan Hauge

      That’s a good point. The market based ‘accountability’ Bell has to his readers, while a real thing, is distinctively different from a faith community where practice and interpretation are done in the context of mutual relationship.

    • Yes, just like when he was a megachurch pastor.

      • Dan Hauge

        Fair enough. I think you can make similar critiques of mega-church pastors. It’s still a different kind of ‘accountability’ than accountability based on relationship and community. This doesn’t make what Bell is doing illegitimate. I just think it’s fair to make the distinction.

        • Tony, he did have accountability as a megachurch pastor. That’s why he left! In the same blog post you say he broke off the “shackles” of Mars Hill in order to be free to speak. So he had “shackles” (or to use less charged language – people he was accountable to) that prevented him from saying anything in isolation of a community. By your own admission, he had accountability.

          You have a right to critique megachurch accountability as a less than perfect form of accountability. But that is a different issue than whether or not Bell currently has accountability

          • Phil Miller

            I don’t think living in fear of expressing your true opinions of a subject is the same as being accountable, at least not in the spiritual sense. I’d say that anyone who depends on an employer for a paycheck knows there are times to hold your tongue or not to tip over the apple cart. But I think for accoutablitilty in a spiritual sense to really be healthy it means that we have to able to function without these masks.

            I used to be on staff for a somewhat large church (not nearly as big as Mars Hill), and I know that during that time there were certain opinions I just kept to myself. It wasn’t because I felt some sort of accountability to the church leadership. Actually, I doubted the spiritual maturity of many of them, to be honest. I just didn’t want to deal with the hassle of having to defend myself on every little thing. To me the issue isn’t really accountability. The issue has more to do with many Evangelicals inability to actually deal with people who aren’t exactly like them.

            For the record, I probably don’t really agree with Bell’s conclusion on gay marriage. But simply because someone disagrees with me on this issue, I’m not ready to call out the heresy hounds.

    • Yes. My thoughts precisely. Accountability and marketability are two entirely different things and our confusing the two show how far even post-evangelicals are still mired in a consumer Christianity.

  • Dan Hauge

    Congrats on continuing to offer the definitive Rob Bell analysis of our time. You could pursue a side career in this :). (good-natured snark aside, you do have a knack for distilling how Bell operates, and his significance. It’s a good read)

  • Hi Tony,

    At the risk of breaking up the seemingly unanimous approval of your post by my fellow commentators, a little pushback.

    Picking up on your “he’s accountable to his readers” argument. Weak, dude! So, Bell is accountable to the free-market? Unfortunately, how many books are sold or not tells us nothing of Bell’s (or any authors) accountability, it only tells us of their marketability and, well, Bell is marketable! Regardless, I think Fitch’s protest that Bell oughta be in submission to some sort of ecclesiastical structure stands and deserves a more serious treatment than you’ve given here.

    And that sort of leads to my main objection with your post. Here’s a telling statement: “Rob Bell, no longer shackled…[is] free to speak his mind on many issues”. This is problematic and this is what I thought I heard Fitch trying to communicate yesterday. Is it important what *Rob Bell* thinks? *Should* it be important what Rob Bell thinks? What is important for the church is the gospel of the risen Jesus as handed on by the apostles, not the opinion of any one person. The fact that you are here arguing that we ought to listen to Bell because he is now “free to speak his mind” is symptomatic of what I think is a deeper problem in some churches.


    • Phil Miller

      “Uh oh, two independent thought alarms in one day. The children are overstimulated. Willie, remove all the colored chalk from the classrooms”

      • pete

        I warned ya, didn’t I warn ya? That chalk was forged by Lucifer himself…

  • Chris Eidson

    C’mon Fitch, as if Rob Bell just now became controversial…after Mars Hill….really? Nice analysis T.J. and it did make me think, a little at least. I liked the Thielicke quote Bell added on p4 “a person that speaks to this hour’s need will always be skirting the edge of heresy, but only the person who risks those heresies can gain the truth.” I feel like Bell speaks this hour’s need, and I get the vibe from him that he feels accountable to God, so I don’t think a church covering really matters.

  • Just curious at what point does Rob Bell concede to the Bible? The Bible speaks very clearly to the issues Rob Bell addresses. How can he write a “religious” book and ignore The Bible?The Bible speaks in complete contradiction to Rob Bell. The Bible nowhere endorses homosexual relations. The Bible nowhere endorses everyone going the Heaven no matter what.

    Rob Bell is misled and misaligned with the reality and truth of God’s Word. For so many to be wrangled in because he says what is “socially acceptable” is a shame. He’s not leading, his is misleading. God’s Word is rather clear about that as well.

    • “The Bible speaks very clearly”

      People say this often and it is almost never the truth. “Clearly”? HA! 2,000 years of Christian diversity show this to be bunk.

      • Do you feel the verses on homosexuality and hell are not clear?

        • Dean Chang

          Matthew, I thought so until I read Rob Bell’s books, and now I don’t. I think that’s the point of this entire discussion. It’s odd that everyone is using this word “authority” here. As Protestants, I think we of all people would know to use that word more carefully in this context. The Catholics think we’re nuts because anyone can just pick up a Bible and read whatever they want into it, but frankly, that’s exactly what we have. So talking about who has “authority” to speak for any group of American Christians seems like a ridiculous question to begin with.

          Rob Bell’s popularity is grounded simply in his ability to speak to disaffected Evangelicals and allowing some of us to rethink Christianity in a way that many of us absolutely needed in order to stay within the faith. I realize that many folks, especially of the conservative ilk can’t really understand that. But here’s the thing, once you open the door to these ideas and they come into your brain, you can’t really kick them out again. I can’t “make” myself read the Bible or think about the character of God in the way that I used to. Conservatives think this is about refusing to “submit” to the “authority” of scripture. It’s not that at all. It’s like if you were reading a book upside down for years and years and it just made no sense the whole time and everyone around you assured you that you reading it right and you just took their word for it even though you didn’t completely agree, and then one day someone told you, hey why don’t you turn it right side up and try reading it again and suddenly, everything made more sense. There’s no way you would ever go back to reading it upside down again, does that make sense?

          My point is not that I’m reading the Bible correctly and you are not, I’m simply trying to convey to you that once you go down a certain road in your spiritual walk, it’s not like you simply go back to where you were before you just because someone tells you you’re doing it wrong. I really don’t know exactly where I’m going to end up, but I certainly enjoy the journey much more now than I did before. So the reason I like listening and reading Rob Bell has nothing to do with any authority I perceive him to have, it’s that I like it! That’s all!

          • My point is that we just can’t change God’s Word to fit the degradation of each generation. That’s what this is. There are times when you have to face up to the fact that there are things that God has forbidden. His Word is so clear on this. Will we take the idea of murder and because some “name” like Rob Bell says it’s ok, then we all just assume it’s right and go murder?

            • Matthew, since you believe what the Bible clearly teaches, then you must also believe (a) that the earth is a fixed object that does not move in the middle of the universe around which the sun moves (Josh. 10:12-13, Ps. 19:4-6, Ps. 93:1, Ps. 104:5), and (b) that slavery is a divinely sanctioned social institution (Gen. 9:18-27), and even Christians can hold slaves if they treat them nicely (1 Cor 7:20-24, Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25, Philem. 16-18). The Catholic church appealed to the clear teaching of scripture to defend a geocentric universe, and Southern Baptists used the clear teaching of scripture to defend slavery.

            • Glenn Williams

              Matthew Carpenter,
              If you are serious about what you’re saying, you seem to be the lone dissenting voice. Are the rest lapping up what Bell claims? Contrary to what *some* are saying, the scriptures ARE more than abundantly clear. They will answer for that before Christ. Scot Miller seems to think that no one understands the difference that the New Covenant brought to us, nor that fact that the illumination of the scriptures has increased since 1865. I would be very afraid of misrepresenting what is clearly set forth. Bell is a heretic, I don’t get the usage of ‘skirting heresy’ I’ve seen more than once here. He will answer for that, for ravaging the sheep.

          • Susan Frederick

            Dean Chang–I must say thanks for that post to Matthew. I could have written every word of that myself. It is my journey too. And it’s great reading the book” right side up” (even if the rest of my family probably thinks I’m reading it upside down!) What a relief, really, to not have to make myself believe things that don’t fit with the way I understand love and compassion and all the things Jesus seemed to embody. My spiritual journey is now a wonderful adventure, and like you, I don’t know where it is leading–which is also fantastic.
            Blessings, my friend!

          • Your “reading a book upside down” analogy is EXACTLY how I experienced evangelical Christianity and my growth in relationship with God. When I first read “Generous Orhodoxy” and then several of Bell’s books, it began to switch something on for me. I seriously wonder if the people around me who seemed to “get It” when it was upside down for me were more “modern” in their training at home and church. I was not from a church family and might have been more postmodern in my culture? Who knows. But I TOTALLY resonate with you on that analogy.

        • One verse on homosexuality clearly states that homosexuals should be killed. I’ve got some nice, heavy and sharp stones at my place. Who wants to join me as we go kill some gays? All in the name of Scripture, of course.

          • Do you live near Nashville? How should I dress? I’ve never been to a Christian Queer Killin’ before.

  • Kellyecl

    It seems like many contemporary theologians are simply commentators. Rob Bell is more like a prophet. Through his poetic style, he has the innate ability to pick up on the needs others and offer a way of understanding. He critiques when necessary and comforts when necessary. When reading or watching his stuff, I sense his ideas are not just ‘mind candy’—they come from his calling. So, who is he accountable to? God. Not his readers. Very Pollyann-ish, I know.

    • If he is responsible to God, wouldn’t that mean he is going to have some issues in the future?

      • Kellyecl

        Aren’t we all? Maybe not you? I’m thinking that those with prophetic voices face(d) their Maker on a pretty regular basis, at least those paying attention.

        • I can’t call Rob Bell a prophet…far far far far from it.

          • DJ

            Most prophets were considered “far far far far from it” in their day…

  • the accountability bugaboo gets lodged against bloggers all the time as dismissal, too. like you said, not being on an evangelical payroll allows a far greater freedom of candor, which can be a healthy thing. fitch’s criticism also seems to overstate the amount of actual accountability our church/organizations extend. megapastor twitter feeds and abuse scandal cover-ups reveal our hand on this one. rob bell speaks for himself, and many people like what they hear.

    fitch wrote a few weird posts not long ago about how he “doesn’t take a position” on gay rights or sexual ethics, accusing those who do of bowing to “ideology” (because rights aren’t about justice or sexuality core to being human?). i’m seeing a persistent refrain among (white) (male) (straight) missional folks that work for lgbt/racial/gender equality cannot possibly be rooted in the cross or love but rather “ideology” and “identity politics”. i’ll take rob bell over that tea party logic any day.

  • EricG

    Fitch criticizes Bell as not being accountable to an ecclesiastical community. Wouldn’t his argument apply to any lone prophetic voice? Would the OT prophets have any standing to speak out, in his view?

  • Having the ability to still have the accountability of community but not worry about if you are going to be able to eat and live. Mixing ‘the employer’ with ‘Christian community’ is a scary mix. It also must be tough to be a public leader of a community, and have progressive views and then your community taking a public ridicule because of the leaders views.

    How do we know Rob Bell just didn’t want to leave the employer mindset and went somewhere where he has Christian community still? Why does his Christian community need to be known publicly to us and available to the ridicule of the mass media as well? For him to reveal his ecclesiastical context to the public would pose a serious problem to that context’s health. I’ve seen one too many churches fail because of the public perception of the community and it becomes a community to observe rather than one that just exists. So my hope is Bell has a context he just doesn’t see the need to share it.

  • careful jasonashleymorriss .. you might make me jealous

  • Janet

    Rob Bell may not be under the “watchful eye” of an earthly employer, but he is under the watchful eye of his almighty God (his true employer if he is a true pastor)-
    His theology is his own-a frightening thing considering his teachings.

    • Jesus takes on Scripture were also at odds with “church” tradition and the religious establishment. He too was under the watchful eye of his almighty God (his true employer if he was a true rab- pastor)- a frightening thing considering his shocking teachings.

      • SM

        Once again it seems the broader point is missed (and it seems purposeful that Janet’s point was missed or re-phrased to mean something quite different than what she stated). Jesus did and does have a unique “take” on scripture since he is the Living Word, the Word is in him and as The Word he dwelt among us (Collosians). His take was and is the only take there is whilst we imperfect beings are admonished in Rev 22:18-19 amongst other places not to add to or take from the Word of God. Jesus teachings were not at odds with the Word of God and to imply that Mr. Bell is equal to Jesus is once again to lead others astray. Paul said, “follow me as I follow Christ Jesus.” His steps are clearly marked and easy to follow for those who are guided by the Holy Spirit. The is no ambiguity, no confusion, no shifting sand. We can step where Paul stepped and we can step where Jesus stepped. Not so sure we want to step (is there a step) where Mr. Bell steps.
        And really? Are Jesus’ teachings shocking? Were they? They might be freeing from sin and the bureaucracy of men; startling to those who wanted and want to maintain their profitable hold upon the sacred; enlightening for those with heavy burdens and thirst quenching for those dying in the barren desert of non-belonging, all consistent with the hand of God over time, but they are hardly “shocking”. Shocking implies a correctness to outlandish, unguided thought and gives license to the aberration of scripture which has stood the test of time and requires no rewrite. Perhaps Janet was considering 2 Pet chapters 2 and 3 when she mentioned frightening. Regarding authority, we are to hold ourselves accountable to all manner of authority over us entrusting ourselves to God in Christ for it is God who will judge and it is God who determines our path for those of us who trust in and rely upon Him.

        • I hope that most understood that my point was not to equate Rob Bell with Jesus– but rather to remind that our faith was founded by folks who shocked many in the established tradition of the time. The church has and will continue to go through times where a new and shocking teaching becomes accepted and understood and seen as more harmonious with Scripture and what God is doing than the old ones. We need to be humble and open in interacting with a new teaching or challenge to an old one– as the Bereans were– rather than taking a defensive posture immediately. Having listened to Bell’s podcasts over time from Mars Hill, I come away with an impression that this group has a deep love for God and others and a high value of Scripture. I think that sometimes we confuse a high value of Scripture with a high value of the teachings we have been taught about it. When someone questions our interpretation or take on a given teaching–it may not be an attack on God and “the flock”, but rather an opportunity to heal something that has become tweaked or is actually harmful to them. Please know that those you disagree with may have a deep care for people and for God/God’s truth– even if they don’t interpret Scripture or practice their faith in the way you or your group does.

          • SM

            There is no question regarding the hurt and disenfranchised among us or the various approaches to reach out and interact, aid, care for or relate to all those we come in contact with. The question here is a valid comment that is misconstrued so as to make a wholly different point which in and of itself alienates the person who chose to be brave and blog even in the face of challenging what is “politically correct” and/or popular (see Janet’s original post). Just because there is a concern that someone in a leadership role is off or out of bounds doesn’t mean there isn’t care or concern nor does it mean there is an attack. We are to admonish one another in the faith and the admonishments here are criticized or ignored when in fact they follow good biblical teaching.
            You use the word “shock” or “shocking” which is telling. It’s as if it is thought that this is the complaint or concern and as if it justifies leading people astray even though they are cared for or loved. Humility cuts both ways. Reformers of old did not “shock” so much as they threatened the established conventions held to by a dominant beauracracy called the church. It was a single entity with massive political and financial power tied to a kingdom run by a king. So, teaching something outside of the prescribed man made doctrines was anathema not shocking. There is no such entity today. To give over to the excuse that to state something far afield or far outside of Christian doctrine within the Bible is “shocking” and that is all it is, after all, it’s been done in history before, is to deny that there are good, right and solid foundations upon which we base our faith as Christians. The concepts being advocated by Mr. Bell are not new having been formerly espoused by Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and others in the existentialist period. There is even a sampling of new age philosophy and ideology especially in regards to the lack of specificity and accountability. If we are not as in times of old accountable to “a church” we, it needs must be said, are accountable to one another. Janet suggests she sees an area needing work as do many others who have blogged herein.
            Today, more than ever people need something solid, good and reliable to stand upon. Which Frances Schaeffer discussed so well in his books that came out of his ministry to people in the 60-70’s who succumbed to the enticements of greater “spiritual awareness” without constraint. These former cultural ills are prevalent in the methodologies of many of our churches today, Mars Hill not-with-standing.
            If the firm foundation of the hope in Christ is not understood and studied we are left to a nebulous state that is far afield of the church Jesus will one day return to collect. It might feel good but it might not be good. Those without a firm foundation will generally fall away or perish as well. This is not a new understanding or teaching it is clearly written out in the Word of God. It is not dogmatic nor right winged nor inherently unaccepting it is what Jesus and Paul taught and teach us.

  • Wow, Mr. Fitch. So if you aren’t a pastor, if you haven’t made it past the proper gatekeepers and you don’t have a church body you are supposed to be, you know, PASTORING TO, then you can’t have a voice in Christianity? Really? WTF. As a woman who has been gifted to share what I know through decades of study, deep Christian relationships and an intense walk with God, I am so fucking sick of this gatekeeping, insular mindset. This is the same sort of guy who will then turn around and talk about the need to promote women while sitting on a panel that’s 70% male in front of attendees who are also 70% male (with wives who surely have nothing interesting to say holding down the fort at home). This guy’s crap makes me wish I had a few bucks to buy Bell’s book just to spite him.

    Pastors are supposed to be tending to their people. They aren’t supposed to be doing ALL of the work which the body needs done. The rest of us are sick of the professional guild which wants to be the only part of the body that contributes anything other than cash and an audience. If Bell wants to leave pastoring behind to focus on a different calling, more power to him.

    • Hear, hear, Rebecca. Well said.

    • +1

    • Rebecca, I don’t know you, and I don’t comment often here, so I apologize if this isn’t quite right to ask this, but I can’t stop wondering if this accusation is fair. Fitch does seem to argue for some kind of “gatekeeping” and asking that people who are esteemed publicly be in some community of discourse, standing with and for a particular body, not lone-ranger stars. I don’t know what I think of that, but it seems aligned with a pretty radical commitment to resisting crass American individualism. He did not say that he thinks only pastors can have a voice, so I suspect that that is a bit of a misread. To read in to his statement (which I found a bit odd, I’ll admit) that he wants to be a professional guild member and do everything in the body, and not allow anyone else to do anything is just silly. He didn’t say that at all.

      More, I worry about why you’d say he is like a guy who is involved in a mostly male run meeting, and think that’s fine. I don’t know Fitch, but I doubt if he’s that kind of guy, knowingly complicit with sexist practices of that sort. Maybe you know something about him or his tribe that I don’t, but from what I gather, your insinuation about him seems unfair, unless you can document that he is that kind of a jerk.

      I don’t deny, of course, that people are often unfairly marginalized and that we ought not be complicit in any such repression or attempt to silence others. That is an injustice and it happens. It is ugly and it must stop. But why throw that in Fitch’s face, since he said nothing or indicated nothing that he’d be in favor of marginalizing women or other voices from the margins in a local meeting of the sort you described? From his earlier book, I know he is against the mainstream market forces of success and power taking over our faith communities, realizing that God often speaks through a community aligned against the forces of the status quo. So you are right to rail against such injustices, but to spew at him and say he’s “that kind of a guy” seems so speculative as to be kinda weird. And it is weird that nobody questioned that kind of allegation. Fitch is “that kind of guy”? How do you know this?

  • The ONLY way to think that the passages are clear is to not actually study them. For example, the word Gehenna which gets translated as hell in the gospels wasn’t used by the Jews to refer to the afterlife until the 6th century AD. Meaning that if Jesus meant to reference hell as we understand it and not bring to mind the prominent role which Gehenna played in God’s judgment of the Jews in the book of Jeremiah, his listeners would have had no idea. Your ideas about what Jesus was “clearly” saying there would have been utterly foreign to them. I could go on and on, but clearly, the bible is not nearly so clear on such things as a supposedly “plain” (read selective) reading would lead modernist Christians to believe.

    • Sigh – that was supposed to be in response to this:
      Matthew Carpenter says:
      March 20, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Do you feel the verses on homosexuality and hell are not clear?

      I don’t know why it didn’t show up in the right place. Sorry.

      • This is creating a watered down Gospel. We decide that we want homosexuality to be “right.” The Bible says it isn’t. So we either look for a way to justify it or some “name” who promotes in order to justify it. I’m sorry..it will never be right according to God’s Word… whether Rob Bell says so or not.

        • Careful readings of Scripture with an understanding of the culture and times AND of how some words were translated makes this less clear than many would think. Please don’t assume that those followers of Jesus who have come to the place in their study and listening where they don’t see homosexual unions as sinful- do it because they want to justify their own selfish agendas– or weakness with regard to cultural tide. There are many of us– genuine followers of Jesus- whocontinue to wrestle with this teaching out of a sincere desire to honor God and not misrepresent God– or fail in our ultimate pursuit of loving God and loving others.

  • T.S.Gay

    “….first and foremost we should look at place of ministry/accountability from which he/she speaks”……search neo-scholasticism and you will notice one basic is the Aristolean solution to the problem of universals. In each discipline they are trained to use the “auctor” ( the authors known to have studied the subject thoroughly). This leads to scholastic works having long lists of footnotes. And also, a distrust of ideas without them.
    Nothing is further from a spirit of scholasticism than one of evolution. I think Bell is too far into the ethos of things are changing for those with a scholastic bent. It is possible to see that there is a time for their considered ideas, and also a time when those who are more change oriented can be trusted. It takes wisdom to choose the path.

  • “Many Christian leaders are completely hamstrung by their employers. Yesterday’s post showed that, and it’s a well-known fact. When you work at an evangelical church or college or non-profit and you’ve got progressive views, you must engage in constant self-censorship.”

    As an academic who tends to hold the kind of progressive views in question, but who’s free to do so (b/c I teach at a secular university), I hear a lot from other academics who are not so free. As a Christian universalist — which was the trouble-area for Bell with his last book [not that he expressed universalism there; just that he was getting to close for comfort] — I hear especially from those who have views tending in that direction. I wrote about the situation some years back at the old, now-defunct Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank blog:
    On gay issues, I openly supported the American Philosophical Association censuring Christian colleges that discriminate against gays:
    So there too, I hear quite a bit from those who agree with me but are silenced.

    I’d just like to tell folks that the incidents you hear about — which often involve something like someone being publicly disciplined, fired, or pushed out of a job — are just the visible part of the iceberg. You don’t hear about the many incidents where, say, some faculty member is called into the office of the President of her college and told that she had better not publish or make public that paper she’s been working on, or those views that she’s been heard espousing.

    Yes, the Keepers of the Darkness have their arguers who engage these dangerous ideas out in the open, but they also have forces working behind the scenes, pressuring, silencing.

    As I expressed in that old GOTT post, I still wonder what would happen if the “lid” were taken off: If it became OK to be a universalist in the various churches under discussion — or, more generally, if it became OK to hold any of a number of views. And I still suspect that others are wondering the same thing, and are resolving to make sure the lid is screwed on tightly. But I’m now more optimistic than I was 6 years ago about what would happen if the lid were taken off, and also about the likelihood of the lid at least being significantly loosened during my lifetime (and I’m almost 51, so that’s not some 20-year-old talking). I’m optimistic enough to think at least part of the reason the lid is being screwed on tightly, at least in many places, is that those doing so realize deep down that they kinda have to.

    • On this — “I openly supported the American Philosophical Association censuring Christian colleges that discriminate against gays” — I should make clear that the censure involved was just marking the schools as out of compliance with the APA nondescrimination policy if/when they advertised job openings in the APA’s “Jobs for Philosophers” publication, so as to warn potential applicants. No seeking to punish philosophers who advocate or defend the discriminatory policies or anything like that.

    • Keith, when I was working at a Baptist University in Texas, I was hauled before the Academic VP because a student complained about an illustration I used in class. (I was explaining the difference between ethics and aesthetics by asking, “Is a photograph by Robert Mapplethorp of a man urinating in the mouth of another man good?” That could be an ethical question of value or an aesthetic question of value. But I digress….) Anyway, when I asked about the idea of academic freedom, I was flabbergasted to discover that individual human beings who happen to teach do not have academic freedom, but the institution has the academic freedom to require human teachers to teach as the institution wants them to teach. (I was even told that church-related universities have the right to discriminate against homosexuals, non-Christians, etc., if such discrimination was required by the religious commitments of the institution. My response: “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

      I am happy not being a teacher at a religiously affiliated university.

  • Bryan, yep, you made my point. Rob is meeting a need, and doing it very well. But it’s not an accountability relationship in the sense that we try to live out in covenant with one another in the Body. That relationship is much more nuanced, where we can both encourage and confront and hang in with one another when we don’t like what we are hearing.

  • Pingback: a critique of David Fitch’s critique of Rob Bell()

  • I find the notion that we ought not speak unless we are “accountable” to some institution that can punish or discipline us for anything objectionable we might say to be more than a little creepy.

    • Bill: Agreed. The whole language of accountability is a bit odd, which is why I asked about authority: who authorizes folks to speak and on whose behalf? I don’t think we should just let the publishers and the market determine that; perhaps the views of some people ought to be touted and promoted and talked about and heeded, and the views of others might best be ignored, but that doesn’t happen when platforms are created by folks with big bucks and the fan thing kicks in. By describing accountability as you do, I agree, it’s creepy. Although, for what it is worth, I doubt if Fitch was asking anybody to “punish” Bell (or anybody else.) I don’t think that is a fair reading of what he or anybody else proposed. He was suggesting, I think, that the discernment of truth is communal, and discourse about what the Bible teaches, and pronouncing on it — unlike the guy above who thinks it is just fully clear — is a best seen as a communal task. By the way, Rob’s extensive book list in the back and the shout outs to authors and friends, indicates he isn’t exactl a lone ranger making this stuff up.

  • Rob Bell matters because he is asking and addressing quesstions that many, many people, even in the more mainline evangelical churches have. His particular skill is being able to address these in a narrative form. Stories are important to him, just as they were to Jesus, and this is completely in tune with the “zeitgeist” of contemporary culture. The thing that makes his writing in turn compelling and irritating (especially to those of us accustomed to a more academic style) is that they are effectively written sermons or lectures. Although I am in the UK I followed the podcasts from Mars Hill when Rob was there and attended one of his appearances on a UK tour. When I read the books, in my head I hear his voice speaking the words, exactly as they appear on the page. What distinguishes Rob from many others is that he is not only unafraid to voice the questions but also to begin to work towards answers without telling his audience “you should/must believe this too” (though many perhaps will). He is unconcerned (or seems to be) that this will cause others to pin labels on him, as though theology came in neat packages like liberal/conservative/emergent.
    All this probably makes it seem as though I am a fan, and I guess I am just a little bit. But I don’t buy everything he says, and I’m not sure he would want me too.

    • Apologies for the couple of typos -*questions* in first line and last word is *to

  • Zach Lind

    Does Fitch want Rob to lie when asked a question? If you’re asked a question about your thoughts on a particular subject, why is authority or accountability even a issue?

    • Dean Chang

      Lol, great point!

    • Phil Miller

      This actually is a very good point. It’s something I still don’t fully understand about Evangelicalism. It seems that many people would rather “leaders” (also, the fact that leadership as an abstract concept is so emphasized in Evangelism is another thing that I find odd – but I digress…) keep their real opinions bottled up inside of them rather than share them.

      OK, so Bell has a particular opinion about a particular issue. What does it really matter. This isn’t even something that he even talks about at all in his newest book. But yet I’m sure there will be plenty of Evangelicals calling for the boycott of his book because of it. I just don’t understand this all-or-nothing approach to everything. What are people afraid of? So people know what Bell thinks about an issue and they disagree. What then? Hide your women and children? The amount of fear is simply ridiculous.

      • Yes, that was a good question, and I don’t think most people reading along here would mind what Bell said or that he said it. An interviewer asked him a question and he answered. Big deal. I agree, no need to get apoplectic about that. I gather that the question being probed here, though, inspired by Tony’s reply to Fitch, was a little deeper — not if Rob should give his opinion but what difference it makes? Why does it become a Big Deal? Time magazine and Patheos and Huffington will all do stories on his small answer, and it becomes a media event because an evangelical rock star Said Something. Some faithful pastor who has served well for years in a quiet congregation — does she end up on the the talk shows? A careful Biblical exegete who is painstakingly trying to figure out complex stuff without much glitz? Of course not.

        I own a (pretty diverse) bookstore and sell books for a living so I’m glad for a platform for guys like Bell — I like his book and want to promote it, so I’m glad that people want to know what he thinks; insofar as he is an interesting, relatively faithful voice, we can be grateful that other less faithful/insightful voices aren’t getting the attention this week. But this whole business (and Fitch reminds us it is a business) of who gets heard and whose voice matters isn’t being asked out of fear, it is about trying to figure out how to be post-denominational, perhaps, and yet not rugged individualists. I don’t want any one person speaking for the faith — let a million flowers bloom and all that — but I don’t think it is every person for him or herself, either. Faith communities together discern complex things, and if we are going to be prophetic and destabilize the current hegemony of traditionalism within Christiandom, we will have to do so speaking in concert with a Bible-based counter-narrative, thick, as they say. Not (just) a a lone ranger star with cool ideas. I do not think being a pastor at a church should be privileged (and I have no reason to think that Fitch believes that since he didn’t say that) so it isn’t about that, either.

        So, sure, it is fine and good that Rob is out promoting his book and it is fine that he gave his honest opinion when asked a question. But what does all this mean for how God’s people should be determining our views about complex matters? Many of us work within denominations, so there are communities and representatives and commissions (and mechanisms to be sure everybody gets a voice) but many evangelicals are not — but they have famous authors and celebrities who speak and write publicly and are taken seriously. Sorry to ramble — I guess this question seems reasonable to me, and I’m struck that some folks here seem to think it is retrograde to ask, repressive, or, as you’ve implied, driven by fear. I think for some people, the question is less about fear or “accountability” as much as it is a struggle of how to be faithful to our own inner lights, but also being in community, and also to stand in a tradition that is multi-vocal and diverse. How do we be prophetic and new and yet honor older traditions and not dismiss reasonable voices? Liberals tend to want to silence conservative views and fundamentalist want to silence liberal voices and most everybody disregards ordinary and poor folks. And doesn’t the orthodoxy of the past count for something? I want to know what Fitch is getting at about community and tradition, but that doesn’t mean I want to silence Rob or have fears about what gets said. That’s strikes me as a cheap shot.

        • Phil Miller

          I think the way Fitch framed the issue is a big part of the problem. He said, “Who is Rob Bell speaking for/to in affirming gay marriage?”. It wasn’t like Bell released a press release. He answered a question in a public forum, and he answered it honestly. How should being part of a specific tradition change the way this happens? I suppose he could have said something like, “I have no comment on that issue”, but the same people who are upset at his answer now would still be upset.

          To me the whole issue of gay marriage is something of a sideshow. I think for the amount it actually affects most peoples’ lives it gets a vastly inordinate amount of attention. Somehow it’s become the new litmus test for orthodoxy much like a politician’s view on abortion has become the litmus test for being a conservative. These issues are things we can get riled up about because most of us don’t interact them on a real-life level. It’s kind of like professional sports.

  • I loved your last paragraph, Tony. I’m about half way through Rob Bell’s book. The intended audience for his book surprised me. I thought he would write another book aimed at Christians and Christian doctrine. But, he’s speaking directly to the growing ranks of atheists.

  • Jshaf


    Appealing to motive as your reason for dismissing David Fitch’s facebook post on Rob Bell does seem to like a low blow. I don’t think you or anyone else likes it when when Christians judge our motives for what we say or what we do in our lives. Couldn’t the reason he wrote this be that Fitch’s Anabaptist view of the church embraces a strong mutual accountability within the local church body?

  • Len, I lean more towards the idea of “Christianity” as a -revolt- against religious power-by-committee — more about individuals loving other individuals, without the veneer of institutional mandate. Rob wrote a book about the preeminence of love, which drew a lot of anger from the tribes that have the most to lose when they can no longer own the boundaries of unconditional love. Candidly, I’m rather surprised to see this particular leaning from David Fitch. He always seems so Quakery and Anabaptisty. He seems the antithesis of “legitimacy in numbers.”

    “That relationship is much more nuanced, where we can both encourage and confront and hang in with one another when we don’t like what we are hearing.”

    That relationship is here and now, F2F, skype-to-skype, virtual, global, participatory, increasingly shared at a universal level: local and global, instantaneously – hey, we edited a book together with this same theme :-). Never in human history have we ever connected like this, nor have we really ever considered its collective/religious impact.

    Hey, I’m not saying we should downplay our familiar local voices. But I think Rebecca Trotter (above) is saying what a LOT of people -want- to say, but feel constrained by tribal-organizational conformance pressures. I applaud those who are courageously breaking free of roman-vertical authority models and learning how to live and work the dynamics of unconditional love in a more fully connected world.

  • I don’t think Rob has accountability to his readers. Accountability implies governance and we, the readers, do not act as a form of polity. “If he stops being relevant to their needs, they’ll stop buying his books.” That’s not accountability, that is free market.

    I’m glad Rob has finally publicly gone on record as affirming gay marriage. I think it would have been more courageous if he would have done it back at Mars Hill. I used to work at Mars so I know the culture well. It is not courageous to voice his affirmation now. But he does have a powerful voice and for that I am thankful he does publicly affirm gay marriage.

  • Full disclosure: I’m a co-pastor with Dave at Life on the Vine.

    I thought the point of Dave’s post was acknowledging that Rob has tremendous influence within the church while Rob himself seems to be standing further outside of the church and any particular faith tradition. The problem is not that Rob is not at Mars Hill anymore, but that in his interviews he seems to be distancing himself from the church. Dave’s post asks, “Does Rob’s distance affect how we hear him?” I think it does. I have nothing against Rob Bell at all, love Rob Bell to be honest – but it changes how I hear him.

    Tony, your first response to Dave’s post was: “David could possibly be accused of professional jealously.” It sounds like you are accusing him of professional jealousy while hiding behind a passive voice. Somebody could possibly accuse him? Somebody could possibly accuse anyone of anything. As a Christian I would want to give Dave the benefit of the doubt and assume his motivation was not primarily a sinful one.

    • “he seems to be distancing himself from the church.”

      Ty, define “the church.” With over 300 ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, many of us are indeed “distancing ourselves” from any ‘Jesus way’ that defines itself by its separateness rather than its commonality with all creation. A growing number are finding disconnects between one tribe’s idea of “right theology” and the far narrower pathway towards becoming better and truer and more reckless lovers.

      I think the epoch of finding identity in religious denomination (i.e. dualistic, moral, or ideological purity) is coming to a close — maybe not in my son’s lifetime, but inevitable. If Christ’s unconditional love does not find a way to override our almost genetic tribal-power tendencies, religion in all its pathologies will likely kill us.

      • Hi John – that’s fair. I think that get’s at the heart of the question. IMHO, I don’t think it matters what tradition or denomination or branch Rob Bell (or any of us belong to) but I think that it matters that he (and any of us) belongs to a tradition. Because if we belong to a tradition, then we are anchored to a history of pilgrims and saints from a variety of contexts – we see their blind spots and they expose our cultural blind spots as well. And when we disagree or apply the theology to our own contexts, it happens communally. I think the communal mutual submission and listening to the saints throughout history, keep us grounded to how the Holy Spirit has been working. If religious denominations and traditions are coming to an end like you say, then I wonder if every local church (or individual) becomes an island unto itself (herself/himself) – untethered and without historical memory. I hear you naming the tension between religion and spirituality. I lament for those who have been hurt and abused by people in religious systems – those who abused their power and authority will be judged. But I don’t see religion as a pathological killer – I’m just not there.

        Maybe Rob Bell is grounded in a tradition. My impression is that he is not. But maybe he is and I just don’t know what it is. And that’s okay. But I will read and hear him more cautiously.

        Having said that – I have only affection for Rob. About 10 years ago, I went up to Rob at Willow Creek and asked him about how he preaches. I was just a punk kid out of college. He was so gracious. He invited me to come to Grand Rapids and study with him for a day. A group of us had dinner over at his house – his wife made enchiladas. I don’t pretend to know Rob personally but I will never forget that kindness and hospitality that he showed me – I have no interest in bringing him down.

        • Xlnt questions from Byron and Ty about traditions and their influence; about individual vs. collective; about uniformity & submission vs. pluralism; about inherited organization.

          I wouldn’t worry about losing touch with the great saints and traditions of history. Innovative change agents (religious or otherwise) will always make their impact, and I think the influence of the healthiest history will in fact accelerate moving forward. This is because “influence” is now being curated less by insular sub-traditions and increasingly by participative voices in millions of cross-pollinated conversations (like this one). Though still in its infancy, we can see profoundly new community models being formed by these global accelerations.

          Our myriad sub-traditions have rarely communicated, and when they do it’s little more than ecumenical veneer. But virtuality is revealing the formation of a -global- tradition, being created by its participants. This global tradition is self-organizing, unscripted, decentralized, has no board, and rather than seeking control of the story, it seeks to optimize our collective understanding of the story. The virtual age is in its infancy, but I’m convinced it will change just about everything we know about religious organizational dynamics and the nature of religious leadership and influence.

          As for the pathology of religion, I read a historian who calculated that religion was the primary cause of 14% of wars. I think the real number is far higher, for sectarian and political ideology is often deeply rooted in religious justifications. How many American evangelicals truly think Jesus will return in their lifetime to rapture them away from an inevitable and expected global apocalypse? It’s the majority (Pew study, 2010). How many eastern Islamic adherents worldwide interpret Surah 5,8,9 to mean that infidels must be physically and forcefully converted or killed? Roughly 65% (Univ of Maryland study, 2007). Yes, I do believe that many of the old religious models and traditions pose a pathological threat to our very survival.

  • In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “Character is always lost when a high ideal is sacrificed on the altar of conformity and popularity.”

    • Matthew, I don’t this venue will allow us to adequately discuss this, but I hope you realize (do you?) that those who have a more accepting view of the need for civil rights for gay neighbors don’t hold those views because they just want to be popular or because the secular culture tells us to. There are those that think this is the right thing to favor, as just public policy, because our God as revealed in the Scripture that the task of the state is to do justice for all; God causes rain to shine on the good and evil alike, Jesus said, and it seems that the government at least ought to treat everybody justly. In other words, the gay marriage question is partially a matter public policy and some who think hard about what God would want governments to do, in light of what the Bible seems to say the state should do, have concluded that we should advocate for marriage equality. But this is not just to be relevant or cool or because it seems neat. So please refrain from assuming the worst of those with whom you disagree. They/we MAY have sinful compromising motives, wanting to water down the gospel to be accepted. But most do not have that crass view: they are trying to figure out what is best in light of profound awareness of all the various things the Scriptures teach about the common good, the dignity of all made in God’s image, how to love our neighbors, what love demands and what justice looks like and what public policy is best for all our fellow citizens. Good people of solid faith can disagree, but you shouldn’t presume that those with whom you disagree are just compromising, worldly and disregarding the Bible. That is not adequate as a reply, and it isn’t charitable towards those with whom you disagree. It could be that they have good exegetical and theological reasons drawn from tons of Scripture that your literal reading of a couple of verses doesn’t seem to see. I am not even saying Bell is right or you are wrong, but I do think you shouldn’t advance this line of reasoning, that Bell or others just ignore the Bible and want to compromise. That is a rude approach, and you should learn his motivations and methods and views of various texts before you make cheap accusations saying he just wants to water it down or disregard what the Bible says.

      • Kellyecl

        Byron, I think Tony once posted something like, “Benefit-of-the-doubt should be a Christian virtue.” That statement rings true in many ways on this blog today. Your post above is a beautiful response and one that I have often wanted to make to those who have accused me of abandoning Biblical truth for societal conformity. I think most Christians who have changed their minds or advanced an alternative viewpoint have done serious Biblical work, major discernment, and genuine examination of their souls. Thank you for saying this so succinctly and quite graciously.

      • It’s not a matter of that. I have many many years of study behind me. What I “believe” to be true and what I have been “called to proclaim” is no where near what Rob Bell professes. I am just seriously concerned with the watered down Gospel that is being taught. I’m not against cvivl right for gays, I find their souls as precious as any other, however I am called to proclaim what I feel is true…no different than Rob Bell is doing. And I stand on a much more accountable stage than he does. I would be a poor Christian if I didn’t stand up for what I believe in.

        Let me ask this – is there ANY time when it is RIGHT to change/water down God’s word? I am understanding of disagreements when they have solid foundation. To neglect/ignore the Bible just because it doesn’t fit the social pattern of lifestyle we choose to live is wrong. Society is dragging down the teachings of Jesus, which were marked by divine authority and absoluteness, to meet the standard of “the world we are living in?” Aren’t we supposed to challenge the world to live up to the standards of the Lord?

        To a firm Bible believing Christian I feel I have to respond to Rob Bell because I believe, not of my own accord but from God’s Word, that he is spreading mistruths. It is my goal as a Christian to make sure that none are led astray. To the average mind what he is saying is probably seen as “right” – as witnessed by the recent statements of former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Rob Portman and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But last I checked, none of those had the authority that God’s Words has.

        I know I am just beating a dead horse because the Bible is not seen as “important” anymore. Society is the decision maker. The “common good” is the ultimate denominator.

        Jude 1:16-18 These are grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage. But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts.

        • “I stand on a much more accountable stage than he does.”

          Get over yourself.

          • I’m a Pastor, he’s not.

            • Because you talk on a stage and draw a salary doesn’t make you any more or less of a pastor then a guy who writes books about love, or a guy who goes to his factory job and consoles a heartbroken co-worker. Having a theology degree and a job with the title “pastor” does not make you any more or less of a pastor than the homeless, jobless women drawing on her faith to keep hope alive in her two kids. My friend, your “stage” is no more or less important than anyone elses stage on God’s great earth.

              • Thats where you are not quite correct sir. My role and calling as a Pastor carries a very big word with it – accountability. I have a group of people who I must answer to. The revered Mr. Bell is accountable to no one…he can say whatever without consequences, other than his previous publisher dumping him.

                • You are talking about accountability to tribal codes. If you break any of your tribal codes, the “group of people you must answer to” will simply dismiss you — and if you’re on salary, they will stop paying you. And if you’re really mucked deep into the tribe, you will face some formal excommunication. (your publisher will fire you, if you will).

                  But… I’m guessing that God will not love you any less. You will be no more or less of a pastor or valuable human being. And I’m confident that your true accountability to God and people and the universe will be just as important. You may even find a new and far larger tribe that is more interested in love than moral theology, and they will accept you as an awesome and inspired pastor even without a salaried religious job, or a biblical title, or even a clerics collar.

                  • I wouldn’t term my Church as a “tribe.” They are “Christians” with a belief system based on the Word of God – The Bible. This is where the enormous disconnect comes with those who want to uphold the words of those like Rob Bell who spread “another Gospel (i.e. good news). As a Christian I take God’s Word as it is. If His Word says to not kill, I don’t kill. If it says not to steal, I do not steal. If it says love your neighbor and forgive them, I do likewise and if it says a man shall not lie with a man and that homosexuality is an “abomination,” then I too, trust God’s Word on that being right and true.

                    This is where there is an enormous issue with Rob Bell and others like him. I say I am a Christian, yet I will just “cherry pick” God’s Word and Abide by what I want to and ignore the rest. This is a point that is very difficult point to make when people do not feel the Bible is the true, holy, inspired Word of God.

                    And also, I am “mucked” deep in a “tribe” – we are Bible believing Christians who are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. Under not circumstance can I ever see Rob Bell being right. That’s my belief as much as others on here who accept his words as truth. The bottom line we agree to disagree on a very clear Biblical topic.

                    • DJ

                      You pretty much just described in very precise terms that you are part of a tribe…

                    • Not a “tribe”

                    • DJ

                      Do you even know what a “tribe” is?? Because you’ve done nothing on this thread but show in no uncertain terms that you’re part of a tribe. (We ALL our for that matter…humans are tribal.)

                    • I know what a “tribe” is, but do not care for the terminology.

                    • DJ

                      Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re part of a tribe. Truth is truth. I’m sure a very Biblical guy such as yourself could appreciate that 😉

                    • DJ – point well taken 😉

                    • “As a Christian I take God’s Word as it is. If His Word says to not kill, I don’t kill. If it says not to steal, I do not steal.”
                      Shellfish? Mixed cloth? Haircuts? Stone your kids? on and on 600+ times…?

                    • So let me ask this – we were designed by God for male/female sexual relations. Our design is NOT for anything otherwise. So why is it acceptable to go against the design? To quote the old addage – Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.

                    • DJ

                      Design is a tricky thing, Matthew. For instance, there are now several hundred animal species who have been documented to engage in homosexual behavior and practice. At some point, you have to start wondering if there is some purpose or “design” to homosexuality. It is largely agreed that humanity was “designed” for male/female sexual relations – I don’t know many people who would deny that. The question is if it is “designed” EXCLUSIVELY for male/female sexual relations. I have a hard time looking at the world and concluding that. But for those who do, we know where that leaves the gays (in lonely, life-long, unwanted celibacy – or ex-gaydom if you’re really sadistic), but where does it leave intersex individuals?

      • Thanks for your well put comment. I have people on the staff of the church I serve at who will joke about me not valuing Scripture because I see it and passages in it in a different light than they do. I think that caring for God’s perspective and valuing Scripture deeply means thinking deeply about how to understand the culture and conversation going on in Scripture AT THAT TIME, and then wrestling to “bind and loose” in our own culture and time. To me, that’s a HIGH value of God and Scripture.

  • Nathan

    Accountability is a bs evangelical category that really means “control”. Just like the word “biblical” really means “I agree with you” OR “annointed” means “I like it”…it’s a unicorn word for an imaginary principle to valorize and reinforce crass social conformity.

    I don’t get on the RB knob slobbering, but I do love that he stands outside the unorganized oligarchy of ghettoized evangelicalism and simply offers his thoughts. (And NO, that doesnt mean he is distant from the Church)

    He doesn’t have to climb Mt. Olympus, on his hands and knees, to the CT editorial board, the insular halls of its “academia”, etc, and kiss the ring. My suspicion is he doesn’t give a good GD what luminaries in Seattle, Louisville, Deerfield, or Minneapolis think, and hs success only proves that none of us need their seal of approval either.

    He does owe Tony, Brian McLaren, and a bunch of others gratitude for doing it first, taking it up the yin yang, and changing the landscape to make a space for a self described “not emergent” guy to come and be so….emergent.

    • Ted Grimsrud

      This issue of accountability seems complicated. I too get the idea that what Fitch seems to be implying is that “accountability” has to do with censorship (from the institution or self-censorship) and that what was wrong with Bell’s response to the interview question about his view of same-sex marriage is that Bell didn’t censor himself out of deference to the peace of the “body of Christ.”

      It seems ironic to me that Fitch, who in many helpful ways draws on John Howard Yoder, does not seem to be aware of or at least sympathetic to Yoder’s notion of accountability that has most of all to do with the need to allow everyone a chance to speak (what Yoder calls the “rule of Paul”)—especially minority or dissenting voices. That is, Yoder’s is a notion of “accountability” that does not narrow down what is said but expands it.

      • Ted,
        This dialogue has drifted way far from my short paragraph on facebook. But on that FB thread I nuanced what I was saying. To say the least, I never advocated censorship. And I wished I had used a different word for accountability. I was focusing on what Yoder would call communal discernment. The things he talks about under terms like “the hermeutics of people hood.” I’m well aware of the town hall meeting, the rule of Paul. These things all point to a relationship within a real community that make serious dialogue, listening and responding to issues possible. So maybe we can argue about what community Bellwas speaking within and out of what discerning posture? But then we’d back to my questions in that opening statement … uh, not my supposed calling for censorship. This kind of real discernment is what I’m asking about in Yoder’s terms (But frankly not only in Yoder’s terms). I know it’s hard to read 200 and some comments, so I don’t blame you. Just wanted to clear up what was I was saying before somebody else calls me a Fascist or something 🙂
        Good to see you last year …. see you along the way …
        Peace bro …

        • Thanks for the clarification, David. I am glad that I misread the implications of your sense of “accountability.” Maybe the discussion I would want to have with you is then more about the possibility that comments like Ball’s do make a contribution to “serious dialogue, listening, and responding to issues” when they stimulate us say more to each other in response to them—even if they don’t actually occur in an obviously communal context where there is mutual discernment.

          I’m possibly more inclined to see an open airing of differences as being itself a vital part of discernment than you may be.

          Congrats on the new book, I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • Jonnie

      At’ a boy Nathan! All that needs to be said right there.

    • Knob slobbering?

    • Nathan = hilarious!

  • Tim Heebner

    These transitions of what our ultimate authority is/should be, and the systems put in place to enforce accountability to that ultimate authority can be difficult. The Law –> eye witness accounts of the Christ –> the Pope –> the paper Pope (“infallible Word of God) –> Spirit???

    And those who speak during those times of transition get the most love and the most hate.

  • On this — “I openly supported the American Philosophical Association censuring Christian colleges that discriminate against gays” — I should make clear that the censure involved was marking the schools in question as out of compliance with the APA nondiscrimination policy if/when they advertised job openings in the APA’s “Jobs for Philosophers” publication. No attempt to punish philosophers who advocated or defended the discriminatory policies, or anything like that.

  • JR

    Rob Bell appeals b/c he’s a hip and cool guy. He’s popular and guys want to be like him/girls want to date/marry somebody like him. Mark Driscoll appeals for similar reasons. They just have that special charisma and are able to draw people w/o trying or at least attempting to try too hard like a lot of evangelicals out there Once these guys enter their 50’s they probably won’t be as influential.

    • Nathan

      For Mark Driscoll, this we pray to Lord.

    • Matthew, don’t just post a link with no comment. No one will click it, because they’ll assume it’s spam.

      • Sorry about that – it’s a link to Pastor Timothy Keller and a discussion on homosexuality.

  • Jonnie

    Why does the really good stuff about Anabaptist thinking SO easily turn the corner to a curmudgeonly ethos that’s anything but winsome?

    • Nathan


  • Rob

    Rob Bell matters because he’s a human in God’s image. Period.

  • Pingback: Yes, Rob Bell Still Matters To Me (& Various Conversations From David Fitch, Tony Jones & Evan Curry)()

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  • For anyone who’s interested, I do think that Rob Bell still matters…and here are some of the reasons why:


  • Nobody claims the accountability card when conservative folk write bigotry…why all of a sudden now pull that card? Here are some of my thoughts on the matter…

  • Pingback: Rob Bell Round-Up()

  • Glenn Williams

    Are you people reading the same Bible? Progressive? Really? All I can say is please repent and come to Christ before you’re too late.

  • Amy Sayers

    Interesting, the whole time I read your post, I was thinking about exactly what you wrote in your last paragraph. Bell doesn’t make any steadfast proclamations, but he has tapped into the questions we are all asking in our own heads. Finally, someone who acknowledges that we Christians have questions, and it’s okay to wonder and speculate, and think about just how big our God really is.

    • SM

      Human beings having questions is not a new thing.
      The word of God is steadfast as is God and in Him there is no shifting sand. For someone to stand before you and lead they must at least have a good idea where they are going and be being lead themselves. If you want to sit down to coffee and talk about confusing things, or have a study that opens your mind to confusion or listen to a lecture that brings to the front all the confusion you experience or feel then you want something other than to study the Word. For in Christ there is no confusion. Every human being has questions whether or not they can voice them but the pulpit is not the place for voicing them. How do you feel in just speculating about how big God is? The fact is you can actually worship exactly how big God is for when you are in Christ you are in the presence of God and God will reveal to you just the right amount of Himself. Jesus provides answers to life’s questions, He provides hope and He provides direction. He does not leave you alone with hour questions. If I speak to you of things that magnify your doubt, or erode your faith or emphasize your fear then I do you a disservice for there are a multitude of things that will call, tempt, detour, side-track, pull, divert, disrupt, shake-up, confuse and send astray those who choose to live by a different code, a different way, a different life than what this earthly life has to offer.

      • Enlightening, SM. I’m beginning to see the uncanny chasm between those who fear deeper questions as a door to “magnifying doubt” the “erosion of faith” and the “emphasis of fear” and those who seek deeper and harder questions in the hope of growing closer to Jesus, closer to love, and closer to truth. When I read the great thinkers and saints of history (Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Hildegard, Newton, Einstein, Francis, Pascal, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, John of the Cross….) it’s pretty clear that deeper questions lead to deeper love and a more profound relationship with the creative Spirit of the universe. I think that those who believe they have nailed “the answers” (and can explain everything over coffee) would do well to allow their cherished reality to be occasionally “side-tracked, diverted, disrupted, and shaken-up” by those who are still learning how to love.

        • SM

          Again the broader point is misunderstood. That one wants to hear the profound message of Jesus and be satisfied in faith does not or is not synonymous with the lack of investigating the deeper questions of life, love and the Spirit of God. That one necessarily stands upon a firm and solid foundation is not synonymous with “nailing” the answers. This comment eludes the specific point that one should be discerning with whom one chooses to follow. The words of Mr. Bell are hardly consistent or on par with those of Kierkegaard, Pascal, St. John of the Cross, Therese of Avila or the like. Where those writings serve to compel one more deeply to their faith his cause a kind of diffusion if thought, a confusion and distract from faith as well as deeper meaning. Feeling mesmerized is not the same as being engaged and energized in faith although one could argue that feeling energized is engaging.

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  • Scharl

    So are you saying for us to be relevant, we need to compromise. Rob Bell writes what his readers want to hear, whether theres truth in it or not. Its not about the truth but about book sales. These are last kind of people we need as Christian leaders.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful reply and the clarifications on what you meant in terms of Rob’s teaching style/performance/etc. It helps me to understand what you have experienced and observed and how that’s forming your take on him and your concerns about the church.
    This has been helpful to me in learning that I do sometimes react to a layer of meaning that hits me when I read something– especially something I am passionate about, or about a person I value– and could miss exactly what the writer is saying. So thanks for the reminder to read more carefully before I respond.

    I come from a background and seminary where it seemed that the main goal was to help us believe a set of things that were “biblical” and then defend those against people who were against the faith.
    For me, Bell, McLaren and others, including my daughter have lately challenged some of my longheld views. Though rattling,…it’s been a good process for me. My hope isn’t to make God more into what I want or what fits the cultural climate but to represent God and truth well and as honestly as I can– in a way that makes sense in our time and culture. On some issues, I’ve come to realize that I’ve been missing the point or assuming that Scripture taught something that isn’t there– beyond a surface reading of the text. It’s a journey for me! Thanks for the encouragement to hang in on the conversation.

    • Susan Frederick

      Don Elser, your comments have meant the most to me. I wonder how much of Rob Bell’s teaching some of the other commenters have actually heard. I also wonder if they have actually read his latest book or if they are just opining with very limited knowledge of him. In my own spiritual economy, I have concluded that before I can accurately evaluate a person (or their teaching) I must first love them. And to love them I must know them. Your comments reflect a genuine appreciation and love for Rob Bell. Thank you for your honesty, your humility, and your openness to continuing the journey.

      • Thanks for your kind comments, Susan. Wow. Your comment about accurately evaluating a person (or their teaching) by first loving them (the prerequisite being knowing them) was a powerful reminder to me in a situation where I feel I have been less than gracious to a couple of leaders. The loving/knowing part provides a good filter for me to extend grace, try to more carefully listen/understand and to want the person’s best and goodness for them in God– vs. being snarky, dismissing people and being judgemental. Thank you for the way you put that. I think it will stick with me in some powerful ways this week and ideally help keep me more humble and loving. I’m sure this wasn’t your intent, but it seemed like something that the Spirit underscored for me as I read. Grateful.

    • SM

      It’s a journey for each of us!
      I appreciate your expression of patience and kindness in the various comments you have made with these blogs as well as your leadership in the art of flexibility.
      How can we discuss something so critical as the inclusion or exclusion of a practice of persons whether by design gone errant or deliberate into our conventions of faith and life if we are polarized by either our liberty or conservation. The issue that started this blog was the tantalizing poke at David Fitch’s Facebook comment in response to Rob Bell’s pronouncement by Tony Jones. Whether this was posted just to stir the pot as it were or to cause genuine discussion I have no idea but it is clear that our passions can be provoked and we can be polarized over many an issue. Interestingly enough this particular issue is not new in history. The severe puritanical view is itself a reaction of sorts to the cultural milieu of its time as is the abandon of our day. And yet, the word of God remains the same. We change, we shift, we grow, we bend but we do so along a great design that is remarkably stable. We can be assured of a firm foundation in our faith and we can be assured of a steadfast, patient and loving God.
      I mentioned earlier the books by Frances Schaeffer which have been updated by Nancy Pearcy and Charles Colson (Total Truth) because they can provide direction here. It may be necessary to challenge many of the practices and positions long held by the church but it does not necessarily follow that Biblical practices are errant or that the Bible is not a solid wealth of information and guidance given to us by God for our use in our search for a meaningful relationship with God who created us and all that is.
      As I prayerfully considered your response and words and any further comment I might add I received the follow up comment by Susan Frederick. I am certain her aim is to reinforce and lift you up but as you might see there are a number of assumptions in her statement presuming something for which she has given a delicate defense. Here is the problem with it, she misses the point of the conversation. First of all, I have never met John, Paul, Moses, David or Malachi, etc. and yet I am persuaded by their words, maybe its because I know and love God. Hmmm. Let me try another example: I have never met Corrie Ten Boom, Henri Nouwen, Theres of Avila, Nancy Pearcey, Peter Kreeft or Martin Luther King and yet I am pursuaded by their words. Could it be that it is not my love for them that persuades me but my love of God and the ability to reason together that He imbibed me with.
      I appreciate that we can reason together for it is in reasoning that we will come together for our passions create an immeasurable distance especially in the area of sexuality.
      My comments are largely dispassionate as I am well aware that each of us including Rob Bell are simply human beings with vulnerabilities and frailties that cause us to attract and detract from one another. Although, my concern has been for those of us who might be confused and frustrated with feeling manipulated. And, for those who might not be grounded or anchored in their faith going to and fro with “sundry” and various whims which is a devastating path to be on and unnecessary. For there is a firm foundation built in Jesus, sustained throughout history and time and upon which all of us, yes even gay people, even criminals, even politicians, can rely.
      Thank for the dialogue

  • Thank you for this refreshingly fair assessment of Bell’s work. I would not be in seminary or actively engaged in the emergent conversation, if it were not for my exposure to Rob Bell. Surely, I wish he (and others) would engage with the larger conversation going on in post-modern Christianity, but isn’t it incredible how quickly we jump to cynicism?

  • Accountable to his readers?!? What about accountability to God, His revealed will in His Word & accountable to a group of spiritually minded people who have an evident walk w God. You mavericks of the emergent church love to throw stones at all things tried and true but lack the discernment that the quest of Biblical holiness requires.

    • ER

      “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel… Malachi 2:16
      Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery….” Matthew 19:8
      “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” Leviticus 18:22
      “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another… God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion…” Romans 1:24-27

    • Alan

      “Tried and true”? Not that was funny!

  • Robs accountability is to God! His “take” on Christianity is very refreshing! And very necessary in this day and age. All of us are Gods children, yet we have let the church become divided- a ” your either with us or against us” mentality and culture. Gods message to love and care, and comfort, the sick, the poor, the less fortunate, has been forgotten. It seems now that we think ” once we are in the Christian club” our work is done. We are saved and going to Heaven! I believe Rob is trying to remind us of Gods calling to his children: love your fellow man! Care for your fellow man! Shine Gods beacon of love to your fellow man! For he that does for the least of me does also to me!

    I know it is hard for us to give up our judging and condemning ways. But those ways are a sin no greater or no less than being A thief, or a lire, or prideful, or jealous. And yes even Gay!

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