If you’re moderately immersed in American church/Christian culture, you’ve likely heard by now the hubbub (or really, firestorm) related to Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” This post will NOT be about the book itself. Rather, I’ll make some brief comments about the nature of the discourse – how it has unfortunately become a controversy instead of a conversation. If you need a brush-up on the details, Mars Hill Church (Seattle) of the famous and hard-hitting Mark Driscoll – funnily enough, Bell’s church in Grand Rapids, MI is also called Mars Hill – published a clear and unbiased chronology (complete with article and video links) about the “Rob Bell and Hell” issue.
Let me start by saying that if it matters in any sense, I extend forgiveness to any figures I find fault with. I don’t mean that in a condescending fashion (that they owe me an apology) – I mean it in a spirit of grace, hoping that we can all speak with one even when criticizing others.
There obviously two things to be considered. First is the substance or content of Bell’s claims. I will address that only briefly at the end because it isn’t the point of my post. Second however is the quality and tone of the conversation. By that I mean it has not been a conversation, it has been mostly anger and disrespect.
I have been largely frustrated by the emotions and tone that many church leaders or opinionators have. Jesus tells us in Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29” But most of what I’ve heard is angry and judgmental.
I was saddened by the original flag-raising post by Justin Taylor from the Gospel Coalition. I don’t actually disagree at all with the theological concerns he raises, but the tone he used was dismissive and self-confident which is implicitly condemning – and nobody at this point had even read the book (Taylor included). Again, I agree (and agreed at that time) with the concerns or questions he had, even about the potentially false doctrine coming from Bell as a pastor. But Taylor’s tone was haughty and conscending. It is unfortunate and ironic to me that on his own info page he discusses the value of comments (from readers presumably) as follows:
I hope this can be a place where we “seek understanding” before critiquing, where we are quick to listen and slow to speak, where we judge others charitably, not critically, where we encourage and build up each other rather than tearing down and destroying each other.” (Justin Taylor’s “ABOUT” page)
He later amended his post by removing some dismissive words – some phrases were softened, and he removed a scriptural reference of 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, calling Bell a servant of “Satan who disguises himself as an angel of light.” He did not apologize for his tone or the condemning weight of the scripture he cited. I find this unfortunate, it makes me very sad.
I was also saddened and somewhat annoyed by the brief and inane post by Pastor John Piper – the renowned and influential man tweeted the extremely condescending preface of “Farewell Rob Bell” to Taylor’s post the same day. Furthermore, I was disappointed and shocked at the asininity from a figure as eminent, respected, and influential as John Piper! Of all men to know the power of words and the responsibility to weigh them according to one’s God-given influence, came the most bizarrely cavalier of comments in the most inane of mediums. He has written and spoken great and Godly things which I have benefited from; I’m not sure this tweet is one of them.
Interestingly enough, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle – typically known as firebrand – was exceedingly calm about the whole issue. His only Twitter update pertaining to the Bell controversy was a question, less assuming simply “Rob Bell: Universalist” with a link to the same Taylor article. Even though Driscoll may have agreed with Taylor and be wary about Bell, at least his publicly-visible commentary was still one of openness. His response was ultimately a webpage explaining a critically-sound Biblical view of life, death, and hell. It is calm, does not fall into name-calling, even as it essentially refutes much of Bell’s content.
Obviously there are valid justifications for anger in certain circumstances which may be pertain to this situation, and I want to allow for them. Someone will inevitably state that Bell, as a pastor/teacher, is held to a higher standard (James 3:1, and so on). Thus, if Bell is teaching heterodoxy, other teachers who faithfully uphold scripture have the responsibility to come against Bell’s false teaching. And I agree with that. Some authors did – Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition (same site as Justin Taylor) wrote on multiple occasions about the issue, first here (still before the book’s release) and then he does a thorough book review here (20 pages in length).
Both times he is angry and a bit vitriolic, but I do think that at least he presents his direct scriptural reasons for his emotions. DeYoung’s tone is presented in a clear and unambiguous fashion (always prefaced by scripture and that he is concerned about false doctrine) and he even calls attention to the possible pitfalls of judgmentalism:
It is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments.
He explains his anger in a Biblical fashion and tells us that he is attempting to express it correctly for edification and correct teaching. He does the best job possible of explaining a Biblical and rhetorical framework within which his anger makes sense. He has given me his word that he is taking care to avoid judgmentalism and I take it as such. It helps also that he has the presence of mind to explain the issues before we go into the article. And he provides clear evidence from scripture and from Bell to make his points. Thus there is a right and a wrong way to uphold clear teaching in the false of false teachers.
I think that Taylor and Piper have done it the wrong way. Note that Taylor’s caveat or qualifiers come only at the end of his piece and after the firestorm has started – he is backtracking to soften his blows. Moreover, Taylor’s only scriptural reference (calling Bell a servant of Satan, which was redacted ultimately) is not presented to us as evidence to measure Bell by (e.g., scripture that clearly states the meaning and nature of hell to contradict Bell’s divergent ideas) but rather as judgmental justification. And of course Piper might say that he did not mean to be condescending or judgmental, but then he shouldn’t have reduced his words to a tweet in the first place.
All that said, I do recognize that even as we are to be vigilant about our words, sometimes we get carried away or we don’t recognize just how much attention they will draw. While I do hold these men to a higher standard as they are called and presume themselves teachers, I also give them grace for human errors. I am not calling any of these bloggers liars, I just mean that some of them called Bell out properly, and some did not.
Perhaps the most nuanced direct response to the controversy and the book comes from Christianity Today book review. It is not angry. It tries to affirm what is godly. And then it goes and lines it up with scripture and declares it wanting. But the author does so with love and grace even as he writes with truth. This is a right way to speak out against false teaching.
To end this, I quote Justin Taylor’s page:
I would encourage commenters to consider carefully the following commands and principles regarding our speech:
- “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).
- “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
- “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).
- “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
- Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15, 25).
- “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
I am praying that we all, even with right theology, would clearly and unambiguously explain ourselves but do so graciously. Let these be markers of all of us as we engage in conversation about loaded issues (whether this or any other one) instead of devolving into judgmental controversy.
For those who simply must know about my theological stance – I am a traditionalist. The author/proclamation that I ascribe to most closely without deviation is probably Tim Keller’s 2005 article on his Redeemer Church website, called “The importance of hell.” His scriptural highlighting and dealing with counterarguments is clear, concise, and well-constructed around the Bible both specifically in verses as well and overarchingly from the Biblical meta-narrative of who God is. He effectively defangs Bell’s assertions about hell; Bell says God lets people repent in hell and so don’t worry, but Keller points out that hell is the ultimate place for those who don’t want God. Repenting in hell is impossible, NOT because God doesn’t want them but they don’t want Him.