Love Wins (#2) -Rob Bell and the new evangelicals

Sunday, May 08, 2011


In my last post I discussed the intro and first chapter of Rob Bell's new book Love Wins where he begins by asking some really important and challenging questions about the messed up way many of us have come to see God. The book has gotten a LOT of media attention, debuting at #2 on the NY Times Best Seller List, and making the cover of Time Magazine. So for any of you evangelicals like me who thought that we were a small fringe minority in our wresting with these things, this is a big wake up call that you are not alone. This book, and the questions it raises is obviously resonating with a whole lot of people out there. Bell and other Evangelicals like him (names like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Jay Bakker, Greg Boyd all come to mind) are part of the new face of evangelicalism, and that of course has gotten those from the old (grumpy) guard pretty mad. It also has a lot of liberals confused because we don't fit into their cliche of what an evangelical is supposed to be (mean spirited, judgmental, unconcerned about the poor, anti-gay, etc.). They are left scratching their heads: "So what is an evangelical if they are not those things?" they ponder.

The back of Bell's book has a quote from Andy Crouch in the New York Times where he writes, "Rob Bell is a central figure for his generation and for the way that evangelicals are likely to do church in the next twenty years." Yet to others, Bell has left the evangelical fold all together. John Piper declared as much with the tweet "Farewell, Rob Bell." Similarly, many liberals are wondering what the difference is between what Bell says and good old liberal Christianity? Lisa Miller of Newsweek asks Bell in a recent interview "Aren’t you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical?" I'd like to offer a response to that question here. I don't pretend to speak for Rob here. This is my own answer to why I continue to identify as evangelical:

The controversy with Bell's book has to do with the doctrinal claims it makes. So those who have spoken out against it are doing so based on saying that it says things that are wrong. The focus is on Truth with a big T, on authoritative doctrinal correctness. This focus on black and white right or wrongness is also characteristic of how traditional evangelicals understand morality and ethics. Their focus is on the "thou shalt nots," i.e. on opposing certain behavior that they see as immoral. So they say X is wrong, and people who practice X are a threat to the to moral fabric of our society. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks yourself.

On the other hand you have the way that liberal Christians (not to be confused with secular liberals) do morality and ethics. Instead of being focused on right and wrong, their focus is on compassion. This does not mean that everything is okay. They would insist that many things are really hurtful and bad, but that our response should be one of grace: We should be seeking rehabilitation and reconciliation, not retribution.

One focuses on something being either right or wrong, and then condemning the wrong. The other may agree completely that it is wrong, but still focus on a response of compassion because the goal is to mend and restore people--even the screw-ups and failures like us. This caries over into theology too: one focuses on saying what they think is the truth about God. The other may agree with these doctrines, but places a priority on communicating grace, and realizes that if something is said without love, without compassion, without sensitivity, that is can actaully give a wrong picture of who God is. This is at the heart of Jesus' critique of the Pharisees. Truth without love leads to a dead faith. As Paul says "If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2).

Of these two ways of doing ethics (and theology), the later is clearly more Christ-like. As far as this goes I fall very much in the liberal Christian camp, meaning that while I may agree most of the time with the doctrinal conclusions of traditional evangelicalism, I think that compassion is often absent from how they do theology and ethics, and to the extent and degree that it is absent, it is heretical and wrong. It is heretical and wrong because it gives a false witness about God, and pulls people away from faith. It's wrong because it hurts people, and thus opposes God's purpose. I use that word "heretical" here very intentionally, because while people are quick to say that wrong doctrinal formulations are "heretical," I would maintain that what is far more heretical and damaging is for people to say things in a heartless and unloving way. Why don't we see those people brought up on heresy trials? Why don't we see those people fired from their position in a seminary? Why is our criteria not focused on being Christ-like? That's a completely wrong priority. Yet so many of my fellow evangelicals seem completely oblivious to this point, even though it is blatantly obvious to pretty much everyone else.

So you might ask at this point: aren't you just a liberal Mainliner then? As far as this broad approach of compassion goes, I am. But there is something crucial that is missing here: I do not think that Christianity is primarily about affirming certain doctrines or adopting a certain set of ethical principles. It is about having a personal life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. That focus on relationship with God is and always has been the core of evangelical faith. That is the gospel. This is what being born again is all about. It is the foundation from which all Christian ethics stems.

In the evangelical churches I have been a part of (and for what it is worth, they were pentecostal/charismatic ones of that makes any difference) this has always been the central focus. You can hear it in the worship choruses we sing, in the focus on personal prayer, devotional reading of Scripture, and of course the many alter calls. Yet to those on the outside, you might miss this. From the outside it seems all we talk about is the wrong/right morality issues. On our church webpages you will find Statement of Beliefs which focus on affirming orthodox doctrinal statements. Now, once you are on the inside you will meet with this focus on a warm and living faith that flows into acceptance, support, love. But if you are on the outside looking in, you will encounter this focus on "right/wrong" which takes the shape of threats, condemnation, and (if the person you are speaking with gets frustrated with you) mean-spirited judgement. It's all very bi-polar, but goes a long way to understanding why evangelicals are perceived as a bunch of heartless, judgmental, jerks.

For a long long time a big part of the church (usually the part with political power on its side) has been really focused on right doctrine--on finding absolute authoritative infallible truth. Heck, they burned people at the stake for making doctrinal statements they thought were wrong. Today theology professors still get fired from seminaries for having the "wrong" beliefs, and these "wrong beliefs" are exactly what Rob Bell is being attacked for. But look at the people who are calling him that. What are their fruits? As Bell has said, "When you hear the word 'Christian,' do you immediately think 'oh yeah, the people who never stop talking about God's love for everybody'? ...or... do a number of other images and associations come to mind?" We evangelicals are not known for being loving to a fault. We are known for a merciless focus on being right. In other words, we have the same reputation now as the Pharisees in the NT.

So again, I want to retain that vibrant focus on intimately knowing the Spirit of Christ relationally, and of having that love and grace change who I am. But I want to lose the focus on heartless moralism, and instead focus on compassion and grace. I think that focus of compassion fits much much better with that living relationship. But I don't really find that in Mainline liberal churches. Maybe its because they are worried about sounding too much like evangelicals (a four-letter word to them). Maybe its some other reason. Maybe there are people who do have a vibrant personal relationship with God, but who just never talk about it. I don't know. But I do know that it is something that you will hardly ever hear in liberal Mainline churches. The focus is very much on ethics and compassion--on adopting principles. So while I agree with those principles, it is not enough. It is not the core, the heart of what faith is about. I miss that there.

So from all that, I would like to propose that what makes a new evangelical is that we retain the focus on a living transforming relationship with God, but that we have a way of thinking about theology, and of ethics which is rooted in compassion and grace. Rob begins his dialog with Lisa Miller with a brief sermonette where he says that we have "lost the plot" of the gospel which he defines simply as "God is love and sent Jesus to show us this love, that we might know this love, and extend it to others." There's that focus on relationship again: "Knowing God's love," and there it is right alongside of a focus on compassion "and extend it to others."

I want to stress that I do not want to say here that doctrine or morality are unimportant. I think they are tremendously important in fact, and I'm sure Rob does too. I also am not saying I agree with everything Rob Bell says in his book. I disagree with him on a lot of things (which I think is a good and healthy thing). But what I see him doing primarily is recognizing as a pastor that people are being hurt by the way these doctrines present God, and wanting to address that hurt. His is a pastoral focus rather than an exegetical one (in other words a relational focus, rather than a detached intellectual one), and I think it is in fact a much more important focus to have when interpreting the Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without that pastoral/relational focus, it is not possible to do proper exegesis. In many ways, to be a so-called "new evangelical" is to get that.

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13 Comments:

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Andrew Tweedy said...

Good thoughts Derek. My thinking has shifted on a number of issues over the last three or four years - mainly sexuality, atonement and hell - and I've been helped by you and the authors you mention, amongst others. Over the same period the label "evangelical" has become increasingly synonymous with "intolerant", "blinkered", "judgmental" and so on. Its a pain having to qualify what you mean by evangelical, but I won't give up my badge without a fight because I'd say I'm more evangelical now than when I toed the party line on those issues.

 
At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Andrew,

You know the big debt I owe to the evangelical church is that was where I met Jesus, that was where I heard for the first time that I could know God personally in an intimate loving relationship. I am profoundly grateful for that "evangelical" emphasis. But the more time I spend with Jesus, being loved by him, learning to think like him, the more I move away from those cliches of being judgmental and intolerant and the more I move towards radical grace. Those characteristics of intolerance and judgment just don't fit with the very real experience of knowing Jesus and Lord and friend and savior. There is a huge gap between the reality of that relationship with God, and the rigid and loveless theology (and actions) which sadly often characterize us evangelicals.

I am completely convinced that the ONLY way to correctly do theology, and interpret Scripture is from the perspective of grace. Yet so much of conservative evangelical theology and biblical interpretation (and in particular hyper-Calvinism), seems to be done by people who have no idea what grace looks like, and who do not exhibit grace in their lives. I think people like that have no business teaching, let alone being the ones who establish statements of faith and such. Those folks have no right to represent the evangelical faith, because they apparently still need to experience God's love in their lives. What makes someone evangelical is that they have been encountered and transformed by the gospel, by grace.

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger Acolyte4236 said...

Compassion without principle is not compassion. The NT seems just fine with maintaining strict doctrinal standards and teaches that by doing so one can “save” oneself and others.

The church focused on right doctrine long before the Constantinian period. And having political power doesn’t imply that their emphasis is wrong. In practice most evangelicals and their leaders care very little for doctrine. This is measure din their watering down of doctrine, not to mention how in practice they deal with heterodox members or leaders. There are few if any significant consequences.

To look at the deficiencies of the accusers of Bell says little or nothing as to the veracity of the charges. And besides, Bell himself notes that his view is historically heterodox.

It helps to balance out the bad rap that Pharisees get in the NT with their faithfulness in Maccabees. And lest we not forget, plenty of Jesus’ followers were Pharisees.

And compassion and grace for those in the church are for those who are penitent. Bell doesn’t seem penitent in the least.

There is nothing principally detached about an intellectual approach. If anything, Evangelicals have been soft in this area. As Mark Noll famously concluded in his The Evangelical Mind, there isn’t one.

 
At 2:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Wow Acolyte, I think I disagreed with every single point you made here. I don't know where to even start.

Let's sum up: you say the NT teaches we are saved through doctrine, and that whether a person is loving or not does not matter so long as they have this "right" doctrine. Next you defend the Pharisees (huh?), and say we should only have compassion towards those who are repentant, and presumably should be unloving to those who disagree with us.

You conclude by saying that an intellectual approach is not detached, but everything you say sounds profoundly detached from love. What I read here is a perspective utterly devoid of love, and as a result I do not recognize it as Christianity at all. It frankly sounds atheistic.

 
At 3:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me add here that looking at your profile, it appears that you are Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox church has always stressed that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inseparable. In fact, orthodoxy when properly understood means "right worship," and right worship entails first and foremost loving God. We cannot say we love God if we do not love others. The main way we demonstrate love for God is in how we love others, especially those we consider to be the least, those we despise. That is the measure of our orthodoxy. One's orthodoxy is measured in units of grace.

Jesus says to us that his command is "to love as I have loved you" (Jn 14). Enemy love (not love of the pentinent only which as Jesus says "even sinners do", but loving sinners and enemies) is therefore absolutely central to what it means to be orthodox, i.e. what it means to rightly worship God revealed in Christ. I do not see that emphasis in your above post, and therefore what you say strikes me as deeply unorthodox, and unlike what I have come to appreciate about the usual focus of the EO church.

Let me say again, I am not saying that I agree with everything Bell says, but I do think his focus on grace over rigid adherence to doctrinal statements is a deeply important point to understand of we care about reaching the lost.

 
At 11:01 AM, Blogger Acolyte4236 said...

Derek,

I think it is something of a caricature to say that I said that doctrine saves. I simply stated what Paul says in 1 Tim 4:16. How would you interpret what Paul is saying there?

Love apart from truth means little and the NT joins these, as Paul says, love rejoices with the truth.

I didn’t seek to defend the Pharisees, but rather to contextualize them and to be fair. Not all of them were wrong. They wouldn’t have had to had a trial at night if they were.

Compassion within the context of the church, which is a visible society of people, turns on penitence. Those that refuse are to be handed over to Satan, as Paul says. Being loving to those impenitent doesn’t imply being “nice.” So my view is more fine grained than I think you grant, and more directly biblical.

If everything I say sounds profoundly detached from love, then the NT is so as well. Paul is quite clear, as is Peter and the other apostles about casting out those who are impenitent. (How is schism and excommunication even possible on your view, I have to wonder.) That’s Scripture, not me. And the Church Fathers and Councils say nothing less. It seems you would have it that the whole church has apostatcized which frankly sounds atheistic.

Yes, I am Orthodox and I am well aware that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not separable. Orthodoxy also means true glory along with right worship. Surely right worship and the true glory entails loving God, but none of that entails allowing impenitents to the eucharist or any such thing. The keys of the kingdom exist for a reason. (John 20:19-23) Loving my children doesn’t mean I do not do things that they do not like. Love and pleasure are not co-extensive. God chastises those whom he loves.

Jesus does command us to love, but Jesus also cleansed the temple with a whip, told his disciples to buy swords and such, and talked about certain people being cast out of the kingdom, sending in armies to destroy their city and such. Do you suppose Jesus was unloving in doing so?

Bell needs a fuzzier picture because he needs it to shoe horn in his heterodoxy. As you noted, orthodoxy and orthopraxy go together and so strict adherence to right teaching is just as important as one’s life. It is both-and, not either/or. If you haven’t found that to be true in Orthodoxy, then you’ve never been Orthodox.

In short, I think what you’ve written depends on a caricature of what I said and seems to fail to engage the biblical material I referred or alluded to. It’d be helpful to give me a more charitable reading in the future and try to imagine how I am thinking of it.

 
At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Acolyte,

I'd like to remind you that you are the one visiting my blog here. So if anyone needs to give a "more charitable reading" it would be you as the visiting guest here. Your initial comment basically launched into a rebuttal of my post, a critique of it. I do not feel that you really made an attempt to understood any of the points I was trying to make. If you would instead like to have a dialog where we both try and understand the other's perspective, we can do that, but the place to start would be for you, as the visiting guest, to begin by attempting to understand where I am coming from, rather than launching into a rebuke.

As to the content of your last post, I agree that doctrine is important (as I have said here repeatedly) but would reverse your motto, making instead read "truth apart from love means little" which is clearly the stress made by the NT.

What Bell is doing is asking questions based on compassion for the lost which challenge the traditional doctrine on Hell. To call him "impenitent" for this, and therefore suggest that he should be barred from communion, excommunicated, and "handed over to Satan" and so on is completely inappropriate. It is inappropriate because it is not at all clear that Bell has anything he needs to repent of. Should he repent for caring for the lost? Should he repent for having hope in God's ability to overcome our foolishness? What sin has he committed?

The context in which Paul says a brother should be "handed over to Satan" is when that person was having sex with their mother in law (and even then Paul eventually councils that he be restored into fellowship, presumably after he repented). Bell is doing nothing of the sort. What he is doing is very similar to the kind of thing that Jesus did. Jesus challenged the way that the religious leaders of his time were interpreting the law because it was blocking people from God's love and healing. This got Jesus into a lot of trouble. He was called a blasphemer, and a "friend of sinners" and in league with the devil. To excommunicate Bell for challenging these doctrines means that we do not have room for people to ask the same kind of questions and challenges to the religious establishment-- questions motivated by compassion--that Jesus was known for.

You give the example of Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip. Consider the context there: Jesus is not disciplining an individual who has a heterodox view. He is taking a whip to the temple, to the church, to the religious institution, to tradition gone astray. From this we can see that not only are individuals in need of repentance, but our traditions and systems of authority can be too. If we do not allow a place for those questions to be asked, then we can expect for Jesus to come with a whip into the church and kick over our tables. That is the context of that story.

 
At 3:00 AM, Anonymous Lele said...

Hi Derek,

I just want you to know how much I appreciate the things you're writing about. They've been an encouragment to me as I don't feel like I'm alone anymore. I write from Italy and I'm training to be a Baptist minister here. Situation in Italy either with Protestant and with evangelical is even more frustating than in the States I believe, but people like you, like Shane Claiborne, or John Perkins, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and many others are encourgaging me and other people who believe that there is another way beside that of liberalism and fundamentalism. Thank you very much for your blog and I'm looking forward to read your book when you'll finish it.

Many blessings,
Lele

 
At 3:09 AM, OpenID creativelovetheism said...

Hi Derek,

Thanks for this post on Rob Bell and your views on a compassionate evangelicalism. As a small'e' evangelical who is struggling to remain in a big "E" evangelical church, I believe that a compassionate orthopraxis is more important than a rigid orthodoxy.

I heartily concur with your views on this topic and thank you for the kindness displayed in your many blog posts.

Shalom,
John Arthur

 
At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Lele,

Thanks for your encouraging post, it's great to hear I have readers in Italy :)

 
At 4:18 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks John,
I really like the focus of your blog (non-academic, contemplative, ethical, Anabaptist...). I look forward to browsing through it!

 
At 8:38 PM, OpenID creativelovetheism said...

Hi Derek,

Thanks,

John Arthur

 
At 7:26 PM, Blogger Morgan Guyton said...

Dude, let me raise that one step higher. It's not just that our relationship with Christ is more important than doctrine. It's not just that doctrine has been abused. We are living through a time of rampant heresy in which doctrine has become the same idolatrous substitution for Jesus' atoning sacrifice that the formulaic sacramental system was in late medieval Catholicism. I call it doctrinal Pelagianism. Here's a piece I wrote about it: http://wp.me/p1zbcB-2J.

Orthodoxy is orthodoxy only because and insofar as it leads to the orthopraxis of mercy: http://wp.me/p1zbcB-1J.

Doctrine is just as important as sacraments are and just as deadly when turned into an idol.

What Jesus saves us from is the need to be right: http://wp.me/p1zbcB-E. That's why he calls the Pharisees "sons of hell" in Matthew 23. Their way of living IS hell. It is that need to win every argument and defend every action which makes sin imprisoning. Whether we're Pharisees, drunks, or snotty teenagers, self-justification is what binds us in hell. Without atonement, we have no way of processing our mistakes openly and honestly. The cross gives us the freedom to face our ugliness and ask God to take it away.

Sorry to be pimping out links to my blog, but you and I are on the same page, bro!!!

 

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