Rob Bell, a provocative – and popular – evangelical pastor with a large following among younger adults, has created some heated conversation among evangelicals with his upcoming book, “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” While I have not yet read Bell’s book, the reaction he is getting from supporters and detractors within evangelicalism suggests that many of the topics he considers are challenging some long-held doctrines in the largely conservative movement.
However, I’m less concerned with Bell’s arguments than with the kinds of responses he is receiving. As reported in the New York Times, leading evangelical John Piper, of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis wrote, rather cryptically, “Farewell, John Bell.” Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that a promotional video put out by Bell asking if it can be true that Mahatma Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, was the “sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”
No matter what you think of Bell’s arguments (and I look forward to reading them for myself), the dismissive responses of some of his critics points to a particularly troubling way of being church. This way is marked by a careful drawing of the lines that constitute “orthodoxy,” lines that, once drawn, serve to define who is or is not a “true believer.” Those whose views do not fit within the lines are no longer welcome at the table.
There is a place for orthodoxy. A community of faith is by definition a community that shares certain common beliefs and commitments. The question for me is whether those lines are drawn widely or narrowly, and whether, once drawn, they are forever closed to reform. I belong to a tradition that lives by the motto “Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” a motto which suggests at least an openness to the work of the Spirit in helping us interpret God’s Word for our own time, even if this means challenging human constructions of “orthodoxy.” We do continue to believe, after all, that God is bigger than human thoughts can conceive.
Which is why it is troubling to see a group right now in the Presbyterian Church USA (my denomination), calling for consideration of presbyteries (regional groupings of congregations) created or re-organized to reflect persons of “like minds.” In other words, presbyteries would be organized not by geography, but by certain shared views. There would be, according to their vision it seems, “liberal” presbyteries and “conservative” presbyteries. We could focus on mission, they say, because we would stop spending all our time disagreeing about things like theology and social issues. We would get along because we would all be of “like mind.” They call themselves, ironically enough, “The Fellowship.”
I can’t think of a more horrendous vision for the church of Jesus Christ or one more antithetical to the clear call passages like 1 Corinthians 12-13. At a time when our culture is polarized more and more along lines of politics and ideology, the mainline church in North America provides a much needed witness to the power of unity-in-diversity. To give in to a hopelessness that suggests it is not possible for Christians to live and work together in unity, despite our differences, is to me an affront to Christ.
Rob Bell is learning the hard way what can happen when the lines are drawn hard and fast. If things go badly for him in his own denomination, I invite him to consider the Presbyterians. We still allow for a healthy give and take. We still value different opinions. We still believe God’s Spirit can reform us. We still believe the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”
At least for now…