Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on JohnPavlovitz.com and first ran here in 2014. Bell recently released a new book, “What Is the Bible?”
It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own.
This unsettling expression is all-too true, and apparently Rob Bell is on the menu yet again.
For a people whose go-to ideas are love for God and love for others, we Christians can be pretty horrible toward one another, especially to those of us who attain any sort of position in the larger culture.
Yes, Christians will root like crazy for one of their own to reach the masses on their way up, but once they do, Christians will often as willingly and passionately go about the work of ripping them from their lofty positions; discrediting them, ridiculing them, shaming and shunning them in the process.
Churches, as with so many other spheres of life, love to love you when your star is rising, and few in modern times have risen faster or higher. A decade ago, Rob Bell was a flat-out Christian Rock Star.
He was the guy on the conference speaker circuit, his megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church was a blockbuster, and his thought-provoking short films were staples of every young adult ministry in the country. He was known as a wise, engaging, creative, articulate teacher of the Bible; someone who was speaking about Jesus with a fresh voice that people in and outside of the Church resonated with.
He had a rabid army of fellow believers who hung on every word he uttered, who lapped-up every morsel he tossed them, who cheered him on like a local kid making the Bigs. For a while, it was a Christian Bubble love fest.
Then something happened.
Rob Bell “sinned.”
But his offense wasn’t a moral lapse of any kind. It wasn’t an abuse of power or a sexual transgression or some financial misdeed, or any sort of ministry impropriety. (These had been, and continue to be the hallmark of so many Evangelical leaders, so that would be natural to assume).
Rob Bell’s “sin”, was that he didn’t stick to the script. He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain. He went rogue and everything went South, (or rather, went to Hell).
The relationship turned toxic when Bell wrote a book called Love Wins, in which he challenged the idea of Hell; a seemingly untouchable, immoveable pillar of the Christian worldview. In the book, Bell asked some questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God, and he examined matters of life and faith that had become foregone conclusions to most believers.
In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people to ask the questions. He set a table for a conversation. He invited inquisition.
In many parts of modern Evangelical Christian subculture, that’s simply not something to be tolerated. It wasn’t long before Rob Bell was being crucified by his peers.
Pastors began stepping over one another to speak out against his dangerous teachings. Bloggers churned out post after post lamenting his tragic, heretical detours. Conferences stopped booking him, well-known allies began distancing themselves and, before too long, Bell was a virtual leper to his own community; the same community that had carried him proudly to prominence just months earlier.
Rob Bell became a dirty word in church circles; a punchline, a pariah.
As so often happens in the modern Church, he was intentionally and mercilessly pushed to the margins of the Christian community, just a few feet from irrelevance. There he would be left to languish for a few months before hopefully dissolving into obscurity.
Only Bell didn’t do what his critics wanted.
He didn’t tearfully repent and beg to get his club membership renewed. He didn’t fade into oblivion. He didn’t fall apart or fight back. As so many of his brethren mercilessly attacked him, he simply turned around, stepped out and spoke to those who would still listen.
It turns out, there are a lot of people still listening.
Bell’s resurgence has come at the hands of worldwide media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who has given Bell a prominent position on her network, and provided him a new and massive platform; the kind that many Christian leaders, bloggers, and writers would give up houses, kids, and arms for, if they’re honest with themselves.
And this has brought the critics out of the woodwork once again. The same Christian people who treated him so horribly now act like he’s abandoning them.
The critiques of his recent crossover to pop rival the Nashville pushback against Taylor Swift. Supposed Biblical purists, (you know, the “Love God, Love people”, people), have bent over backwards to take their shots at his motives and his methods. They’ve dissected his interviews as a lawyer parses a legal document looking for loopholes.
Bell’s been maligned for softening the Gospel; for crafting a “new age,” “feel good,” “bastardized” version of Christianity that is theologically neutered and built for mass consumption. He’s been vilified and demonized for perverting the message of Jesus to grow his brand.
Bell’s been doing something very brave. Something many pastors overseeing churches in this country would never do, but many in their congregations wish they would do.
He’s admitting the real questions that surface in the excavation of deep faith. He’s looking to separate what in this religion is of God and what is of people. He’s asking why we believe what we believe, and asking believers to do the same.
These are somehow unforgivable offenses to the “forgiving people”.
It all illustrates the sad state of the core of Evangelical Christianity in America, and why more and more people outside of it want no part of it.
Of course it’s fine to disagree with Rob Bell. He has invited disagreement many times. You might think he has reached the wrong conclusion. That’s not the problem.
The problem isn’t when Christians disagree, it’s when they lose the ability to disagree without dialogue. It’s when they lose the ability to welcome diversity of thought. The Church has become a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and a singular understanding of God and Scripture.
There are two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy.
The moment that anyone, however prayerful or thoughtful or earnest they may be, comes to a conclusion other than what has been defined as acceptable, they get kicked to the curb. As some Christian leaders cling tighter and tighter to one, narrow narrow faith tradition, they expel anyone who doesn’t check all the right boxes, who doesn’t say all the right words in all the right ways using all the right Bible verses.
Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.
He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.
This was the pastor who launched his megachurch’s first year by working line by line through Leviticus; possibly the most confounding, least user-friendly, most challenging Biblical book to make sense of in our modern culture. Definitely not something a novice would go near.
That’s the heart of the problem here. Rob Bell was and is, a bright, reasonable, thoughtful pastor, whose extensive exploration of the Scriptures, and whose life and ministry have yielded for him lots of questions, and some answers that far too many Christians just don’t want to deal with.
It isn’t as if he suddenly became less knowledgable about the Bible. It’s not as though he unlearned everything he ever knew about ancient Greek and Hebrew language. He didn’t become less intelligent or less creative or less authentic or less hungry for God.
He’s simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really sets off some members of his community.
Christian leaders, those in your buildings and outside their walls are more like Rob Bell than you may want them to be. They’re genuinely looking for God, and they aren’t afraid of the difficult questions as they search. They don’t run from the tension between what they read in the Bible and what they experience every day. They’re looking for a sturdy, useable faith that stands up to scrutiny, and a Church that allows space for grey and gives real grace in it.
They’re looking for a faith community that doesn’t dismiss and eliminate and destroy those whose conclusions don’t all line up neatly with the party line. They want to be part of a people who seek and wrestle and coexist, even in the questions.
They’re looking to find Jesus in the way Christians deal with one another.
One wonders what the response to Rob Bell is teaching them about the Church.
It’s probably not good.
This article originally appeared on JohnPavlovitz.com and has been republished here with the author’s permission.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.