I have a confession to make: I don't agree with Rob Bell's teaching. There. I've said it. How did you react? Have you immediately pigeonholed me as someone who is a right wing/traditional/uptight Pharisee who needs help for my 'Bellophobia'? Have I already been found guilty of hate speech towards a Christian brother?
It's a serious accusation and one that needs to be dealt with as such. Because if it's true, then I am guilty of a dreadful sin and bringing disunity in the body of Christ. If it's not, the accusation can still be used to silence important discussion, because one sure fire way to silence Christians is to emotionally blackmail us via accusations of hate speech. It's not just Rob Bell, either. Express public disagreement with any Christian 'brother/sister' (unless they are some kind of perceived right wing nutcase) and eyebrows are raised, and keys typed. If the person concerned is famous, liked, been a blessing or a source of revenue, then it won't be too long before articles are written in defence and the 'hate' card is played. So lets look at how this 'game' is played out.
1) It's about personality rather than teaching - The allegation is that I hate Rob Bell for who he is, and that the teaching is secondary – almost an excuse for such unChristlike behavior. The truth is precisely the opposite. I don't hate Rob Bell because I don't know him; I have never met him and know very little about him. On the other hand, I hate his teaching, because even when it is good, it is poisoned with soul-destroying heresy. For me, it is the content of the teaching that is the only issue. A local Christian bookshop recently asked me if they should stock Rob Bell's books, to which my reply was straightforward. If you are a Christian bookshop desiring to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and help the local church, then why would you promote the writings of a man who denies the atonement, denies hell, denies Jesus' teaching about marriage, and can't even be bothered going to church?
2) It's hypocrisy against a Christian brother/sister - ah but comes the retort. You are quite happy to cite people like Russell Brand who is not a Christian, so why get upset about Bell, who says controversial things but is a Christian brother? But that again is precisely the point. Unlike Brand, Bell professes to be a teacher of Christianity. The Bible tells us that we are to hold those within the church to a different standard. Paul tells the Corinthians "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?" (1 Corinthians 5:12). James warns us that 'teachers' in the church face a stricter standard – "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1). I find it much easier to quote pagan poets than I do Christian heretics. Why? Because it is clear that I am not endorsing the former, whereas it is not clear that I am not endorsing the latter.
When a Christian magazine, writer or media outlet quotes/endorses/interviews a self professed Christian teacher who goes against the teaching of the Bible, they are implicitly stating that this heresy is one that is acceptable in Christian circles; that it is just one 'interpretation' of many. I regard that as profoundly dangerous. The trouble is that the minute you try and point that out, you are accused of being 'unloving', 'hateful' or 'a Pharisee'. Am I the only one who finds it strange that it's 'hateful' to say teaching that goes against the Bible is wrong, but calling someone a Pharisee isn't?
3) It's Judgemental - Lets deal with this Pharisee accusation. Words like 'orthodoxy' and 'doctrine' are used as indicative of a pharisaical mind-set and the opposite of the love of Christ. It implies that those who are speaking for orthodoxy are self-righteous, judgemental Pharisees. It questions whether there is such a thing as orthodoxy at all, and it implies that Bell's teaching is actually okay – people just have a problem with it because they don't like him personally. Or more subtly people will say, "Well of course I don't agree with Rob Bell, but I tolerate his controversial teaching". This has the double advantage of portraying the accuser as 'sound' and you as unloving. But it is all too easy to simply dismiss any concern about false teaching as hypocritical heresy hunting. Is there not a biblical balance? Does orthodoxy not just mean 'right belief'? Do we not all have our own 'orthodoxy? Is 'God is love' not an orthodox belief? Are people who depart from it not 'heterodox'? I often find that when I am accused of being 'orthodox' the accusers usually have their own orthodoxy, which they use to judge anyone who deviates from it.
4) It Alienates Unbelievers - Then there is the emotional accusation that declares that because lots of people have been first introduced to the Christian faith through Bell, we need to be careful that we are not 'alienating those who want to embark on the Christian journey'. Apart from being accused of being 'unloving', nothing is guaranteed to upset a sensitive Christian believer more than being accused of turning people away from Christ. As emotive rhetoric it works well. But is it true?
Firstly, I am going to admit that I was wrong. I used to buy into the 'Bell is a brilliant communicator, even if his theology is a wee bit off' mantra, until I actually heard him 'communicating' on Premier's Unbelievable. It was a dreadful example of 'communication' – incoherent, rambling waffle.
Secondly, I work on the assumption that if God could speak through a donkey, work through a pagan king (Cyrus) and even use me, then of course he can use Rob Bell. I have a friend who was converted through the weirdest cult – does that mean that we endorse and promote the cult? I don't buy into the line that it doesn't matter if the 'theology is not perfect'. It's a bit like arguing that because everyone is sinful, sin does not matter. Besides, who is demanding 'perfect' theology? But can we not ask for 'good theology' – theology that actually fits with Gods revelation of himself? Can we be so dismissive of that which God has revealed?
Thirdly, there is the question of the negative effect that Bell's messages can sometimes have. Maybe I am concerned because I believe that Bell's teaching will alienate and create unbelievers? Like the atheist who told me that having been brought up as a Christian, Bell's teaching led him to question his faith and to graduate on to Dawkins, Hitchens et al.
For me is it not about style, Bells personality or even whether he is a good communicator. It is absolutely not about hating Rob Bell. It's about loving Jesus so much that we believe what he said, and we care when his words are distorted, twisted and abused.
5) It damages the Church - 'you are attacking a Christian brother and damaging the witness of the Church. You are partially responsible for the thousands who are leaving the church because of judgmental attitudes.' The argument usually goes that people like Rob Bell are 'prominent Jesus followers' so how dare you question their Christianity. The trouble is that the person who says that is already making a judgment, and it's one that I question. Can someone who denies the teaching and atonement of Jesus and has stopped attending his church, really be described as a 'Jesus' follower? Rob seems more suited to Oprah than Christ. Do I hate him? No. Do I like being dismissed as a Rob Bell hater just because I am opposed to his teaching? No. Do I weep that his teaching is poisoning the church? Yes.
The question is not so much, who is Rob Bell, or even do we like him. The question is, what is the Gospel, and does Rob Bell teach it? Everything else is an irrelevant sideshow. In Acts 20, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that there would arise from their own number those who would distort the truth. He was so concerned about it that for three years, day and night, he never stopped warning them with tears. Should we be any less passionate for God's truth? Or have we really bought into the post-modern view of truth so aptly summed up by the Manic's ironic song, 'This is my Truth, tell me yours"?