What Threatens the Chuch?

In the wake of the Rob Bell controversy, his editor at HarperOne, Mickey Maudlin, wrote a reflection on what transpired.

Bell wrote a book many disagreed with, and the disagreement immediately was charged with words like “Heresy,” and was roundly condemned in many circles.

Maudlin points out how blithely the notion of heresy was invoked:

Why would leaders attack as a threat and an enemy someone who shares their views of Scripture, Jesus, and the Trinity? What prevented leaders from saying, “Thanks, Rob, interesting views, but here is where we disagree”?

What list of theological beliefs must be fully checked off before someone can be embraced as brother or sister even if we disagree about other important issues?

Maudlin sees in this reaction itself the true threat to evangelicalism. The threat to the evangelical church’s life is not creeping liberalism. The true threat is tribalism.

But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.” Such is the challenge facing the church today and what the reaction to Love Wins reveals.

Or, in the words of Paul, “If you bit and devour one another, take care or you might just consume one another.”

I think Maudlin is on to something. At some basic level we have gotten our story wrong. We have begun to act as though the way that we know we’re faithful to Jesus is if we condemn anyone who seems to be tearing down the walls of the theological circle that inscribes the faithful.

But there is no such wall.

Falling within a theological border is not, has never been, can can never be, the means by which the faithful followers of Jesus are demarcated.

The first-century church had to painfully wrestle through the reality that Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility that was Israel’s Law. It seems that we must come to terms with a Jesus who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility that is Christian Theology.

If we don’t, we may find ourselves in the very position of Paul’s opponents in Galatia, compelling others to become like us if they would be marked as part of the people of God–and thus as agents of nothing less than anti-gospel.

24 thoughts on “What Threatens the Chuch?”

  1. Some evangelicals claim that the Bible is a lion which should simply be let out of the cage. However, they quickly revert to being overprotective “soldiers”, because they feel threatened themselves. Using Spurgeon’s actual words: “Well, I should suggest to [the soldiers], if they would not object and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back and open the door and let the lion out!”

  2. Well-stated, Daniel! There is indeed much for rich reflection in the notion of tribalism. And, as you say, it is the very same error as Paul encountered and countered in Galatia.

  3. What threatens the Church? One word – Love. Obviously ‘Love Wins’ was a bit too much for some. Radical self sacrificing Love breezed into our world in the form of Jesus. It was too much for some then, and it is too much for some now. ‘Love’ will always threaten insecure man made structures!

  4. There’s only so many ways to say ‘Amen’ but I’ll try to pack as many as possible in this comment. These days I suppose I’m beyond the borders but I spent long enough on the Evangelical battlements to know what costs us to turn the church into a fortress. What saddened me most was the simple observation that tribes have tribal gods (usually the hungry, bloodthirsty kind). The fundamental error of defining identity by demonizing what we’re against and anathematizing dissenters diminishes us. There are good and bad things outside the fortress but the first thing I noticed was a sense of space.

  5. What threatens the church? Fallible hermeneutics. Many Protestants place authority solely on Scripture (sola scriptura). But, Scripture cannot stand on it’s own without interpretation. The Bible is indeed infallible, but man’s interpretations are not. The result? Divisiveness, schisms, and multi-denominationalism. These divisions, along with the argumentative nature it produces, became evident before and after the release of “Love Wins”. It is my hope that we can learn from this, throw off our tribal ways, and begin to bond together as a single, unified, Body of Christ. Although I remain hopeful, I don’t think this will happen until our Lord returns.

  6. At some point, there IS a boundary to orthodoxy. If Rob Bell’s book had said that Jesus was a created being, or that all paths to God were equal, would he still be a fellow Christian? I think some folks overreacted to his book, but there really is a theological circle that inscribes the faithful, and one job of a loving pastor is to keep his flock inside of that circle. Otherwise, what are you doing? Why study theology if it doesn’t matter at the end of the day? Orthopraxy and orthodoxy are both required to live a full and faithful Christian life.

    1. Josh, thanks for this. Better than I could have said it. I agree. Yes, some people reacted ungraciously to Bell’s book, and yes, evangelicals have a big problem with tribalism, but heresy or creeping liberalism or whatever you want to call it, really is a problem in our day. It is possible to say untrue and unhelpful or misleading things about God, and a few of Bell’s statements [potentially] fell into that category.
      We’ve got to do better at avoiding both dangers; they are both real problems.

  7. Daniel, very thoughtful words, and thank you for sharing Mr. Maudlin’s words as well. Evev of my close friends and colleagues, I encountered both sides of the opinion on Bell’s book. What I find most amuzing is the quickness of my protestant friends to label Bell as a heretic. Historically, Protestantism spun out of a desire to get away from those that would label their thoughts and doctrine as heretical.

  8. I’ve been hearing lots about how we need to be for this conversation, and you don’t have to agree with everything he says. Yet, I’m not seeing very many people supporting him who are being clear about where they disagree and why they don’t think it’s a big deal. I think the tribalism is strong on both sides.

    Rob Bell brought up really big issues — suggesting that a loving God is a failure if people go to hell, that eternal torment is inherently unfair of God, and that Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists can be saved through Jesus within the teachings of their own religion. This isn’t just a minor discussion within the Christian community — I’m preparing to devote my life to taking the gospel to the ends of the earth to people deceived by false religion.

    1. That’s the problem. I don’t think Bell made any of the claims you asserted. You only interpreted them that way. Bell said God gives everyone a chance and might even pursue them after their death. But, some will inevitably end up in hell no matter what. He also claims the those of other religions who try to seek God will eventually see Him only because of what Jesus did on the cross, reconciling ALL people. Jesus will remove the evil from the Hindu or Muslim and bring them to the Truth.

      1. Watchman, he “suggests” all of those things, as I wrote above. Quotations follow.

        1. He suggests a loving God is a failure if some are not saved and go to hell.
        “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” (98)

        2. He suggests that eternal punishment is unfair of God.
        “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2)

        3. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists can be saved through their own religion. “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (150, see also 155).

        Where does Bell say that “some will inevitably end up in hell no matter what?” Or is that your own interpretation? How do you reconcile that with your statement that Jesus’ death reconciled ALL people? And where does Bell say that God will remove the evil in Hinduism and Islam?

        1. Honestly, I don’t have my Kindle charged at this moment to go back and find my own quotes that I highlighted. But, I can challenge your misinterpretations without the book handy.

          MISINTERPRETATION #1: He suggests a loving God is a failure if some are not saved and go to hell.
          “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?”(98)

          This is a rhetorical question. God cannot fail. God desires all to be saved. And, indeed all have been reconciled. Of course, not all will accept Christ, and Bell reminds the reader that there will still be those who reject Him.

          MISINTERPRETATION #2: He suggests that eternal punishment is unfair of God.
          “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2)

          Where precisely does Bell suggest God is “unfair”? Again, Bell is simply posing a question, not a statement. It’s a good question I might add. Bell proceeds to inform the reader that man may not be limited to salvation only for a “few finite years of life”. In God’s complete sovereignty, God still may save some even after death. This is nothing new. Luther presupposes this in some of his own writings.

          MISINTERPRETATION #3: “Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists can be saved through their own religion. “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (150, see also 155)”

          Where precisely does Bell say, “Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists can be saved through their own religion?” It’s certainly not in the quote you provided. Again, you’ve taken Bell out of context. But, I digress…yes indeed, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He transcends all religions. He’s not about religion. Jesus is about living radically transformed lives, loving God, and serving others. Religion is for the birds. Jesus can reach into and enter the Hindu’s life, the Buddhist’s life, and Muslim’s life and save them. I’ve seen it done before.

          It seems you have taken Bell out of context and interjected your own presuppositions. Most of Bell’s book is about discussion, posing questions, and causing the reader to pause and reflect. The overarching theme in Bell’s book is the sovereignty of God. God is sovereign in both the natural world we live AND the spiritual world. He can save anyone, anywhere, anyplace. Why do Christians limit Him?


          1. Yes, Bell does not make direct statements. Hence, I said “suggests.” But if you contrast “eternal torment” with “few short years,” you are suggesting that there is a disparity in the punishment to fit the crime; that such a punishment is unfair.

            With his rhetorical questions, there is enough ambiguity for you to say that Bell is not really stating what he is suggesting with such questions, and enough ambiguity for me to say that he is in fact stating such things. I wonder how you can have the certainty to say that my inferences are incorrect and yours are correct. Perhaps if Bell were more forthright, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion.

            I believe the burden of proof that Bell is not actually saying these things is on Bell to clarify such things. You stated that Bell says that there will be those who inevitably end of in hell no matter what, and I don’t recall Bell saying anything close to that.

            1. Don,

              I don’t think Bell is even “suggesting” any of these issues you have raised. You are reading far more into it than what he is stating. And, that my friend is one of the reasons WHY there was so much unnecessary and unneeded arguing and ranting going on about Love Wins. As I stated in my original post above, it is man’s interpretation of Scripture that’s causing so much division within the church.

              I’m not saying Bell has it all right. But he’s been accused of saying things he never said, and prematurely labeled a heretic.

              And just for the record, Bell does indeed claim that there will still be some people who will reject Christ and will live eternity in their own hellish world.

              I will try and find the quote.

              1. What do you think Rob Bell does not have right?

                I’m asking because most of his supporters keep saying that we should be able to disagree with Rob Bell and still be fine with him, yet his supporters often don’t model such behavior by stating their disagreement, even when they say that they don’t necessarily agree with Rob Bell.

                1. Good question. I agreed with a majority of his material. But, I disagreed that people will be able to be saved from hell and move on over into heaven after they die. This would imply that God wavers in His judgment. I believe once God pronounces His judgment, what is done is done. But, I do believe that people may still be saved after their death prior to judgment. Does this mean I believe in a sort of purgatory? Perhaps. I don’t know. I believe there is a biblical case for it. This is something I’m still wrestling through. Gregory Boyd talks a lot about this from a Protestant perspective.

                  I also disagreed with the minimal use of Scripture. He really needed to use more Scripture to back his claims. A lot of what he proposed was speculative, but certainly a possibility.

                  However, what I disagreed with the most was that Bell left almost all of the subject matter open-ended. I know this was intentional. But, I think he left more people scratching their heads. I hope he will someday write a follow-up book to answer these open-ended questions. For instance, I want to know more about why he believes people will be saved after they die. I want to know more why he believes hell will be more of an imaginative reality rather than the traditional views held by most evangelicals.

  9. (1) Jesus warned us against the ‘tare-pluckers’. Even when we correctly discern a true tare, leave it be. A truly ‘good’ seed grows from the inside out – intertwined with tares or not. When Christians imagine our strength comes from unity through uniformity, Pharisees proliferate. Unity in diversity trusts one another into the hands of the Spirit. No wonder the church reacted against Bell, they had built their strength on mans thinking rather than Gods.

    (2) If one reads the online list of core beliefs for most churches, it is pretty detailed. The eternal, conscious torment of the wicked is usually a required belief. To allow the questioning of that belief is to acknowledge that the church has not spoken authoritatively. No wonder the vicious attacks against Bell.

  10. Thanks for this discussion, folks. As we continue, would it be helpful to have a moratorium on saying “Bell is only raising questions”? While he IS raising questions (though often in a stacked-deck sort of way) he says in chapter 1 of Love Wins that “this isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions.” Whatever else he’s doing, he is also offering answers that he thinks are better than some other people’s answers. And even his questions are phrased in a way that predisposes the reader toward a certain conclusion.

    That was helpful for me to recognize…not sure if it helps the discussion, but perhaps it will.

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