Where Is Rob Bell Coming From?

"If a certainty occurred and only Rob Bell was there to experience it, would anyone know it for sure?" This feeble attempt at a theological joke could be said of Rob Bell only a few years ago when he vaguely couched his beliefs behind the premise of dialoging with doubters/seekers/unbelievers. Now he's coming out the closet (well, his beliefs are, anyway). 

Bell has embraced homosexual "marriage"—not personallybut as a legitimate and God-created expression of love and commitment for all people, including Christians. Where in the world is Rob Bell coming from? Not just what is his thinking about homosexuality and marriage, but what foundational belief lies underneath the surface?

The good news: The more Rob Bell tries to be relevant, the less relevant he becomes.

The good news: The more Rob Bell tries to be relevant, the less relevant he becomes.

We can find a clue in Bell's assessment of the church's willingness to embrace homosexual "marriage." In an interview with Oprah Winfrey (to promote his new TV show on her network), he states, "I think the culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant [emphasis mine] when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense." Instead, he says, the church should understand that people are lonely and just want someone to journey with them.

Relevance is a core value to Rob Bell. When Scripture does not agree with society, Bell will choose society and discard, diminish, or ignore Scripture. Where does he get this idea? Interestingly enough, from Scripture!

My doctoral studies focused on church growth, and one of the books I read was Thom Rainer's The Book of Church Growth. As an outsider to the church growth movement at the time, Rainer was uniquely qualified to give an honest assessment of its history and theology. One of his conclusions is that leaders of the church growth movement have latched onto 1 Corinthians 9:22: "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some."

For Rob Bell and many others, this means that relevance trumps all. He apparently believes that if the Bible's condemnation of certain behaviors (and yes, the Bible does condemn homosexual behavior) hinders dialoging with (or reaching/engaging/other postmodern relational term) people that engage in that behavior, then the Bible is wrong. Worse yet, according to Bell, the Bible is irrelevant. To him, irrelevance may be the unforgivable sin, and relevance may be the one absolute.

Clearly Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22 did not mean that he would become disobedient to God in order to "save some." It did not mean that he would abandon the Word of God in order to be relevant. The clearest example of Paul's commitment to remaining true to Scripture while engaging people in a way they could relate to was his sermon on Mars Hill (cf. Acts 17:22-34). (Ironically, the church Rob Bell started was named after this sermon. It may do him good to focus less on the "unknown god" part of the sermon and more on the Man appointed to judge the world in righteousness.) The apostle Paul had every opportunity to abandon Scripture in order to be more relevant, but he refused, even though it meant reaching a smaller audience.

The warning of Rob Bell's life and ministry is clear: Pastors and other church leaders must be willing to stand with Scripture regardless of the cost. We should not follow the example of those who would abandon Scripture in order to be relevant, sell books, or promote their TV show. Instead, let us be inspired by those leaders in church history who remained faithful to God's Word even when facing death, sometimes even over issues that many today might consider secondary.