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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

You gotta love Rob Bell…or hate him.

At least that’s what it seems like. Whatever you think of Rob, he’s always good for stirring the pot and getting my friends atwitter. Half my friends love the direction he’s going. The other half are “sad at the direction he’s taken.”

The latest brouhaha has to deal with Bell’s statements after being asked about gay marriage in San Francisco. As a former resident of the Bay Area, I know that when you’re asked this question in that place, it’s loaded!

Bell responded, “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

This is a statement primed for controversy, but every time a famed-lightning-rod-celebrity-preacher like Bell, or Driscoll or Piper say something, our responses to what they said are more telling about who we are than they are about who the speakers are. Myself included.

Rob Bell

We Talk About What We Think He Said

As a speaker, I’m often shocked by what people tell me I said and didn’t say – particularly when I know what I said and didn’t say and it’s not what they said I said. So, let’s be careful about over analyzing what Rob said and did not say. In his response you do not see the words “gay, sin, acceptance, okay, not-a-sin, condone” nor “condemnation.” I can’t believe we missed this opacity. Bell has made a living off the vagaries of the English language.

As a very conservative friend pointed out to me, Bell’s ambiguity is wide enough to drive a MAC truck through.

I’m for everything Rob mentions (and so are you, in some form), the question regards the combination of those elements, which Bell doesn’t actually address. Are all those statement independent of each other like Crash Davis’ speech in Bull Durham? I assume Crash believes in the small of a woman’s back,  the hanging curveball, and a Constitutional Amendment banning astroturf as independent of one another. Of course, two men can love each other without being married. In fact, two men can love each other without being gay.

And what does it mean to be “for marriage” in California where there is no such thing as “gay-marriage?” If you think that’s a distinction without a difference, I’ll remind you of adoption laws. Here in Texas, gay couples cannot adopt. Why? There is no legal status for gay couples. Therefore, if a gay couple wishes to adopt, only one of them can. The other partner is not considered in the equation. Because the status does not exist, an answer to the question, “Can gay couples adopt?” doesn’t exist either. There’s no such legal thing. Marriage is defined – in California, at least – as a union between a man and woman. Bell says he is for marriage. So are you.

When we talk about Rob Bell we’re talking about what we think, assume, and read into what he said. We’re trying to make black and white a man whose craft is gray. Whatever you think Bell said is pretty close to what you thought he’d eventually say. Again, myself included.

The same was true about his previous book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” From my reading of “Love Wins,” Rob lays out a blurry, one-sentence-paragraph-filled, regurgitation of C. S. Lewis’s case from “The Great Divorce.” Many pastors called Bell a Universalist. By doing so, they revealed they didn’t actually read “Love Wins.” On the heaven and hell issue, Rob was uncharacteristically clear:

“…speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love, namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were always intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them, ‘Not here you won’t.’” (Love Wins, pg. 113, emphasis mine)

A number of folks watched the book trailer for “Love Wins” and knocked over old ladies and pushed babies in the face racing to computers to tweet and write rebuttals about what they thought he said. All that to say, when it comes to the Christian community, we are quick to speak and slow to listen. For me at least, Rob hasn’t given me enough to go on. He’s like those politicians who say “family, freedom, and hamburgers are great.” Well, okay, I guess. Who’s against hamburgers? Or love? Hamburgers are great, but if you eat McDonald’s everyday, you’re going to die prematurely. Likewise, being “for love” says nothing about the appropriate practice or exercise of love.

We really don’t know what Rob Bell thinks about “gay-marriage.” If called into court and arriving only with this statement, we’d have to deal with the fact that if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit. The evidence is circumstantial.

When we talk about Rob Bell we’re always talking about what we think he thinks. Which is, I think, the way he likes it.

We Talk About Something We Mostly Agree On (When We Bother To Think About It)

The most important point Bell made is the most overlooked. He said, “I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

Most who have read Jesus would agree, Jesus affirms people where they are. Where Christians will disagree is whether it is appropriate to “affirm” where they are as an acceptable location or merely a starting point for walking with God.

The answer is both.

I’ve been in the church my entire life and am more than glad that God affirmed me – not for what I could be – but for what I was, am presently, and am becoming. This is not heroic nor difficult behavior. Parents do it everyday.

Could you imagine a parent loving, affirming, and accepting their child for what he or she might be…one day? No. I have two daughters and I have a love for them I did not know previously and cannot explain. It overwhelms me. I’m not overwhelmed by the idea that they might go to college, cure cancer, or become President…one day. I’m overwhelmed by love simply because they exist today.

My daughters don’t ever have to do or become anything. Ever! I affirm them because they are, not because they are becoming…. What’s more, children are loved, blessed, sacrificed for, and affirmed regardless of whether parents deem their behavior acceptable.

We do the same for our spouses. If we disagree, we claim and discuss it. We talk frankly, but we don’t stop affirming nor accepting our spouses. Marriages which cease to affirm and accept one another end in divorce. Separation. Limited relationship. Christians who want to live divorced from other humans God loves, do not want the same thing God wants. Last I checked, while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.

Affirming the humanity in all people and the simple truth that every person is created in God’s image is not, and has never been, the same as affirming all behaviors. I have no one in my life for whom I affirm everything they do. I accept them in fellowship, trusting that we are all in the midst of struggle, on a journey and being saved by grace. For me, to do otherwise, to put behaving ahead of belonging is the height of Phariseeism. It’s not a treatment I want, therefore I refuse to visit it upon others.

Most Christians I know agree. Should a gay couple show up at my church, The Vine, they would be loved. I know because it has happened (even before I arrived on the scene). And we, by no means, are a liberal congregation. We’re mostly a conservative lot, in fact. Megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley have said the same about their congregations. So, what we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell is something that many of us agree on, but when someone some of us distrust says it, we get all bowed up and forget we believe the same thing.

All people are God’s children and we should treat them as such. This is what parents do. Don’t believe me? Ask Christian parents, like Brian McLaren and Rob Portman, how they responded to their own children’s sexual orientations.

We Talk About Our View Of Church

What we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell is our ecclesiology – our view of church. For some of us, the church is a purity-cult. In that case, everyone ought to watch their P’s & Q’s. Purity cults create no space, no ambiguity, no gray. If gray exist, how can people possibly know they are wrong? The purity-cult folks broke with Bell a long time ago, but secretly keep some old NOOMA videos tucked between their mattress and boxed springs.

For others, the church is the Jesus-culture. Jesus never rejected the questioning, hurting, despondent, nor outsiders, so they don’t either. But beware! In all their words and expressions of grace for non-believers, the same treatment is not often visited on those of more conservative leanings.

Yet both are working off the same script when it comes to Bell.

Both the purity cult and the Jesus culture are willing to echo Jesus’ words from John 8, spoken to the woman caught in adultery, “Then neither do I condemn you….Go and sin no more.” The difference is which clause in the sentence gets the emphasis. While the purity-cult wants to ensure no one sins no more, the Jesus culture will never condemn. And because the two approaches to church have formed such disdain for one another, folks land on one side of the coin to the neglect of the other, leaving us all deformed.

As for me, there’s one thing I know: I can’t control whether someone “sins no more,” but I can control whether I condemn.

When we talk about Rob Bell, all we’re really doing is reflecting our predetermined notions about the purpose of the church.

Pushing Our Buttons

Rob Bell is phenomenal at pushing evangelicals’ buttons. And I think that’s mostly good. I think it’s good that we’ve had more meaningful conversations about hell and now many of us are thinking more seriously about LGBTQ issues and what the Bible says about them and how to interact with a community of people, like all people, who are loved by God.

In a few sentences, Bell rushed forth a confluence of controversy regarding language and the way we use it, coupled with traditional Christian approaches to outreach and ministry, and revealed a deep schism in how American Christians view the church and her mission.

The primary thing we’ve learn this week is this: Whatever we’re talking about when we talk about Rob Bell- it’s not Rob Bell.





  • Good stuff as usual, bro!

    • Thanks for being such a faithful reader.

      • No problem. You’re a very engaging writer, the kind I love to read. Iconoclastic but gentle in being so.

  • K. Rex Butts

    So I like much of what you say and agree that we should be very slow to stone Bell, as some in the evangelical world would like to do. But here’s my pushback for you.

    You say, “So, let’s be careful about over analyzing what Rob said and did not say. In his response you do not see the words ‘gay, sin, acceptance, okay, not-a-sin, condone’ nor ‘condemnation.’ I can’t believe we missed this opacity.” Then, unless I am misunderstanding you, you suggest that Bell is being his ambiguous self and not saying as much as some Christians understand him to be saying. But that’s not how oral communication works.

    Bell was speaking to an audience which inquruired about same-sex marriage. How else is his response to be understood except as an endorsement of same-sex marriage? Though he may not have used words like “gay, sin, etc…”, in an oral setting we don’t disect the precise nuances of whathedid and didnot say (that’t the problem with contemporary biblical interpretation that seeks to disect whatwas intended for an oral hearing as though it is a journal article). Most people, if noteveryone, on both sides of the issue understood what Bell was saying (even the writer of the Huffington Post article).

    But let’s say that we have misunderstood Bell. Who’s fault is that, especially when the majority of people on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue have misunderstood him in the same way? Such misunderstanding may say something about ourselves but I think it says a lot more about the communicator – especially one who is speaking for the things of God in a time where there is so much ambiguity about God.

    As in my own blog, some Christians, including myself, have rejected the way Christianity has often assimilated the American right-wing values. But in doing so, I hope we are not beginning to assimilate the American left-wing. Neither is helpful but Bell leaves me to wonder.

    Any ways, thanks for your post.

    Grace and Peace,


    • Not to leave you hanging, but since we talked about this over in “Compadres” I won’t respond here.

  • Amy

    Really enjoy your blog, Sean. You always have a fresh way to look at issues we are talking about. Digesting this stuff you wrote, food for thought, thanks.

  • Chris White

    Thank you for such a well articulated view, one I would wholeheartedly agree with. You have many “gem statements” in here that really stick out to me, namely our quickness to assume what is being said by an individual and your statement “to put behaving ahead of belonging is the height of Phariseeism.” I’m pretty sure that’s a made up word, haha, but that is an excellent tidbit of truth. Thanks again! I enjoy your blog, and share it often.

    • Yeah, it’s a made up word. But I couldn’t think of anything else. 🙂

  • Paige

    Excellent blog post! Thanks!

  • Allen Carr

    You hit one particular nail on the head, Sean: People are reacting to what they thought Rob said, not what he REALLY said. Almost every other response I have read anywhere, I have thought, “Did they really listen to what he said?” We are way too quick to react rather than listen, consider and understand. Which, ironically, is the quality in Rob that I most admire.

    I think Bell is actually quite brilliant in the way he responds in most situations. What bothers people, particularly Christians, is that they ask direct questions wanting to know what Rob believes. And his answers are normally very thoughtful, filled with much ambiguity and lead to more questions rather than more certainty. I honestly believe that Rob wants what YOU think to be more important to you than what HE thinks. He leads me to decide for myself rather than react to his opinion. In our culture of black & white and 2-party politics, it is really quite refreshing. And yet, he continually gets blasted for that very thing.

    It would be difficult to find anyone in our Christian culture who has responded with as much patience, love and generosity in the face of the load of criticism, insults and downright nastiness thrown at him from parts of the church. I do not agree with Rob on several things, but that part of him is something I want to copy – because it looks a lot like Jesus.

    • Rob does reply (and not reply) with a measure of grace. Partially, I think, because he doesn’t need the evangelical sub-culture to sustain his life. In that way, he can be very open-handed. He has little to protect. His critics can’t hurt him.

  • Darin Campbell
    • Don’t know who that is, but I’ll check into it.

  • Great post. Sean. I haven’t actually read any of Bell’s work, but he’s always struck me as someone who is very skilled at using speech narrowly, precisely and in a way which allows people to draw their own conclusions. (I come from a family where this sort of discourse is practiced like breathing – I know it when I see it.)

    And I love what you say about having no control over whether someone sins, but being able to control what you condemn. It took a while, but I realized a while ago that my opinions about things I don’t control are pointless. They mean nothing, change nothing and matter not at all. Well, that’s not quite true – they can create division. They can make people feel rejected. They can hurt others. But I let go of allowing my opinions to color my views of others or how I deal with them a while back and nothing bad happened. People didn’t suddenly start sinning like crazy around me because I wasn’t keeping track of who was doing right or wrong. I’m not sure why we humans are so attached to the idea that our opinions and judgments are important, but we are. It’s something we’d all do well to get over, imo.

    • Thanks Rebbeca. There is much truth in what you’ve said.

  • Something you stated here really spoke to me…”As for me, there’s one thing I know: I can’t control whether someone “sins no more,” but I can control whether I condemn.” Love that. Amen.

  • jmorrell

    As a resident of San Francisco (my roommate was present at the talk) I appreciate this dissection of Sunday’s event’s immensely. What is ironic to me about this entire conversation is not even 10 hours after Rob shares these words this happens across town: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/michelle-shocked-anti-gay-rant-god-hates-fags_n_2901564.html?utm_hp_ref=san-francisco&ir=San%20Francisco

    Where are the evangelical pundits on that one?!?

    The juxtaposition in my city, which is truly the most beautiful city in the US, is completely amazing. I have many friends and neighbors who have gone on about their lives since Sunday and have no clue that these two events happened, nor do they care. The reality is more people attended Rob’s talk Sunday AM as well as that show (not many), than attend over 90% of the churches weekly in the city. The other reality is that my neighbors do not know who Rob Bell is or even gives two cents about what he says because honestly we create our own society and culture here. It is an amazing time to be living here because a lot of the hangups I see expressed in this debate just don’t exist here. Though some might scoff at either story (and I agree with your purity-cult/jesus culture talk), for my city, all that scoffing is pointless and it is only the willingness to anchor yourself in the Way of Jesus, demonstrate the way through actions that is going to shape a future rooted in Jesus.

    thanks for the review

    • I lived in San Francisco as well. The city does create it’s own culture, doesn’t it?

  • Angel Mitchell

    Thank you for this post, Sean. Many points you made stood out to me. I really love to see people having this conversation.

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