RELEVANT questions(?)

I think Strang misdiagnoses the problem(s) with Bell and consequently offers a faulty prescription for RELEVANT’s readers.

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Cameron Strang, founder of RELEVANT magazine, has written an op-ed in which he predicts the mag will catch flak for publishing a conversation with Rob Bell. According to Strang, Bell authored popular books, turned the sermon into an art form with his Nooma videos, and founded one of the country’s most influential churches. But then “a lot of people’s feelings about Bell changed” with the publication of Love Wins, his resignation from the church, and subsequent partnership with Oprah.

Strang writes to ask that people actually read the article before “lobbing grenades,” and to agree to disagree if need be. As you’ve probably guessed already, I respectfully disagree with the agree-to-disagree approach. I’d encourage you to read the op-ed for yourself but I think Strang misdiagnoses the problem(s) with Bell and consequently offers a faulty prescription for RELEVANT’s readers.

  1. Strang erroneously claims the controversy surrounding Love Wins was because it “asked big questions about the existence of hell.” He also says:

Whether or not you feel Bell crossed a heretical line with Love Wins, there is a larger perspective we can take with it. At its core, what Bell did was ask a massive question about which aspects of our theology are based on what Scripture actually says, and which of our beliefs are traditions or assumptions we just added on. Bell came to one conclusion, and maybe you come to another. But the act of asking the question is important.

Two things need to be said here. First, Love Wins did far more than merely “question” the existence of hell. To cite some of the more egregious problems in his book, Bell denied the biblical doctrine of final judgment (86, 88, 93), salvation by faith in Christ alone (154), and the co-existing perfections of love and justice in God’s character (173-174). From these denials Bell confidently told his readers that “we do not need to be rescued from God” (182). Second, Strang gives the disturbing impression that he lacks either a proper definition for heresy or a proper sense of the danger it represents. Heresy is not the sort of thing Christians can just shrug off as a matter of personal opinion. I can hear Strang in his other life as a practicing oncologist: “Whether or not we believe the tumor has crossed the cancer line, let’s take the perspective that just the act of asking the question is important.” When it’s a matter of life & death you’d better be asking the right questions and arriving at the right answers.

  1. Strang is out of step with the Scriptural position on false teaching when he says:

When people like Bell say something we disagree with, let’s resist the urge to write off completely the other things God might say through them that could positively challenge us. Let’s have discernment but remain teachable. Imagine how things would be different if we weren’t afraid of people who might believe differently from us. We might find more common ground than we realize.

If Bell crossed a heretical line, there’s just no way this advice is appropriate. I won’t bury you under a mountain of proof texts, but the NT certainly doesn’t promote collegiality with false teachers in the church (see Acts 20:28-31; Rom 16:17-18; Eph 4:14; Titus 1:9-11; 2Pet 2:1-3; 1Jn 4:1; 2Jn 9-11). Does anyone think that Paul, Peter, or John would encourage us to “find common ground” with those who deviate from the faith?

  1. Strang’s characterization of magnanimity and humility is too simplistic. Eerily parroting the wisdom of our age he says:

To avoid dialogue with people we might disagree with . . . is small-minded. We should be humble enough to realize we don’t know everything and aren’t always right.

But this implies a false contrast. Christians aren’t small-minded or arrogant when they refuse to offer a platform to those who promote false doctrine. Neither are we being tolerant when we swim in a sea of relative truth. We know some truth but we don’t know all truth (Deut 29:29). Let’s hold our ground on what we know.

  1. We should hold teachers to a higher standard. The lay person is, under normal circumstances, given more latitude than the teacher in their doctrinal erring (1Tim 4:16; James 3:1) and so it isn’t unreasonable to expect more from men like Bell. Provocative questions are fine when they serve to promote sound doctrine but not to provide plausible deniability for doctrinal compromise.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann is quoted as saying “It is not literally with a kiss that Christ is betrayed in the present age: today one betrays with an interpretation.”  Let’s be wary of aiding and abetting that kind of betrayal.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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