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Rob Bell: three things to appreciate and three reasons he is controversial

Many people ask me what I think of Rob Bell.  They want to know why he is all the rage and they also want to know why some people are concerned about him.  There is a short article about Rob Bell in Time magazine this week: The Hipper-Than-Thou Pastor by David Van Biema so I thought I would give people a small primer on Bell.  I visited Bell's church this summer and have listened to many of his sermons online.  Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, near Grand Rapids.  He is the main teacher on the Nooma 12-minute videos.  He is also the author of the following two books:

I'll name three things to appreciate about Bell and three reasons why he is controversial.  I hope, if you like him, you will be more aware of why some people are concerned.  I also hope, if you don't like him, you will better understand why some people do. 

Three things to like about Bell:

1.  He is passionate about Scripture.  He is famous for starting his church by teaching a series through Leviticus to show the relevance of the Bible including Leviticus.  Bell works hard at understanding the historical context of a text of Scripture each time he preaches. 

I have placed below the first couple paragraphs of his article Leadership Journal article:
"Life in Leviticus: Planting this church, I spent a year preaching through Leviticus, and (surprise!) it worked." (January 1, 2002).   I think they demonstrate his heart toward Scripture.  He loves Scripture and I think even those who don't like him should see that as one of his strengths. 

In February 1999 we planted a church to reach the unchurched and disillusioned people of Grand Rapids, Michigan. For the first year, I preached through Leviticus—verse by verse.
    * Menstrual blood.
    * Hold the pork.
    * Avoid road kill.
Why start a church with Leviticus? Why not a series on relationships or finding peace? That would be the safer approach.
Leviticus cannot be tamed. Its imagery is too wild. We ventured into its lair and let it devour us, trusting that God would deliver us with a truer picture of his Son.
Why Leviticus? Two reasons.
First, I didn't want the church to succeed because we put together the right resources. I wanted the church to flourish on the power of the Spirit alone.
I knew opening with Leviticus—foreign words to today's culture—was risky. But the bigger the risk, the more need for the Spirit and the more glory for God to get.
Second, unchurched people often perceive the Bible as obsolete. If that crowd could discover God speaking to them through Old Testament law, it would radically change their perception that Christianity is archaic. I wanted people to know that the whole biblical story—even Leviticus—is alive.
The Scriptures are a true story, rooted in historical events and actual people. But many people don't see the connection between the Moses part and the Jesus part.
But Moses' Leviticus is all about Jesus.
Every message in my series ended with Jesus. Every picture is about Jesus. Every detail of every sacrifice ultimately reflects some detail of Jesus' life.

2. Bell speaks in the language of young people.  Bell's preaching is informal, and "cool."  He has an eye for illustrations and is a great story teller.  In a 2004 interview with Leadership Journal entitled The Subversive Art (which you can read in its entirety online for free), he explains his style.  "So my understanding in communication is you engage people right where they are; if you don't, they leave."  You can (pay to) download the transcript of his "The Goat Has Left the Building" sermon at Preaching Today mentioned in the Time article.  But better is to watch a clip from his Nooma films (12 minutes each).  Here is the flash clip from the first one mentioned in the time article: 001 "Rain" Clip.   Or download and listen to a sermon at the Mars Hill Bible Church website or iTunes Mars Hill Bible Church (this iTunes link only works if you have the free program iTunes installed on your computer).  The point is that, even if you don't like him, one should be able to acknowledge that it is a good thing that he is trying to teach the Bible to young people in language that they understand.  None would dispute that as a strength.  I think people can appreciate the fact that he uses object lessons to try to convey his points.  Jesus did the same thing.  There is nothing wrong with that in itself.   Chad Hall echoes these comments about Bell's communication skills in a recent November 2007 Leadership Journal newsletter, What Leaders Can Learn from Rob Bell

3.  Bell is trying to live what he preaches.  At considerable sacrifice, which Bell rarely talks about, he and his family have moved into an urban area and are trying to care for their poor neighbors.  A couple of months ago, I listened to one of this sermons online.  Before he began his sermon, an alcoholic member of the congregation caught his eye and motioned to him.  He invited the man up to share his joy at celebrating his fifth year anniversary of being sober.  Bell for about two minutes interviewed and celebrated with him.  It was a spontaneous and beautiful moment.   Again, I think, even if you don't like him, you should be able to appreciate his heart to care for people and see people find forgiveness and healing.

Three things that make Bell controversial:
1. Bell has a heart for social justice.  This may make you concerned that he is not serious about people's souls.  Some churches tend to speak about saving the earth from global warming and never about saving people who are far from God.  I don't think Bell is guilty of this but I understand that talk about social justice makes some evangelicals concerned that his priorities aren't right.   
2.  Bell does not use that much systematic theology vocabulary.  In the effort to speak people's language, he is careful about using big systematic theological jargon, i.e. words like sanctification, apocalyptic, and omniscient.  He will use them sometimes but when he does, he explains them so people understand what he is talking about.  He assumes as Haddon Robinson taught me in his Biblical Preaching book, that the preacher should treat people as if they have "high intelligence but small vocabularies."  In other words, preachers shouldn't be afraid of showing people the nuances of an argument but they should explain it in everyday language.  I often think of the virtue of using USA Today - 8th grade reading level - language.  So, because Bell doesn't use the regular systematic theology terms, that especially people in the Reformed tradition are accustomed to using (especially in Grand Rapids where lots of people are Reformed), Bell is more "difficult to pin down" theologically.  If you use standard theological vocabulary all of the time, it is easier for other theologians to quickly detect your theological convictions.  But if you tell a story instead, it is not so simple.  (Try distilling some of Jesus' parables into doctrines of systematic theology).  Bell's purpose though is to speak to young people and unchurched people not explain his beliefs to theologians.  He wants to teach and inspire people.  He wants people to think about theological concepts in fresh ways.  He wants to capture people's attention.  To do this, he tries not to use Christianese (Christian jargon).  Thus, those who would want to put him on trial for heresy, need to pay attention to what he is saying, including the stories and illustrations, to detect whether he is orthodox in his theology or not.  I think he is orthodox but I agree that it is not always easy to tell where he stands.  People who are suspicious about him are concerned about his views on systematic theology issues like: inerrancy of Scripture (Bell would probably say infallible or authoritative but he would squirm under the fact that none of these words are in the Scriptures themselves); substitutionary atonement; eternal conscious torment; and propositional truth.  Bell and other emerging church people (though he denies that label), and many other thoughtful evangelicals would want say that though all of these issues are very important, none of these systematic theology concepts are easy to define.  Thus we need to talk about them, argue about them, teach them, and see what the Scriptures say about them.  Bell tries to do that but for some people this is scary.  They accept Wayne Grudem's conclusions in his Systematic Theology or Millard Erickson's conclusions in his Christian Theology and feel it is dangerous to question them. But doctrines, to remain alive, need to continue to be taught and wrestled with by younger generations.   Bell wants to do that.  Some of this disagreement about defining doctrines clearly in systematic theological language can also be attributed to differences between Systematic Theologians and Biblical Studies scholars.  Systematic Theologians are quicker to put into propositional summaries Christian doctrine whereas Biblical Studies scholars typically are less comfortable about taking verses out of context and are more hesitant to about using terms and categories from philosophy.  This would also be true, I think, even among very conservative Biblical Studies professors.  They are more interested in explaining particular verses, chapters, books and themes in Scripture.  They are particularly aware that the Scriptures do not come to us in the form of Systematic Theology.  Bell would be on the side of the Biblical Studies people.         
3.  Bell is pretty independent. Bell's church was founded by him and has a board of elders (I think) but in practice he has a lot of power.  Now, within American evangelicalism, that is pretty common.  Church historian David Bebbington writes, “By 1961 only 38 percent of American Protestants belonged to mainline churches . . . [in contrast,] In Britain . . . the great majority of evangelicals were in denominations with long pedigrees. David Bebbington, “British and American Evangelicalism Since 1940,” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700-1990 (ed. Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 371. But of course, being independent, leaves him vulnerable to all sorts of issues.  Who will set him straight if he goes off track?  Who is he accountable to?  Some of his critics are in denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America. But many of his critics are independent Baptists or independent fundamentalists whose local churches are also almost totally independent.  Denominations have some checks and balances that nondenominational churches don't have.  They also have bureaucracies that might have prevented something like Bell's founding of Mars Hill Bible Church.  There are also a number of conservative evangelical churches that are also independent from a denomination, for example, Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church (Seattle - no relation to Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan) and John MacArthur's Grace Community Church (Calif).  (I am happy to be corrected if any of these are part of a denomination but I looked on their websites and couldn't find any reference to a connection.  To be fair, they all have constitutions and bylaws and informal connections with other churches, as Bell does, which provide some accountability).  One final comment which is related to this issue of accountability: pastors like Bell and the other pastors I have just named, who are passionate and outspoken about their views and have a loyal following can be very annoying if you disagree with them.  In other words, it is not that annoying if someone is boring and they say something that you feel is slightly off.  But if they say it with pizzazz and the audience is cheering, then that can be annoying.  John Piper and Rob Bell can both make young audiences cheer because they speak with passion and thoughtfulness but they also make people cringe who disagree with them because they speak so passionately.

All of that to say, if you haven't listened to Bell, at least now you know what all the fuss is about.  If you don't like him, there are lots of other great preachers to listen to.  

Grace and peace,


Additional notes:

  • The Wikipedia encyclopedia-that-anyone-can-edit article on "Rob Bell" seems to me fair, accurate and helpful (thought it could always change by the time you read it).  As I was reading it, I realized that my background is quite similar to Bell's.  This may be one reason I am interested in him and feel like I understand where he is coming from.  I am learning in my studies that "social location" tends to shape our perspectives on issues!  Bell went to Wheaton College.  Wheaton is my hometown and I went to Taylor University which is much like Wheaton College.  We both went to Honey Rock Camp.  He went to Fuller Seminary for his MDiv.  I did my MDiv at Regent College, which has quite a bit in common theologically with Fuller.  I am about five years younger than him.  In other words, it should not be surprising that I understand where he is coming from and I can see how someone 30 years older or from a different theological tradition might be more concerned with him.  To me, he seems a lot like me and my friends.  Hence, I want to see the good in him and I am not threatened by his edginess.      
  • Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary, who is quoted in the article, posts about the article and fields some questions about Bell in the comments.  He has also addressed questions about Bell in the past.  He is generally very positive about him. 
  • Andrew Jones, the influential emerging church blogger from the UK, also mentions the article.  He says that the emerging churches he (Jones) is trying to plant in the UK are small and without paid staff.   They are thus a bit different than Bell's.