Two weeks ago*, the controversies were swirling around Rob Bell and the promotion of his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The privileged few read their pre-release copies and a few helpful reviews were written (I’ve linked a couple below). The controversies swirled. Martin Bashir interviewed Bell on MSNBC, striking an alarming blow to Bell’s credibility (video here). The controversies swirled some more.
Now that the book has finally been released, everyone can read it for himself and decide what the buzz is all about. I imagine, even after a dozen more mixed reviews and a handful more interviews, the controversy will swirl, swirl, and swirl some more. While most of the attention Bell is receiving centers on what he says and believes, there is more trouble lurking beneath the surface of his theological water. Bell’s case will continue to be tried in the court of public opinion by a jury of his peers. Even if the facts are reviewed and he is acquitted of theological transgression, Bell will still not be beyond reproach. It’s not just what he says, but also how he says it.
It seems that since Bell came on the scene, his approach as been nearly as difficult as his message. Even in his most recent episode, Rob Bell has made a splash far beyond the content of his teaching. From Velvet Elvis to the Nooma videos to Sex God to Love Wins, Rob Bell has consistently used theology as a fulcrum and controversy as a lever. To make his message known, especially in this most recent example, Bell uses uncertainty and doubt to drive traffic and boost ratings. This has made Rob Bell dangerous beyond his teaching. Whether he is a universalist or not is beside this point. Even if he arrives at the correct interpretation of Scripture on these various issues, Bell has another strike against him. He does not follow the biblical way of dishing truth.
In the Scriptures, we do not find any precedent for using controversy, uncertainty, doubt, or deception in an effort to draw attention to the gospel or any other biblical doctrine. Even if Rob Bell is not a universalist, we must not ignore the fact that he has used the appearance of universalism and uncertainty about what the Scriptures plainly teach in order to gain the world’s attention. He has used mystery and veiled terms to promote his ideas. This is not the Godly way. Check out this video.
Some may reply, “Isn’t that what Jesus did? He spoke in parables. He used veiled terms. He was mysterious.” Yes, He did. But keep in mind that Jesus is the Lord of glory, orchestrating all things to the counsel of His will. Rob Bell, and every other Christian, is not the Lord of Glory. We are not free to speak freely, by any means and any method. We are bound to follow, as messengers, the method of our Master who sends us. Furthermore, we are not living in an age of mystery. We are not awaiting the revelation of God’s mystery in the gospel. God has turned on the light. What was whispered in the dark is now to be proclaimed from the rooftops. God expects His shepherds to speak plainly the truths He has made known. Let’s look at some passages that may help us avoid the danger of using controversy to teach the truth.
Proverbs 15:2 says, “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly.” A goal of proclaiming the truth, whether in ink or tongue, is to make the truth acceptable. Of course, this does not mean that we are to change biblical teaching to accommodate our hearers. And certainly, we are not put up a smoke screen in hopes that people will be intrigued to find the fire. Instead, we are to do what we can clear the air, speak plainly the truth, and carefully avoid confusion. We can make the truth easier or more difficult to accept. Every Christian carries this responsibility.
Throughout the Scriptures, those who spoke for God were expected to speak plainly and avoid controversy. The New Testament church faced controversy repeatedly, but there was never an intentional effort to stir it up. Quite the opposite. When faced with controversy, Paul and other took an immediate and intentional approach to dispel rumors and clarify truth. While Paul and Barnabas preached in Lystra, a lame man was faithfully listening and Paul healed him. When the crowds realized what happened they began to deify Paul and Barnabas, shouting “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” They began calling Barnabas, Zeus and Paul, Hermes. Instant controversy. Notice, however, that Paul and Barnabas did not see this controversy as a opportunity to gain attention for the Gospel. Instead, they immediately put down the controversy, eliminated the confusion, and removed the doubt. They tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out. They did not promote confusion. They attacked it. Not so with Rob Bell. His book is surrounded by mystery and draws attention by luring hearers to say, “Huh? Did he just say what I think he said? God is going to save everybody?” And even before the book was released, this is precisely what happened. But we did not see Rob Bell tearing his robe, rushing into the crowd, crying, “Stop! Stop!” Quite the opposite, he has chosen use theological slight of hand to draw a crowd.
Again, this is not God’s way. Listen to Paul’s closing words to Timothy, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge” — which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you.”1 Controversy is not a good way to guard what God has entrusted. We as Christians, and especially pastors, are not merely charged with announcing the Gospel of grace. We are charged with protecting the Gospel as well. For this very reason, Paul also exhorted Timothy to steer clear of controversy and speak the truth plainly.
“As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.2
This should be a great caution to all. When it comes to doctrine, it’s not just what someone says…it’s how he says it.
A Couple Reviews
God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Win by Kevin DeYoung
Love Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s New Book by Tim Challies
*originally posted on March 23, 2011