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the goat has left the building (rob bell and disagreeing well)

When bespectacled, self-described surfer dude Rob Bell started Mars Hill Bible Church in February of 1999, he didn’t do it with the intention of ever becoming famous.

rob bell

Bell, who TIME Magazine recently called “one of the 100 most influential people in the world,” is an author, lecturer, storyteller, and pastor known for his written and oral artistry.  If you’ve paged through any of Bell’s books, you’ll have noticed that


can read





He has a gift for weaving his words together in an easily-accessible manner.

Bell’s most famous sermon is perhaps his “the goat has left the building,” available for free here (after a cumbersome registration process), in which he preaches a “blood and guts” message from the book of Leviticus.  The teaching, one of Bell’s earliest, tackles one of the messiest books in the Bible and openly engages with the implications of the crimson sacrifices detailed in the 3,000 year-old text as a live goat shares the stage.

Rob Bell is far from one to shy from controversy.

Bell ignited a firestorm in early 2011 when he published “Love Wins,” a bestselling book that biblically engaged with the idea of universal reconciliation, otherwise known as Christian universalism.  Though Bell did not affirm universalism, he popularly suggested that “whatever objections a person may have of [the universalist view], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.”

Before the book was even released, influential pastor John Piper (who himself sparked controversy after declaring a Minneapolis tornado a warning against gay rights and a deeply fatal bridge collapse an act of “precious” judgment) flippantly tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell” in response to a trailer released for Bell’s then-forthcoming book.  Bell, then as now, has the power to sway with a provocative suggestion.

Two years later, Bell’s name still ignites controversy.

Last night, my twitter feed flooded with people calling the man a heretic, a false teacher, saying he is dead to Christianity.

After I posted a tweet that said “Rob Bell comes out (ba-dum) in support of marriage equality” with a link to the Huffington Post story, someone perplexingly responded “just because Rob Bell says it does not mean that it is true.”

One recurring tweet stood out above the rest: “RIP, Rob Bell!”

Having faced some of the same names hurled at myself (not-a-real-Christian, heretic, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing), I can deeply relate to Bell’s situation.

The chaos began when yesterday at a Q & A session in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, Bell responded to an audience question saying “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.”

Evangelicals are now asking ourselves if this is another ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ moment.

In light of his apparent affirmation of same-sex relationships, the question seems to be this: should Rob no longer be considered an evangelical, or even a faithful Christian?

…has the goat left the building?

Of course,

I must faithfully respond

with a resounding


Whichever side of the gay issue (or indeed a litany of other issues) which we find ourselves, we must be very careful not to dismissively question the other side’s basic allegiance and commitment to Christ.

love thy enemy

As both sides become increasingly polarized, those on the liberal side of the aisle are declared “not Real Christians™”  and those on the conservative side are consigned to the role of “angry bigots.”

But we know reality is far more nuanced, for there are bigots on the left and “pseudo-Christians” on the right.

It’s more complicated than the labels we assign each other.

I have good friends and family members on the conservative side of the issue who are faithful, loving, authentic followers of Christ.  I have good friends and family members on the liberal side who are faithful, loving, authentic followers of Christ.

I would die for people on either side of the divide.

What we do when we send out dismissive tweets (and I am certainly as guilty of this as Mr. Piper) is fail to respect the image of God in everyone.  We disobey obey our Master’s command for us to engage with and treat our enemies with love and compassion and patience and kindness.

My dad, Saul of Tarsus, Martin Luther, and Mr. Bell and I may not agree on every single theological issue, but that’s okay.  I have been extremely blessed by the writings and teachings of each of these men.

To an incredibly generous extent, we don’t have to agree on everything in order to partner together as brothers in Christ and to share in the Eucharist at the family table.  I will not say they aren’t Christians and break our bond of trust.

Despite our differences, I do not intend to break communion and fellowship with them.

Quite the opposite, actually:

I intend to break Communion and fellowship with them.


Here’s a Latin phrase you may be familiar with: in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas – in necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in everything compassion.

We are not supposed to bad-talk other Christians just because we disagree on things like the morality of homosexual acts.

In the midst of vitriol from both sides of the issue, God is calling for folks like us to stand in the middle and to demonstrate compassion for all.

We need Christians to reject the labels and the hate and say “hey, regardless of any disagreement on this, I’m going to treat you as a human being and as a faithful Christian.  I love Jesus, you love Jesus, let’s talk about this together.”

As to the whole Rob Bell mess, someday God will send the sheep to His left and ask all the goats to leave the building.

But that’s His job, not ours.

Until then, let’s shut our mouths and learn to listen just a little better.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Parker Smith #

    this is @cwbyofthecross –the thing is, for most in this current Bell mess, this isn’t about the gay marriage issue, it’s about a man who took a position of influence and is attempting to undermine the Christian faith with what appears to many to be big and profound thinking. He is incorrectly teaching Scripture and presenting his own ideas as if they have more merit than Scripture and that is a dangerous place to be. At a minimum, it does make it impossible to define himself as a Christian as defined by being a follower of Christ and at the other end, it makes him a false prophet. That’s not an extreme view and well Bell himself shouldn’t be under personal attack, his views most definitely need to be confronted.

    March 19, 2013
    • thanks for stopping by, cwbyofthecross! I think I agree with you that it is a person’s views, not themselves, which should be subject to scrutiny, especially if that person is in a public position of teaching and authority.

      Bell certainly has done some re-imagining of the way we express the Christian faith, and though I can’t fault him for that, I also think there’s some validity in many of his critics’ points. However, I still cannot sanction folks calling him “a false prophet,” at least on the basis of orthodoxy, as Bell appears to affirm the historic beliefs of the Christian faith: the trinity, the inspiration of the holy scriptures, salvation through Christ, resurrection of the dead, resurrection of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the life of the world to come.

      On this basis, I find myself unable to dismiss him as a heretic or not a real Christian. make sense?

      March 20, 2013
  2. “We are not supposed to bad-talk other Christians just because we disagree on things like the morality of homosexual acts.”

    I think you are getting the cart before the horse on this one, because I would have to believe they’re a Christian in the first place. Jesus said we would be known by our fruit, and when you tell people sin is not sin, I see no more reason to believe someone says they are a Christian then if they say those words while they steal from their neighbor or murder innocent children. You don’t stand and commit sin while while screaming “Praise the Lord!”

    You also miss the point with your big conclusion, you are correct that one day God will send the sheep to His left and goats will leave. Those of us that see the heresy of Rob Bell is that he is standing their telling us that he is not goat, when his actions clearly show that he is, and he is using his soap box to call others to be goats, rather than sheep. That is our job, not His.

    March 19, 2013
    • I think I understand where you’re coming from, btay. I stand by my two beliefs, however:

      1) what makes someone a Christian is not whether or not they think monogamous, same-gender romantic relationships are a sin; what makes someone a Christian is whether or not they follow Jesus Christ.

      Jesus says in Matthew that sheep and the goats are to be separated based on whether or not they cared for the least of these (25: 31-46). Not into the pro-gay side and the real Christians®. (All that to say, the distinctions we create for ourselves mean nothing if they do not advocate for the forgotten and the oppressed.)

      and 2) I’ve been on both sides of this divide, and I utterly stress again that you can be a faithful Christian and be on the “other side” of this issue. Much more needs to be done in the way of grace, patience, and understanding from conservatives, liberals, and us in-betweeners.

      I don’t mean to be combative. is that helpful at all?

      March 19, 2013
  3. I agree with compassion for the homosexual, I disagree with Rob Bell,

    March 19, 2013
    • and that’s completely okay, Shazza. That’s a point of some disagreement and tension. But, we are all still brothers and sisters in Christ, Amen?

      March 19, 2013
      • Amen brother…amen!!! Blessings!!!!

        March 20, 2013
  4. Ryan!! You are a brave brave soul. I love it. I remember briefly talking with you about rob bell at the NFS conference. This hits home for me as I just recently had a conversation with a good friend who confidently said NO democrats could also be Christians. As someone who leans more on the democrat side of things, and also loves Jesus like crazy, I was really bothered by this obviously.

    I can’t imagine how hard all the criticism must be for rob bell. I just want to give him a bug hug!

    Sure, us Christians can look at the lives and opinions of other believers and often this reflects their relationship with god. But so many of these judgments aren’t true. For example, there have been times my faith have been stale, but I’ve looked like I have everything together, leading bible studies, going to church, ect. But other times I may look messy on the outside, skipping church, super overly emotional or sad, but this is when god is doing deep, real stuff in me.

    I think something you discussed which is so important is that God doesn’t love us because we have everything figured out. He loves us though we don’t, and never will. And though theology is great and we should seek the truth, but Jesus didn’t die on the cross so his people could run around judging and questioning the salvation of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I’ll take being head over heels for Jesus and erring on the side of love over having my theology all worked out and acceptable to the world any day. A lot of Christians seen to forget that it’s Gods job to judge the world, not ours. We’re just supposed to get out there and love, love, love.

    Keep writing boldly! It’s inspiring. I’m praying that your passionate and provocative voice will be heard by our generation!

    March 19, 2013
    • Allie,

      You are too sweet. I am so glad God let us meet at the NFS conference. It’s funny, I don’t remember that conversation we had about Rob back then but I was actually fortunate enough to have lunch with Dave Batstone (the president of NFS) just last week and Mr. Bell came up in conversation. Batstone said something like “there’s not a lot of humble, genuine guys in that line of work, some people let it get to their heads and aren’t authentic. But Rob really cares. He’s really godly and he is a genuinely good man.” I asked him about the what he thought about all the (Love Wins) controversy from last year and he responded “…what controversy?!”

      How cool is THAT, that he was so focused on setting the captives free and breaking the chains of injustice that he didn’t even have TIME to get caught up in petty theological squabbles. While I’m getting my feathers ruffled about a “farewell, Rob Bell” tweet or the latest Driscoll fracas, Batstone is honoring the call of Christ and freeing slaves. It was such an inspiration, and a good model to me to get my heart out of the blogosphere (plant feet firmly on ground; remove head from ass) and into the real world.

      I pray for you, your friends and your school, and our great movement! I love it when you leave comments on the blog, thank you so much for your words. Keep your head up.

      Grace and Peace,


      March 19, 2013
  5. Good stuff, Ryan. I agree that civility can only be good in this discussion and that the jabs people take at each other is un-Christ-like. I think there’s something to be said for the conservatives too. In Titus 1 Paul definitely affirms the strong rebuke of false teachers because of the damage they can cause to other Christians. He even goes on to call them harsh names (though this wasn’t necessarily to the false teachers but to Titus).

    If Rob Bell is one of these, I think you can see why conservatives would respond the way they do. This isn’t to excuse them full-stop; the strong rebuke should be done in a charitable and loving way, being more about the issues and less about the character of the people holding them.

    March 19, 2013
    • Amen, Keif. I am delighted with the truth and the manner of your comment. I could not agree more and I really do appreciate you having stopped by the blog 🙂

      March 19, 2013
  6. Doug #

    A few thoughts.

    1. ‘should Rob no longer be considered an evangelical, or even a faithful Christian?’

    If I change this to: ‘Should Rob no longer be considered one who believes the Bible is truth’, how would you respond?

    Rob should NOT be considered an evangelical based on the very definition of the term.

    1. Also, e·van·gel·ic. pertaining to or in keeping with the gospel and its teachings.
    2. belonging to or designating the Christian churches that emphasize the teachings and authority of the Scriptures, especially of the new testament, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself, and that stress as paramount the tenet that salvation is achieved by personal
    conversion to faith in the atonement of Christ.

    Does the Gospel speak wholly to what Rob Bell is preaching? If anything, in both instances, Rob Bell clearly speaks AGAINST what the Bible says. I am not one to judge his salvation, but at the very least he is a man in need of repentance. If we compromise the Gospel, it isn’t the Gospel.

    2. ‘As to the whole Rob Bell mess, someday God will send the sheep to His left and ask all the goats to leave the building. But that’s His job, not ours. Until then, let’s shut our mouths and learn to listen just a little better.’

    I agree in principal to what you said, but you are incorrect in your context. Sheep and Goats relates to a Salvation issue. This is not a Salvation issue (although it COULD be due to the fruit of Rob Bell, but once again, that is God’s call). The question is whether we should listen to someone NOT preaching the Gospel, or whether we should call them out because of the damage being done TO the Gospel. The Bible is clear (I Timothy 1) that we should warn others about false teachers, that we should ‘charge certain persons not to preach any other doctrine’. These doctrines are dangerous.

    It all comes down to this: If the Bible is Truth, Rob Bell needs to repent. We cannot allow culture to define what is Christianity and what the Moral Standard is. It’s in the Bible, and we should speak against (albeit with Love and Grace) those who do not promote the Gospel.

    March 19, 2013

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