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.
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
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?
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.
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.