Recently Rob Bell was quoted as saying some rather provocative things about the church, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the irrelevancy of the Bible. As has been the case for the last few years, whenever Bell speaks there is a minor firestorm that erupts. One of the unfortunate aspects of the firestorm is at some important truths often get lost in the conflagration.
In this case, Bell was making the case that it is inevitable that the church at large will come to accept gay marriage. Bell said, “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”
Without getting into whether or not it is inevitable that the church at large will adopt gay marriage as acceptable and without dealing with the crux of the issues regarding homosexuality, I want to focus on Bell’s statement about the Bible. In many ways it was what most set people off. I can understand that. Here is Bell, a former darling of the evangelical camp, all be it a more progressive strain of it. He was hailed as a preacher and Bible teacher for a new generation. Now here he is pointing out the irrelevance of the very scriptures he made his teaching reputation. The sense of betrayal that Christians feel when one of our own turns on the things we hold dear and believed he taught only adds to the blaze.
But let’s try to set all that aside for a moment as look at what Bell is saying from the perspective of the secular world we are trying to influence for Christ. When Bell says, “the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense” he has a point that we need to hear. If you are a follower of Christ I would hope that all you need is the truth of those letters in the Bible written 2,000 years ago. They are the eternal truth of the Word of God and they have authority in our lives, something every denomination and church from liberal to conservative has in their creeds in some fashion. But if you look at it from the perspective of the person who does not believe the Bible to be the Word of God and to have authority in our lives then yes, quoting 2,000 year old letters carries no weight, it has no influence. People are just not there. It is comparable to a Muslim quoting the Quran to a Christian. The Christian would consider it irrelevant because they do not consider the Quran to have any weight or authority. That is where many people are today and have been since antiquity.
It needs to be noted that the Apostle Paul understood this. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens, the center of philosophical learning, debate and even academic snobbery. After spending a few days getting a handle on the culture of Athens Paul begins to speak and debate the leading thinkers of the culture. He wants them to understand the Gospel and embrace Jesus as Lord. When he speaks he starts not by quoting the Bible, in this case some things written by Moses and other prophets between 400 and 2,000 years earlier. Rather he begins by quoting a Greek philosopher named Epimenides who lived more than 600 years before Paul. What Paul does is appeal to an authority that his audience would respect and then uses what they already agree to as a bridge to get to the truth of who Jesus is. Simply quoting the Bible to his audience would have gotten Paul nowhere fast. He was not denying the Gospel. He was being wise in how he presented it in order to best communicate with his hearers.
Bells says that if we are quoting the Bible as our best defense we are going to be increasingly irrelevant. He is partly right. Ultimately the Bible is our best case for the truth of God. It is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and will cut between bone and marrow, to quote Hebrews 4:12. But it is not our only tool and it is not always the first one we should use. For Christians to truly impact the world and people in it we need to understand what they hold as authoritative. What carries weight with them? What truths are to be found in their thinking that lead to the truth of Christ found in the Bible? Those truths are there. Paul says in Romans 1 that the knowledge of God is present within every human being but we suppress that knowledge to follow gods of our own making. That residual knowledge makes itself known in various ways, in little truths and in the yearnings in the hearts of men and women. We need to be students of the culture like Paul was in order to show people exactly why the Word of God is their best hope for finding truth and living life as it was meant to be.
Unfortunately, the reaction to Bell’s statement is typically to shout our Bible verses louder and with more anger in our attempt to prove to people that the Bible is relevant to the subject at hand. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. It is always relevant. Certainly getting angry over it doesn’t serve us or Jesus well. What we need to do is show the culture that much of what they already believe is contained within the Bible, just as Paul did in Athens. I may disagree with Rob Bell on many, many things. But we need to hear what he is saying from the perspective of a disbelieving culture so that we can better communicate the truth of God to people immersed in it.
WIthin his statement we can see what drives Bell. It is the people standing in front of him. I think he has an incredibly compassionate heart. As his famous books says, Love Wins. Bell is right that Evangelical Christians could take a few lessons in love, especially loving your neighbor who is a complete and total enemy of the things of God. Where Bell goes astray is thinking that you can have a loving God without also having a holy God, a just God, a God who gets angry over evil and injustice. We Christians are big on speaking the truth to people. But we are called by the truth of Scripture to “speak the truth in love.” Incidentally, that also applies to how we speak to and about Rob Bell.