Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached an evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.

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2 thoughts on “Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

  1. Wow… John Piper on “Farewell Rob Bell”. Now c’mon, you only had to see Bell’s promotinal video to know where he was headed. It’s also likely that Piper had seen some of the book.

    Piper isn’t one to do something just because others think he should. I give you the firestorm over inviting Rick Warren to the Desiring God conference. He is clearly, his own person. I’ve never known him to make a decision without spending much time considering what he might do before he acts.

    Well, the book is out and it’s clear that Bell is a Universalist, no matter how much he might deny it. He has ripped the cross out of the gospel because in his view, God will change His mind and eventually all will spend eternity with Him, thereby making the sacrifice a moot point.

    Don’t even get me started on his deplorable use of Greek.

    Piper was right to separate himself from someone who is so thorougly UNChristian. We need many more just like him.

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  2. I have read the book. Rob Bell clearly states that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. He specifically repudiates the ‘many ways up a mountain belief’ in clear declarative sentences. He primarily asks questions which can be confusing for people and you need to read him carefully. His theology is easy to criticize, but let’s criticize what he actually said.

    One can make an argument that the book smacks of universalism, but he does not actually embrace universalism. I think the less usual belief he is playing with is different from what people usually call universalism’. (Note my tact in labelling it as ‘less usual’ instead of heresy!) If you read the book carefully, I think that you will see a different implication to his comments.

    A more pressing issue may be the tone of criticism. Even if we are right we need to think about how we express ourselves. Rude, dismissive, angry expressions should be avoided.

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