Blurring the Lines of Orthodox Christianity – Rob Bell, Love Wins, and Pastoral Firings
I finished reading Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, on Saturday morning. I intend to share some thoughts on Bell’s book over the coming weeks – but as we all know, the road to hell is paved with such good intentions. Then again, according to Bell, there is no such hell for a road to lead to, except in a subjective, this-worldly sense. But I digress …
Today I wanted to share an interesting news story that my wife forwarded to me on Friday. Here is the link (http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/03/pastor_fired_for_backing_rob_b.html) to a story out of Grand Rapids. A Methodist pastor (Chad Holtz) in North Carolina was fired last week. The immediate precipitating cause was his expression of support for Rob Bell and the conclusions of his book, although the news story hints at deeper issues lurking under the surface. There are a couple of intriguing questions that are posed through this story.
(1) Is the Christian church intended to be, as the fired pastor intimates, “open hearts, open minds, open doors”? What does that mean, historically and presently?
(2) Is the church “threatened” by people who challenge “the way we’ve always thought”?
My short answer to both main questions is an emphatic NO – at least not in the way that pastor Holtz suggests.
First, the Christian church is not intended to have unqualified or unconditional “open hearts, open minds, open doors”. Let me break that down a little.
(a) Open Hearts – here, I agree with Holtz (I think). The church is to be characterized by a consistently open heart, inviting and welcoming in all who are hurting and seeking healing. None are turned away from the heart of the church. We are to express love and desire for all peoples, of all tribes and nations, all backgrounds and situations. Whatever the sin, whatever the sinner, whatever the situation, whatever the circumstance, our heart is to filled with compassion, grace, and love for our fellow persons. All are created in the image of God, and we are to love all. Please note – when I talk about “love”, I am not talking about wishy-washy, mushy-gushy feelings of sentimentality. Love can also be tough. Sometimes the loving thing to do is refuse to give the homeless alcoholic money, but instead to buy him a meal and drive him to a detox or rehab center. I’m just saying. Love also must be active, not merely internal. When the apostle James tells us that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” he is saying that our love for orphans and widows must be expressed through practical provision. So, open hearts, yes.
(b) Open Minds – I think I disagree with Holtz here. If he means open minds in the sense of thinking through things, pondering new arguments, considering new information and data, and being open to having God lead and guide you by His Holy Spirit, then I agree. But I think it is quite clear that this is not what Holtz means. Rather, he means that we need to be open to acknowledging that what Christians historically have affirmed as a central tenet of the faith maybe is not. Perhaps items that are central to the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the creedal affirmations embedded within the New Testament itself, need to be jettisoned from our ‘new Christian creeds’. If this is what he means, and I suspect that it is (though I would be happy to be corrected on this), then I vehemently disagree. Christian leaders, philosophers, theologians, and pastors certainly need to have open minds that are willing to consider and work through difficult issues; we need to read Bell’s book and critically engage it. But having an open mind in this sense does not mean simply accepting the arguments that Bell puts forward in his book, and revamping Christian doctrine accordingly.
(c) Open Doors – I think I agree with Holtz here. The doors of the church are to be open to all. As Jesus said, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I love the metaphors and images of the church that see it as a hospital, or a lighthouse – seeking to guide home those whose ships are in danger of running aground on the rocks, and seeking to bring healing to those who are ill by bringing them to the Great Healer.
But here’s another question – are the doors of church leadership to be unconditionally open doors? Are the minds of church leaders to be unconditionally open? This is where the heart of the disagreement lies, and this is why I applaud the church council which fired Pastor Holtz, if indeed they fired him for the reasons that I think they did. Don’t get me wrong – I always think it is sad when someone is terminated from their job, particularly so when said person is a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The heart of the issue, however, is that church leaders are charged with shepherding the flock. A part of that high and holy calling is protecting the flock of God against those who threaten it. In that sense, Holtz is right that the church council is reacting against people who “threaten” the church. But the threat is not someone threatening the way that the church has always thought. God is perfectly capable of defending His truth, and will always do so. Rather, the threat is someone who is placed in a position of spiritual leadership and authority leading the flock of God astray.
James 3:1 – “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Matthew 18:6-7 – “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”
Galatians 1:8-9 – “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”
Three different passages (and there are dozens more that could be cited) that speak both about the significance and reverence involved in teaching the flock of God, and the judgment that comes (rightfully) upon the one who leads the flock of God astray. Christian leaders have immense authority and spiritual power; they exert incredible influence over the people whom they lead. Rob Bell is one such Christian leader – he pastors a mega-church, and has tens of thousands more who hang on his words in podcasts, blogs, NOOMA videos, etc. He certainly exerts influence and authority in the Christian world.
Pastor Holtz was also a man with spiritual authority, who answered to another group of Christian leaders with spiritual authority. Holtz teaches and preaches within a Christian denomination – a church which has historically affirmed the central tenets of the Christian faith as expressed in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity).
I agree with Holtz that there needs to be room for dialogue, discussion, and exploration within Christendom. Calvinism or Arminianism? Traditional hymns or contemporary praise songs? Mega-church or house church? Infant baptism or believer’s baptism? Trans-substantiation, con-substantiation, or symbolic substantiation? These are all important theological issues (OK, two of them are less important, but still worthwhile dialogues), and call for open minds and open hearts.
But there are other questions that, for Christian leaders and teachers, are not open questions—rather, they are core doctrines of the faith which, if denied, define one as being outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The existence and Tri-unity of God. The imago dei, the image of God within human beings. The deity of Jesus. The atoning death of Jesus. The perfect example of Jesus. The bodily resurrection of Jesus. The centrality of Christian Scripture. The ordinances (or are they sacraments?) of baptism and communion. The forgiveness of sin and the life everlasting. These are non-negotiable items of faith, and while Christians of different denominations and traditions may define or understand some of them a little differently (especially the sacraments), they are simply not up for grabs. To have an open mind that says, “perhaps Jesus’ death didn’t really have anything to do with humanity’s need for redemption” is not to have an admirably open mind—at least not if one is entrusted with a role of Christian leadership. Can the President of the United States have an open mind regarding whether democracy is really superior as a political system to Communism or Fascism? I surely hope not. Can the Head of Planned Parenthood really have an open mind regarding whether women ought to have access to the birth control pill? Can the leading imam of Mecca really have an open mind as to whether or not Muhammad is the prophet of Allah? I don’t think so. Certainly they can and should think through those issues. But if any one of those individuals comes to think that perhaps the organization or institution that they are representing is wrong on one of those fundamental issues—if Obama was to convert to communism, or the Planned Parenthood was to oppose contraception, or the imam was to reject Muhammad’s prophethood, or the pastor was to reject the centrality of Jesus’ deity, atoning death, and bodily resurrection, the impetus is upon that leader to resign their position immediately.
Yes, pastors and Christians have the freedom to think what they will. Yes, they have the responsibility to ponder, to reflect, to consider, to think through. But if they come to conclusions that run contrary to the central affirmations of their denomination, then honor and integrity demands that they resign.
If they fail to take that path of honor and integrity, and resign a ministry post when they have rejected core elements of the historic Christian faith, then their ecclesiastical overseers have both the authority and the responsibility to remove them from Christian leadership. In Holtz’s case, this is precisely what happened. And that is why (again, assuming that I have understood the situation rightly) I do applaud the synod in North Carolina that removed Pastor Holtz from the parish. They determined that his embrace of Bell’s book, and all that it entails, placed him outside the bounds of orthodoxy. As a minister of the Gospel, it was imperative that he could be trusted to protect and nurture God’s people—to lovingly shepherd the flock. They could no longer trust him, and they had to remove him. It is sad, indeed. But in my mind, the greater tragedy is the rejection of core doctrines of the Christian faith in the vain attempt to make the Gospel something which will not offend people.