Posted by: Jack Brown | March 21, 2011

No Bell Prize

When I got home from church yesterday I almost felt like writing an email to my entire congregation and apologizing.  After a week of saying I would be addressing the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy in the Sunday service, I had to wonder if some were disappointed by the direction I ended up taking.  I left many of the questions raised by the controversy unanswered, and many of them unaddressed.  I’ll be honest–if I had written my sermon on Tuesday or Wednesday (sorry, never gonna happen) immediately after reading the book, what I did from the pulpit on Sunday morning would’ve been completely different.  That sermon would’ve probably been a point-by-point examination of everything in the book that annoyed and frustrated me.  But as the week went on I found my heart changing, and by the time I sat down to write the sermon I had a completely different attitude and perspective.  Not towards the book, mind you–it still frustrates me greatly (and I’ll be blogging more about that as the week goes on), but the changes I experienced were in two other areas.

First, I found my heart changing towards Rob Bell.  I have to say I’m not his biggest fan.  I am extremely suspicious of anyone who has a “rock star” status in the Christian subculture (and if I’m honest, the suspicion is mixed with jealousy), and although I enjoyed Velvet Elvis and the original Nooma videos, his output since then has left me wanting.  I was committed to reading Love Wins to form my own opinion, but I thought I had a pretty good idea of where he comes from theologically and culturally.  My first read through Love Wins confirmed many of my thoughts, and many times while reading the book I found myself voicing my frustration out loud (much to the annoyance of the people in the retreat center lounge where I was sitting!).  His use of Scripture, his way of speaking of doubt and faith, his view of the cross, his attempt to reconcile things no human mind can fully reconcile…there were many things that left me angry and defensive.  But as the week went on, and I watched him on interviews and thought more about what he was saying, I found (to borrow Rob’s own language) my hardened heart melting towards him.  Not that my opinion of what he wrote changed, mind you.  But I did see a glimpse of the man behind the controversy–a man who I believe loves Jesus and people passionately and is struggling to make sense of things that make no sense to him (and many others).  And through it all I began to realize that any use of the pulpit I’ve been graciously given to tear down Rob Bell would be a violation of the sacred charge I’ve been given.  Jesus said to go make disciples, not go and attack people with whom you disagree.  That was the first change I experienced.

The second had to do with how I saw the task of preaching.  Like I said, had I written my sermon earlier in the week it would have been pretty much a point-by-point “here’s how Love Wins loses” approach.  But as I prepared for worship through the week, I was reminded in many ways that preaching is first and foremost about God’s Word.  It is the preacher’s task to approach the Word with awe and reverence and ask the Spirit to guide us in how we proclaim it to the congregation.  In my theological tradition, sermons are first and foremost proclamation.  The book that really matters from the pulpit is the Bible, and I was in danger of forgetting that.  The text I had been given for the week (we use the Lectionary at our church) was John 3, and I needed to preach from John 3, not Love Wins.

So in the end I settled for a hybrid approach, for better or worse.  I used John chapter 3 to address the Love Wins controversy in a way that I felt was consistent with the text.  After all, John 3 is a great text for talking about eternity, and it also opened the door for me to talk about what I see as the fundamentally flawed premise behind Rob Bell’s book: that we somehow need to make the gospel “palatable” for those who find it difficult or offensive.  Jesus didn’t model that to Nicodemus—three times he looks Nicodemus right in the eye and says, “I tell you the truth.”  Our task in evangelism is to tell the truth, even if it’s difficult truth.  I personally feel Love Wins is, at heart, an attempt to make the truth less difficult.  The danger of that approach is that it can stifle the Spirit and water down the gospel, in my opinion.  Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus opened a door to talk about that important concept.

Which leaves me with a lot of frustration and reflection about Love Wins still festering and bouncing around inside of me.  That’s why I’ve decided to blog about it.  I’ve wanted to start a new blog for some time anyway, so this gives me the perfect excuse.  So I’ll be using this space to reflect on Love Wins over the next few entries, then we’ll see what else is out there worth talking about.  I’m sure I’ll think of something.



  1. I haven’t read anything by Rob Bell, nor can I claim much knowledge of his theological views, but I can say that it was edifying to read this. That feeling is a familiar one: when someone says or writes something about Christianity that becomes very popular/well-known, but which you are sure is unbiblical, or even dangerous. I’ve had friends make such casual statements before, and my instinct is always to rush in with all the scriptural and theological reasons they are wrong. Unfortunately this approach too often leaves out the love of God, which is a command. Fortunately God often causes me to think twice or thrice before responding, so He can do some work on my heart first. So I think you did the right, godly thing in this situation. While the pulpit certainly is for warning against sin and error, such warnings should come from the context of teaching the Word.

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