I’ve been keeping loose tabs on the debate surrounding Rob Bell’s theological position as presented in his new book, Love Wins. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, give a glimpse to my previous post. I don’t really intend to hash out the theology more than is already being done all over the evangelical blogosphere — I trust we can simply state at this point, “Universalism is bad” and leave it alone.
What I have been increasingly troubled by, though, is the backlash I’ve seen against anyone coming against Bell’s position. I expected there to be some squabbling, but I also expected it mostly to arise from loyal fans who have watched every NOOMA video ten times, memorized half of them, own every book, and go to every conference available. But I’ve been surprised by the vast kickback from people who have no particular allegiance to either Bell or universalism, but nonetheless can’t stomach the idea that major evangelical leaders are criticizing him — or in other words, saying, “He’s written universalistic things. Universalism is bad.” Which, to me, seems like a pretty far cry from a public tar and feathering, but you wouldn’t know it from the reactionary comments.
This has started me thinking of a teaching Mike Bickle did a couple of years ago about establishing a “culture of honor”. Basically, this means that our default is to speak in an honoring way of other believers, even if they come from different “streams” than us — that can mean anything from different ministry styles to different lingo to different theology in secondary issues (sprinkling vs. dunking, for instance). All Christians, even our favorite ministries and ministers, are goofy in one way or another. We all see part of the picture and all have our foibles and quirks. Understanding this, we ought to refrain from slandering one another, and instead pray for, bless, and serve one another in humility.
Now, the message doesn’t stop there — there is also something to be said for discerning the difference between quirks (e.g. platform ministry style), errors (significant theological mistakes that do not cost someone their salvation), and heresies (serious theological untruths that break from orthodox Christianity). We should have loving grace with one another’s quirks, we should speak truthfully about the errors (without throwing a conniption fit), but we must directly and clearly confront the heresies. It’s a great teaching, and I would recommend giving it a listen at Mike Bickle’s resource library here.
However, sorting that out is not really my goal in writing this blog post. Neither am I trying to prove how we ought to respond to Rob Bell specifically. But what I have seen in the clashing of the interwebs over this is how crucially important it is for us, the Church, to embrace that culture of honor as a rule.
Some of the accusations I have seen raised are, “Oh, there go those evangelicals, devouring one of their own again.” “Geez, you people can’t handle it when someone disagrees with you in any way, can you?” “You’re just unwilling to have dialogue about this.”
Whether those accusations are justified or not is not my point, but they do illustrate something very important: if we neglect having a culture of honor, we lose the ability to effectively rebuke when a real problem does arise.
Suppose we daily spend our energy, ink, and bandwidth trashing other ministries. That church up the road are the frozen chosen and quench the Spirit. That guy on TV is a charismaniac who does nothing but showboat and ask for money. That preacher is diluting the gospel by arriving at a different application of that parable than I did. That outreach is tunnel-visioned and missing the big picture. Etc., etc., etc. Perhaps our writing is skillful and our logic is bulletproof. Perhaps (however grossly unlikely!) we are actually right in every single area where we have a bone to pick with some other ministry somewhere on planet earth. Perhaps every single thing we publish against another believer is true — the church up the road needs to invite the Holy Spirit in, the guy on TV needs to tone it down, that preacher misunderstood that parable, and that outreach is not addressing the real problem it wants to fix. Suppose we have perfect discernment and effective rhetoric.
What do we do when someone pops up who, say, denies the doctrine of eternal punishment? Someone who questions the deity of Jesus? One who laughs off reality of the Resurrection? What do we do when people have identified us as “that person who’s mad at everyone else in the Church”, and think this is just more of that? What do we do when we have already slung the full force of our outrage at the televangelist’s wardrobe? How do we even say, “No, seriously, this is actually a really big deal” if everything to date has been a “really big deal”?
In other words, we don’t want to be like the little boy who cried wolf(-in-sheep’s-clothing).
I don’t have any particular author or organization in mind as I’m writing this, except for me and my own little soap box in this corner of the internet. Undoubtedly many leaders have been unjustly accused of being this kind of judgmental scrooge when it comes to dissimilar ministries. Undoubtedly some have been justly accused of it. Surely those internet commenters have been both right and wrong in calling such behavior out. It’s not my job to sort out all those people, and not in my power to do much about it. But what I can do is cry out for God to set a guard over my own mouth. I can ask Him to give me more compassion and more discernment. I can commit again to honoring my brothers and sisters in Christ, so that when I do speak out about something, it actually has weight to it. I want it not just to be another indignant diatribe in a droning string of sour notes, but a clear trumpet call from someone who loves the Body of Christ well. By the grace of God, that’s something I want to set my heart towards.