A little earlier this year Rob Bell, the popular founding pastor of Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan, set off a bit of a web explosion by releasing a video trailer promoting his soon-to-be-released (at that time) book, Love Wins. The video didn't specifically say anything heretical, but it implied quite a bit in its questions and statements. For instance:
"Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?"
"……and so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how that ever be good news?"
"What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected and beautiful that whatever we've been told or taught the good news is actually better than that. Better than we can ever imagine. The good news is that love wins."1
Even in those few, separate quotes you can sense some fundamental orthodox Christian doctrines being questioned. The blogosphere rightly questioned whether his new manuscript was going to promote universalism, pluralism, and a lack of an eternal punishment (i.e. hell). The response was quick and harsh, as was the counter-reaction. One side immediately called Bell a heretic, the other side, just as judgmentally, condemned people for speaking up before the book was even on store shelves.
And, of course, the book inevitably came out, giving Bell's detractors plenty of additional fodder, especially when it came to the subject of hell (although an MSNBC interviewer, Martin Bashir, sort of ate him alive on the everyone-will-be-saved angle even though Bell claimed he wasn't a universalist2). Earlier this month, Bell spoke of his surprise that his work engendered so much controversy, and how the reactions hurt:
Evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell said he did not anticipate the firestorm he would stir with his book…
Bell said Tuesday that he not only didn't set out to be controversial, he had no idea his best seller, “Love Wins,” would bring condemnation…
“The last couple of weeks have been most painful in my life,” the Michigan pastor told a crowd of about 1,600 at Belmont University after an audience member asked him about the criticism he has faced. “It has taken me to a place of profound brokenness.”3
I will admit I have a hard time believing such a bright man as Rob Bell was astonished that his book (or even the pre-release trailer) would set off a "firestorm." Additionally, if he "didn't set out to be controversial" then he is pretty naive about the state of evangelical dialogue in our Internet age. Whether his main purpose was to reach people with what he considers the true gospel or not, that does not change the fact that he chose to contradict traditional Christian belief.
Let's assume what Bell wrote was heresy. Should his disparagers (at least the Christian ones) have spoken up or kept silent? Since Rob Bell claims to be a brother, and an evangelical and orthodox one at that4, should they have at least tried to speak with him privately?
In his piece, "Rob Bell: a Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid?," John MacArthur shares Jesus' warning in the Gospel of Matthew about false prophets who are ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15-16) and then states:
Our Lord clearly expects His true disciples to be able to spot spiritual imposters and wolves in sheep's clothing—especially those who are purveyors of deadly false doctrines.
Rob Bell certainly fits that category. He relentlessly casts doubt on the authority and reliability of Scripture. He denies the Bible's perspicuity, disavows its hard truths, and ridicules some of the most important features of the gospel.5
Church bulletin space limitations mean I have to wrap-up soon, but if MacArthur is accurate, then the apostle Paul's emphatic assertion to the Galatians is apropos:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).
And as for the question of rebuking privately—that only makes sense when the transgressor commits his acts "in private." The same Paul I just quoted even called out his fellow apostle Peter when Peter visibly misbehaved (see Galatians 2:11-14)…and the Bible has many other examples of public reprimands. Public sins demand public reproach, especially when it comes to the gospel.
I haven't done this discussion justice, so please take time to read (or view) the items linked in the footnotes, especially John MacArthur's article (which shares other valuable biblical references).
And be prepared for wolf control…often they are most popular sheep or shepherds out there.
1 Bell, R. (2011, February 22). LOVE WINS. – Available March 15th. Vimeo. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from http://vimeo.com/20272585
2 Hengler, G. (n.d.). MSNBC Host Makes Rob Bell Squirm: "You're Amending The Gospel So That It's Palatable!" Townhall.com. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from http://townhall.com/tipsheet/greghengler/2011/03/15/msnbc_host_makes_rob_bell_squirm_youre_amending_the_gospel_so_that_its_palatable!
3 Loller, T. (2011, April 5). Hell-questioning rev.: Didn't envision controversy. Yahoo! News. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110406/ap_on_re/us_rel_hell_questioning_pastor
4 Dalrymple, T. (2011, March 15). Rob Bell Interview — Transcript. Patheos. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from http://www.patheos.com/community/philosophicalfragments/2011/03/15/rob-bell-interview-transcript/
5 MacArthur, J. (2011, April 12). Rob Bell: a Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid? Grace to You. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from http://www.gty.org/Blog/B110412