Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Is the Church Becoming Irrelevant?

This is the question being brought to mind by Rob Bell, author and former mega-church pastor famous (or infamous) for his unorthodox views about Christianity. And in this case, he is speaking specifically about the approach of many churches to homosexuality.

Before I get into any substantive discussion, let me begin by saying I am disappointed to have to be writing about this topic again. Christians are often said to be obsessed with homosexuality, particularly Christians who are steadfast about what is contained in the Bible. Certainly, we do tend to talk about it a lot. On the other hand, most of the talk is responsive. It is not as if we constantly bring it up out of the clear blue sky. That is generally done by those who want to see the church change to be more approving of homosexuality. So one question to ask would be, whose obsession is it really?

Here is the article that explains what Bell said, along with a video of the interview in which he said it. When Oprah asked about when (not if) churches will become more accepting of homosexuality, he said it would be soon. His thinking is summed up in this single paragraph: “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.”

Culture and the Church

There is a positive aspect to what Bell has to say, and I do not want anyone to miss it. But first, we need to deal with how misguided he is overall. In the first place is his comment that culture has already come to the point of accepting homosexual relationships. Is this true? Yes and no. Most people in Western cultures see no reason to stand in the way of people engaging in homosexual relationships. Even homosexual marriage is seeing a plurality of support, though its legal existence has largely been due to judicial fiat. But this misses a number of important points. For one, to have a “live and let live” attitude is not the same as celebrating homosexuality. Second, there is close to an even split in public opinion, and the will of the majority does not equate to truth automatically, anyway. Next, the growing comfort with homosexuality in our culture does not mean it is being smiled upon by all the peoples of the world. Many nations are still aghast at the idea of it becoming a commonplace. And lastly, there is the most important point as it relates to culture.

The church, the assembly of those faithful to Jesus Christ, has never been meant to reflect the culture. We are called to reflect the Lord. In John 17:14-16, Jesus prayed this to the Father on behalf of His disciples: “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” Related to this, Jesus also said to His disciples in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world,” which coincides with when He said in John 9:5, “I am the light of the world.” Taken together, this means that we are to give the light of Christ, not the darkness of the cultures we find around us. Christians are required to know the truths of the Lord and speak them no matter what the people around us think of it. Rob Bell’s position on culture sadly amounts to little more than adolescent thinking. He wants us to cave to peer pressure.

History and Truth

The second point Bell makes in his attempt to persuade churches to accept the cultural turn towards the celebration of homosexuality is to disparage the Scriptures. You can really hear it in his voice when you listen to the audio, but even when you read what he said, it comes off as dismissive. This is dangerous territory for him to be walking in.

Put aside for a moment that he has criticized God’s Word (but don’t worry, we’ll get there). Bell is trying to say that a musty, 2,000-year-old document is too cold and distant to mean much to the living, moving people of today. He is essentially arguing that the truth of a position is defined by its age, and the newer the better. This definition of truth is fairly frightful, when you think about it. Truth would change every day, if this were so. But thankfully, the word and the idea actually mean something else. For a thing to be true, it must reflect the world as it is. We have not found human nature to change. Homosexuality was as much a recognized reality during the days of Nero as it is now. So if what the letters of Paul had to say about it then was true, how is it not true now just as a result of the passage of time?

And what kind of Pandora’s Box does this open for us? Contrary to what some less biblical people tend to think, homosexuality is not the sole focus of the New Testament. It also calls other things sin, like theft, adultery, extortion, and slander (all found in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which is curiously only known for condemning homosexual practice). It says that these things lead to judgment. It also says that forgiveness is available, and that God loves everyone and wants us to find freedom from our faults. Which of these other truths should we ignore because they are in “letters from 2,000 years ago?” In that interview with Oprah, Bell praises the virtue of fidelity. But that is an old idea, and our culture is trying to shake its chains. By Bell’s logic, should the church not, as well?

I have to believe, based on the evidence we have, Rob Bell does not believe in God. Certainly not a personal God, the God of the Bible. If he did, he might take the warning of Revelation 22:18, 19 seriously: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” This has long been understood to apply to the entire Bible as we now have it. But even if we limit it to the Book of Revelation, Revelation 22:15 says the unrepentant sexually immoral will not enter heaven. Bell wants these words stricken from the record (along with a lot of others). He can only do that because he does not believe God has spoken. He is not worried about the warning. In his disrespect, he is inviting disaster. I hope he repents and sees the truth of Christ, for the sake of his soul.

What is Grace?

This could all sound a bit judgmental, I suppose, so let’s end by turning back to the positive in what Bell had to say. In another quote from the interview, apparently taken from his new book, he says, “Grace is when you know you’re loved exactly as you are.” This, again, is wrong. But it is close. Grace is not knowing you are loved exactly as you are. It is knowing you are loved in spite of who you were. It is God’s gift of forgiveness. And remember, forgiveness implies wrongdoing. We all need forgiveness because we have done something wrong. Christ died on the cross to accept the punishment we deserved, so that we do not have to experience it ourselves. Bell does not understand what grace is because he does not know what forgiveness is. And he does not know what forgiveness is because he wants to avoid any recognition of sin. His philosophy is, in fact, entirely graceless. Under it, people feel alone and unloved for no reason. They are perfect as they are, but God put them here to suffer “just because.” That is really rather terrifying. At least a concept of sin gives us a reason for suffering. It is not as arbitrary as Bell’s universalism makes it.

I promised a positive, though, and here it is. Somewhere in all of this, Bell is telling us that there are hurting people out there.  They are our brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles; co-workers and neighbors. They all want to know they are loved. And they are loved. So is Rob Bell. So am I. So are you. God does love us. He died for the love of us. We can find that love, but only if we do so selflessly. We need to relinquish our sin rather than calling it a part of our personality and clinging to it rather than releasing it to the Savior. And we must have a loving, kind attitude in what we say to those who are still refusing to access the offer made by Jesus. We do need to accept and celebrate them. Not their behavior, not their relationships, but they themselves. When we speak to them, they must be able to sense our desire for their good, and our hope for them. That can be very difficult, especially when balanced with the need to confront errors. But it is absolutely necessary. Without it, we will be guiding people toward destruction just as surely as Bell is. The only way the church becomes irrelevant is by losing the wherewithal to tell the truth as God has given it to us, and by refusing to show the love God has extended to us. Both are necessary. And both together make the church imperishable. 

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