I received an email from a pastor today. He is part of a group that I will be speaking to in a couple of weeks. The email contained a video clip of Rob Bell and a British theologian named Andrew Wilson. The pastor in the email admonishes the group to watch the video before my coming to speak to the group.
In the video clip, Andrew Wilson has a very clear position that same-sex sexual behavior is sinful. He is trying to understand Rob Bell’s position. It is clear that Wilson and Bell differ in their perspectives. What comes across in the video, however, is that Wilson is articulate and clear – and Bell is murky and evasive. And the end result is further polarity, further misunderstanding, further perpetuation of distinguishing true believers from heretics by using gay marriage as a litmus test for orthodoxy.
Wilson pushes for a very black and white position. Either gay sex is sinful or God says it is righteous. Either the Bible is true or we just put the Scriptures aside for the sake of cultural progress. Wilson is trying to nail down whether Bell’s exegesis is different or if his hermeneutics is different. He is asking if Bell thinks that Jesus and Paul were not referring to our contemporary reality of same-sex oriented adults desiring to be in a marriage relationship (and instead referring to historical and cultural experiences of same-sex behavior in the context of pederasty and idolatry) or if Bell thinks that Jesus did prohibit all same-sex sexual activity – but got it wrong because he too was just a product of his time and place. These are important and incisive questions. And Bell seems to avoid responding.
Perhaps, Bell just didn’t want to go down the tired path of argumentation – and as might be gleaned from his closing remarks – wants to just acknowledge the differences and still see one another as brothers in Christ. Maybe he resists engaging the questions because he doesn’t believe this should be the litmus test for orthodoxy. I’m guessing there.
If one reads through some of the comments, however, Bell’s responses (or perceived lack of response) elicit very strong, certain, proclamations of Bell’s heretical position. One commenter said, “Rob Bell is apostate concerning the faith doesn’t even understand the basics of Jesus teachings about holiness…I fear for anyone who might follow him..beware!”
While Rob Bell may have well been inviting Andrew Wilson to experience generous spaciousness with him in his closing comments, the robustness of this posture seems lost on Wilson and the viewers of the video. What is of ultimate importance is ascertaining what Bell’s position is and why he holds it.
Indeed, Scripture does implore us to, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (I Peter 3: 15, 16)
Surely there is more to be said from the Scriptures about why generous spaciousness, or the invitation to experience Christian unity in the midst of differing perspectives, is a faithful response in today’s discussions about Christian discipleship for sexual minority sisters and brothers.
So, if I had been Rob Bell in that particular interview / debate these are some of the things I would have said in response to Andrew Wilson:
Wilson speaks of an arc of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and suggests that this arc is one man, one woman, in marriage, for life. I would ask whether this is really the primary arc one ought to consider when contemplating matters of sexual ethics for sexual minorities. When I consider the large story of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, I see a beautiful and perfect creation where there is justice and peace for all in the beginning …. and in the end I see this creation restored to a place of justice and peace for all. This trajectory and focus on justice, or to put it another way, shalom, is the consistent expression of God’s heart for all that he has made. So when we consider matters of sexual ethics, a primary question for me – more primary than a question of complementary gender – is the question of removing barriers for people to flourish.
As I have said in a previous blog series, your theological starting point makes a big difference in your articulation of a theology or ethics of sexuality. If your starting point is creation order you will land in a different place than if your starting point is the essential character of God as Trinitarian – relational. God is relational – and we are created in his image. What implications does this have for sexual minority persons? If it was not good for man to be alone in the garden, the perfect creation prior to sin, how does this fit with the call to refrain from intimate relationship for an entire group of people?
If your theology and ethics is deeply informed by the Incarnational strategy of God – the stripping of privilege and status in order to identify with those who are alienated, different, and marginalized in order to bring restoration and wholeness, you may end up in a different place than if your emphasis is on a prescriptive normativity. One must grapple with the question of whether the complementary male and female in the creation narrative is descriptive or prescriptive. And, people will differ in how they answer that question.
Rob Bell makes reference to Neil Plantinga’s definition of sin in the interview. Plantinga says that sin is “culpable breaking of shalom”. This is an understanding of sin that may be different from the typical definition of “missing the mark”. “Missing the mark” seems to suggest that you will lose something if you sin. “Culpable breaking of shalom” carries a sense of loss and grief. Another way of looking at this may be to consider why a Christian would try to refrain from sin. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has swallowed up sin and God’s victory over sin and death is sure and complete. As human beings, this means that the way to be reconciled to God has been accomplished. Human beings are confronted with a very simple but profound opportunity – we can either receive this good news and believe it to be true – or we can reject it. Salvation is completely and totally held within God. Our sin cannot nullify what Jesus Christ has already accomplished. We aren’t reconciled to God because we do well at sinning less. We are reconciled to God because Jesus Christ has made it possible. We seek to live lives free from sin because first, we are so grateful for what Christ has accomplished on our behalf and second, because we do not want anything to impede or distract from our communion with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. That means, that as children of God, we do not need to be so fearful of whether or not we interpret Scripture perfectly. We rest in the glorious good news of what Christ has accomplished. And in gratitude for this, we seek to live lives that are open to and experiencing this amazing gift of grace. To somehow suggest that sin has the power to defeat what Christ has already accomplished makes the enemy dance a jig – because then God’s children are living in fear rather than living in the joy and gratitude of Christ’s victory. The point is not to decipher what is sin and what isn’t – the point is to open our lives to the reality of who we are in Christ and live in grateful response – trusting that the Holy Spirit is more than able to continue to lead us into all truth and into a deeper and deeper communion with God.
If I had been in Rob Bell’s seat for this interview, I would have talked about the difference between our Christian lives being energized by fear or energized by love. Now don’t misunderstand me, I think that love still has a healthy sense of reverence and awe for a God we can never fully apprehend. But such love is not afraid that God isn’t really good or isn’t really loving or doesn’t really want to receive us as reconciled children because of what Christ has accomplished. When we are energized by love, we are free to live in joyful gratitude with the desire that nothing would impede our communion with God. But when we are energized by fear, we don’t want to take any risks, we don’t want to make any mistakes, we strive and drive and inevitably try to earn God’s love.
If I’d been in Rob Bell’s place, I would have talked about my conviction that we are called to worship and serve Jesus as Lord – not the Bible. Don’t misunderstand me, I am deeply grateful for the gift of the Scriptures because they are God’s special revelation of himself to us. But I encounter so many Christians who seem to make the Bible its own idol. They seem to worship the Bible more than Jesus. When I read the Scriptures, Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit is going to keep on revealing Jesus to us. When I read the Scriptures, I’m called to put my hope in the Living Word – Jesus. That means that I can recognize that my interpretation – and everyone else’s for that matter – will always be incomplete, imperfect. I will never know with 100% certainty how to interpret the Bible. What I can know with 100% certainty is that God created the world, loves the world, and will reconcile and restore the world – and that I can participate in this reconciliation. So, when I look at texts of Scripture, it is completely appropriate to ask if my interpretation is Christ-like. Is my interpretation consistent with what I see in the Scriptures of what Jesus did and taught.
If I’d been in Rob Bell’s chair, I would have talked about the model of incarnation in contrast with the model of proclamation. With proclamation, we interpret and decide what is sinful, tell people that, and call them to repent of anything in their lives that is sinful. This action will make them right with God. With the incarnation, we seek to walk as closely with Jesus, through the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, as possible. As we embody his presence, we do life with the people around us. We become living models of the way of Jesus. We work for shalom – we help people to flourish, we help people to experience justice. We embody forgiveness and the fruits of the Spirit. We are alert for the opportunities to explain why we live the way we do – and so we share the gifts of Christ.
If I’d been in Rob Bell’s place, I would have talked about the spiritually formational value of living in the tensions of our differing approaches, understandings and interpretations of Scripture. I would have shared about the power of being enlarged in humility as I anticipate encountering God already at work in those with whom I disagree – and being open to learning and being blessed by God’s presence in the other. I would have talked about the power of living out the radical hospitality that Jesus demonstrated.
I would have talked about Jesus’ words about good trees bearing good fruit – and bad trees bearing bad fruit. And I would have shared about the reality of experiencing good fruit in the lives of those who have different theological perspectives than I do.
I would have talked about the reality that much of our Christian teaching on sexuality has been socialized by patterns of fear, anxiety, disgust, power and control. I would have used examples from church history where pagan dualisms were baptized into Christian theology, where shame and guilt became sanctified motivations for punitive, control based teaching. I would have done some reflecting on the many different sexual mores in the narratives of Scripture.
And I could go on ….
My point is not to argue for Rob Bell’s position. My point is that there are robust theological reflections that help us to understand why we can come to such different perspectives on matters such as our theology and ethics of sexuality. My point is to try to demonstrate that generous spaciousness is not some weak, compromise that is simply motivated by keeping up with culture and trying to make God relevant in a gay-positive context. Rather, generous spaciousness costs us our pride, it costs us the luxury of arrogant certainty. Generous spaciousness costs us our security in our exegesis, our hermeneutics, our interpretations. (especially when such exegesis and hermeneutics result in prohibitions for others that do not personally affect ourselves) Generous spaciousness forces us to find our security in the wild, untamable revealing of Jesus Christ to us through the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, through tradition (including contemporary tradition), through the academic disciplines, and through our experiences. And the truth is that this revelation is not in our control – it is in God’s control. This demands our humility, our openness, our fearlessness, our willing to risk following – even when it seems God is doing a new thing.
God has put us in a body made up of different parts with different functions. We need one another. We cannot say to another part, “I have no need of you”. Rather, we need our diversity, our different emphases in this journey of discernment. But it means that instead of trying to nail each other down into black and white proclamations of truth, we extend space to one another – space to quiet ourselves and hear what our consciences are telling us. And sometimes that is really hard to articulate and explain. Sometimes what our conscience, activated by the Holy Spirit, is saying doesn’t hold up well in a debate with someone who is so very, very certain. But can we still make room for one another in the Body? After all, whose call is it concerning who is in the Body and who isn’t? Jesus said let the wheat and the weeds grow together so that we don’t unwittingly uproot the wheat while trying to pull the weeds. The Harvester will know the difference at the right time. In the meantime, on such sensitive and complex matters, let us be gracious and kind to one another – listening for where God may be at work …. for who knows, perhaps God will show up and show us something of himself in the other.