Methodist scholar Ben Witherington has a few things to say about Rob Bell. Though he mentions Rob’s two books (which I need to read to see if Driscoll’s critiques are valid [they are]), the focus is on the Lexington stop on his new book tour for Sex God. He likes alot of what Rob is trying to do. He recognizes some strong pastoral and teaching gifts.
One of Witherington’s critiques is out of my area of expertise. And he essentially says that this is not Bell’s area of expertise either: “First of all it seems clear that Rob, in his valid attempt to read Jesus and the NT writers in the context of early Judaism, has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries A.D, and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism. “
In other words he is utilizing some outdated materials, and relying on Ray Vanderlaan too much. I’ve not been very impressed with the level of Vanderlaan’s scholarship, which means Witherington must REALLY not be impressed. That is a discussion most people won’t get, though it does have significance for how one interprets and applies the accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry as found in the Gospels. Of greater interest is Bell’s approach on homosexuality. It sounds alot like the problems that plague Brian MacLaren on the issue.
“His answers was evasive in part, and disturbing in other parts, and clearly unBiblical in other parts and in this he sounds like some other leaders in the Emergent Church movement. … First of all, Rob made the blanket statement that you have no moral authority to speak on this issue unless you have gay friends and understand their struggle.”
I agree that is problematic. It really undermines the authority of Scripture. Empathy is a good and important thing. But this sounds just like the usual card that is played by “progressives” in the social arena. They claim you can’t speak to an issue (pick any of them… abortion, addiction, racism…) unless you have personal experience. At least here it can be 2nd hand. But, since I know some homosexuals I can safely address these issues.
It gets more interesting: “Secondly, Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this— “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality”. This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom. “
Just because Jesus didn’t mention it in His earthly ministry doesn’t mean He is out of step with the rest of what the Bible says (which is essential how the argument from silence is used). However, Jesus did say that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5). So… Jesus upholds the moral teaching of the Old Testament, including on homosexuality.
“Rob then raises the issue of hypocrisy. Of course he is right that all sexual sin should be taken equally seriously, and in view of the abysmal record of heterosexual Evangelical Christians when it comes to issues of marital faithfulness he is right that one should not single out homosexual sin for special attention and ignore the seriousness of heterosexual sin.”
So, if Rob is taken seriously, can we talk about any sin? The point is not whether or not we obey the law, but that the law locks us all up under condemnation that we might find life in Christ alone. Bell is removing the prophetic role of the church. We shouldn’t be obnoxious, mean or point out their sin to marginalize or ostracize them. It is about revealing people’s need for Christ- whatever their sin.
Lastly, “Rob then raises the point that the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. This is true, but irrelevant. It says plenty about sexual behavior, including same sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6 and Gal. 5, to mention three texts. It is simply not true that the Bible is just opposed to pederasty or male prostitution, though certainly both of those forms of same-sex sexual expression are prohibited.”
Witherington does not say all this to discredit or demonize Bell. All pastors and teachers have blind spots. But are they teachable? Hopefully Rob Bell will take critiques from men like Ben Witherington seriously. Perhaps he will recognize his own shortcomings or capitulation to culture and address them. For the well-being of the church, I hope so.