Posts Tagged ‘Rob Bell’

No Methodist pastor was fired for agreeing with Rob Bell

March 25, 2011

My Facebook homepage was in a twitter (Ha! Notice what I did there?) this morning because of an online report about a pastor who was, according to the article, fired because he spoke up on Facebook in support of Rob Bell’s not-even-universalist-but-what-if-it-were new book Love Wins.

Here’s the lede:

DURHAM, N.C. — When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

This is nonsense. I’m not surprised that the reporter got it wrong. Reporters usually get religion- and church-related stories wrong. But shame on my fellow Methodist clergy who believe it. At the very least, it means they didn’t pay attention (at all) in United Methodist polity class in seminary.

Granted, I slept through much of the class myself, but let’s be very, very clear: A local church cannot fire a United Methodist pastor. This is so fundamental to Methodist polity it almost can’t be emphasized enough. It’s one of the great strengths of our church, because in theory it gives pastors great freedom and security to proclaim the gospel with boldness.

If Rev. Holtz preached or taught something that his local congregation couldn’t abide, the local church, by means of the SPR, could recommend that the bishop send them a new pastor. If the bishop agrees, Holtz would be appointed somewhere else. He wouldn’t and couldn’t lose his job unless he were brought up on charges before the conference, tried, and found guilty of some serious violation of our Book of Discipline. The Executive Session (the clergy) of the Annual Conference would then have to approve the dismissal.

There’s probably more to the process than that, but to find out I would have to actually get out of my chair, walk over to my bookshelf, get my Book of Discipline out, and look it up.

The point is this: What Rev. Holtz says that he said is not a fireable offense by any stretch—but even if it were, he couldn’t be fired in the manner reported. This is a non-story. Who knows what actually happened, but he’s not being martyred by the church for boldly standing up for his convictions—even if he wants to portray it that way. Say what you will about us Methodists, we are sticklers for following the rules, and the rules come from our Discipline.

This part of the story is obviously true:

Gray Southern, United Methodist district superintendent for the part of North Carolina that includes Henderson, declined to discuss Holtz’s departure in detail, but said there was more to it than the online post about Rob Bell’s book.

Rev. Carlton Pearson and universalism

March 21, 2011

In light of the ongoing controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, which critics are loudly and publicly denouncing as universalist (the belief that in the end everyone will be saved), I point you to an episode of This American Life about the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a formerly popular evangelical pastor who gave up the idea of hell—or more accurately, believes that Jesus’ death effects salvation for everyone, regardless of their faith.

I like this piece a lot. (Thanks to Kevin Hargaden and his fine blog for the heads up.) For one thing, it reminds me—a fan of old time radio—how effective radio can be at telling a story. And Rev. Pearson, whose story is mostly one of outgrowing the Christian fundamentalism of his youth and embracing a deeper vision of the gospel, is congenial, funny, and sympathetic. As I hope the story makes clear, there are many, many worse things than believing that in the end—out of an incomprehensible love for humanity that we cannot understand—the cross of Christ saves everyone.

Universalism is a belief that attempts to capture the magnitude of God’s love. Because of our experience of God and God’s love, we suspect that God’s love for us is bigger, more merciful, and more forgiving than we can imagine (or that we can even justify in terms of the Bible and church teaching). Universalism emerges from this suspicion, and I’m sympathetic.

But here are some of my complaints: The story could have explored whether or not Pearson’s version of universalism counts as “heresy,” not simply accepting the judgment of the Pentecostal denomination of which he was a part, but by interviewing scholars of Christian history. Haven’t there been many Christian thinkers throughout the ages—including biggies like Origen—who have espoused this kind of universalism?

Since Pearson’s beliefs about salvation would be welcome—and shared by many—in the vast majority of mainline Protestant churches, including the one of which I’m a part, Pearson’s universalism should hardly count as any kind of radical stance. Methodists are not radical!

Pearson said some things that should not have gone unchallenged. He said that the traditional belief in hell—by which he means a place of eternal torment for those who fail to accept Christ in this lifetime—is inextricably a part of Jesus’ teaching. I disagree. Strongly. Jesus mentions hell, to be sure. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, what he actually says should make all of us uncomfortable—Christians included. Are we not the ones who often disregard the poor and fail to visit the sick and clothe the naked, etc.?

Pearson also espoused the same old clichés about the mean “Old Testament God.” Granted his point might have been that (simply) literal readings of the Bible are sometimes incompatible with the loving God revealed in Christ, in which case I agree. But it wasn’t clear. Whatever else we say about God in the Bible, we must also say that Jesus is God and perfectly reveals God to us. We ought to read our Bibles through the lens of Jesus.

Finally, the tone of the story overwhelmingly sides with Pearson—because he’s open-minded as opposed to narrow-minded, accepting of homosexuals, a paragon of liberal values, etc. (This is public radio, after all.) But not so fast… From Pearson’s perspective, Jesus saves everyone. Therefore everyone—Muslim, Hindu, Jew, atheist, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, what-have-you—will end up being a Christian. As Pearson says in the piece, it’s still the cross of Christ that reconciles them to God.

Does Ira Glass, who is Jewish, want to be a Christian? (I wish Glass had asked Pearson about this!) How is Pearson’s winsome “gospel of inclusion” not also exclusive?

This is why I am openly exclusive. I make no secret of the fact that I want everyone to become a Christian.

Resurrection isn’t “floaty”

March 19, 2011

Popular evangelical author and “emergent” church pastor Rob Bell has written a controversial book about heaven and hell, and he’s getting some flak for it. As far as I can tell, Bell doesn’t say anything new, which is good, because all those old guys in the first several centuries of the church said things pretty well. And what he says probably isn’t anything, for example, that C.S. Lewis—beloved among those same evangelicals who criticize Bell—didn’t also say.

But Bell currently sells more books. Oh, well… You can’t make everyone happy, and why would you want to? (As Rick Nelson sang so long ago…)

(Or how about Sam Phillips?)

But this post isn’t really about all that. It’s about something that Bell said in an interview about the book—something yours truly has said in sermons and Bible studies many times. It’s in response to a question, in bold, about resurrection.

Resurrection is really central to this whole thing. There are those who would say that if you don’t believe in resurrection – and by resurrection they mean not some permanent essence existing in eternity but you, your physical body, that’s what happens at the end of the world. Your physical body joins your soul in the new heaven and earth. That’s the way it’s taught. So, it seems to me, it is for me, resurrection is the hardest part of the whole thing for me. I don’t really get how that works, and it sounds to me like you don’t really get how that works either.

Christians…this is why the discussion is so, sort of, great and interesting and compelling. What I do think is really important aobut resurrection is that resurrection says that this world matters. What’s so unbelievably crucial about resurrection is this, it says that this world matters and God has great value onthis world and has great desire to alleviate the suffering in this world.

So the resurrection as a sort of floaty – where we evaporate and go somewhere else – to me the resurrection is an affirmation of the goodness of this world. It’s about dirt and sweat and sex and vineyards. It is an earthy, affirmation of this world is good, it was created for you to enjoy it, and effort and the rescue thing is going on through Jesus to reclaim all of this. This has everything to do with how we actually live in the world. It’s not about evacuation.