Part Three – Farewell charity: The day Rob Bell and John Piper broke the internet

This is the third in a series of (probably five) posts reviewing not Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but the public conversation about that book. More than that, it is my attempt to examine the ways we (Christians) engage both one another and the concept of biblical and historical orthodoxy when we feel meaningful truth is up for grabs. I encourage you to read Part One and Part Two of this series before you read the words below. For those of you lovingly annoyed with the delay in me finishing this part, you’ll be pleased to know part four is already written. I’m just breaking it apart for more reasonable reading.

I will pick up here on the heels of Part Two. Well, more or less. The time lapse between the second and third parts truly has been much longer than I intended. One of my multiple excuses will surface in text of this post. 


For my sake as much as yours, let me lead with a few paragraphs from Parts One and Two. These are not comprehensive summaries of the first two posts. Read them more as highlight excerpts that will remind you of a bit of what I suggested a few weeks ago. You’re free to argue with me, but only if you actually read the first two posts and don’t rely exclusively on these excerpts as foundations for Part Three below.

From Part One…

Until then, I am particularly interested in the way we are talking and writing about the book (Love Wins). I am most concerned by what I perceive to be a rapidly diminishing capacity for grace and charity among professing Christians. This strikes me as a tragic spiritual descent expedited by our largely undiscerning use of the internet in our quest to be heard. In the furor over Bell’s new book, I’ve observed that to be true at two levels – personal/communal and theological/intellectual.

I didn’t care for the level of judgment that was issued publicly before the book was in people’s hands.

We have much to repent of and grow into in the realm of loving, gracious dialogue at a personal and communal level.

From Part Two…

This is where my concern about what I’ve called theological/intellectual charity lies, and it’s a function of two things:

    • the relationship between personal theology and orthodoxy for the Church,
    • and the degree to which we believe everything important to our understanding of orthodoxy has more or less already been said or written.

What I believe has occurred in recent years – and is now on full display in the conversation about Love Wins – is a trend of more closely tying one’s concept of biblical and historic orthodoxy for the Church to one’s individual theology. The obvious result of that is a narrowing of the particular notion of orthodoxy. So rather than orthodoxy being a uniting center of belief for a broad range of professing believers in Jesus, it becomes a more particular theological test that distinguishes true believers from posers.

There seems to be little sense for them [Stott, Lewis, Packer, and others] of the “on these matters there is no need for further speculation or deviation from the currently held mainstream view” that is so rampant in the present notions of evangelical orthodoxy in general and in the debate about Bell’s book in particular.

And now onto Part Three…

Let me tell you what I am not chasing. I am not interested in a a version of Christianity that exalts nice conversation and surface friendliness at the expense of sound doctrine or truth. This is a straw man that often emerges when a debate over heresy is interrupted by apparently distracting questions about charitable interactions. I believe there is an error at the root of that response that most commonly manifests in the form of a statement like:

“I’m all for being loving but when it comes down to being nice or defending the truth, I’ll defend the truth.”

I know. That statement doesn’t seem to be the product of error, does it? It seems right. Right? I am certain I have said something of that sort many times. In fact, I’ve even defended mean-spiritedness for the sake of being right. I think it’s been a while, but not so long that I’m out of touch with the part of me prone to do that. It’s still down there hiding behind my cynicism about the pledge to the Christian flag (which is hiding behind my cynicism about the existence of the Christian flag).

But I’m not alone. There is an edgier version of this same idea that actually defends a spectrum of ungracious treatment among professing Christians when one crosses what the other deems to be an unacceptable line. And even if you can filter out the meanness, many of us would still have a hard time finding fault with the words between the quotation marks above. Let me explain what I think I missed for most of my life in defaulting to that idea when it was time for me to set aside niceties and just speak the cold, hard truth to someone.

First, it is true we need not confuse being nice and being loving. It is often true that it is loving to be nice and it is, I guess, always nice to be loving. However, if our conception of “nice” is that we never disagree or we always do so dispassionately, it is not fair to say that love requires us to be that kind of nice.

But that kind of nice is not what I’m after. I’m interested in love, which St. Paul, who authored much of the text whose doctrine many folks have asserted Rob Bell has violated, describes thusly:  patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, not insisting on having things its way, not irritable, not resentful, not rejoicing at wrongdoing, rejoicing with the truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.

Now I’m tempted to write, “That sounds pretty nice.” But I’m a word nerd and I don’t want you getting caught up on the bad definitions of nice. So I won’t write that.

But I will write this: Neither Paul’s other doctrine nor any defense of it can be divorced from his doctrine regarding the nature of love. Or from his instruction to the Colossian church to “put on” love – to wear it like an outer garment that holds together the undergarments of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and unrelenting* forgiveness of others. Or from John’s reminder that love for one another identifies us as God’s people and enables us to set our hearts at rest in God’s presence. Or from Jesus’s declaration that the second greatest commandment, which is like the first, is to love the guy next to you as though he was you.

[*I added the word “unrelenting.” What Paul really wrote in Colossians 3 was, “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” He doesn’t pause to limit the scope of his instruction to minor complaints. I don’t think the word “unrelenting” is an inaccurate description of how the Lord had forgiven the Colossians or of how He has forgiven us. Also this way of doing footnotes is completely unapproved by any manual anywhere, but I wanted this close enough to the original use of the word for it to make sense but far enough removed to not break the rhythm of what I was doing there verbally. See. Word nerd.]

So we can pull out all the stops in justifying speech and action that violates this doctrine, offered in striking clarity by Jesus, his brother, and the New Testament’s second most famous character, but we will always be wrong. Always.

In fact, I believe we have lost our grip on something that is fundamental to orthodox Christian doctrine in our effort to preserve orthodox Christian doctrine:

Love is an orthodox Christian doctrine.

Just reading that sentence will send some people into an eye-crossing frenzy of theological hair pulling. I know because if I weren’t the one writing it, “some people” might be me.

No, I do not mean some spacey “everybody circle up with your drum and beat out a rhythm that communicates your love to the cosmos, including the person next to you and the cat you threw off the roof to see if it would land on its feet when you were twelve” love.

Wait, what? Too personal? No one else threw their cat off the roof when they were twelve. Relentless forgiveness, remember?

I’m not suggesting that we uphold some nebulous notion of love as a core Christian doctrine that inhibits us from discussing – even defending – other core doctrines.

I’m saying that love – as the Bible describes and defines it – is a core doctrine of the faith. It is, according to Jesus, the force on which all the law and the prophets – the full sum of God’s revelation and truth-speaking – hang: whole-being love for God and love for one another so intense it can only be communicated by encouraging us to pretend like other people are ourselves.

Hey, that’s funny. Why does no one laugh when we read “love your neighbor as yourself” out loud? The only way God could get us to hear him say, “I really want you to love other people in an unreasonable, nothing-held-back sort of way” is to say, “Sit for a minute and think about how wonderful you are – how much you love yourself. Got it? That’s a lot, right? If it was up to you to be the one to love you, you’d love you a lot, right? Awesome. Now love other people like that.”

For the record, I suspect that first century Christians (and Hebrews long before them) who weren’t inundated by media and fast food and Lady Gaga and the horrors of modern dating were much less inclined to self-loathing than we are in 2011. So I think the message may have been even a little purer for them at the time.

But that’s what I’m after. Love. Real love like Jesus and the writers of the Scriptures talked about.

That love really matters. What people really are objecting to when they push back against the idea of love as a core doctrine is some vague sense of love that waters down what they perceive to be essential truth. So let there be no doubt: when I say “love really matters,” I don’t define love as playing nice even at the expense of saying the hard things.

I’m a pastor. I say hard things to people every week. This post has been delayed for weeks in no small part because I’ve spent the last month preaching about sexuality. Those sermons have not been a long list of easy thoughts on how we should all just keep doing what we’re doing in that area. If you were to wander among my people and ask them what characteristics come to mind when they hear my name, I’m guessing “warm” or “most interested in being nice” would not be in the top 5 (or 10) things they observe about me. (Please, no one ever do that.)

Love and truth are not mutually exclusive because love is truth. Our error, in my opinion, is we have become prone to carelessly invert that statement and assume that the mere existence of truth is love. Stay with my brief amateur philosophical wandering here. I think this is important.

Perhaps when the truth is coming out of God’s mouth, we can safely assert that the existence of truth alone is, in fact, love. The problem is that we have co-opted His authority and assumed that as long as what we are speaking is true, it is love to speak it. I’ll (maybe) concede that assumption on these terms: The mere existence of truth is love if you simply read the words of God as penned in Scripture in their proper context and tone. Probably.

But we almost never do that. Even the churches most adamant about the nature of the Bible as God’s Word still have someone preach every week instead of just getting together to publicly read out loud God’s words without human commentary. That’s not a bad thing, but let’s not confuse preaching the Bible with the authority of the Bible itself.

We almost always issue God’s words intertwined with our words (as I am doing here) and packaged with our tone and affected by our biases and burdens and irritations and agendas. That does not make it unimportant work. It just necessitates Paul’s reminder in Ephesians 4 that, even (particularly) when we are trying to grow up into a healthy body that can endure competing doctrines with fidelity to the truth, we are to speak the truth “in love.”

If us merely speaking the truth was love enough, such a command would be completely unnecessary. Yet we act as though it’s Paul’s command that is unnecessary when we assume that as long as what we are saying or writing is right, we are loving whoever we are speaking to by saying (or writing) it.

Paul did not agree.

He wrote about love as an essential Christian doctrine – one that cannot be pried away at any point from other measures of orthodoxy. Like Jesus, Paul was clear: to be orthodox is to be intentional in love. Relentlessly intentional.

Coming in Part Four (now here)…Love heretics and the problem of selective history