O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Flexibility, Heretics, and Love Wins

posted by Jason Boyett

This is the last thing I’m going to write about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, and it’s not even really about the book. I’ve read the book. I enjoyed parts of it. I was frustrated with parts of it. I hate Rob Bell’s writing style, which sounds exactly like he speaks but, you know, shouldn’t. I wish there were footnotes and better source crediting. I think he used a lot of metaphors and asked a lot of questions without giving many answers, but I also think that was his goal with the book. Mission accomplished.

Anyway, if you want to read a review of Love Wins, there are lots of places to do it. I don’t have anything unique to add to that conversation, except (maybe) this:

I was listening the other day to an episode of Reasonable Doubts, a skeptic/atheist podcast, because they were 1) discussing Love Wins, and 2) from Grand Rapids, and I thought the perspective of nonbelievers from Rob Bell’s backyard would offer something I hadn’t yet read or heard. It did. Here are a couple of things that stuck out to me from their discussion:

1. They were surprised by the book’s overview of the ways hell is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, especially in terms of its ambiguity. One of the podcasters had assumed the biblical idea of hell always fit the fiery torment variety, and was surprised how much nuance there was in the whole Sheol-Gehenna-Hades-Tartarus usage in the biblical languages. Rob Bell is right, they said: The Bible isn’t consistent in how it speaks of hell.

2. They agreed that Rob supported his ideas and questions with thought-provoking uses of Scripture, but weren’t impressed. Why not? For one thing, they found him to be annoyingly vague about his theology. For another thing, they understood that the traditional view of hell — the one he was challenging — could also be supported by Scripture. They pointed out that someone with a fair amount of biblical knowledge can make a scriptural case for fiery torment, or annihilationism, or universalism, or pretty much anything else. All you have to do is elevate certain biblical verses and passages above others.

That’s why almost every Christian belief that has developed over the years has been based on something found in Scripture…even the beliefs that seem at odds with one another. It’s all about context and interpretation and nuance.

And that got me thinking…

Right now, Christian theology is broader and more diverse than most Christians are comfortable with. In fact, over two thousand years of biblical interpretation, the Christian religion has proved to be ridiculously flexible, able to tolerate significant theological and practical differences without, you know, us having to say “farewell” to people who land on a different interpretation. Consider:

There are Christians who believe they are saved exclusively through grace, period, full stop … and Christians who believe some manner of works are involved (those “works” may be as basic as an acknowledgment of Christ’s lordship or as complex as to what extent we cared for the “least of these”).

Some Christians believe salvation is eternal. Others believe it can be lost or cast aside.

Some Christians believe the elect are predetermined by God, chosen for either salvation and damnation. Others believe God gives mankind real freedom to make his or her own choice.

Some believe salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. Others believe baptism to be an important, public confession of salvation — but only symbolic.

Some believe Christ is present, mystically or literally, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or communion. They believe participating in communion is the central act of Christian worship. Others believe communion is more of a metaphor, yet one which plays a central, symbolic role in Christian worship.

Some Christians observe that “central metaphor” every time they meet together, Sunday after Sunday. Others relegate communion to a once-a-quarter observance.

Some Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, infallibly true, without error and inspired word-by-word to ancient scribes. Others believe the Bible is inspired or somehow divine, but not without error. They see those ancient scribes’ fallacies and fingerprints all over its holy pages.

Some Christians believe deuterocanonical books like Tobit, Judith, or 1 and 2 Maccabees are parts of the biblical canon. Others deny that these books are biblical. (And many Christians, to be perfectly honest, don’t even know they exist.)

Some Christians venerate saints like Mary, St. Anthony, or St. Christopher. Other Christians view this behavior as superstitious (at best) or idolatrous (at worst).

Some Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday, others on Saturday. Some worship in ancient cathedrals or gleaming buildings. Some worship in converted malls or rickety storefronts. Some worship in homes. Some worship outdoors.

Some Christians seem to focus primarily on God, the Father. Some seem most interested in Jesus. Others emphasize the Holy Spirit more than any other member of the Trinity.

Some pray in tongues. Some pray casually or spontaneously. Some pray via formal liturgy.

Some believe a Christian’s highest calling is to remove him- or herself from the world, in order to spend their remaining days in solitude, contemplation, and prayer. Some believe a Christian’s highest calling is to be active and present in the world, in order to spread the message of the Gospel.

Some preach evangelism and personal salvation as the apex of the Christian faith. Some preach social action or missional living as the core element of Christian practice.

Some allow their faith to inform every aspect of their lives, from how they dress to how they eat to how they are entertained. Some live lives that are practically indistinguishable from non-believers.

Some … you get the idea.

This is a long list, but it’s far from exhaustive. Though we base our beliefs on the same source (the Bible and the last couple thousand years of tradition), we Christians are a fantastically diverse people. Some of our core beliefs are not just very different from another, but frequently at odds with one another.

Most of us think we’re right. But we can’t all be right about everything.

Which is to say: almost all of us are wrong about something. Regardless of what we believe, there are Christians somewhere in the world who think you are dead wrong. Dangerously wrong. Maybe even a heretic. Why? Because you are on the wrong side of what they consider a core belief.

For all our talk about narrow roads, Christianity has become a broad, gushing stream. Acknowledging that, with humility, ought to give us pause before we start all the in-fighting and name-calling. I need to remember that the next time I decide Rob Bell is wrong…or John Piper is wrong…or I am right.

————–

Note: I’ve adapted the meat of this post from one I wrote Saturday for FaithVillage. Here’s the original, titled “How Flexible is Christianity?

 



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Susie Finkbeiner

posted April 12, 2011 at 10:28 am


Wow, Jason. Thanks for this.

This may be my very favorite post you’ve put up.



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Trevor

posted April 12, 2011 at 10:32 am


Great Post! It’s staggering to think of all the various colours, shapes and sounds that all fall under the “Christianity” banner. I agree that you can find scriptural support for just about any point of view, and I always resist falling into the trap of pulling out one or two choice verses to make a point.

I had a Sunday school teacher who held similar to Rob Bell regarding hell. I didn’t know the term “universalist” back then, but I would say she adhered to a univeralist outlook. Intuitively, it just seemed wrong to me then. It seemed to degrade whatever faith and devotion I struggled to muster, if it was all for nothing.



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brett FISH anderson

posted April 12, 2011 at 10:55 am


flip Jason wow, nailed it. thank-you. apart from don miller post on love wins this is the best i’ve read. thank you for speaking some sense into what has been an unnecessary – one feels – whirlpool of controversials…



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Elena Gribincea

posted April 12, 2011 at 11:10 am


thank you for this, Jason. it’s a brilliant point.



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Kent F

posted April 12, 2011 at 11:16 am


Thanks Jason – you’ve captured me in there somewhere. Here’s my confession – my religious takes can often mimick my political takes – that being I can move from left to right to left on the same issue, depending on my influence or POV at the time.

Lately, this usually leaves me in the middle and quite annoyed at those (Rob included) who feel it is their need to regularly convince me of something. The words I keep saying to myself these days is “simplistic faith”. The world is a screwed-up place – just look at the divorce or incarceration rates – can’t I just have my basic faith and be happy with that?



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Serenity

posted April 12, 2011 at 11:26 am


Thanks for writing this, Jason. I get so tired of the infighting and begin to feel we’re making our message useless by it. Yet I didn’t even realize how many things we differ on so greatly. How patient God is to let us try to work these things out for ourselves. It comes from a movie line I like, but I really believe that learning to reason together – crossing those bridges that separate the I’m right from the You’re wrong – that’s where we find him. Not on one side or the other.



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Kevin

posted April 12, 2011 at 11:35 am


only one thing to say…

That which unites us is INFINITELY greater than that which divides us.



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Alise

posted April 12, 2011 at 11:37 am


“Most of us think we’re right. But we can’t all be right about everything.”

Yes. This. I get so tired of hearing about how “clear” X doctrinal thing is. Because really? Very little is clear. Heck, the American constitution is a mere 200 years old, written in English and IT isn’t clear. Don’t tell me that a document that is thousands of years old and written in ancient languages is “clear.”

Fantastic post.



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Tim McGeary

posted April 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm


I’m currently reading “The Rise and Fall of the Bible” by Timothy Beal, religious studies professor at Case Western Reserve University. I would highly recommend it to you, not only on this topic, but also within the realm of the publishing industry’s influence over the Bible. It’s not at all overly academic, and at times quite personal. I have trouble putting it down.

(http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fall-Bible-Unexpected-Accidental/dp/0151013586)



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Esther

posted April 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm


Well, I’m a first timer to your blog; but I hope you don’t mind me adding in.

I think the root of our disunity is because we fail to focus on the Author and Finisher of our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ, and instead we focus on things like doctrines.

Unbelievers can see through this hypocrisy.



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Jason Boyett

posted April 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm


Esther:

I don’t mind you jumping in at all. Thanks for stopping by!



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Ian

posted April 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm


This discussion has been going on for a while amongst the fellow elders of my church. I forwarded it on and received the following feedback from our senior pastor:
“…the only thing I disagreed with was his statement, ‘almost all of us are wrong about something’ I think I would drop the ‘almost’ from that line.” That was followed by a smiley face.
Nice work, he’s a tough cookie.



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fastthumbs

posted April 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm


From a UN survey in 1996 – There are about a billion people who claim to be Christians in the world – about 2 out 3 say they are Catholic…. The rest fall in about 3000 denominations…

And yet, many Christians seem to wonder why Atheists and Agnostics don’t respect this mess?



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nnmns

posted April 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm


Good observation Jason. In fact there’s a god (or more) for every believer. Some are quite similar but I think probably no two are exactly the same. And most of them vary from day to day depending, among other things, on what people had for breakfast.

In other words they are all in peoples’ heads. None has been seen in the world except by those with vivid imaginations and imaginative sighting claims. A real, powerful god could make itself totally obvious; none has even tried.



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Linda

posted April 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm


The Lord Jesus Christ gave a solemn warning and caution about false doctrine to His followers, He said: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” Matthew 16:6 . I recommend reading J.C. Ryle “Expository thoughts on Matthew” (Chapter 16) to know more about the need to stand for correct doctrine, the following is an excerpt:

Against what does our Lord warn His apostles? Against the “doctrine” of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. The Pharisees, we are frequently told in the Gospels, were self-righteous formalists. The Sadducees were skeptics, freethinkers, and half infidels. Yet even Peter, James, and John must beware of their doctrines! Truly the best and holiest of believers may well be on his guard!

By what figure does our Lord describe the false doctrines against which He cautions His disciples? He calls them yeast. Like yeast, they might seem a small thing compared to the whole body of truth. Like yeast, once admitted they would work secretly and noiselessly. Like yeast, they would gradually change the whole character of the religion with which they were mixed. How much is often contained in a single word! It was not merely the open danger of heresy, but “yeast,” of which the apostles were to beware.

There is much in all this that calls loudly for the close attention of all professing Christians. The caution of our Lord in this passage has been shamefully neglected. It would have been well for the church of Christ, if the warnings of the Gospel had been as much studied as its promises.

Let us then remember that this saying of our Lord’s about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” was intended for all time. It was not meant only for the generation to which it was spoken. It was meant for the perpetual benefit of the Church of Christ. He who spoke it saw with prophetical eye the future history of Christianity. The Great Physician knew well that Pharisee-doctrines and Sadducee-doctrines would prove the two great wasting diseases of His Church, until the end of the world. He would have us know that there will always be Pharisees and Sadducees in the ranks of Christians. Their succession shall never fail. Their generation shall never become extinct. Their name may change, but their spirit will always remain. Therefore He cries to us, “take heed and beware.”

from “Expository thoughts on Matthew”, by J.C. Ryle, can read it here:

http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/m16.htm



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Linda

posted April 13, 2011 at 1:49 pm


The Truth does not lie.

The Lord Jesus Christ is taking back what is His, this man-made religion of modern day Pharisees and Sadducees must die, enjoy the song…

http://youtu.be/LuQaN40w_p4



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Dave C.

posted April 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm


Great post Jason – btw, love wins! =)



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Julie

posted April 18, 2011 at 1:25 am


And then there is perspective…thanks for that. :)



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Page

posted April 18, 2011 at 2:15 pm


Wow, this really gives me pause! One thing that really unnerves me is when I am accused of not being Christian because of a difference in beliefs. Its about common ground and respect.



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jessicamaybe

posted April 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm


I would like to give you a virtual high five.



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James B

posted May 7, 2011 at 1:47 am


Makes me not blame someone for choosing not to believe. I wonder if God feels the same?



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even one sparrow

posted October 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm


Wow. Well said.

I was just thinking about this the other day, probably inspired by the conversation happening over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog, as she interviews people from all denominations and sides of the faith.

It is SO so so so SO SO SO important to remember that WE COULD BE WRONG about our interpretations and that there are awesome, theologically-minded, sound people who DO think we’re wrong and have good reasons to think so. We must remain humble and always remember that our God is much bigger than we are, and that no one person will ever fully understand the great mystery of God.

Thank goodness He is merciful and loves us a great deal.

Thanks for this post!



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