Ben Witherington, author and New Testament scholar, writes about his recent visit to a Question & Answer session with Rob Bell. Despite his affinity for Rob, Witherington critiques Bell’s answer to the question of homosexuality as “evasive… disturbing… and unbiblical.” In fact, it was Rob’s reluctance to make any pronouncement on this issue that seems to have disturbed Witherington the most.

What are we seeing here? Just a few years ago, I remember Rob addressing the issue of homosexuality in a sermon and being very clear about the need for deliverance from homosexuality as a sin. Has Rob turned a corner in his theology? It sounds like he is following Brian McLaren, who has famously refused to give a clear answer to this question.

Wayne Grudem writes about a “slippery slope” towards liberalism, and he takes a lot of flack for employing that over-used metaphor. Usually, he is speaking of denominations that begin to play loose with their doctrine of Scripture, accept the ordination of women as pastors, and then eventually meander down a path that ends with a full embrace of homosexuality and homosexual unions.

Grudem’s study of denominational trajectories seems to be taking place in a few short years within the life of this young, talented preacher from Michigan. A few years ago, Rob began speaking of the Bible as a “human book,” and shied away from clearly defining his views on the trustworthiness and inspiration of all Scripture being divine. Then, he led his church to a completely egalitarian position regarding women in ministry. This, of course, came on the heels of Rob’s reading of William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, which advocates a “redemptive trend” that seeks to build an ethical system based on where the Bible was going, not what it ultimately says. (I know this is a simplistic way of framing Webb’s book, but for the purpose of this post, I’m going to leave the summary as is.)

According to Grudem, the next step is changing our terms of reference for God (which Rob Bell has not done officially, although he has challenged traditional references to God with provocative sermons like his Mother’s Day 2005 sermon called “The Mother God.”) After that, Grudem says, comes the moral acceptance and approval of homosexuality. Rob hasn’t gone that far, but Witherington’s account makes it sound like he’s waffling a bit.

So, is Rob Bell going soft on homosexuality? Who knows? Witherington’s analysis doesn’t sound hopeful. I pray to God that this is not the case. Rob is a gifted preacher with a heart for his people. I have benefited from his sermons and have admired his passion for seeing lives transformed. I have no doubt that the Enemy would love to take out Rob Bell, because if he stays on track and remains faithful to historic Christianity, he will be a positive force for the Kingdom during the next few decades.

I, for one, will be praying for Rob as he ministers in Michigan. And specifically, I’ll pray that Witherington’s critique will be a wake-up call for Bell to get back on track and speak the truth of God boldly, and in love, for if we fail to name sin for what it is, we leave no room for God’s redemption and forgiveness.

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31 thoughts on “Is Rob Bell Going Soft on Homosexuality?”

  1. Dave says:

    Well said. I have read the Witherington post you referred to and agree with your post. I have benefited greatly from Rob Bell’s sermons and have grown as a Christian, but do get concerned about what almost seems an avoidance of the discussion of sin. Nonetheless, there is a tremendous amount of substance and insight in Bell’s teachings.

  2. Ryan says:

    I,too, greatly benefit from Rob Bell’s sermons, they have helped develop a hunger inside of me to truly know God’s word and what God is truly saying to us. In reference to the “avoidance of the discussion of sin.” It’s not Rob Bell’s job or any other christian’s job for that matter to convince people not to sin. When that happens, we are playing God and we take personal conviction and freewill out of the picture. I am not condoning sin at all, but I am saying that we as christians sometimes don’t trust God to do what He says He’s going to do. We don’t trust God to speak into our lives anymore. The Jesus that I know and the Jesus that Rob Bell teaches about is concerned about two things: That we know Him, and He knows us. When that happens, the “sin” issues take care of themselves.

  3. James Gottry says:

    In response to Ryan’s comments – I am a bit concerned by this comment: “It’s not Rob Bell’s job or any other christian’s job for that matter to convince people not to sin. When that happens, we are playing God and we take personal conviction and freewill out of the picture.”

    I don’t know if this was intended, but it sounds a bit like saying, “hey, I’m not gonna tell you anything is wrong or right, because that is really between you and God.”

    The Bible talks about correcting others with gentleness, (2 Timothy 2:25-26, Galatians 6:1). I certainly understand and agree that God will speak into our lives, BUT if we are not obeying what scripture (the Word of God) has already said to us, can we expect God to say more? And obviously, if we hear something from God that contradicts scripture…then we heard wrong.

    I pray that God uses Rob Bell mightily for HIS glory.

  4. Amy Lawrence says:

    as totally uncomfortable as i am about saying that sin is sin (to people who sin), because that is never fun, all the prophets of the bible told the people to stop sinning and they werent flowery about it either, that along with what the new testament scriptures already mentioned leaves little room for argument on the matter, unless u dont see the bible as Yahwehs definitive word, from which we are told nothing should be taken and added.

  5. Jim Johnson says:

    First point to clear up is that there is nothing wrong with changing; so the ability to predict a change pattern as Wayne Grudem does is not necessarily a bad thing, despite Grudem’s implications. That is what the progress of revelation was all about from the human perspective. That IS what is amazing about the Bible’s view of how God and human beings interact. God created humans to live a certain way. They claimed freedom and God adjusted his plan. God planned for lifelong marriages, but humans demanded divorce, so God adjusted the plan. God provided outstanding leadership to the tribes when they needed it, but they rejected his approach and demanded a monarchy; so he gave it to them. God sent his son to offer spiritual blessings meeting the deepest longings of the human heart beginning in this life and culminating in eternity, and people crucified him; but God obtained human cooperation with the resurrection and the world has never been the same since, though his followers have not always been true to his name.

    The second point is that the question about whether or not homosexuality is sinful is really the wrong question. There is no doubt homosexuality is against God’s created order as revealed in the Bible. So also is divorce; yet there are times when it right to counsel divorce. EVERYTHING that falls short of GOODNESS is against God’s created order; yet it still might be good to do it because of how we have to deal with sin. We can only get into unprofitable verbal semantics when we try to justify why “bad” things such as surgery things are good; but if a condition exists as a consequence of sin, then how to best correct or live with that condition is the moral question that challenges us. Do you let a person die, or do you do surgery? Do you tell a person who feels themself to be fully homosexual that they must deny that identity, or do you fully accept them? That is the moral question.

    For several hundred years our society has created the conditions where young people are saturated with sexual stimuli yet prevented from entering early marriage without great risk, and now we are beginning to see the consequences on many fronts. We must face these moral challenges by loving people without ultimately rejecting them.

  6. you think bell or mclaren is soft on homosexuality. Read “A Severe Mercy” and notice C.S. Lewis’ suprisingly soft stance on homosexuality. Yet no one seems to care about Lewis’ views, they merely cheer all his works.

    what did Jesus say about it?

  7. trevinwax says:

    I don’t cheer all of Lewis’ works. I find his inclusivist position on salvation to be a capitulation to modernist culture. If he is “suprisingly soft” on homosexuality, it does not surprise me.

    Jesus did not specifically address homosexuality, though he did reaffirm God’s original intention for the creation of male and female. You have to stretch history and theology quite a bit to make Jesus “pro-homosexuality.” Christ’s silence on this issue indicates that he affirmed the traditional Old Testament view.

    Regardless… Scripture is unequivocal on the issue. You either reject the Bible on this topic or accept it. To buck the Bible’s clear teaching on the issue and then 2000 years of church history following seems rather arrogant.

  8. true, the bible is concrete on its stance on homosexuality. church history backs it up. and Jesus left the issue untouched.

    we must be careful though on declaring that Jesus’ silence on an issue confirms his agreement with tradition. Jesus seemed to remain silent on the issue of women’s roles in ministry (although he included them more than the culture would have)

    i agree with you that sex that isn’t one male one female in a committed sense is wrong…

    but Christ’s silence on this issue is intriguing…

    actually, it seems that Christ takes a fairly silent stance on many controversial issues. Paul was the one that seemed to sort all of this stuff out…

    we need to look into this more…

  9. Willfor says:

    I, personally, think we should focus on sins that people do every single day of their lives without really thinking about it before we go after homosexuality. Lying for instance. If every single sin carries the same exact penalty before God, and one person tells 100 lies a day, and another person is only having sex with another member of their same gender, who is worse?

    They are both fallen, but the person who is lying is commiting a hundred more atrocities towards God than the man who is having intercourse with another man. And they are not only lying to others, they are lying to themselves that it is alright to do it. That’s _two_ sins.

    I pray you go after the people who are weak against “little white lies” before going after people who might be going soft on these weaker sins.

  10. Adam Lehman says:

    Wilfor,

    good insight. (however, i’d be careful when counting sins)

    i think we have to look at the nature of the word sin. in my understanding “sin” is an archery term in which an arrow falls short of a target. when we sin, we “fall short” of God. we don’t live up to his glory, standards, or character. Therefore, our sins are probably significantly more numerous than we imagine.

    great post…

  11. Willfor says:

    I was really only trying to give a visual picture of it. I agree with what you said, that our sins are probably far more numerous than we realise. It’s why I thank God that he made a way for us. No human being can _not_ sin. I could never count the amount _I_ sin in the run of a day without even knowing it.

    And I don’t want to come on too strong about this. I’m just saying that sometimes we get our attention so focused on things that are controversial that we lose sight of the things that we have grown to accept as a daily part of our lives that also drag us down. Focusing on those, even though it is harder, goes a long way towards being able to see exactly how careful we as Christians need to be when pointing out different things.

  12. Adam Lehman says:

    wilfor,

    we’re on the page.
    beautiful.

    adam

  13. Joy Place says:

    I have one problem with all the discussion about homosexuality as sin. It implies people CHOOSE homosexuality and therefore must seek forgiveness for this state and must in some greater or lesser way be regarded as outside salvation until they “repent” and either live a celibate life or become heterosexual. Do Christians know how difficult it is for young people to face these powerful urges in themselves, and what a crisis this engenders when a young man or woman realises with horror that they don’t react to boy-girl talk the way their friends do? Do Christians know the high rate of depression and suicide (not to mention abuse which at times results in death)amongst homosexuals, and how many feel terrified of bringing their problems to Jesus in church because they know they are seen as evil so will have Christian rejection to affirm their own self-rejection? If Jesus could heal at the request of Romans and use an outcast Samaritan woman as his first missionary, then I think Rob Bell is right – “come as you are.” People did exactly that with Jesus.

    Many biblical things we don’t do any more. We don’t stone adulterers, women don’t wear hats in church, the whole Jubilee year thing has gone out of the window so there is no respite from debt for anyone. We also don’t care for the poor in our communities, so we talk against abortion, but don’t mind that unwanted children die as street children or runaways or gang members and the consequent abuse of drugs and alcohol. If we are going to take a “biblical” stance on anything, it has to be in the context of the WHOLE Bible, not just the bits that make us feel morally superior.

  14. Adam Lehman says:

    joy place,

    true comment.

    someone once said (my college professor would be mad if she knew i didn’t remember the source of this quote)
    “in essentials, unity.
    in nonessentials, liberty,
    and in all things, love”

    we need to unite over the essentials of being a Christian (humility, love, compassion, etc.) but need to be gracious with one one another on the nonessential things (women’s place in leadership, appropriate dress, alcohol, political opinions, etc).

    check out my post here…

    http://ramblingsofpassion.wordpress.com/2007/06/06/essentials-and-non-essentials/

  15. Jasen says:

    Have you read Slaves, Women and Homosexuals? It shows clearly why the reasoning from scripture that leads to women pastors does not lead to support of homosexual acts.

    Wayne Grudem’s slippery slope is is disproved by groups like the Salvation Army.

  16. Ian says:

    Sometimes discussions about homosexuality can make people sound like religious leaders. They use angry, controlling words where Jesus would have spoken compassionately. It just doesn’t sound like Him. Men have a tendency toward religion, as a set of rules, because it helps us to define our relationship with God. They give us boundaries. And I think that boundaries are needed for sure, but who decides what everyone’s boundaries with our Father are? Are there universal boundaries for all of his children or was it decided that it would be written on the heart of the individual and each person would act out their personal faith in Jesus as it relates to their unique situation?

  17. van says:

    I like where your heart is at.

  18. Roy says:

    Personally I don’t care for Bell’s books, teaching, or sermons. His style is just not me. However, I think Bell is confused about what he believes and essentially he seems to believe in nothing which lines up perfectly with his post-modernism. I would love to see Bell come out and repent for watering down the gospel, repent for trying to weave the world into the church and the church into the world, and repent for not taking the inerrancy of Scripture seriously.

  19. Adam Lehman says:

    roy
    in what sense would you say that Bell has watered down the gospel? and how did you come to that conclusion….since you don’t care for his books, teachings, or sermons?

  20. Craig Bennett says:

    I find it strange that so many criticize Rob Bell for his allegedly liberal (and heretical to some) theology, without really knowing what he believes. One of the best places to look would be at the doctrinal statement of the church he helped start and is currently pastor of, Mars Hill.

    Among other things, their doctrinal statement reflects that they believe the Bible is inspired by God, that sin separates us from God, that Jesus is the only way to heaven, that only those who trust Jesus will have salvation . . . I could go on. To me, the best place to check a pastor’s beliefs is in the doctrinal statement of the church he leads. I see nothing in the Mars Hill statement that is unorthodox or heretical. In fact, I think it presents a great narrative of the gospel message and the history of man, relying upon Scripture as its basis.

    For some reason, though, Rob Bell rubs many wrong, even though they have no real substantive basis for their dislike of him. Kinda funny – Jesus rubbed a lot of people the wrong way too! (No, I am not deifying Rob Bell, but I am sure someone will try to distort my comment to reflect that!) :-)

    Peace of Christ to all.

  21. taddelay says:

    Seriously? Even a cursory glance through the book will show Webb doesn’t justify homosexuality. If you’ve read the book, you’d notice that Webb is fairly conservative socially, even leaving the door open for patriarchy. He does not even entertain the thought that homosexuality is acceptable.

    I’d really like to see guys like Driscoll, Grudem and co. apologize for their sloppy outright slander of Webb’s position

  22. trevinwax says:

    No one is accusing Webb of advocating homosexuality. What Grudem and others are saying is that the same logic that Webb applies to the Scriptural passages on women is the logic that one can easily apply to homosexuality.

  23. jonaustin says:

    I find what you all are saying interesting. It seems that todays christian culture is almost copying that of the pharisees. Pharisees only cared about the hebrew laws and traditions, never about love. Today all we fight about again is what is lawfully right and wrong. How interesting. Its funny the response Jesus gives when asked about the most important commandment. He doesn’t say anything about sin at all! Jesus only says love God, love your neighbor.

  24. trevinwax says:

    Apparently, you have not read the Gospels lately. The Gospels are full of Jesus weighing in on laws and traditions – often times intensifying them (take divorce, oath-keeping, lust, anger for instance). Yes, loving God and neighbor is central. Loving God necessarily leads to the exclusion of the behaviors that God condemns.

  25. phil says:

    It is amazing to me that Christians continually go after homosexuality as the number one sin. What about the gluttons, who fill their faces at every church bake sale? What about the self-righteous who continually mock God by perpetually illuminating the sins of every one else?

  26. Veronica says:

    I know all of you on here seem to talk better than I do with your vocabulary and theology, so I say this as plain as plain can be.
    Mars Hills doctrine does not state what you all say it does. Coming from a insider who has now left that church…….
    “They don’t believe in Hell” and “All faiths go to Heaven” seems a bit universalism, don’t you think? I think before you throw all your eggs in Rob Bells basket, you should interpret the bible for what the bible says and not for what your interpretation of it is. Yes Jesus loves homosexuals and he loves sinners.
    We all fall short. But, there is also a huge difference between sin (habitually) without the wanting to change, and the person that is constantly being sanctified from sin. Have you ever read Romans, when Paul discusses his heart to obey God, and to be righteous, yet he continues to do what he does not want to do, and proves that the law is good. When you choose a continuos life-style of sin, that can only lead to death spiritually.
    So as I agree that we all need to give more to the poor and concentrate on ourselves more than others sins and mishaps, it is also very biblical to speak the truth in love. Are we living and believing in Jesus Christ from the BIble when we make justification for habitual sin? Are we believing in the Jesus Christ in the word when we teach that that the Bible was not inspired by God? (Rob Bells quote)
    So….yes….lets all continue to look at ourselves and stop judging others and let people come to God as they are, but in the end, Gods love will draw us to change.
    So as it may take some time for some to repent, and that is something to show grace for, it is also completely another thing to be condoning of sin, and allow people to go unchanged by the WORD OF GOD. THE WORD OF GOD WILL CHANGE ALL THINGS IN US.

  27. Jeremiah says:

    Historic Christianity? The kind that inspired the crusades? Secondly,Mr. Trevin, the central theme of the Gospel is love, no other way around it. Jesus speaks on several laws, however, through the cross we are placed under a new covenant. No condemnation for those who believe. (Romans 8:1, 1st Tim 4:10,Hosea 6:6,Micah 6:8)

  28. Jeremiah says:

    One more thing. Your idea that Christ being silent on a particular issue in scripture means that He agrees with it is pure speculation at best.

  29. chad says:

    I fear many of you may miss the point I believe the bible makes. We are to love the person and still hate the sin which the bible is very clear abouti homosexuality is a sin. I believe the challenge is to show people their error in aloving way and do so on the way to repent for your own sins as well. I do not think we should interpet love as conveyance/ tolerance for sin as much as inclusion to proper perfection by the fathers written countenance.

  30. Michael Self says:

    Phil, you make a great point about Christians going after homosexuality as “the number one sin.” I was just about to make a similar point on gluttony. What about greed? Greed is far more rampant than homosexuality is — watch any televangelist.

    As a gay Christian myself, I could not have put it better than Jim Johnson said in comment #5:

    “First point to clear up is that there is nothing wrong with changing; so the ability to predict a change pattern as Wayne Grudem does is not necessarily a bad thing, despite Grudem’s implications. That is what the progress of revelation was all about from the human perspective. That IS what is amazing about the Bible’s view of how God and human beings interact. God created humans to live a certain way. They claimed freedom and God adjusted his plan. God planned for lifelong marriages, but humans demanded divorce, so God adjusted the plan. God provided outstanding leadership to the tribes when they needed it, but they rejected his approach and demanded a monarchy; so he gave it to them. God sent his son to offer spiritual blessings meeting the deepest longings of the human heart beginning in this life and culminating in eternity, and people crucified him; but God obtained human cooperation with the resurrection and the world has never been the same since, though his followers have not always been true to his name.

    The second point is that the question about whether or not homosexuality is sinful is really the wrong question. There is no doubt homosexuality is against God’s created order as revealed in the Bible. So also is divorce; yet there are times when it right to counsel divorce. EVERYTHING that falls short of GOODNESS is against God’s created order; yet it still might be good to do it because of how we have to deal with sin. We can only get into unprofitable verbal semantics when we try to justify why “bad” things such as surgery things are good; but if a condition exists as a consequence of sin, then how to best correct or live with that condition is the moral question that challenges us. Do you let a person die, or do you do surgery? Do you tell a person who feels themself to be fully homosexual that they must deny that identity, or do you fully accept them? That is the moral question.

    For several hundred years our society has created the conditions where young people are saturated with sexual stimuli yet prevented from entering early marriage without great risk, and now we are beginning to see the consequences on many fronts. We must face these moral challenges by loving people without ultimately rejecting them.”

    I would also like to add that when Christians buy into the liberal/conservative labels, we step out of Christianity and into the political world. By blurring these lines, we still end up with the “watered down” version of Christianity, don’t we?

  31. steve says:

    In all this talk about soft on sin let’s remember Jesus told the woman brought to him in adultery – I don’t condemn you” – but also “Go and sin no more”. Just sayin’…

  32. Sue says:

    I would just like to submit that people were carrying on these biblical discussions when issues of women’s rights, black people’s rights, Jewish people’s rights, and various other social minorities’ rights came into question. And in each of those situations, people said, “The Bible definitively says this” on the issue, usually to justify any kind of discrimination, persecution, or–at the very minimum–dehumanization of another person. What the Church continuously realizes is that Christ is on the side of those on the margins, being a victim of religious and political persecution himself, and strives to liberate them from the oppression of those in power in society (i.e. the privileged majority, where the “tyranny of the majority” originates from).

    Modern science and modern biblical scholarship, at least if you consult biblical scholars at the top-ranked schools in the world, all decry discrimination and condemnation against LGBTQ people. Homosexuality has appeared throughout the natural world as far back as history can be recorded. Differences in the brain structure and brain responses of LGBTQ people as compared to their heterosexual counterparts havve been recorded. The vast majority of scientists say sexual orientation is programmed into the brain during gestation. Studies as recent as 2010 conclude that there is no evidence that a) sexual orientation is influenced psychologically by environment b) sexual orientation can be altered, but various organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association have documented the physical, mental and emotional trauma that attempts to alter sexuality can cause, teamed with the condemnation and discrimination LGBTQ people are subjected to. It’s no wonder that LGBTQ youth are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide–because they’re being condemned for a “problem” that has no solution. What we do know is that the homosexuality described in the Bible is not homosexuality as we know it today: inborn and occurring in committed, loving relationships between two consenting adults. If we are going to take a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, then I suggest we start encouraging women not to speak in church, condemn them for wearing jewelry, boycott Red Lobster for selling shrimp (an abomination), refrain from wearing cotton-poly blends because it’s more than one fabric, and selling our daughters into slavery.

    The Church is hanging on by a thread, and it’s because people are rightfully calling it to accountability for its parts in most of history’s greatest human rights violations (the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, colonialism, Holocaust, slavery, absence of women’s rights, etc.). The Bible has been drawn into all of those arguments much like this one. I encourage us to remember the divine movement for the liberation of oppressed peoples and our call to love our neighbors. Christ went about restoring communities through love. Not condemning others by isolating verses from their contexts like the Pharisees.

  33. Steve says:

    Does it really matter whether Rob is “going soft on homosexuality” or not?

    The issue of whether or not homosexuality is a sin is a side issue. It is not central to the gospel, and it is certainly not worth dividing the church over. For this reason, it would only be harmful for Rob to take a stand one way or the other.

    What Rob is teaching, (and other people should be preaching) is that we all fall short of God’s standards in different ways, and we need Jesus to re-unite us with the father.

    A teachers job is not to stand up on a Sunday and list every type of conceivable sin. That is the holy spirits job, and he doesn’t need our help.

    If homosexuality is sinful, and God wants an individual to stop there will be conviction. Bringing judgement against people struggling with this issue, causes divisiveness, is in iteslf sinful and does not help to further the gospel.

  34. Craig says:

    Ah thank you for speaking sense. I feel so happy that you have said this. My soul leapt when I read it – especially after the very dark responses from so many others. May the mercy, justice, peace and love of the Living Christ guide you always as it has just done.

    Craig

  35. Neal Punt says:

    For three observations (two critical, one positive) on Bell’s book Love Wins see:

    http://www.evangelicalinclusivism.com and scroll down to FAQ number 24 “Three Observations on Bell’s Book, Love Wins.”

    Neal Punt

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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