Who and What is an Evangelical? Rob Bell Adds to the Ongoing Debate…

I have been struggling for a couple weeks to answer the question – who is an evangelical and what defines evangelical beliefs? I still don’t have an easy answer.  Can an evangelical support male-headship. Does an evangelical have to vote Republican? Can an evangelical agree with Rob Bell’s books Love Wins? Yes, this is the main question of the post – is Rob Bell an evangelical? I’ve been a long time supporter of Rob Bell’s writing and theology. I love Velvet Elvis and his collaboration with Don Golden Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. So, I’m going to jump into the deep end and attempt to contemplate why Bell’s latest book is causing so much controversy. The short answer is he has gotten all the Reformed theologians upset with his very Arminian take on free-will and the idea that there isn’t a group of “elect.” The long answer is that he is challenging how we have defined heaven and hell in Christian culture. First, Bell says nowhere that he doesn’t believe hell exists. Bell’s main concern it that Christian culture has become too set in its ways. We worry about our future in heaven and forget about problems in this world. We think all we have to do is say “the sinner’s prayer,” and we’re set for eternity. However, what about this life, this world? Are we to set back and say the problems we see around us are things we don’t need to worry about because we are only here temporarily? As Bell notes in his chapter ”Hell” “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p.79)

The problem with Rob Bells’ book is he is asking us to do something now, not later, and this infuriates people who feel that questioning the very ideas of heaven, hell and how we live out our Christian faith is nothing short of blasphemy. Tony Campolo’s blog Red Letter Christians had a post that recently addressed many of the issues Bell brings up in his book. The post by Jimmy Spencer Jr., founder and CEO of Love without Agenda, wrote an article entitled “The Coming Evangelical Split.” Put simply Spencer notes that evangelical culture is really divided into two camps – the traditional exclusive view and the progressive inclusive view. Bell clearly falls into the inclusive view camp.

As Spencer notes the following distinctions between the two groups:

Traditional Exclusive View: “We have a fairly firm idea of who is in Heaven and out to Hell.” Most every Evangelical Christian of influence over the past 500 years has held an exclusive view of who gets into Heaven and who ends up in Hell. Jesus’ death and resurrection form the basis for a gospel that needs to be consciously believed and affirmed. Others are excluded (some believe by choice and others by predestination) from the grace and renewal of the work of Jesus on the cross and the tomb. This whole paragraph is simply my effort to succinctly explain the theological system that Evangelical Protestant Christianity has embraced and passed on since the Reformation. (traditionalists would probably use the word orthodox). Exclusivism interprets that Jesus is The Way and Truth and Life— and that people need to consciously believe this to experience grace at the end of their life.”

Progressive Inclusive View: “Inclusivism is an established theological position that states there is enough evidence in the Bible that the work of Jesus is more inclusive of others than the traditional exclusive system would allow for. C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist along with Wesley. I think Rob Bell seems to me, to fall into a very similar vein in his book. Let’s be very clear— this is NOT Universalism or Pluralism. Unlike Pluralism, Inclusivism states that only Jesus saves humanity—and that other religions and nature that contain varying amounts of truth come from Jesus. People of other religions who faithfully and unknowingly live out the pattern of Jesus—could possibly get into Heaven based solely on the work of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Unlike Universalism, Inclusivism believes that Jesus seeks to include as much of the world as possible, but does not simply sweep everyone into Heaven— allowing those who choose to be excluded to be separated from God. Inclusivism also believes that Jesus is The Way and Truth and Life— but interprets that He alone has earned the right to decide. Since the divine nature of Jesus is to include others—this leaves possibilities that exclusive systems of Christianity leave out.”

This divide in evangelical culture is nothing new, and Spencer believes this is only the beginning of long-term divisions in evangelical society because of these theological differences. What those divisions will be I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about this for two weeks, and the clearest example I can articulate to describe the future of evangelical culture is the current divide between fundamentalism and evangelical culture. This divide is murky at best and in my research on male-headship many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists spout the same views on gender.

The divide on gender roles and Biblical interpretation already exists and it exists within evangelical denominations. People are not united, what this means for the future of evangelical culture is two possibilities. First, the conservatives (mostly the traditional exclusive camp) will merge into fundamentalist denominations because they feel more comfortable there. Second, the progressive view will continue to gain popularity as my generation (the millennial generation and subsequent generations) embraces this view in greater numbers. Thus, evangelical culture will be transformed and become progressive. This is a very optimistic view. I am willing to admit that the opposite could also happen. Young adults will become disenfranchised when they don’t see an emphasis placed on living out the example of Christ in this world and will leave evangelical culture and go to mainline denominations. I would hate to see that happen. Change can only occur when we stay and fight for it. It’s an uphill battle, but the ongoing debate on how to live out our faith and what views will dominate evangelical culture is a fight worth pursuing.

One thought on “Who and What is an Evangelical? Rob Bell Adds to the Ongoing Debate…

  1. While I hope evangelical culture does become progressive to meet the needs of the world (rather than stay in our own little comfort zones)…I worry that we are watering down the truth too much to reach out to a world that wants to hear a watered-down truth – rather than giving them truth itself. I seem to see, more and more, that people want to be called “Christian” without wanting to make any changes to claim that title. I believe what Paul said – to be all things to all people so that some might be saved. But where is the line in standing up for, and stating, the truth…and just giving people what they want to hear? I think it’s a very fine line that the current church is walking. And while we’re all distracted “fighting” over these theological issues….we’re too busy to worry about the people we’re called to reach out to. Satan must be loving it.

Leave a Reply