Bringing Your Nails To Book Club, Or That Ever Elusive Line

An ultra super rare special Monday edition of Charlie’s Church of Christ!!!

Rob Bell has likely been in your church. Probably not physically – he isn’t a big traveler save a few speaking tours (and he usually toured clubs), but he’s been in your church through his Nooma videos. This may be alarming to some, as he’s portrayed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His books set off minor firestorms, and his next one has set another one off a month before it’s release. Any press is good press?

I’ve noticed for years that Rob has seemingly flirted with or covertly pointed to something like universalism, and his new book is all about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. Speculation abounds that it’s his coming out of the closest on his true stance.

This post is not a promo. Nor is it a test.

(Please note this post is not about universalism, I’m merely using it to make an entirely different point.)

Watchdogs, who make their careers out of picking on people like Rob Bell, will have all the fuel they’ll ever need from this book. Previously they’ve nailed him a heretic on minor differences – but arguing in favor of a wider gate into heaven will leave Rob branded with all sorts of labels. Some will consider him outside of the Christian circle and will make claims against his salvation.

This is a question I ask often – so, where is the line?

If he is a Christian who believes in universalism – does he lose a spot as one of our brothers? Does this un-save him? At what point does someone lose it? Where is that line drawn?

I’m not slowly building up until I give you my answer, I am legitimately asking where this line is, what issues its drawn around.

My uncle once told me of seven points of theology you have to affirm even with a gun to your head or you’re hell-bound. If deny even one, he could not guarantee you are saved.

Obviously there are a variety of denominations and versions of belief out there – and if you imagine a concentric circle with the “most right” group in the center and each one going out is a less less “right” – where does one cease being one of the brethren? What is it that excludes someone?

Or maybe, Christians could afford to spend a little less time drawing lines in order to define and/or keep people out.

In your opinion, where is the line of who’s in and who’s out? Where does someone lose “it?”

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33 Responses to Bringing Your Nails To Book Club, Or That Ever Elusive Line

  1. jefflyle says:

    Charlie, great question; my response is that we either have it and keep it or we never had it at all. I’m far from the flippancy of once-saved-always-saved-easy-believism, but I equally distance myself from the belief that you can truly experience God’s saving grace and then un-experience it. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is only fully known through endurance/perseverance. In my humble opinion, it’s not where we begin but where we finish.

    • I’m the kind of guy who sees things from all angles and, I take a while to pick sides. So in this reply I’m merely exploring the opposite of what you said just to see if something is there (I’m not implying I disagree, I’m merely feeling things out). I don’t have the answers already in my head – hence why I wrote the post to begin with!

      I can understand the “we either have it and keep it or we never had it at all,” but I also acknowledge that life is crazy and goes all over the place and I know people who’ve been quite devout but have still landed elsewhere. I also can understand the “it’s not where we begin but where we finish,” but I look at the criminal on the cross who was arguably just beginning (and ending, simultaneously). I see lots of people who have difficulty simply advancing from where they’re begun, and I think God has grace for that. He seems to have grace for the tumultuous journey.

      Hope that wasn’t too devil’s advocate, I’m trying to feel my way through this stuff…

  2. Gotta admit Charlie, this is a tough one. I will get one thing out of the way: I have never been a Rob Bell fan. Ever. Nooma or not. I think I have seen maybe 2 of them. I tried to Velvet Elvis and was bored stiff. Okay, since it is not about him, I will reserve the comment about his universalism and move on. 🙂 I may open up a can of worms here but even though I am very much a grace person, I also draw a line on what defines. I believe very strongly that God’s Word states it clearly that Jesus is the only way. To deny that He is God in the flesh, born of a virgin, etc is dangerously close, maybe even already there, to a cult. I know that sounds legalistic and close-minded but I feel very strongly that a person’s belief in Who Jesus is, is a defining line. I welcome any thoughts you may have to see if this goes anywhere. 😛

    • guess we’re different people Bill as I’ve read Velvet Elvis at least 4 times!

      I believe Rob’s argument is not against Jesus as the only way, I think he says Jesus died for and covers the sins of all humanity, and that the blessing isn’t distributed individually. At least that’s how I’ve heard Christian universalists explain it, not sure if I’m doing it justice.

      I can definitely understand how what we say about Jesus is hugely important, though I’d say Jesus as God in the flesh is leagues more important than born of a virgin. I affirm he was born of a virgin, but I’d be hard pressed to declare someone a heretic who had trouble with that one. But this is also the point of the post – the lines are pretty muddy and ultimately we simply have to life with that – with NOT knowing.

  3. Good old Rob.

    This is huge in terms of “things to talk about”. A huge number of issues are at stake.

    It all depends on what a person believes about the very nature of salvation as to how they answer this. And, in the end, we really don’t KNOW which interpretation is right, we have to admit.

    We can say “what does the Bible say?”, but that assumes that we regard the Bible as the authority. If we regard the Bible as the authority, we have to decide which interpretation is correct. If we DON’T regard the Bible as the authority, or as only a partial authority, then we have to determine what IS the authority, or if there is one. Many come to the conclusions they do because they conclude that the Bible is only authoritative on some issues but not others, and some elevate logic to a higher status than the Bible, largely because we CANNOT prove that the Bible is inspired, infallible, inerrant, or virtually ANYTHING except by its own statements. Self-preserving circular logic.

    Many draw the circle small. Some draw it large but specific and strong on some certain issues. Some draw no circle, some draw a circle called “Jesus” and simply say that it encompasses all, even those who do not know.

    Nearly everyone believes that God forgives babies and mentally handicapped people through the blood of Jesus, even though they don’t believe consciously. Yet, tremendous numbers of people believe that the aborigines of Australia are doomed to hell unless they consciously convert to following Jesus Christ, no exceptions other than the babies and children and mentally handicapped.

    Exclusivism is becoming harder and harder to defend. Reason and logic make it very unfair for God to destroy people in hell forever for being Muslim if his sovereignty allowed (or caused) them to be born in a Muslim culture where the name of Jesus Christ is given no power at all. Or Hindus. Looking at the normal American vision of Jesus Christ as Saviour gives no credence to the millions of people in our world who simply are never exposed to it. Does God really give EVERYONE at least one chance in their life to make a decision to either accept or reject Christ? I’m not convinced of that statement, yet millions of Americans believe just that, and that’s the excuse we use for saying that a conscious decision to accept Jesus Christ as Saviour is the only way to heaven.

    Can a person “lose” their salvation? Many, many doctrinal statements say no, and to those people, the question is whether Rob Bell is actually a Christian in the first place. Some would say, yes, you can lose it, so, perhaps he has, and others should be careful. Some would say, no matter WHAT he says, if he has believed in Jesus Christ at any point in his life, EVEN HIS FAILURE TO BELIEVE PROPER DOCTRINE is still covered by the grace of God. (This is why these folks can’t be “creedal” in their approach to doctrine. Their belief is that one moment of faith covers an eternity of sin, thus the use of a “creed” as a statement of why or how we are saved destroys the entire perception.)

    Rob is a problem. I’ve read Velvet Jesus, and I don’t believe that Rob believes or promotes true Christian doctrine in many cases. However, I see that he esteems Jesus HIGHER than many do who attach salvation to “what we do”. So, who’s right?

    I struggle with doubts and confusion like crazy, but I would be terrified to say many of the things Rob says. I don’t KNOW if I would be more terrified of God or of the Christian community telling me that I was doomed. But I would be terrified of both to some extent.

    • fantastic and thoughtful reply! Thank you Bernard, so much great stuff in there.

      I have to admit I’ve sometimes wondered if that same “grace” or whatever you want to call it that God extends to babies and mentally handicapped could also be extended to people who’ve been damaged or hurt by bad Christians. Hopefully this doesn’t sound too unfair, but fundamentalism has burned some serious bridges in our culture and caused a lot of damage, and so in a way I don’t blame some of the people who don’t believe because of that. Someone could argue it is up to them to look into the matter and try to find true Christianity, but I can understand why they’d write it all off. Do you see what I mean?

      I totally agree that exclusivism is getting harder and harder to defend.

      Though I like Rob’s work a lot, I also wouldn’t say he’s got everything nailed just right. I think he’s reacting to some faulty beliefs in Christianity and swung the pendulum in the other direction – at times he’s found the right balance and other times he’s gone too far. But there’s grace for that too, I suppose.

  4. Guess I strayed and didn’t answer the question very well. Sorry.

    Basically, I don’t KNOW where the line is. I BELIEVE that it is a brave, bold, and clear line that requires a person to trust in the death of Jesus Christ as their forgiveness for sin and restoration to fellowship with God. However, this isn’t simple as it ASSUMES a BUNCH of other beliefs before this belief even makes sense. Obviuosly, they gotta believe in God, and it’s gotta be the “right” God, they gotta believe in Jesus, and it really assumes that they believe He is God. (It is intellectually possible to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, lives a sinless life, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead yet still maintain that he was only a human being just like we are, with no “God” qualities at all. Even the miracles can be explained as God doing whatever Jesus wanted done, rather than as Jesus being God himself.) My “basic” belief also presumes that the sinner believes that he has sinned and offended God in the first place, which means that he understands, affirms, and agrees with the basic Biblical definition of sin, because otherwise, he could not and would not even admit to needing a Saviour or even being sinful. It also presumes a belief in heaven and most likely hell, because, at a human level, there is no need for “eternal salvation” if there is no eternity.

    So, in effect, we proclaim the line as simple and clear, but is it?

  5. Chris says:

    I’m off today so I guess I’ll take first crack at interacting here. You asked:

    “In your opinion, where is the line of who’s in and who’s out? Where does someone lose “it?”

    Your question seems to presuppose that there really is an “in” or an “out”. I think this is really the question, rather than where the line is. Did the first century Christians think there was an in or out? Did the apostles? Did Jesus? I think the main difference between what Jesus believed and his subsequent followers believed was that in terms of who is in and who is out, there were and would be a great many surprises. Charlie, you often like to put the early Christians up as an example of a “better” kind of Christianity, but the scriptures and other sources do indicate strongly that among the first Christians there was in fact an in and an out. In some cases for them it was a matter of survival to be able to distinguish the difference. I’m not so sure it’s all that different today.
    I was married in a Unitarian Universalist Church. I was at a different point in my life then. We did classes like “Building Your Own Theology.” Unitarian Universalism casts an extremely wide, inclusive net. In fact I’m not sure that anyone at all would be considered “out”, even atheists. Is this where we want to be? If so there is no need to change Christianity. Just make the switch over to the UUC. After all, as the cliche goes, Jesus didn’t come to invent Christianity. But make no mistake, this is the inevitable point at which you land if you choose to eradicate all lines of distinction and say that everyone is in.
    I don’t know that I want to be the one to say he’s in, he’s not, she’s in, she’s not, but I do respect in some ways that the”watchdogs” as you put it, are willing to do so, only because it does take courage, especially considering the ever-present Pharasaitical comparisons, of which I’m sure they are very cognizant. It is a very serious and dangerous thing to call someone a heretic, because if that person is actually in God’s favor you come very close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and we know what God says about that.
    I actually do think there is an in and an out, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to bring as many “in” from the outside as is possible. To show them the love and the benefits of that relationship that lasts. I don’t think, as the stereotype suggests, that people are designated as “out” because we want to keep them out. All are invited, but not all accept, as the biblical narrative suggests.
    When all is said and done it is extremely hard to say exactly where that line is. I think it’s a little bit like trying to define pornography. It’s hard to craft an exact definition, but I know it when I see it. Personally, these days I am actually less interested in lines than I am in ideas. And even less interested in ideas than I am in serving and being well used. But these discussions are good, so keep up the good work.

    • as I say at the end of the post – I think the fact that we can’t find the definitive line could indicate it’s the wrong kind of conversation to be having. I understand why we’re having it, but it maybe it’s better to encourage more to get “in” than to simply talk about who’s out.

      I would agree that we will be surprised as to who’s in, and it’s probably people with smaller faith than we think. I do hold up the early Christians a good bit, though from what I know eternity wasn’t such a fascination, and there were differing opinions (even as far as universalism, or whatever what would have been closest to that). I also don’t think the early Christians had as many lines (I could be wrong, I’m basing this of course off of writings), as we have far more theological foot notes these days.

      I agree I’m more interested in other things than conversations/ideas/theology – but of course I can only show the blog side of me here. Hard to show the service aspect for multiple reasons 🙂

  6. Chris says:

    Guess I’m not the first. You guys are up way too early. 😉

  7. Jeff says:

    I don’t know. Nobody knows. It can’t be known.

  8. guess it’s Rob Bell Monday in the blogosphere…. in honor of it I got a drink at a coffee shop this morning called the “Velvet Elvis.” I feel pretty cliche that everyone else has written about Rob today (I’ve already read 6 posts about him). Replies to comments coming soon!

  9. David says:

    Here’s my bottom line:
    Romans 2:12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law 13 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; 14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) 16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

    I am also with Bill, Jesus is the only way. Where I may differ is whether we need to have proper theology (with or without the gun) and have said a sinner’s prayer to know God in our hearts. I don’t think so. The above verse speaks directly to the possibility of having the proper “seal of the Holy Spirit” on our hearts without all the intellectual understanding of the law etc. It takes child-like faith, not a degree in from cemetery.

    And no, I don’t believe you can lose what you didn’t have.

    Romans 8:16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

    That says that if we know God, we will have assurance of our salvation. If someone is unsure, it is because the “conversion” was coerced, or they agreed to something intellectually in a weak emotional moment.

    Is all this likely? No! It is still a narrow path that many will not choose, and worse many will be led astray by religious teachings and never know God in their hearts. There are still going to be empty religious folks that talk real good Bible. There are going to be many that think they know the truth, when it is not in their hearts. There is nothing new under the sun. Even Judas hung out with Jesus!

    And to confuse the issue, some saved folks will screw up like King David did.

    Unless a believer has the actual gift of spiritual discernment (1 Cor 12), it is unlikely that they will know if someone is truly saved.

    I met a man almost 20 years ago that got saved at a crusade in his country of South Africa. He became a missionary to the Ukraine and was on FIRE for God. He was so appreciative of the preacher for the change in his life, that he went and looked him up. He went directly to his house, and though the preacher was surprised, he let him in for a chat. This man saw that the house had many witchcraft and witch doctor type items in it. (Fairly common in South Africa) When he confronted the preacher about the objects, he said: “I am not a Christian, I just do the crusades because the money is very, very good, and people seem to like it.”

    The line is the line. That is why it is so important for us to know others, and learn to spiritually discern things. There are a lot of bible verses thrown around in Christianity, and someone has got to be wrong.

    • so your answer is the truth is in your heart – which is even more difficult to tell because we don’t see what is written on each other’s hearts. I think you are right indeed, though I am seeing a trend that we don’t get to know. It’s tough to be fine with that….

      What did you mean by “Where I may differ is whether we need to have proper theology (with or without the gun)”? I’ve never heard that expression before, so I couldn’t tell what you were trying to say.

      Oh man David your story may have inspired yet another post – about how many preachers would fall away if they weren’t paying gigs (or if they money wasn’t good)…. we’ll see. How did that man respond – did he lose any of his fire for God because of that incident?

      • David says:

        Yes, the seal of the Holy Spirit is present, or it is not. A lot of folks would like it to be about religious practice, but the is exactly the problem. The church of heart-sealed believers is not as big as some folks would like it to be.

        I was quoting you dear friend:
        “My uncle once told me of seven points of theology you have to affirm even with a gun to your head or you’re hell-bound. If deny even one, he could not guarantee you are saved.”

        It is about the heart, not the theology. As I pointed out, it doesn’t mean that we get to decide what truth is – it simply means that a life-changing experience with Jesus is just that: life-changing; and it doesn’t require perfect theology.

        No, in fact after his utter amazment, he poured even more of his life into the Gospel of savlation! He quit his full-time job and has lived by faith ever since.

      • you know what David great point that a life changing experience doesn’t necessarily translate to perfect theology. and in my opinion it is much more about that experience then theology.

        (and sorry about the misunderstanding about the gun comment, whoops!)

  10. Su says:

    I always snicker a bit when people say things like, “if you don’t ____, then I can’t guarantee you’ll be saved.” I know that’s not what they mean, but I always want to assure them, “Don’t worry, it wasn’t your guarantee I was looking for.”

    Generally speaking, I accept as a fellow Christian anyone who tells me they follow Jesus. From time to time I have had reason to doubt this claim, and in that case I will generally ask what following Jesus means. Which has often led to a conversation like, “Oh, I accepted Jesus when I was ___ but I don’t believe he really meant that I need to ____”. Usually when I run across a “but he didn’t mean” statement, I try to gently pursue the conversation, because I have no problem with letting people grow in their own time (since I’m still a work in progress myself) but I object to saying “I follow Jesus but only as it’s convenient to me.” And I’ve run across those comments from people all across the spectrum from lifelong churchgoers to the just-heard-about-Jesus-yesterday crowd.

    Although even then, I’m not sure I’d say, “You’re not a Christian”, but I would be in doubt about whether they were serious about it.

    Anyway, at the end of the day I’m not willing to be the hall monitor and draw lines; I see my job more as encouraging other people to examine their own lives in the light of Jesus and see what they find.

    • you actually make a great point I don’t think you even intended to make – at the end of the day a hall monitor is, well quite frankly, elementary. I appreciate that you give people time and space to grow – I think some people freak out when they hear about someone being a universalist, not knowing that it is often just a pendulum swing for that person, a step in the journey.

  11. shawncornett says:

    As someone who has been called a “cult member” before (I am part of the Christian Church/Churches of Christ — we’re big on baptism as a part of the Biblical plan of salvation — it does NOT save you, but is PART of the process), I can sympathize a little bit. It’s not easy taking an unpopular stance. My 2 biggest problems with the Rob Bell controversy are 1) No one has read the book yet and 2) NO ONE HAS READ THE BOOK YET! In all seriousness, as far as who is in and who is out, that’s not my call. Jesus said in the just-as-powerful-but-slightly-less-well-known John 3:17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” We, as Christians, are much too quick to do something that Jesus wouldn’t do — condemn. Is Rob Bell saved? Don’t know. Not my call. Is Rob Bell a heretic? Don’t know. Haven’t read the book. Is Rob Bell going to heaven? Again, not my call. Is Rob Bell going to be judged more strictly? YES! James 3:1 says so! So what I fear is that Rob may be a believer in Christ and a Christian teacher and leader. IF his doctrine is heretical, then his teaching will be heretical. If people believe lies, then people will be led astray. Does someone lose their salvation for believing wrong things that aren’t essential to the faith? Not necessarily. Not believing that the wicked and unbelieving are punished for eternity in hell may not keep you out of heaven. Not believing that the Bible is God’s inspired Word might. Why? Because it is what our doctrine is built upon! If I don’t believe the Bible about hell, why should I believe it about the virgin birth or the resurrection or the atonement of Christ’s sacrificial death? Where is the line? Not exactly sure, but I believe that it begins and ends with God’s Word. What we believe about the Bible is the foundation for every other thing we believe. Just my nickel’s worth on a Monday.

    • to be the devil’s advocate (I usually don’t play that role, and this is a terrible way to make a first impression!) what if someone doesn’t believe God’s word is infallible but still believe it is inspired in some way by God. Not saying this is my belief – just saying that the point is even here there are a wide range of beliefs (and they change and shift too, on top of that).

      anyway all that aside welcome to the blog – I think you make a great point in that these decisions/lines are not up to us, so really we shouldn’t speculate too much, but we do know that teachers should not take that position lightly….

      oh and no one has read the book yet! (but I’m pre-ordering it!)

      • David says:

        The reason a lot of folks don’t believe that God’s word is infallible is that it is not backed up with power only pure religion.

        1 Corinthians 4:20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.

    • Chris says:

      @ Shawn

      “My 2 biggest problems with the Rob Bell controversy are 1) No one has read the book yet and 2) NO ONE HAS READ THE BOOK YET!”

      I don’t think all the Rob Bell noise has to do with what is in his book, but rather what he has already said in his video and other places. Is the criticism justified? That’s up to each person to decide, but I think Kevin DeYoung does a pretty good job of explaining why there is all this fuss, over at his blog.

      http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/

      It made a fair amount of sense to me, but others may not see it that way.
      BTW, it’s much easier to throw out the term “heresy hunter” when talking about a pastor like DeYoung, or a Piper, et al., whose tendency it is to call out guys like Bell or McLaren, than it is to actually deal with the biblical narratives and the arguments themselves. Bell is one guy I haven’t read much of, but I do want to know what the fuss is about, so I plan picking up the book.

      • I have to admit I’m not a big Kevin DeYoung fan, I tried to read a book he co-authored a while back but I was bored to tears and in that book I thought he was bickering just a bit too much. I do feel I gave the book at honest shot (I actually wanted to read a criticism of the emerging church movement and try to understand their points), but I won’t totally write him off and I’ll check out that link.

  12. Larry Hughes says:

    Well I don’t even know who Rob Bell is which might be good. The in and out thingy.
    Don’t know where I fit in that circle. I know what I believe and I base it on the scriptures.

    The way I look at it is if it does not reinforce what is written in scriptures, it may be what Jesus warned the apostiles about. If it smells like a rat, then it might be a rat. No Jesus didn’t say that, it is a parable.

    I have studied theology from different authors and if you think reading the bible confuses you wait till you read what theologians think. Every one has a different ideaology on spirituality. The way I figure it, when all else fails, read the instructions (bible). Then follow what you read or interpret. If that don’t work Ask God in prayer.

    • the Bible is quite confusing (Even on the topic of salvation – hence why there can even be a debate at all), and we often turn to theologians to help us sort it out (they help sometimes, and they complicate things too). I like that you take it back to the basics, but also acknowledge that it is all based on an interpretation. No one is truly “correct.”

  13. Stan Rodda says:

    If Rob Bell turns out to be a universalist, and if your definition of heresy is simply, “a deviation from traditional orthodox or doctrine of the church,” then yes, technically he would be a heretic.

    However, I’m with Shawn. The book hasn’t even been read yet, so call off the dogs for a minute.

    Here’s how it ultimately shakes out, IMO. There is a heaven and there is a hell. Jesus spoke pretty plainly about both. Some will go to the right and some to the left. Some will have Jesus to call on as their Advocate to God the Father while others will not. So, when Rob Bell stands before God on that day…wait a minute. What about when I stand before God on that day? I need to spend my time focusing on Philippians 2:12 which says, “working out my salvation with fear and trembling.” I don’t have the time nor the energy to work out Rob Bell’s.

    If you disagree with him and think he’s a hell-bound, universalist pagan – don’t read his stuff or teach it in your church.

    If you are okay with some of his stuff but need to work around other areas – fine too.

    Either way, it’s God’s call in the end. Who am I to judge someone else’s servant (Romans 14:4)?

    • such a simple yet truly earth-shattering truth for a great number of people – to work out your, and only your, salvation. I think why we go against it so much is that it just doesn’t seem right to let someone “pervert” or get away with something – so we take matters into our own hands and guess, they get a little messier.

      • Bernard Shuford says:

        This is a very hard thing for an “evangelical” to cop to. Most evangelicals are convinced that their salvation is certain, and their only purpose for still being alive is to fix everybody else.

        I really don’t know yet how to resolve the scripture you mention in light of the “Great Commission”, but I do often “quiz myself” about the assumed fact that the “Great Commission” is actually directed to every Christian as well as the people he was actually speaking to.

  14. Pingback: A Guide To Christian In-Fighting, Or Peaceful Warriors | Charlie's Church of Christ

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