Rob Bell vs. John Piper: Do We Have to Choose?

Do I like Piper or do I side with Bell? My response always shocks people. We should be for neither, and we should be for both.
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This past Saturday, a new controversy erupted between two sides of the evangelical Christian world represented by pastoral super stars, Rob Bell and John Piper. The controversy swirls around Bell's new book, Love Wins, which discusses his views on heaven and hell. The problem is that no one knows his views just yet as the book hasn't even been published. The controversy is based on the promotional video and a few chapters that were released for review.

Bell and Piper aren't the only one's involved in this controversy. In fact, Piper's only contribution is a simple Tweet that states, "Farewell Rob Bell," which many take to be Piper's dismissal of Bell from the evangelical world. It is interesting and troubling to see that this controversy on the book's supposed content (that is, Bell might be someone who believes that God will save everyone in the end) has generated a hemorrhage of Twitter and Facebook discussions. Both sides are lining up and starting to take aim.

A little history for uninitiated:

John Piper is the father figure of the "Neo-Calvinist" movement that includes younger ministers like Mark Driscoll, Joshua Harris and many of the writers at the Gospel Coalition site. This movement is committed to being doctrinally sound according to a modified version of the theological movement known as Calvinism, which is the idea that God predestines those who will be saved. They are also known for having a strong emphasis on morality and obedience to God's commandments.

On the other hand, we have Rob Bell who has become something of a rock star among younger, edgier evangelical Christians. He became a star through a series of videos called "Nouma," which discuss a variety of topics through the media of pseudo-hip film production. Bell's way of thinking is centered on the title of his book, Love Wins. That is, God loves everyone and seeks to save the whole world. Bell emphasizes the need to listen to everyone and be careful about too many doctrinal pronouncements.

As an ordained Evangelical Presbyterian minister, I'm often asked my opinion about these controversies and what "side" I choose. Do I like Piper or do I side with Bell? Indeed, that is the tone of the controversy as it shapes in the ether of the Internet. My response always shocks people. We should be for neither, and we should be for both.

The reason I say this is not a wishy washy attempt to avoid controversy. Rather, it's to point out that the choices being presented in the latest controversy are false choices. John Piper works hard at presenting an orthodox view of evangelical theology. Jesus' finished work of death and resurrection is the core of Christian belief. However, He and His followers are often, in the words of my best friend, "tone deaf." The Neo-Calvinists come off as smug and unloving as they roast Bell over a book they haven't even seen. They seem to have never heard of the cliché, "Don't judge a book by its cover (or marketing material)." They fight 300-year-old battles with 300-year-old theologians that most people have never heard about, much less read. Because of this, their tone comes off as unloving and smug mixed with a plain ole fist to the face. Piper's dismissive Tweet about Bell is a prime example of this attitude.

On the other hand, Bell represents a movement among younger evangelicals that considers theological truth as a secondary concern. They are more about the "journey" rather than the destination. Very often, this attitude leads them into areas that don't line up with the Nicene Creed, the ancient statement of faith of all Christians. They don't realize the journey can often be hard, time consuming and full of suffering. Sometimes, you would just like to be able to arrive and rest on something solid. They often have a dismissive attitude toward the side of the evangelical world represented by Piper, writing them off as legalistic jerks that care nothing for loving people.

Even worse, both sides often make the assertion they stand in for God, even as they both deny they do so. When statements like, "Either believe this or you aren't an orthodox Christian" or, "I think God is tired of iron clad," get thrown around, you know that both sides believe they are speaking for God.

Really, this all comes down to an illustration of a parable that Jesus told about two sons. In the wide world, it's known as the prodigal son, but the story is really about two brothers. The story tells us that a younger brother gets the inheritance from the father (demonstrating his hate for the father through wishing he were dead), goes and spends it and then is welcomed home by the father. The eldest son sees this, resents it and hates the father by yelling at him for taking the younger son back.

Really, the hero of the story is the Father who loves the sons that hate him. The father is a stand in for God and we are those sons. The elder brother is the side of the evangelical world that presents a smug, arrogant trust in their own self-righteousness. The younger brother is the side that wishes to dismiss any need to be concerned about real biblical doctrine and church tradition. Both of them hate aspects of the Father. One side hates his graciousness and tolerance for younger brothers trying to figure it out. The other side hates his fatherly concern for the truth.

But what both sides need to embrace is the Father, who is both gracious and truthful. We need to embrace the idea that sometimes it's not either/or, it's both/and.

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