Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rob Bell hits Lexington and a Packed-Out House

Zondervan seems to know its got a tiger by the tale. And not a tame one either, so they've boldly decided to let him out of his Grand Rapids cage. Indeed they have decided to take him out on tour-- more specifically the Sex God Tour, promoting his latest book "Sex God" and his new Nooma video. Both were on offer tonight at Singletary Auditorium for the performing arts on the campus of the University of Kentucky.

There was a definite buzz in the air and in the audience as we all waited for Rob to arrive (his plane flight from Detroit was canceled and so he drove and arrived a bit late. It says something for his integrity that he refused to disappoint the large crowd awaiting his coming). The format of the evening was Q+A on whatever subjects the audience wants to ask Rob about. His approach is in some ways post-modern (its more about the questions than the answers), but more than that it shows respect to the audience to care about their questions and try to respond. After about an hour of Q+A the new Nooma video "You" was shown.

There are a variety of things to commend about Rob and his two books "Velvet Elvis" and "Sex God". They often raise the right sort of questions, and it is clear that Rob connects well with the 20 something crowds. He is an engaging dialogue partner, and witty at times. I especially appreciate how self-effacing he is in his books in dealing with issues like his own struggles for example with depression. He is good at the relational level of things, and one can readily see that he has some pastoral skills. He also has some teaching skills as well. I am thankful that he takes the Bible seriously, and that he seeks to understand it in its original Jewish context. And he has some justified complaints about modernity and its world view as well. It seems clear that God is using him to reach a wide variety of young people, perhaps many who are not darkening the doors of church or can't relate to traditional church. The videos are engaging from a cinematographic and musical point of view, and there is content which is challenging, and not just fluff.

Having spoken of the promise of his writings and speaking engagements and videos, it is necessary in all fairness to turn around and talk about the problems. I will stick to a few major ones in the way he handles the Bible and issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. First of all it seems clear that Rob, in his valid attempt to read Jesus and the NT writers in the context of early Judaism, has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries A.D, and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism.

Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense, much less like modern ordained rabbis. It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss. Jesus' approach to the Torah is not like later rabbis in various ways, not the least of which is that he does not cite (indeed he often contrasts his teaching with) the oral traditions of the elders, such as Hillel or Shammai and the like. Jesus spoke on his own independent authority. At times Rob seems too uncritical in his reading of sources like the truly dated works of Alfred Edersheim, and apparently he spends too much time listening to folks like Ray Vanderlaan, a local teacher in the Grand Rapids area who doesn't really much understand the differences between medieval Jewish rabbis and the context and ethos of teachers in early Judaism of Jesus' day. Rob needs to read some viable sources on early Judaism, for example some of the work of Craig Evans or George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner if he wants to paint the picture of the Jewish Jesus using the right hews, tones, and features.

The second problem area is ethics, which became very apparent tonight when Rob Bell was asked about homosexuality. His answers was evasive in part, and disturbing in other parts, and clearly unBiblical in other parts and in this he sounds like some other leaders in the Emergent Church movement. Some specifics should be mentioned.

First of all, Rob made the blanket statement that you have no moral authority to speak on this issue unless you have gay friends and understand their struggle. While I am all for having pastoral empathy with people and their struggles, on that showing, Paul should never have spoken on this issue at all. This comment by Rob is simply an unhelpful way of silencing important voices in a divisive conversation, and its not helpful. Indeed it goes against the whole M.O. of Rob himself, which is to honor other people's views and beliefs and questions.

Secondly, Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this--- "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality". This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom.

The term 'eunuch' here whether taken literally (as in a castrated person who is incapable of normal sexual intercourse), or simply morally (as in a person who never engages in sexual intercourse, remaining celibate in singleness, though he or she is capable of such an act), makes very evident that for single persons, any single persons, celibacy in singleness is the standard Jesus holds up for the unmarried.

Nor, in view of the way Jesus talks about marriage in the context with the discussion of the original Genesis story about the creation order-- the creation of woman for man (and their interdependency), could one ever imagine Jesus redefining marriage to include same-sex sexual partners. Jesus is not silent on such matters at all-- fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness are his standards, and indeed they are standards by which Jesus himself lived when we are thinking about the celibacy in singleness issue. He is likely talking about himself when he speaks of persons who have chosen to be eunuchs for the Kingdom. Chastity was considered a great virtue in that honor and shame culture.

Rob then raises the issue of hypocrisy. Of course he is right that all sexual sin should be taken equally seriously, and in view of the abysmal record of heterosexual Evangelical Christians when it comes to issues of marital faithfulness he is right that one should not single out homosexual sin for special attention and ignore the seriousness of heterosexual sin. True enough-- but the proper response to such a situation is be an equal opportunity critiquer of all such sexual sin, while honestly admitting one's own failures and shortcomings.

Rob then raises the point that the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. This is true, but irrelevant. It says plenty about sexual behavior, including same sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6 and Gal. 5, to mention three texts. It is simply not true that the Bible is just opposed to pederasty or male prostitution, though certainly both of those forms of same-sex sexual expression are prohibited. The terms used in 1 Cor. 6 refer to males who play the role of 'malakoi' or the soft or effeminate role, and those that play the aggressive more male role called 'arsenokoites'-- which literal means a male who copulates with another male (and the word certainly does not imply copulation only with under aged males). On all of this Rob really needs to read Rob Gagnon's definitive work The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon).

Of course it is true that we all are sinners who fall short of the glory of God, so there is no basis for finger pointing on such issues, and everyone must in all humility deal with their own sins rather than focusing on other people's sins. A Christian approach must be that everyone is welcome to come to Christ and come into the church as they are without pre-conditions. But no one is welcome to stay as they are--- no one. They all must change, repent of their sins as needed, and strive to live in newness of life whether gay or straight.

I do not want to let my disagreement with Rob on some issues overshadow the fact that I think in many ways God is using him for good to reach young people. It is clear he deeply loves God and is striving to please God and help many people connect with Jesus. I am grateful for this.

But since God has provided him with such a forum, he must be all the more careful to speak in a way that honors what the Bible has to say about important subjects, and be clear about what it says, even if at present he finds it hard to accept. He needs to commit himself to studying more carefully the Bible in its proper contexts so that he will avoid needless off hand comments that reflect a lack of understanding of God's Word. And above all he must not fall into the trap of so identifying with the culture he is trying to reach, that instead of actually critiquing that culture from a Biblical point of view, he baptizes certain prevailing cultural values and calls them good, and even mistakes them for Biblical values.

And one more thing. Rob is absolutely correct that there is a fine line between one's sexuality and one's spirituality. It is easy to mistake one sort of passion involving another person for another sort passion, especially in an age which is as confused about sexual roles and sexual identity as this one is. Confusing and fusing spiritual and sexual thoughts, emotions, expressions is all too common these days. It is thus wiser to err on the side of caution when talking about such volatile and controversial issues, especially if you are unsure what God actually says about a subject.

Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 7 that at the end of the day remaining celibate and single or faithful in marriage is a matter of God's gracious gift-- called a 'charisma'. Its not just about nature, or what feels natural. It requires a grace gift from God to remain true in either condition. And frankly grace restrains and transforms nature. Nature, in the Christian lexicon, does not have the last word, especially fallen human nature. Grace does.

90 comments:

Michael said...

Touché Dr. Witherington. I picked up on some exigetical weaknesses in Rob's book "Velvet Elvis" but I love his videos. They are a good way to reach out to the 'unchurched.'

Jason said...

Great post, thanks for that. I wonder if you have thought about contacting Rob about some of the insights you have about reading more broadly in Jewish backgrounds. He seems like the kind of guy that would appreciate that sort of thing. And with the platform you have as a scholar it might be well received. Just a thought. thanks again.

Daniel said...

Dr. Witherington,

I'm a fan of both yours and Rob Bell. But I was curious about the statement that you made that said:
"Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense, much less like modern ordained rabbis. It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss."

From the biblical text, it seems, to me, that the disciples
did refer to Jesus as Rabbi.

Peter calls Jesus Rabbi in Mark 9:5, and Mark 11:21.

Andrew was one of the two followers of John the Baptist who calls Jesus Rabbi in John 1:38.

In John 1:49, Nathanael calls Jesus Rabbi and the Son of God.

Also see John 4:31, John 6:25, John 9:2, and John 11:8.

Jesus was also called Rabbi by others (John 3:2, Mark 10:51).

I understand that Jesus was certainly unlike any Rabbi of his time but it seems that people recognized him as having that authority.

Just wondering what you think. Your blog is very thought provoking.

Jon Rising said...

You mention Evans,Nickelsburg, and Neusner as sources that may help Rob. Would you also include Amy-Jill Levine's, The Misunderstood Jew, which you wrote a glowing endorsement for?

Michael Spencer said...
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Michael Spencer said...

Thank you Dr. Witherington. My son chose not to attend and I'm glad. While I am basically optimistic and supportive regarding the emerging church, I have not been able to extend that optimism to Bell. Zondervan sees some star quality and is overlooking some serious problems. I appreciate Bell's heart, but posing as an "expert" on the Judaism of Jesus is over Rob's head. And your critique of his approach to sexual ethics is also on target. I join Rob in much of what he is feeling, but that is a problem with how we love and respect people. It's NOT a problem with the Bible's clarity on sexual ethics. It's Hebrews 13:4. Thanks again

Ben Witherington said...

The Hebrew and Aramaic words 'revi/rabbi/rabbouni' simply mean 'my great one/master' or 'my teacher' in early Judaism. They do not have the sense of 'ordained rabbi' that they come to have centuries later after the time of Jesus. Properly speaking all those passages you list should not have the translation 'rabbi' because they are misleading, and convey to a modern audience that Jesus fell into the same category as modern rabbis, which is false. A better translation would be 'my teacher' or 'my master'.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

IMO, much of what is offered as criticism about various preachers or writers (Rob Bell included) is splitting hairs. Something doesn’t set right with someone, so the layers of scholarship are peeled back and a fault is revealed. From there it’s easy to discredit anything else that person says. I know very little about Rob Bell, but from what I’ve read he is big on embracing mystery and believes God continues to reveal new truth about both humanity and Scripture. I see nothing disturbing about that, but I understand how it would be bothersome to many.

One scholar/writer/speaker who has been criticized for NOT embracing mystery is Dr. Rob Gagnon, also mentioned in this post. I’ve read far more of his materials than Bell’s. I have a hard time understanding why he is lifted up (as he is here) as the main go-to person for Christians studying homosexuality. Although I don’t agree with Gagnon’s primary conclusions about the biblical texts, I respect him as a biblical scholar. He goes far beyond biblical analysis, though, to use his interpretations as arsenal in the war against full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church and (more importantly) civil legislation aimed at equality in society as a whole. He bolsters his political activism with a bevy of scientific/medical information that is highly questionable. Gagnon’s repeated, insistent comparison of homosexuality with polygamy, pedophilia, and incest is deeply disturbing. Recently (11/06) he stated that committed same-gender relationships are morally worse than incestuous unions. Also recently (10/06), he endorsed a book by Richard Cohen, a bizarre ‘therapist’ who was stripped of his credentials by the American Counseling Assoc. for ethical violations and whose television antics in the past year have been condemned by the most reasonable apologists for the ex-gay movement. Dr. Gagnon has devoted his career to opposing homosexual practice. Ted Haggard, on the other hand, made occasional public remarks against homosexuality and opposed gay marriage but not civil unions. Ben Witherington stated about Haggard last November, “Me thinks he protesteth too much.” I say re: Rob Gagnon: “Me thinks he protesteth WAAAY too much.”

Dr. Witherington, you assume in your post that Rob Bell hasn’t read Robert Gagnon on homosexuality. I’d suggest maybe he HAS read Gagnon’s materials and found them not worthy of repeating.

Peter said...

Thanks for this.

Those who identify themselves as emergent have important things to say to others in the Church about where North American culture is at this time. I have been helped by some of their thinking.

On the other hand, I have noticed some voices become (I know no other way to say this) wishy washy about quesitons of sexual sin -- especially homosexuality. I am worried that these brothers and sisters are in danger of creeping toward rejecting Biblical authority.

Martin Downes said...

Thank you for these helpful, and helpfully expressed, observations.

Danny Zacharias said...

BW,
you can afford it (I'm a student so I can't) you should send him Evans' Bible Knowledge Background Commentary on the NT.

I could probably convince Craig Evans to send Rob Bell a copy of Ancient Texts and NT studies if he has an extra copy kicking around. I'll have to find his address.

Danny

Anthony said...
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Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeff:

I understand why you might be disturbed by Gagnon's crusader approach to some of this, but it is no less disturbing to watch advocates of the other end of the spectrum suggest that really the Bible doesn't say what it says about same sex sexual activity.

I have had this dialogue-debate with a real expert in this matter-- Dr. A.J. Levine who is not only a professor of NT at Vandy, she is also the head of the Center for Sexuality Studies at that institution.

As Prof. Levine says, it is not really an issue of Biblical interpretation, its an issue of Biblical application. By this she means the Bible certainly does ban same sex sexual activity. She thinks this ban is no longer relevant for the synagogue or church, in part because she does not see the Bible as a divine revelation from God in the same way I would.

I disagree. Rob Gagnon's book lays out all the evidence, and indeed his website answer almost all possible exegetical questions on the issue.

This is where I say that if as diverse a set of scholars as myself and Dr. Levine can agree that this is what the Bible says on the matter, and someone like Robin Scroggs can admit he was wrong in the way he viewed the data-- trying to make it more same sex friendly. And Marcus Borg can admit the Bible says what it says, but simply concludes "we know better now what is the truth about this matter than did the Biblical writers", then I think it is time to give up the canard that this is just a matter of much debated interpretation and that the texts are obscure.

Actually they aren't obscure on this particular matter, they just make many of us uncomfortable. In my view it is dangerous to whittle off the hard edges of the text of the Bible where it rubs us the wrong way.

What we should ask when we feel this way is-- What is it about me that makes me uncomfortable with this stuff, and is the problem with me rather than the text?

Blessings,

Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

Dr. Witherington,

I really have no problem with the possibility (even likelihood) that the Bible condemns all forms of homosexual activity. So I guess my use of the word "interpretation" is inaccurate. Like some you mentioned, I believe the Bible doesn't address sexual orientation and had no frame of reference for commenting on consensual adult same-gender relationships. I don't believe the Bible speaks authoritatively on things that it doesn't address, but I really don't want to set off that debate here. My point was that Gagnon loses all credibility for me because of how his biblical application (thank you for that better term) results in what I perceive as a (very) mean-spirited crusade that relies heavily on junk science.

In re: to the larger issue of homosexuality and our response, I could rephrase your last question like this: "What is it about me that makes me uncomfortable with this stuff, and is the problem with me rather than the (issue)?" As I remarked on your last statement on the Mittney/Haggard thread, when people only see homosexuality as "fleeting pleasure" and resort to terms like "ridiculous" to describe it, I believe that says more about the writer/speaker than anything else.

I'm glad the emergent church is softening its edges. It's about a generation behind the mainline church, and I suspect the more conservative evangelicals will become comfortably gay-friendly in another generation or two. I know how the comparison with slavery and women irks folks, but I believe it's valid and that it's just a matter of time before the church celebrates and supports the committed relationships of LGBT persons. I also believe those who are part of these 'last gasps' of conservative resistance will be seen as coming down on the wrong side of history. I don't expect agreement here, really! But I believe it's true.

Jeffinoh said...

oops... I meant 'Romney', not 'Mittney'! ;-)

Andy Rowell said...

Thanks Dr. Witherington for the report. Bell is the most downloaded Christian podcast on the internet. He is a brilliant, creative communicator and he gets a lot right. His heart is for the less-fortunate for Jesus and for Scripture.

Unlike most well-known preachers, he does serious exegetical work. Frankly, I just think it is too much for him to sustain. Doing 45 minute creative communication based on ground-breaking research each week is like writing a journal article a week for scholars. I don't know know how he does it. Long term it will be difficult to sustain. I too wish that he would have a bit more time to get the facts right with all of his influence.

I bet that he agrees with you entirely on the biblical material regarding homosexuality and would come down exactly where you do but that he was speaking more to the pastoral response to this issue. I wasn't there but I know that many are rightfully trying to frame this issue of homosexual behavior in its proper context. a) There are other sins that also need to be taken seriously like greed and heterosexual infidelity. b) The Bible does not prohibit things glibly for the sake of being mean-spirited and hateful. c) There is more to Christianity than just being anti-homosexual. Check out Jesus. Let's talk about homosexuality after you have gotten to know Him. d) All sinners including ourselves are welcome in our community as we pursue Christ-likeness. e) Like any addictive habit, we don't assume that homosexual behavior is something that will be easily overcome but we as a church will partner with you.

After we have covered all of those things, we can talk about the biblical material and what is normative.

I like Richard Hays's chapter on this subject in Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Thanks, Dr. Witherington.

Andy Rowell
Taylor University
Department of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministry
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeff:

I do understand some of these concerns but actually your perspective on what is happening in the larger church is mostly off target.

Take my own denomination-- since 1984 the UM Church has every quadrennium strengthened its statements in a more Biblical direction about such sexual issues as same sex sharing, as well as about the ordination of gays.

Of course the debate still goes on, but the official position of the church is quite clear in the Book of Discipline.

The same could be said for the Anglican communion which is even now as we speak debating dis-fellowshipping the American Episcopal Church over this very issue.

No I am afraid you have misread things. Some mainline denominations are and will continue to be more gay friendly to use your term. Most of them however are not going in that direction-- indeed they might well split over this issue. As for the Evangelical denominations-- it isn't happening either.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

We'll see. :-) I believe the current conservative trend in the UMC re: homosexuality is part of those 'last gasps'. The BIG picture, I believe, is moving steadily toward greater acceptance of LGBT relationships. (And in this case I believe the church is catching up to what the larger culture is discerning is right and just, rather than accomodating to culture.) My teenaged kids have been raised mostly in mainline and evangelical/emergent churches. Homosexuality is No Big Deal for them or for any of their peers. Once their generation is in charge, the church will look very different.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Jeff, we will just have to agree to disagree on this.

The Bible does not change, and any time the church in the past has baptized sin and called it good-- there have always been very bad consequences. I expect the same in this case. I suppose polygamy will be the next sexual revolution cause we will have to endure. Don't laugh, its already being advocated in several states, even with legislation.

BW3

Don said...

Dr. Witherington...Thanks for these thoughts...I have a couple questions that I'd hope you could take a moment to answer.

1. You said that Rob is confusing Mishnaic Rabbinical ways in regards to Christ - I am personally very interested in this area (but am really just an avid reader - no formal education in this area)...what is a safe way to know that the material you are reading is of the accurate time-table? Much of what I read seems to (possibly) confuse these time frames as well.

2. What is Ray Vander Laans misunderstood views - (I am biased here because I went on a tour of Turkey with him...)

I hope you will give these a quick response...I don't want to become misguided in my understanding of Jesus' time and Jewish culture.

don

Kevin said...

As an admirer of both you and Bell, thank you for your gracious critique. You mentioned Evans, and Neusner, (I'm unfamiliar with Nickelsburg...thanks for the reference) but you did not mention Shmuel Safrai (http://www.books.google.com/books?id=H4EcAAAAMAAJ&vid=ISBN9023210700&dq=safrai%2C+rabbi&q=first-century+rabbi&pgis=1#search), who has argued in various places that just because rabbis were not "ordained" in the Medieval sense during the first-century, does not discount that their view within the culture was similar, almost proto-rabbinical. And, if rabbis were not seen in that sense "authoritatively" as mentioned in these discussions, what does one do with Hillel, Shammai, and Gamlaliel? How are they categorized or seen? Would not Jesus have been similarly categorized. (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 20:2) Thank you.

Ben Witherington said...

There are several important issues here. Firstly, Judaism after the fall of the temple in 70 A.D. became far more Torah-centric instead of Temple centered in their approach. Oral traditions began to be codified and written down, first came the Mishnah, then the Talmuds. Neither of these documents were written anywhere near the time of the NT era, and only a minority of material in those sources reflects the way Judaism was before A.D. 70. Note that the Hebrew OT was not a 'closed canon' until after A.D. 70 at Yavneh. In other words, there was felt to be a need to textualize things since there was no central set of scribes, or literate persons in Jerusalem to keep the oral tradition going and being recorded. After the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century things changed even more dramatically. Judaism became a far less eschatological, far less messianic religion, instead focusing on the law within the Torah, and binding traditions. The tradition of rabbis who were expert interpreters of such 'written' materials, meeting in a Bet Midrash to debate the meanings mostly post dates that revolt in the early second century A.D.

Of course there were authoritative teachers like Hillel before A.D. 70, but we know very little about them, because most of the traditions about them come from much later (see the work of Neusner). It is clear that there were sages, scribes, prophets before A.D. 70, but not rabbis as we would know them today. Notice that the major opposition to Jesus comes from the Pharisees (who are all lay people, not 'clergy' of any sort) and their theologians who are called scribes. Jesus is not opposed by rabbis because there weren't any as we know them now!

In the first place synagogues were fairly new on the scene and a developing thing in Jesus' day. In the second place the synagogue had a President, an administrative head such as Jairus. He invited various teachers or sages to speak, depending on who was available. There wasn't a set rabbi for each of these synagogues so far as we can tell, in Jesus' day.

Blessings,

Ben

Kevin said...

(Thank you for your reply.)
TORAH-CENTERED: I've heard this before, and while I concur that post-70 A.D. the ministration of the Temple was diminished (eliminated?), Temple-centered vs. Torah-centered seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy according to the documents, including Dead Sea Scrolls. It does not necessarily prove that the Torah was neglected prior to 70 A.D. It's a bit like saying "transportation-centered" vs. "vehicle-centered". Was not the Temple the very "vehicle" through which fulfillment (right interpretation in life and culture) of the Torah, in all its "Levitical" practices were suppose to have been fulfilled? Was not Torah the very center of Jewish life throughout Jewish history? Hence, "fulfillment of the Law" (Matthew 5:17-18), "in accordance with the Law" (Luke 2:23), "the greatest commandment in the Law" (Matthew 22:37f; Mark 12:28f.) "Moses" (Luke 24:27), and this list could be added to hundreds of times over. So it just seems that even a cursory reading of the Gospels, and even inter-testamental Apocryphal writings (e.g. Prologue to Ecclesiasticus) suggest the prevalence of the Torah, AND the ongoing discussions of it by "teachers of the Law," the Perushim (the Pharisees, separated ones), and "special" rabbis like Gamaliel, Hillel, Shammai, Jesus, Saul, Nicodemus (a member of the ruling council who calls Jesus "rabbi.") CLOSING THE CANON: I concur with canonization date, however, the "canon" of the NT was not "closed" until the 4th century. Does that indicate that the authoritative discussions around the books and letters of the NT were absent prior? (cf. Wright, Pelikan, etc.) Neither does canonization negate literacy; on the contrary, does it not support the fact that these documents were being circulated and read, and copied?
EXPERT INTERPRETERS OF 'WRITTEN' MATERIALS: Again, why the mention of "experts in the law?" (once in Matthew, seven times in Luke). Agreed that they mostly post-date 70, but as I mentioned in the previous post, were not early-first century interpreters proto-rabbinical in that sense?
PARAGRAPH TWO - AUTHORITATIVE TEACHERS: I concur that what I'm probing regarding rabbis cannot be paralleled with contemporary or even Medieval rabbinical figures. They are different, and to equate Jesus with what we know now is anachronistic and inaccurate. But what I am more curious about is the statement you made, "Jesus' approach to the Torah is not like later rabbis in various ways, not the least of which is that he does not cite (indeed he often contrasts his teaching with) the oral traditions of the elders." Another poster (Daniel) suggested several other instances where Jesus is called "rabbi" which you explained as merely a translation issue. Perhaps, but that does not negate his acting and teaching and being recognized like one who wrestles with and contends with the Torah, and the various interpretations in His day in an authoritative way. That seems to be what Bell & Vanderlaan, are most engaging with. What I'm most curious is your "alternative" (used merely in the technical sense) suggested "painting" of Jesus (using your words). What hews, tones, and features are more accurate in contrast with Bell? And, I would like to know your thoughts on Shmuel Safrai's work, which also forms a basis for this vein.
THANKS FOR THIS EDUCATIONAL INTERCHANGE.

Matt said...

i am a HUGE rob bell fan, and yet i find myself in agreement with dr. witherington's critiques. i have felt for a while that some of rob's teaching on jesus did not comport with the historical research i have done by reading books such as n.t. wright's jesus and the victory of god. however, as someone else posted, he makes far more of an exegetical effort than some. one can only hope that rob is open to gentle correction and more extensive research in this area.

as far as the issue of homosexuality goes, what is there to say that has not already been said? as dr. witherington reminds us, the bible is clear. really the debate is about biblical authority and application. perhaps an even more important issue is ecclesiology. how will we negotiate the unity of the church as more and more different segments of it disagree strongly on what biblical authority means for correct biblical application. in some ways this is what the anglican communion is facing right now.

i think debate would be much more fruitful if conducted on such issues as church unity and the authority of the bible rather than louder and louder argument over what the bible says.

the text is clear; our response is up to us.

matt varnell

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Kevin:

I was referring to the closing of the Jewish canon, not the Christian canon-- in other words the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course there was strong emphasis on the Law as well before 70, but this was much intensified thereafter, especially because huge sections of Leviticus could no longer be fulfilled. And after Bar Kokhba Jews were not allowed near that part of Jerusalem. In fact the city was turned into a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina which had instead a temple to Jupiter/Zeus!

BW3

James Garth said...

I'm a big fan of the Nooma's, both in concept and execution and believe there's much to be gained from this visual medium. As such, scholarly analysis of the messages that they communicate is both timely and responsible.

This is a great blog, in that it focuses attention on how people (consciously or unconsciously) may go to great steps to avoid applying a biblical instruction which is uncomfortable in our present culture.

I think that any careful exegesis of scripture will just keep leading us back to the same old conclusion - that certain forms of homosexual behavior were viewed as sinful in the eyes of the early Christian community. A modern day respondant who claims to uphold biblical authority yet argues homosexual sin either does not exist or is 'no big deal', is one that I have never found satisfactory, no matter how articulate they may be.

Borg's approach of 'we know more now than the writers did then' is actually a far more robust response, and in many ways, much more difficult to argue against. Whilst I am conceptually open to God providing additional light on a subject that expands upon or even overturns Scripture, I feel that when one (like Borg) claims this, then the burden of proof is well and truly on them to demonstrate that such an endorsement comes from God and not simply one's own personal opinion. To date I don't yet feel that Borg, Spong & co. have satisfactorally demonstrated this.

fred said...

Good review, Ben. Thanks.

One comment. Although it was the "scholarly consensus", that the OT canon was "fixed" in 70AD @ Jamnia (Yavneh), that view loses its validity when the actual statements are read. The rabbis at Jamnia were not debating whether or not books should be included, but why certain books were already "holy" (i.e., canonical).

Thanks again.

Blessings.

Fred

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this comment Fred. Yes, but by debating whether or not Esther or Daniel should be seen as holy, that certainly included and implied the question of whether they would be considered canonical.

I also like the Nooma videos and indeed the use of such media to reach an increasingly visually oriented learning generation.

Folks like Marcus Borg have a hard time fending off the complaint that by openly rejecting the teaching of the Bible on some subject, they make themselves the final arbiters of what is true and holy and what is not. I don't think they can get around this complaint.


Blessings,

Ben W.

paul said...

Hi Ben,

thanks for your post - i think the EC needs critique and therefore it is very welcome as part of it to read your constructive comments.

On a personal note I would very much like an answer to the Q of why homosexuality is sinful - i know the bible references which may or may not be translated as clearly as you believe with scholarship still ongoing - however that seems a moot point to me - i wonder what/where is the moral imperative - i don't think saying the bible says it cuts that much ice any more [as can be seen with the debates over women and interpretations of words in timothy etc]...

Please then could you tell me why you think homosexuality is a sin?

Thanks very much

Warmly
Paul

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Paul:

I do not think homosexual sin is more sinful than heterosexual sin, and actually there isn't 'more research going on' that might change the meaning of words, written 2,000 years whose meaning we have known for that long.

What is changing is of course our culture, and its desire for different answers than the one's the Bible gives. Western culture is becoming increasingly less Judeao-Christian in character.

To answer your question more directly there are four points to make: 1) God made us male and female. Not male and male, and not female and female. And it is this sexual duality that was said to be very good, and this duality is what is called the image of God in us;

2) God not only made us this way, he made us for each other as gendered pairs. So we have the tender story in Gen. 1-2 of God making a mate for Adam and bringing them together--- God as matchmaker.

3) The creation order mandate is for male and female to be fruitful and multiply. Now even today with all our advanced science, two males cannot multiply any more than two females can. In other words, the creation order mandate can't be fulfilled in any 'normal' God-given way by same sex couples. They require adoption, or in the case lesbians outside help to bear a child. There is a reason for this--- God made us that way; Homosexuality then is a sin, not merely because there are specific prohibitions of same sex sexual sharing in the Bible, which there are. It is a sin because it amounts to a denial or even rejection of both the creation order and the creation order mandate.

4) Then there is the matter of human fallenness. All of us are today, and indeed since Eden born fallen creatures with fallen inclinations and desires. Even if it is the case that some persons are born with same sex attractions, this would not necessarily be any validation of that orientation at all. It could be just an effect of our fallenness.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Jeffinoh said...

Of course it's the reason, tradition, and experience dimensions of the quadrilateral (as well as other perspectives on Scriptural application) that lead other faithful Christians to other conclusions re: homosexuality. It seems to me, Dr. W., that 'the Bible says' approach Paul questions actually starts the unquestioned assumption of sin. You began your answer with "homosexual sin isn't any worse that heterosexual sin", which sort of demostrates that point, IMO. Those who support LGBT relationships don't question that there is in fact homosexual sin (e.g. relational unfaithfulness) that parallels heterosexual sin. But they also believe denying healthy, loving relationships to persons oriented to their same gender is ... well, unhealthy and unloving. And "but it's sin" just doesn't cut it in light of all info out there and the actual human issues at stake. A good resource for perons who are committed to their own position to look at seriously to understand OTHER Christians (including evangelicals) is gaychristian.net.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Jeff:

The quadrilateral is not an equilateral, never has been in the Methodist tradition. And at no point does 'experience' trump Scripture in the Methodist tradition. In fact the Wesley's specifically denied that experience was an inherent authority. They spoke only of right reason, Christian antiquity (tradition), and the Bible. That's all. And Albert Outler, one of my mentors who coined the phrase Quadrilaterial made perfectly clear that the Bible should and did have the final say on all matters of faith and practice that it addressed.

As for the Methodist tradition in general-- guess what? It has been almost unanimously opposed to these sorts of relationships, until about the last three decades. It remains a distinctly minority opinion. And this word just in--- Christianity is growing far faster in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere. In the 21rst century that will be the dominant part of the church. And those folks are overwhelmingly convinced that same sex sexual sharing is a sin against God and one's neighbor.

And what about the huge amount of medical evidence that same sex sexual relationships, particularly in the case of men is inherently unhealthy-- inherently so. Do you really need a demonstration that anal sex is inherently unclean, and disease producing even if you use condoms? The human anus was never meant for such behavior. Indeed such behavior ruins that part of the anatomy. The AMA reports on this are very clear about this. So I am sorry-- even experience doesn't make your point very well.

Here's one of the reasons these discussions are so confusing. Friendships should be friendships. All of the good dimensions of a man to man or woman to woman friendship can happen, and do often happen in numerous gay and lesbian relationships. I don't deny this. There is such a thing as brotherly or sisterly love in or outside of Christ that is and can be appropriate.

Unfortunately, gay persons think it is appropriate to cross this line and turn philia love into eros. Brotherly love is confused with lust. Then a line is crossed into sin when such relationships become inappropriately physical with some one who cannot be their mate. For two persons to be a couple, they have to be able to actually have the potential to couple in the way God designed the deal.

And furthermore, there is no logic to your argument that we are depriving people of love if they are not free to sexually express themselves with another consenting adult.

Love is a far bigger category than 'eros' and it need not include 'eros' at all to be fulfilling. Many single and celibate persons know perfectly well they are loved through their families and friends and churches, and they don't need intercourse to either prove it or validate it.

I am sorry my friend but your arguments simply don't hold any water on any of the points of the quadrlateral-- 1) they do not meet the criteria to be called reasonable or self-evident; 2) they are not validated by the overwhelming testimony of human experience in regard to disease free sexual sharing (a problem of course that heterosexual misconduct has to deal with as well); 3) Methodist tradition overwhelmingly denies your point (Read John Wesley's "Thoughts upon Marriage and Celibacy"); and the Bible does not support your case either.


With all due respect Jeff, you do not have a strong case by any criteria.

Blessings,

Ben

Daniel said...

YES. YES. YES. YES. YES.

I agree with your thoughts 100%.

Last semester I wrote a paper which basically addressed the question of "Can Rob Bell's Biblical Background Information Be Trusted?"

To my surprise, the answer was no. It wasn't that all his background information was false, but that his "Jewish context" is not based on the 1st century context of Jesus. Rather, it is based on post A.D 70 Judaism as understood in the rabbinic writings of the Mishna and Talmud.

I also agree with you in regards to Rob Bell being used by God. I like Rob Bell, I just think that his understanding of the world of Jesus is off.

Thank you for your concern and your work in this area.

Daniel.
theCollegeKid

Louisa said...

I am not a scholar but it seems to me that a further danger in Bell's argument (as it's been recounted here) - that Jesus doesn't discuss homosexuality - is Bell's view of Scripture. Is this 'red-letter' theology where if Jesus doesn't mention it and Paul does then it's merely Paul's 'opinion' and not God's intended, authoritative word for believers? Does Bell advocate that we take all Scripture as being God-breathed or only the words of Jesus and does he apply this approach across the board or just to this issue of homosexuality? Perhaps I have misunderstood?
Thanks for a thought-provoking, balanced review.

and to Michael who wrote - "I join Rob in much of what he is feeling, but that is a problem with how we love and respect people. It's NOT a problem with the Bible's clarity on sexual ethics. It's Hebrews 13:4"- what a succint way of putting it- I wish I could live it that succintly.

Eric said...

Dr. Witherington, I was wondering if you could briefly outline where Rob is using Edersheim and in what ways Edersheim is outdated (thus changing what Rob is saying).

Also, it would be helpful if you could similarly (briefly) list some ways that Rob uses erroneous teachings of Ray VanderLaan and how those affect what he is saying.

paul said...

Ben,

thank you so much for your thoughts on this matter, I really do appreaciate them and you taking the time out to respond.

I think we will have to agree to disagree on the linguistic point, I think it is a thriving field of reasearch which has less to do with a decline of judeo/chrisitian culture and more to do with advcances in linguistics, history etc which may or may not prove helpful to this conversation in the future.

However i do have some further Qs on the responses you gave centering on the creation story and I would love to please explore your thinking further?

1. duality - is the story not about the inherit goodness of all of creation including male and female? Would it not also be a lousy creation story if it only covered 50% of the population and not the means to procreate -altho it would seem God could get round this too cf the virgin birth.

I would like to know why you think that this duality is what is called very good and why you think it is only in duality of 2 different sexes that the image of God is reflected? How are you then applying this to day particulary to your argument that you either are a committed hetroseual couple [which gets all the ticks for being very good and in the image of God duality] or being single and celibate [which ticks none of the boxes but seems to get great press by the likes of Paul who's view in this matter was slightly biased ;)].

2) I agree with you that God made man a equal helper called woman cos it wasn't good for him to be alone rather than a bunch of drinking buddies. But then given how the story has been set up is there any other outcome? Whilst the story would suggest that male/female is the ideal pairing it is still not saying to me why a single sex pairing that is matched, committed etc is also sinful?

3) 'be fruitful and multiply' arguement is an interesting one, is it a command or is it part of God's blessing? Does that mean people who take contraception are sinful? Does that mean those who choose not to get married are sinful as they can't fulfill this command? Does it mean that those who cannot have children are sinful? Does that mean male/female who know if they have children they are to born with a high chance of genetic illness and choose not to are sinful? Males and females with AIDS? etc.

Is being fruitful and multiplyimg just about having children or is meant to echo the mandate of man and woman to continue the work of God - the God who has started bringing order out of chaos and who has started creating life - now passes on this blessing to us to do likewise - so one reading will just have kids another would be much richer and broader than merely children?

4) fallen nature - i agree with you that people who are born with homosexual feelings might just be a result of the sinfulness that is within us all but then again if none of us are totally evil or totally good it is a hard one to call? To quote the punchline of a gary larson cartoon 'bummer of a birthmark.'

I can see why from your arguement that hetrosexual couples are preferential but I still am unsure of the sinfulnes of homosexual ones. You ended your orginal post by quoting grace as the most dominant factor and I wonder if this is not one of those situations where everything might be permissable but in this case not beneficial. I'd welcome hearing what you think is less beneficial though - i keep thinking if i was trying to explain this to a gay man or woman how would i explain this - so would welcome the continuation of this conversation?

Thanks

Paul

Jeffinoh said...

OK, I should probably bow out of this part of the conversation. Paul is probably taking a more helpful approach in addressing the theological issues raised re: the imperative of male/female coupling.

The quadrilateral... yes, it's an often-debated construct and I understand all parts aren't necessarily equal. I don't believe the conclusions of Scripture/tradition/reason/experience are as black and white conclusive as you show, Dr. Witherington, and have seen demonstrations otherwise. Anyway, we're not gonna agree, that's for sure.

I'm always perplexed when anal sex gets thrown into these conversations. It's really a non-issue re: lesbianism, and many gay men do not engage in that practice. Plenty of heterosexuals do incorporate anal intercourse into their sexual play, but I've never heard evangelicals address that as a practice to be opposed. So it's hard for me to see how that strengthens an argument. Sexual health issues are important for both straight and gay couples, and faithfulness/monogomy within those relationships is primary way to stay healthy.

Dave said...

One part of Rob Bell's talk that was relayed here was the idea that unless you are close to someone who is homosexual, then one doesn't have the "right" or whatever to discuss.
Well, since I have known several gay and lesbians, I guess I can discuss this...
First off what has shocked me the most is the diversity in reasons why someone is attracted to the same-sex partners. Some feel they are indeed "made" that way, but others "choose" for various reasons.
Second, when a homosexual person, even those that are ordained, say something like "well if it's wrong, then God will judge me, but you don't have the right to", it makes me wonder if they are unsure if it's really not a sin or is one.
What do those two things have to do with anything? Point is we don't know why or where someone is on their spiritual walk.
Some people are converted through "fire & brimstone" sermons and yelling. Many aren't. We should (as a church) show unconditional love and compassion, and set a good example for others to follow. Why would someone want to be a christian if all they see christians doing is yelling, judging, and condemning others? (They wouldn't.)


BTW, thanks for the posts, very timely for some ministering I doing with a fellow church member...

Virgil Vaduva said...

Thanks for this very well-written summary. If Rob is really taking this route with homosexuality, then he will ultimately have a hard time reaching out to those he is trying to reach the most: extreme evangelicals. To me, Rob Bell is more of a missionary to Christians rather than non-believers, but the "homosexual issue" is one that will build walls rather than tear them down.

Instead of ignoring the issue or create arguments from silence, Rob should recognize that (1) homosexuality is a problem that some people face and (2) it can lead to sinful behavior. In essence this is no different than liars struggling with lying or any other issue which ultimately leads to sin. This kind of approach is a middle ground between the right-wingers willing to crucify any struggling homosexuals and the lefties promoting sexual freedom without any regards to Scripture.

B said...

I was at a gathering of 35-40 young adults a couple of years ago and we all watched a "Nooma" video. It was the one about Peter walking on the water.

After the video, the group leader invited discussion by asking, "what did you learn?"

The first girl raised her hand and said, "Um, that I'm supposed to trust myself more."

Jeffinoh said...

Virgil, the 'middle ground' you speak of is a common concept promoted by ex-gay ministries (e.g. Transforming Congregations in the UMC.) While it looks like the middle to you (because it's not harshly condemning), I can tell you it seems far from the 'middle' to actual LGBT persons.

"Homosexuality is a problem some people face" sounds a lot like the claim "There is no such thing as homosexuality; only heterosexual people with a homosexual problem." Based on Dr. Witherington's remarks on men becoming confused and crossing the line from philos to eros in friendships with other men, I'm thinking he might have the same perspective.

I suppose as long as we're speaking apples and oranges (sexual orientation vs. temptation/struggle/preference we won't find much to agree on. Nevertheless, I find it helpful to understand where others are coming from, and I hope others feel the same in re: to the voice of LGBT Christians.

Does anyone know if there is an organization of LGBT alumni of Asbury Seminary? There seem to be a lot of us, and quite a few have raised the question of networking and support.

Dan Wilt said...

As an one who has had at least 20 friends/peers over the years either actively engaged in homosexuality or seeking to be free from the lifestyle, primarily in the artistic and creative circles I walk in, I would have to say that the ethics question is important – but is not an issue that sits in a vacuum.

The Church's door continues to be darkened to even the heart considering that the image of God in them may not have been made for homosexuality. It is not a "Well, we stand for something..." darkness, as the Church likes to believe. It is a "We're not sure what to do with you, and your brand of sin makes us uncomfortable, so we'd rather have a policy that rejects you rather than have to discern our way through the ins and outs of your life."

While our digital theology and biblical studies quest for 1's and 0's, it seems that life is analog - endless increments and shades along the way.

Our quest to emphasize our "stance," has put us, typically, in a posture of defense, rather than offense; arms are raised to block, rather than arm back, ready to pass to an open receiver.

At the end of every day, I will unequivocally hold that the bent of homosexuality is a distortion of the imago Dei; yet at the end of every day I will also see myself and the greatest of saints (ancient and present) on the same continuum of brokeness, and will walk in humility toward those embattled by this sexual struggle.

Jesus, I believe, is clear on this issue. However, that clarity, in my estimation, has less to do with who to resist than it does with who to extend concerted attention, friendship and discipleship toward.

Today, my homosexual friends will get my attention, and not primarily based on their sin. I'd be grateful if they treated me with the same dignity. Over the course of decades, we just may participate in one another's healing.

Now, for the adversarial homosexual, I recognize that walls must exist. I find it incredibly unfortunate that those walls currently define the spirit and attitude of the Christ followers of this generation. Yes, maybe I wish the Bible itself presented these ideas differently; in a way with which I could more quickly identify.

NancyS said...

I've listened to RB's sermon via the internet for the past 4-5 years. His preaching is fresh, provocative, and makes me think in deep and new ways about Scripture.

I haven't heard RB speak on the issue of homosexuality. However, in the actions-speak-louder-than-words department, Mars Hill offers a group called "Another Way" for those who are struggling with issues of "gender identity, same-sex attraction and/or homosexuality.

sbryant said...

I am a student not a scholar and a practitioner not a professor. Rob Bell has influenced my life and theology in a positive way; and therefore, I am responding to Dr. Witherington III. His trepidation is understandable, but let’s be clear about the specific concerns:
1. Rob Bell’s resources
2. Rob Bell’s ethics

First, Rob Bell has many scholarly influences in numerous disciplines. Check out www.nooma.com and click “speaker bio” to see Rob’s recommended reading. Is Lawrence Kushner, David Flusser, Thomas Cahill, Abraham Joshua Herschel, or N.T. Wright inferior to Craig Evans, George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner? If so, I recommend that the academically elite occasionally address the common reader. It is often the common reader that ministers to the common people and harnesses the most influence. Remember Martin Luther.

In this same vein, Dr. Witherington III makes the following seemingly contradictory comments:

"I am thankful that he takes the Bible seriously, and that he seeks to understand it in its original Jewish context."
"He needs to commit himself to studying more carefully the Bible in its proper contexts so that he will avoid needless off hand comments that reflect a lack of understanding of God’s Word."

Which is it Dr. Witherington III? As you can see, it is easy to take someone out of their original context. By isolating either quote, I can slant the readers’ interpretation of Dr. Witherington III critique. Likewise, we must consider that his analysis of Rob Bell may be skewed.

Second, has anyone considered what Rob’s ethics are? As far as we have all observed, he is not a sexual deviant, but a family man. His wife and children are priority as matched by his actions in daily life. Further, take a look at the fruit of his congregation at Mars Hill Bible Church. It is arguably one of the most scholarly, spirit-filled (Galatians 5) and globally impacting churches around. (Note: they are not only globally impacting with their theology, but also by ministering to the most oppressed and marginalized).

Dr. Witherington III claims that Rob Bell’s answers about homosexuality were “evasive, disturbing, and unbiblical.” First, disturbing is a relative term. Would his comments have been “disturbing” to a struggling and repentant homosexual trying to enter the kingdom of Heaven? Second, I see no conclusive evidence unbiblical comments were made. This is a false inference. The truth is that both men are biblically correct: “Jesus never directly mentions homosexuality” (Bell) and Jesus affirms “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (Dr. Witherington III). It is possible for these two positions to coexist. Third, has anyone stepped back and asked, “Why is Rob Bell evasive about homosexuality?”

If Rob Bell were interested in appeasing Christians, perhaps he would answer more clearly. But for someone who wants to earn the ear of a wandering and struggling heart, does it manifest wisdom to answer questions with questions as an excellent Rabbi would? Further, who is trying to catch Rob Bell in a wrong statement here? Christians, conservatives, homosexuals? If he is not against us…is he for us? Can a kingdom divided against itself stand? Injuring our teammates does not seem like an intelligent endeavor in light of our spiritual warfare against the real enemy.

A closing thought: Dr. Witherington III should have personally confronted Rob Bell before publicly lambasting him (Matthew 18). Perhaps the words of James 1:19 are appropriate, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV).

Rob said...

Dr Witherington,

You mentioned Craig Evans, George Nickelsburg, and Jacob Neusner. I am a church planter in Quebec and I have recently realized my lack of knowlege concerning the massive shifts in Jewish theology between 400+bc and 400+ad (and I am very curious to learn about Jewish messianic theology before and after Jesus). For someone on a budget, which books would you say are the most essential (and which books fit into the "raed if ever you have the time" category) by each of these authors?

In Christ,

-Rob

sam andress said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for taking such careful time to comment on Rob Bell and his work. I am a current seminary student who is venturing into church planting. There is something about Rob that I really appreciate. That he has not and refuses to take a reductionistic approach to the Gospel.

I am so happy that as a NT Scholar (and a solid one at that) that you are able to make sure Rob get's "everything okay" since even "scholar's" disagree on much.

Of cousre even a guy like Rob who loves God and is being used by God to show a whole generation and perhaps a nation that following Jesus has nothing to do with America or any political party constituted by America, needs constructive correction. I take your critical comments as votes of love and respect for a brother in Christ.

That said...

So when do you rip Joel Osteen apart for his, shall we say, "lack of top-shelf resources?"

Paul Dirks said...

Dr. Witherington,

You mentioned "Craig Evans or George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner" as good authors/scholars on Judaism around the time of Christ- could you recommend one or two books that would serve as an introduction to this topic by one of these authors?

Thanks.

Jessica said...

I was there in Lexington for Rob's tour and was highly disappointed when I heard his views on homosexuality. He said if we do not have homosexual friends that we have no authority to form an opinion that homeosexuality is a sin. I personally get my authority through the word of God. It is said that in the end times Christians would become lukewarm, and I think that is how Rob's view is on this subject.

bbaltrus said...

I just reviewed all of the responses within the blog thred, and I was pleasantly surprised by the nature of the comments.

This is a VERY divisive subject for Christians, and most blogs that try to get views on this subject tend to get nasty very quickly.

I am a HUGE fan of Rob Bell's as a committed follower of Jesus Christ since May 8, 2004, I appreciate his approach to those of us who have not studied the Bible in it's entirety in the various languages and interpretations that exist.

I believe in a narrative approach to reading the Bible. This approach, which I believe is valid, allows for different opinions/interpretations on what Jesus meant when he said what he said in RED Letters.

This approach explains the context of Deuteronomy and its application today. Instead of picking and choosing which verses matter (ie homosexually as a sin vs. the stoning to death people who are unclean), you can understand that God is leading us to a different understanding of our sin and the "rules".

Dr. Witherington, I am sure you are a scholar way beyond my ability to articulate this narrative view, but I can only tell you that I believe that a committed permanent relationship to one person meets the definition of marriage in the Bible.

I happen to be just such a person. I have been married for 14 years to a wonderful women, and I am blessed to have found her.

I did not hear the context in which Rob spoke, but I can only assume that when he spoke about needing to personally know a homosexual person to comment. He may have meant you could not understand the anguish they feel about Christianity. Although I do know homosexual persons, I still do not feel comfortable in judging them either way. I only feel Love, Grace and Empathy, and finally Hope.

Hope that someday this issue will become thought of like the idea we would stone someone to death or not go near our wifes for 2 weeks.

ant said...

Sbyrant, comments concerned me both in their tone and content. I’d like to respond to only one.

The statement was made: “A closing thought: Dr. Witherington III should have personally confronted Rob Bell before publicly lambasting him (Matthew 18). Perhaps the words of James 1:19 are appropriate, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV).”

Firstly, it is very clear to everyone that Ben W has followed James’ warning. Professor Witherington has clearly listen, measured his comments, not spoken rashly and impulsively, and he displays no anger whatsoever.

Secondly, Matthew 18 is talking about when a brother sins against you. Neither Bell nor Witherington have sinned against each other. Rob Bell was making public statements concerning Christian teaching. Ben had no need to approach Bell. He was perfectly fair and just in making a thoughtful public response about public statements. At no time has Ben W attacked Rob Bell personally (in fact he goes to great lengths to affirm him as a person).

Well done, Ben, for displaying a rare and delicate balance between, affirming truth and being fair and compassionate to others.

brian said...

Briefly, I can completely understand, as a pastor who tries to be both biblical and a follower of Jesus (and we all know those aren't mutually inclusive), a comment like the one attributed to Rob about authority and homosexuallity.

I have sat in on a number of meetings with my colleagues who were concerned we organize some response to same sex marriage and the imminent and organized 'rainbow peril'. We talked legislation, lobbying and threatening politicians with swaying our congregations to vote against them if they voted 'for the gays'. When I asked if anyone, particularly the loudest and angriest in the room, had any friends who were homosexuals or had even had a conversation, a dialogue with anyone who was a homosexual, they all said, "No."

I think the statement, if accurately attributed, merely reflects the unbiblical truth that you need to put a face on an issue that deals with people created in the image of God before you feel any authority to speak so categorically. I would say the same about alcoholics, the divorced (of course we all know 'those' people now) and idol worshippers.

And honestly, does anybody really read or listen to Rob, or anyone else, and think he's always right?

dwight said...

I just finished the Velvet Elvis and so much of what Rob has to say connects with me and I am 50 something. I appreciate reading your post because yours is the first I have found that sees some good and bad in what Rob has to say. That is what we need. Most of the critiques of his works I have seen highlight only the problems (and often time out of context) and I think there is too much good that could come out of his thinking for the church universal. I attend a Bible church and I am sure that a lot of my brothers and sisters would be a more than a little nervous about some of the things Rob has to say but when he says things like "Why blame the dark for being dark?" The church should take a hard look at what we are about. Thank you again and I will be looking forward to reading more of your blog in the future

Kalev said...

Rob Bell is very interesting indeed...

Very good article you wrote. I agree with you, and I have had similar thoughts my self (concerning homosexuality, judaism etc, I have also noted leanings towards religious pluralism that I do not like). I have only heard him via pod-cast and the Nooma videos... he is a brilliant speaker, and many of his sermons/videos are wonderful. (Others are not)

Andrew Luis said...

Whether Rob is wrong or not I just read 53 posts of a great conversation around the issue. I think if we are to discuss his contribution to the conversation this very debate could be it.

Doug said...

First time on your site, enjoyed the article. Enjoy listening to Rob Bell. I am sometimes bothered by what Rob says. I was bothered by a couple of things you say. I am often bothered by a thing or two my pastor says. As a pastor my self, when I listen to my own MP3 messages, I am sometimes bothered by what I said.

I confess I have a critical spirit sometimes. That said, my natural emotion when I see the growing numbers of sites that pick apart and parse snipits of other pastors is sadness.

Your article had a neutral tone, which I appreciate. So many sites out there (slice for example) almost always have a hostile and angry tone. I just think too many people are spending too much time being critical of other evangelical pastors. (I guess I am now in that group by my critisism.)

Mike Greiner said...

Wow. so much said. No use repeating arguments as most all of them have been made by another. A few "global" thoughts.

1. Regarding Authority. many of the comments say things like, "I'm no professor..." and defer to the expertise of another. As protestant believers, we claim authority comes from the Scripture.

2.I seem to note, especially in the last few posts, that some kind of success is perceived because a civil conversation has taken place. I agree civility is always postive in a discussion, however, a conclusion of truth is more helpful. Just having a nice talk is not all that helpful. It is better to pursuade and move towards agreement when possible. Believers at one time belived in the idea that the Bible an accessable and clear authority to which we all submit. At some point, a decision must be made and sides must be taken and held to. This is not to be contrary, by the way. A cursory review of church history, beginning with the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, shows that the church has done this to wrestle with all major doctrines.


3. If you can draw a crowd that substitutes for authority and validates a ministry, it seems. Rob Bell entertains with his videos and his communication style. I am glad for it. He has that in common with Jay Leno.

4. Bible interpretation is not as hard as it seems to be to many who post here. Sure, there are difficulties and challenges, but the idea that sex has only one morally acceptable arena --heterosexual marriage-- is no challenge to prove from the Scripture. An 8th grader reading the Bible can figure it out. Rather, it takes a phD to come up with elaborate new approaches to the Bible that make the clear unclear.

5. It is unfortunate that many in the church embrace the morality of the culture and the moral priorities of the culture. Homosexuality and Environmentalism are prime examples. On the other hand, it is fortunate that many Christians take the time to develop an articulate theology to respond to the culture on current cultural hot-button issues. May we always spurn the first and be diligent in the latter.

6. Rob Bell is wrong to state that an opinion on homosexuality is limited to personal relationships. There's no more to be said there (though much has been said). The argument is simply non-sequetor and to be-labor the point is bad thinking.

7. Truth matters, and love matters. They are never against one another.

8. Finally, thanks to BW for the patience to take the time on this blog. He is a fine example of thoroughness without being pejorative.

forgive all typos and poor spelling! no proofreading comments!

Andrew said...

its important to mention here that bell may be responding to the crusade-like attitude from many evangelicals towards homosexuals.

he has, in numerous places recommended the book - WOMAN, SLAVES, and HOMOSEXUALS - which confirms he does not think it is a lifestyle God intends.

=have you read that book Ben?

Jeremy said...

Dr. Witherington, I appreciate your scholarship - esp. Mark commentary. I'm very interested in this conversation, but I thought I'd digress for fun and ask this left-field question: My wife & I fly to Rome tomorrow; as a NT scholar, are there any lesser-known sites of special NT/early Christian significance that you wouldn't pass up? ;)

oh, and where would a work like Bruce Chilton's "Rabbi Jesus" fit into this conversation on Jesus as Rabbi. He's even farther afield, making Jesus a Jewish mystic if I recall. Keep writing, Dr. Witherington. Thanks.

J. K. Jones said...

Thank you for yourpost on Bell's book. It helps to clarify.

My issue with Bell has to do with what the Bible is about.

Rob says, “…this is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago. / But the Bible is about today. / These stories are our stories. They are alive and active and teaching us about our lives in our world, today.” These words express a very dangerous perspective on salvation, our right standing before God. Let me clarify.

Jesus was clear in saying that the entire Bible was about Him (Luke 24:25-26). The intent is for us to know certain facts about things that have happened in the past and their bearing on us today. There is a reason for this. Our salvation; our right standing before God, eternal life, fellowship with God, and everything else that goes with it; was earned for us in the past. Earned by Christ. Accomplished 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. We add nothing to this work. We through our faith are credited with what Christ did, and He is credited with our sin to suffer for (2 Cor. 5:21, Romans 3:21-4:8). If the Bible is not primarily about what happened in the past, then it is not about what Christ did for us in the past. If the Bible is about our here and now, it is not about those things which earn our salvation.

I look forward to reading more of your blog.

J. K.

Matt said...

You have to be very careful when you influence by overemphasizing one area of the Bible and underemphasizing another area. This alone is indicative of a low view of scripture… if you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you know that we all, at one time or another, have misquoted areas of the Bible—this however is quite different. Bell cheapens the beauty found, not only in the gospels, but the rest of the inspired canon, by simply deciding, what’s important or not important to teach… Bell is adding a 5th way of knowing the will of God and that is: one's own pragmatic experience. The statement he made about there being no moral right to take a position on homosexuality speaks volumes about his view on experiential revelation of God's will... The man, through his own admonition, is subversive, and shoulders the cause of "saving Christians from themselves". Quite frankly, he's the kind of person Paul would have been addressing at Athens in Acts 17—its one of those passages that Bell wouldn’t deem necessary to teach on. His following and popularity is undeniable, but is founded in his approach of telling people what they want to hear, rather then the things they need to hear, and then shrouding his convoluted agenda with enough truth to persuade people to think that he really does represent the next wave of church-leaders. Bell and others within this movement are as conventional in their thinking as they are dangerous. There is nothing new about Bell’s way of thinking. It is simply an apostasy shrouded with elements of truth—much the same as the sophists, epicureans or eastern mystics that Paul was dealing with in his day.

Justincredible2u said...

Ben, thanks for your research and open ear to honestly critique a leader like Bell. I'm honestly a fan of some of his writing but, like many other have observed, the flaws are evident.

He has a lot to offer to an audience who is ready to listen, but we can never step away from "black and white" biblical truth. That has to be the foundation of everything we teach, preach and stand on.

Thanks!

GK said...

Let me start by saying that I greatly appreciate the comments and critiques offered by you, Dr. Witherington. Although we have never met, I've followed your scholarship for the last 20+ years. And it's a methodological approach to biblical studies and scholarship with which I concur.

So when I accidentally came across this blog (NOTE: I had googled to locate the URL for Mars Hill Graduate School), I was admittedly very interested in learning more about what Mars Hill's "teaching pastor" had to say on the subject of homosexuality.

Until just about 4 years ago, my wife and I were faithful attendees--as well as charter members--of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. Without question, for some time I have viewed Rob as a creative, articulate, and skilled communicator. And we were blessed and edified by his teaching.

But over the last 2 to 2 1/2 years of our sojourn at MHBC, we became increasingly uncomfortable with his teaching. I just couldn't put my finger on the reason why. I felt that much of what he was saying was far too novel to be something overlooked by so many other biblical scholars and theologians.

Eventually, a friend of ours pointed us to an interview that Rob and his wife Kristen had with Christianity Today. And (although it is probably not the sole influence to Rob's changes in his thinking and practice) then I realized that it was Brian Maclaren's book "A New Kind of Christian" that had profoundly influenced their thinking.

Now that this whole experience has percolated for nearly four years, I have come to believe it's not only Maclaren's influence on Rob but postmodernism and the Emergent church that have influenced Rob in his views of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Admittedly, the Emergent movement can be somewhat amorphous, yet many of its telltale signs (what I consider the more pernicious ones) are manifested in Rob's current teachings.

As far as his use of rabbinic materials, yes, without a doubt, Ray Vanderlaan has influenced Rob. In fact when Rob was absent due to his many speaking engagements that took him away from his church, Ray was the guest speaker.

And both of them, I'm sad to say, suffer from hyperbole and the extremely selective use of sources. As someone who has had the opportunity to study many of these and other ancient sources my seminary and Ph.D. studies in NT, I often was disappointed and disturbed by what I heard them teaching. In some cases, their teachings were not merely alternative interpretations--they were categorically and unequivocally wrong.

Just to illustrate, Ray and Rob often liked to speak about what the ancient rabbis taught or believed. The fact of the matter is that you needn't read very far in the Mishnah or the Talmud before you realize that the rabbis were anything but unanimous in their teachings. So it's incredibly misleading to state what the rabbis taught, if by that you mean that they had a common and shared understanding on any number of subjects.

I believe this is the type of thing Matthew had in mind when said about Jesus, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). The rabbis promulgated many divergent teachings and opinions, but none of their teachings were as definitive and decisive as our Lord’s.

Also, during a recent interview with our local newspaper in regard to his latest book, Rob was asked about his view on homosexuality. Rather than answer the question clearly in such a fortuitous forum, he merely said, "That's the subject of another book." So was it a missed opportunity, or perhaps an effort to hide his true sentiments on this volatile subject?

Earlier in this blog Andrew mentioned Rob's appeals to William Webb's book "Women, Slaves, and Homosexuality" as support for Rob's repudiation of homosexuality. Keep in mind that Rob could not have served on the staff of his former church if he had supported the unqualified ministry of women in all offices of the church. Obviously, his opinion on that issue changed—he refers to it as “clicking ahead.” He often cited Webb's book to support his new take on this knotty issue. I say this simply to remind us that just as Rob's view on women in ministry changed, so may his view on homosexuality and homosexuals in the church—if it hasn’t already.

I guess we’ll need to wait for his next book.

c said...

Since I don't personally know any murderers I should keep quiet on whether or not it's right or wrong; and since I don't associate with thieves, I suppose I'll reserve my judgement on stealing as well. The list could go on...

That is the same kind of logic used by Bell when He says that if we don't personally know any homosexuals, than we don't have a voice on the matter. Rubbish, just like his book Velet Elvis. I read it then threw it in the garbage sorry that I'd wasted $20 on it.

aquamariel said...

I'm a 42-yr old single (gasp!) mother of two and Rob Bell has inspired me to get closer to Jesus and to strive to be a better Christian. This goes far beyond the church that I attend now and love, and the one in which was brought up, the reading of many theologians and great teachers. Rob Bell does not just appeal to 20-somethings.

Mykel said...

I had no idea Rob had his very own personal critic....how blessed you must feel....

mary said...

As a former attendee of Mars Hill "megachurch" I most definitely agree with the comment that Rob tells people what they want to hear instead of pointing them to biblical authority. For this very reason I am not surprised by the popularity of the church. There is nothing but grey with any and all issues according to the gospel of Rob Bell. Lots of style very little substance. He may very well be this generations first "pop preacher".

Russell Purvis said...

I had a couple questions:
1) was the question about the rabbi association supposed to mean that Jesus was technically a rabbi as one of today, or was he a respected rabbi as rabbis are respected today.
2)unsure as to how you came to the conclusion about how Paul should not have commented on homosexuals.

p.s (I'm new to the Asbury Theological Seminary. I can't wait to jump into this community and journey with all of you.

Matthew said...

I don't know who has read Velvet Elvis and who has not, but if you have, i hope that you read the back of his book.

"We have to test everything. i think God for anybody anywhere who is pointing people to the mysteries of God. But those people would all tell you to think long and hard about what they are saying and doing and creating. Test it. Probe it. Don't swallow it uncritically. Think about it.
Wrestle with it.

*JUST BECAUSE IM A CHRISTIAN AND IM TRYING TO ARTICULATE A CHRISTIAN WORLD VIEW DOESNT MEAN IVE GOT IT NAILED.*

I'm contributing to the discussion. God has spoken, and the rest is commentary, right?" Rob Bell

Give the man a break. He is just trying to reach people for Jesus. And he never proclaimed that he is speaking the exact truth because only God knows whats right and wrong. We can only interpret the word of God, we can't preach scripture exactly how it was mint to be understood. We are made from sand; sand isn't exactly a very intelligent thing. There is not any reason to constantly argue this and that. Scripture is a great servant, but a terrible master, we should not serve the issue of the argument but serve God. Trust him to work things out and quit worrying about worldly things people. Keep your eyes on heaven, on Jesus.

PS Sometimes it takes a lifetime to overcome your struggle. Meaning that somebody may not be able to overcome homosexuality(if its a sin) until they are in heaven with Jesus.

Thanks

standtrue said...

Thanks for your insight. I am looking forward to hearing rob in louisville this november. It's good to know what to expect. Thanks again.

Mark Fox said...

Hello, Ben.

I found Rob's teachings to be deep and insightful while your response I found to be shallow and self serving. Needless to say, I'm planning to spend much more time listening to Rob and plan to expend very little effort listening to you have to say. I hope that some day you find the maturity to contribute something more constructive to the conversation beyond "you don't like gays and you don't like Rob for saying you don't have the right to judge gay people". Oh, and by the way, no one cares whether the term "rabbi" was an "ordained" position at the time of Jesus. We get Rob’s point. Maybe someday you will as well.

Also, considering the sad sorry state of integrity among mainstream Christian pastors today (adultery is only one of the many problems within the heterosexual Christian leadership) I completely expect that my comments will not make it to your blog because of course only compliments to your intellect suit your self interest.

I hope you keep listening to Rob and that you learn something from your efforts.

Mark

Andy Rowell said...

Above I commented that Bell was the most downloaded Christian on the internet. I had someone ask me why I said that.

I think he was at the time but he hasn't been preaching for a few weeks since he has been in Europe so he has fallen a few places.

As of today July 24, 2007 Bell is the 6th and 7th most downloaded podcast on iTunes.

I found the direct link so that if you have iTunes on your computer and you put this link into your browser, it will open right up to that Religion & Spirituality podcasts page of the iTunes store.

The link is at

iTunes Religion & Spirituality Podcasts

Today's Top Podcasts are on the right side.

DMagoh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DMagoh said...

Rob Bell does raise some interesting questions with his books and videos. We have used them for great discussion starters at our church. However, I too have a problem with his stance on homosexuality. If "Jesus never mentioned" is your test for what is or is not sin, then Jesus never mentioned incest, polygamy, pedophilia, necrophilia....

Bethany YA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Mark,

Wow...

I found your comments harsh and unfair. You attacked Dr. Witherington personally rather than addressing his arguments.

If you have nothing to add to the "conversation" then please just read without comment. To be completely honest, your comments made you look foolish.

As great as Rob is, he is still human. He makes mistakes, puts his pants on one leg at a time...and yes....his crap stinks just like the rest of us.

Jon.

tmw said...

I know I am a little behind with this blog but I have read every comment up until today. I keep seeing the term "if it is a sin" used in reference to homosexuality. I simply want to say this. The Bible says it is a sin. So what is the question?

I realize there is the argument that homosexuality is a way you are born or is something you can not change. I have a a question for that, also. Of all the sins you may see in the Bible, can you say that about any of the others?


"Thou shalt not lie." Yes, you can help that. "Sowing discord." Yes, you can help that, too. "Mental retardation." Nope, that one is not in the Bible.

Now I am not saying that homosexuals are retarded. I have a mentally retarded family member and several gay friends. (They are very different.)
What I am saying is, why would God name something as a sin if it was something you could not help? My gay friends know my stance on this issue: "Love the sinner and hate the sin."

After all, what if God had looked at you and said, "This one is dirty and sinful. I don't want him/her." and turned away?

**Judgement is God's job alone. But even He waits until we are dead.**

the real Phil Brown said...

I heard a cool talk by a guy I don't want to mention the name of in case it sways your opinion of this - but they said something along the lines of:
"If I found out tomorrow that a homosexual tendency had been scientifically proven to be genetic, I would have no problem. The bible teaches that we are born sinful..."
Not that I feel a blog's the right place to state my opinion - just wanted to throw that one into the melting pot...

Glenn Globber said...

I get the feeling, as I wasn't there (esp being in Australia) and haven't read Sex God, that through my understanding of Rob, his teaching at Mars Hill and Velvet Elvis, that his comment on Homosexuality is more about the church's / people's judgment than a theological stance.
Coming from the point of view of a pastor for ten years and someone who grew up sitting in church pews who is now in a different vocation and can identify with Rob Bell hugely on many matters, I can understand why he would say something like this about homosexuality because it's coming from a heart of love and not judgment. I actually believe the church global needs to ask forgiveness of all people for being judgmental and turning our back on people in need, than giving acceptance and loving.
Isn't Jesus the judge of the living and the dead? Where does it say in scripture that we (people who follow Jesus) are?
This has been a great conversation and we need to remember, as Rob suggests in Velvet Elvis that no-one has all the answers, if we did we'd be God. All of us have our bents and opinions but grace and love need to be above all things.

Peter said...

I have really enjoyed Dr Witherington's article, and the rest of this discussion, and like Bbaltrus above, I am also really impressed that the argument has not become heated and nasty. You seem like a really warm-hearted bunch and it has been a real pleasure to read this debate.

I would like to make a small point, though, from the perspective of a struggling Christian in a deeply loving and committed same-sex relationship - one that has lasted over twenty years.

I would consider myself to be someone with a strong faith. At no moment in my adult life have I lost the conviction that I am supported and loved by God and, though my spiritual journey has been a little lonely and has taken a number of directions over the years, I have always consider myself to be a follower of Jesus. My faith, and my relationship with God, is the single most important thing in my life. I have many failings and there are many issues and bad habits which hinder my spiritual progress, which I constantly fight to resolve, but, believe me, being gay is high on the list. Or even on it.

I'm not a struggling homosexual. I'm a struggling Christian. That is to say that my relationship with my partner has been unfailingly wonderful: we have pretty much grown up together - we met when we were in our early twenties - and are committed to sharing our lives, and our journeys with God, together. We love each other, and we love life. And we love God. Together. And I feel absolutely no shame in that. None whatsoever.

But Christians are a funny lot, really they are. More often than not, they have very strong opinions about people like me, and my own struggle has always mostly been with them. However eagerly I try to 'join in' with the Christian community, even if God seems to be pushing me strongly in that direction, there are always plenty of bouncers at the door and plenty who will remind you constantly of how sinful you are. So, I have long, long periods of not going to church - I haven't for over a year now. And I miss it. A lot.

I'm an open-minded person. I really am. And if God really wants me to come to understand that my relationship with my partner is sinful, then let him do so. I really mean that. But please give me - and people like me - a little space, and allow us to work these very personal issues out with God, in the company of other Christians. When people talk about sin, they often do so very glibly. As if it is the most obvious thing in the world. But, think about it: when you hit somebody without provocation, you just KNOW it is wrong. And if you steal you KNOW it is wrong. And when you are unfaithful, whether in a straight or a gay relationship, you know it is wrong. In fact, with most sins, you just KNOW they are wrong! You don't have to find bunch of verses in a thousand-or-more-page book to figure it out. You know. This, surely, is a God-given intuitive gift. But consider for a moment what it is like to be gay, and, although people tell you all the time that it is wrong, when you search deep in your heart, you find you can't see it. Because you love someone, deeply, and you just can't see what's wrong with that.

So I'm also open-minded enough to allow the possibility that God doesn't have a big problem with it. Then again, maybe he does. Who knows. I certainly don't.

While I'm figuring that out, it's now the end of the year, and I have made the resolution that I'm going back to church more regularly (hopefully I'll be able to stick it out). Why did I do that? Because somebody recommended Rob Bell's 'Velvet Elvis' to me and it struck a deep chord and was simply so refreshing, and so filled with God's love and joy - and acceptance - that I thought OK, I'll take another chance. Then I started wanting to know more about Rob Bell, and that's how I ended up on this page. He doesn't mention the homosexuality issue in the book, so that's not the reason I found it so refreshing, and, to be honest, I don't mind too much what he thinks about it, because I'm going back to church so that I can develop my relationship with God and Jesus and everything else can follow from that. But, I must say, it would be lovely to feel a little more welcome.

Kim said...

A very enjoyable conversation. I value all the perspectives, experiences shared, thoughtful opinions.

I am a simpleton, to be sure. I believe that the Bible is God's Word, plain and simple, in its entirety. I have struggled with habitual sin in my past. At times coming to God and begging his help as if I were a victim of something permanently within myself. One night God set me free by revealing to me that I was sinning. That may sound odd to some of you but the fact was that if it was sin that had a hold on me then there was something that I could do about it. I could call it what it was. I could separate it from my self and ask God for the strength to deal with it. I felt so free in this revelation that I wanted to dance! I was no victim, I was no longer held prisoner. When the temptations and compulsions arose, I could call on God to give me strength to resist and turn away. I didn't always have victory, but little by little my victories multiplied until the habits and compulsions simply became to weak to control me.

I love God's Word because it is the light of truth that has exposed my darkness. I run to it because I long to be transformed through knowledge of His Word. There is a point to this rambling...

I believe God's Word is absolute truth. A rock that does not move, change or crumble. It is timeless and powerful. If I had considered for a moment that God's Word was open to the interpretation of man, to be read and interpreted in light of our present culture, then woe to me! I would have continued to accept my depravity, finding comfort in the thought that God understood me and loved me anyway. I would have remained in a pit of self pity, without victory, and little transformation. Would God still have loved me? Yes. And His love for me in the state I was in is evidenced by the fact that He called me out of the darkness as I sat reading my bible one night searching for comfort. The comforter said..."Kim, you are sinning." I found the same comfort that night that I believe the Samaritan woman found when her creator, who knew her every part, spoke truth and love to her naming her sin and releasing her from its hold by sharing with her that He was the Messiah. I highly doubt that after leaving her shame at the well, she ever picked it up again by returning to her wrong lifestyle. She had been set free by the Messiah Himself. Jesus was releasing people from the bondage to sin even before He visited the cross. Now that He has paid our debt, why would any of us choose to look for ways to continue to live in sin? This creates a problem however: what is sin? Do we interpret the Bible literally? Or do we leave it open to interpretation? I only see one option...accept God's Word as is, apply it to my life, and allow the Holy Spirit to work out the transformation. It may take a while...

janie said...

for peter:

i am trying to put myself in your shoes. i realize that so many Christians just want to preach a hateful and fearful message about the homosexual lifestyle, and that is not acceptable. i appreciate your comments, because it helps me to see things from your perspective.

i am a democratic-voting liberal and open-minded born-again young married Christian mother of (almost) 2 young boys. to be blunt, i do believe that homosexuality is a sin and is not what God intended for us. for me, that is just something that i inherently feel is "wrong", like lying or cheating. on the subject of gay rights, i think there should be separation of my personal beliefs and government, therefore i support equal rights for all people.

your comment was that because you do not "feel" like your lifestyle is wrong or shameful, that it must not be. i myself have rationalized certain behaviors and heard Christian friends do the same. i rationalized living with and sleeping with my husband before we were married, for example. looking back, it is obvious that our "feelings" and our hearts are so deceptive, they cannot be trusted. the Bible talks about this often. i see now that there are very good reasons for obeying God's word, even when we don't understand what is the big deal?

what is truly shameful is that you feel uncomfortable in church. you are no more sinful than i am, and i hope you will return. i do have one question for my own understanding. when you attend a Christian church (assuming they believe homosexuality is a sin), do you hope that people will just not tell you what they really believe about your lifestyle? most Christians believe in "helping" others who they see are off track. i, myself have been confronted by my pastor's wife regarding an area in which she felt i needed guidance. although i was somewhat irritated, i know that she did this because she (like God) wants the best for me.

i hope i have not offended you entirely, and that you will answer my question.

thanks,

janie

Mundane Egg said...

I do believe in the inspiration of scripture but does that mean that we have to hold to the inerrancy of scripture?

I have served as an associate pastor in several churches and have found that even within one denomination there will be many varying views about scripture.

Must variance be considered "exegetical weakness" or simply variance.

Is there enough scripture to make a doctrinal stance against it? Your argument about Christ and his words on marriage - were still implications about what he was saying.

None the less whatever our stance on Rob Bell is it is still challenging us to approach the world differently than the Church has for so long. It is time to become engaged with the world around us rather than hide from it.

Thanks for the post

Jenkaweb said...

Just a quick addition to the homosexuality debate:

A number of posters seem to have quoted Rob Bell's opinion with great disparity; most agree he starts with 'unless you're friends with a gay person...' but the conclusion then ranges:

'We have no authority to judge'
'we can't form an opinion'
'we can't take a position'
'we don't have a voice on the matter.'

Subtley different, but important. I think it's clear from my reading of Rob Bell that he thinks homosexuality is a sin. I would guess his 'avoidance' of questioning on the matter is akin to the same 'avoidance' people might accuse Jesus of in the NT; answering questions with questions to get to the heart of the issue.

I would suggest that many would question Rob Bell in this way because of there own insecurities regarding their belief; they want to nail him on a particular point so they can decide once and for all whether he's a heretic or a Godly chirstian. Not everyone is in this boat, obviously, and I thank Dr. Ben for his very balanced critique.

My view is similar to Rob Bell's in that I won't act judgementally towards a gay person. I'd rather be their friend and help them see the love of God. Does that mean I think homosexuality isn't a sin? Not at all, but I take very seriously the point that when Jesus challenges people on sin he is talking to Jews, i.e. those who 'should no better', not gentiles who have no idea what's right or wrong. Also, when Paul talks about sexual sin, who is he writing to? A Church. People who, having received the grace of God, should now 'know better'. Not random people in the street.

In Acts 19, with Paul at Ephesus, we see Paul is friends with the Asiarchs, that is, Roman officials who preside over religion and sport; very differently orientated to Paul. But they are friends enough to warn him against danger. Also, the clerk announces that Paul has 'not blasphemed [their] Goddess'. How would he have this reputation without choosing love before judgement?

Jenkaweb said...

So, to follow on, I guess what I'm saying is that the question is not whether homosexuality is a sin, although for some posting on here it obviously is, the question is what we do about that.

It's not whether we have a right to an opinion, it's what we do with that opinion; do we show people why it's good by demonstration in our own lives, or do we make a billboard with the opinion written on and read it out, really loud?

jeffdod said...

Mr. Witherington,

Here is what I want to ask you:

Do you think the positive aspects of Rob Bell's teaching materials outweigh the negative?

When I say "teaching materials," I am primarily referring to Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and the NOOMA videos.

ken said...

Rob Bell is spreading a false Gospel. I will pray for him and his followers

CJ said...

"It is thus wiser to err on the side of caution when talking about such volatile and controversial issues, especially if you are unsure what God actually says about a subject."

This is a very common argument which I have heard, and does seem like a good idea from your perspective, and I could see that. But it's time we expand out from our little personal space and care for ALL of God's children, and not just those we like. We use excuses like this to hide from things which make us uncomfortable, especially including things like homosexuality.

But the truth of the matter is that 3 of the top 7 reasons people commit suicide are because they do not know how to negotiate their innate sexuality, and there spirituality in which they were raised. Every single year 400 of our Christian youth commit suicide, specifically because of what they were told by their pastors, and these are only the very few who had written in journals or had come out to friends. It's estimated that the true number is much higher if not double.

And at the same time we sit and hide behind statements like this because we just don't want to know the truth.

Chris said...

To: Ben Witherington
Thanks for your blog and for your faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The word of God really is a revealer of men's hearts and comments (for example) that you have no right of reply unless you know a gay person, really reveal a low view of scripture.

To: Mark Fox
You really do make yourself look foolish with that kind of comment. The author has given his scholarly opinion (which is the point of this blog) and you didn't like what was said so you had a tantrum and you're not going to play anymore... good work Mark.

To: Peter
You wrote:

I'm an open-minded person. I really am. And if God really wants me to come to understand that my relationship with my partner is sinful, then let him do so. I really mean that... When people talk about sin, they often do so very glibly. As if it is the most obvious thing in the world.

How do you expect that God might want you to come to such an understanding? Could it perhaps be through his infallible revelation to us? through the Bible? Let's just say, for a moment, that the Bible is the way that God might want to speak to you...

Then the Lord said, “Because fthe outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether​ according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” Gen 18.20-21 (ESV)

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell​ and committed them to chains ​of gloomy darkness wto be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, amaking them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;​ and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials,​ and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. 2 Peter 2.4-10a (ESV)

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1.26-27 (ESV)

Do you not know that the unrighteous​ will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,​ nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. I Corinthians 6.9-11 (ESV)

Peter, please note both the sinfulness of your behaiviour and God's absolute willingness to forgive those who repent and put their trust in "the name of the Lord Jesus Christ".

Peter said...

To Chris:

The problem with the quoted passages is that they are not as clear cut as some of you think they are, when you investigate them more deeply. Especially if you have taken a single translation as your source. To give you an example, the phrase 'men who practice homosexuality', which you have quoted from 1 Corinthians 6:9 is translated differently in every version I know: In the KJV as 'effeminate' (which I am certainly not); in the NIV as '..male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders' which some believe (because of the context and the use of the word 'arsenokoitai' and how it is used elsewhere in the Bible) to be specifically directed at male prostitutes and those who sleep with them (I am neither one nor do the other). In the NKJV, the RSV and the Jerusalem Bible it is translated as 'sodomites' which has a certain irony about it because it means that the biblical translators used a word which had arisen from a specific (some would say narrow) interpretation of a previous biblical passage to translate another. This proves beyond question that there was a human element (perhaps even bigotry) being injected into some translations, in the very act of translation.

I've only take one example, but the Sodom and Gomorrah passage is similarly open to different understandings, but one thing we can all agree upon is that it is referring to terrible sins of gang rape and violence which I sincerely hope is not referring to me.

Likewise, the Romans 1:26-27 passage is read by some to refer to specific sexual orgies indulged in as part of spiritual rituals, along side serving 'created things rather than the Creator' (Romans 1:25) and worshipping 'images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles' (Romans 1:23). Neither of which things I do.

Oh, but here I am again trying to justify my wicked behaviour which God has roundly condemned though his 'infallible' word.

But before you condemn me, ask yourself if you REALLY understand what is meant in these passages or who they were aimed at. If you're really interested in investigating further, I can promise you that there is a wealth of scholarly exploration out there to help add to your confusion. So forgive me if, when I read them, I don't see myself, and my love for my partner, reflected in them as clearly as you do. We use all sorts of arguments and devices to twist God's word into something more palatable to our own lives - to justify our behaviour in relation to our money and other matters (matters MUCH closer to our hearts than our sexuality, I can assure you, if you really put them to the test). See how widely is the passage about the 'Rich young ruler' interpreted (Luke 18:18-23). But what if Jesus actually meant what he said, and he meant it in relation to ourselves? How ghastly would that be for most of us? Could we take it? When you look at the passages you have quoted, you see it directed squarely at me and my partner. But do you look for yourself in all passages you read in the Bible? Are many of us actually prepared to take that leap? Probably not. But we're happy to prescribe to others.

It's been nearly a year since my last post here. At that time, I hadn't been to church in over a year, and I was upset and angry with the church generally. So here's a word of encouragement for others in my position who might come across this article. I went back to church. I decided I just couldn't do with out it. So I went. And I stayed. I made the decision to subvert it from the inside, rather than standing outside and whining. And you know what happened? It worked. I didn't have to do any subverting at all. The church just changed. Because nobody was horrible to me. Everybody was welcoming and loving and wonderful, and, therefore, by its actions it has proven that it is an inclusive church, letting God decide who He wants to use for His work. And my partner has become a Christian in that time also, and, two weeks ago was baptised. And my life is absolutely wonderful. I have never been happier, because He is completely and utterly within me and part of my whole life, and He loves me. Fancy that! He loves me as much as He loves you. And he loves my partner too. Thank you Jesus.

Tom & Liz said...

Well said. I enjoy Nooma and Velvet Elves. He is strong on weaknesses in the church community, but, I agree, cultural issues are not his strong suite.