BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Rob Bell threw his arms wide for a hug upon greeting a reporter from Gay City News outside Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan where he was scheduled to appear as part of his 31-city “Everything is Spiritual” tour. The embrace was a surprise. As the pastor emeritus at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Bell was once identified in some media as a leading evangelical voice. In 2007, the Chicago Sun-Times had him as the “heir to Billy Graham,” the internationally-known evangelist.
But Bell said reports that he converted from a hellfire and brimstone preacher to a more accepting pastor are overstated. Like some of his peers in the emerging church movement, he avoided commenting on thornier social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, at Mars Hill and was attuned to changing social norms. He was successful.
Bell founded Mars Hill in 1999. With the seven books he has published, videos, a film series, and national tours, his notoriety among Christians and in the mainstream press grew. Time named him one of its 100 most influential people in the world in 2011. When he left Mars Hill with his wife and three children for California that year, thousands were attending services there on Sunday.
“A lot of people told me the beauty of Mars Hill was you could make of it what you wanted,” Bell said.
In 2011, Bell came under fire for “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” which raised the possibility that all people will find their way to heaven. This challenged the prevailing doctrine among evangelicals that holds that only the saved will enter heaven; those who are not saved go to hell. Evangelicals rejected this new doctrine and Bell.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and presumably his actual heir, called Bell a “false teacher” and a “heretic.” John Piper, who pastored the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for 33 years and is now the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary there, tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that Bell “uses his incredible power of literary skill and communication to unravel the Bible’s message and to cast doubt on its teachings.” Mars Hill also lost members.
“I knew there were people leaving because of that book, but people were always leaving,” Bell said.
Bell represents the controversy as disconcerting. Mars Hill was unaffiliated and he did not preach the doctrine of the people who were condemning him.
“It almost seemed like you’re being charged with breaking the rules of tennis and you’re playing golf,” Bell said. Of his critics, Bell said “I don’t know any of them.”
Homosexuality and same-sex marriage were not topics he discussed much at Mars Hill. Gay and lesbian couples approached him at church asking if they were welcome there and Bell said he always told them they were. Mars Hill did have a ministry for people who were “struggling to make sense of homosexuality,” Bell said.
If “Love Wins” caused a break with evangelicals in 2011, Bell ended all doubt in 2013 when he endorsed same sex marriage during an appearance at Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church, in San Francisco.
“I am for marriage,” Bell said then. “I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs, I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
Today, Bell’s preaching seems quite distant from his roots. He attended Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois, and then Fuller Theological Seminary, a multidenominational, evangelical seminary in California. The student body at Fuller was comprised of “one of each” denomination, Bell said.
He appeared with Oprah Winfrey in her 2014 eight-city “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. Deepak Chopra was also a featured speaker on that tour. During an interview with Gay City News, Bell praised Chopra. He had a one-hour special on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2014 and currently has “a couple of television ideas in the works.”
His work today is “probably less a precise doctrinal statement and more about life,” Bell said, adding later “I don’t go to a building on Sunday.” And if he ever did, he does not now see the Bible as endorsing conservative causes.
“These are incredibly progressive books,” he said, adding that the early Christians were not given to rigid doctrine though those Christians would probably disagree.
“It didn’t start with a bunch of head games and people babbling about doctrine,” Bell said. “I think people have completely misread the Bible.”
One could ask, and Gay City News did ask, has anything been lost in this conversion? While Franklin, Piper, and many other evangelical preachers show stunning hypocrisy as they routinely ignore those parts of the Bible that would inconvenience them even as the demand absolute adherence to biblical prohibitions by LGBT people. Their doctrine, while flawed, is clear. Bell’s, like Chopra’s, is less clear.
“Maybe the through line is now more general,” Bell said. “If Jesus said I came to bring abundant life so how do you live it...Maybe what it does is it helps you to open your eyes and look where to step.”