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Taking the Temperature of Evangelicalism

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2011 16 Mar


The furor over Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, shows no signs of subsiding. The development of the discussion has caused me to reflect on what a fever is and what it represents. Fevers don't show up without a cause. A high temperature points to a bigger problem. It's the sign that the immune system has kicked in and is fighting off an infection of some sort.

If we had a thermometer for the evangelical movement, we'd find a raging fever. But some evangelicals are responding to the fever in unhelpful and pastorally-damaging ways.

Response #1: The Fever is the Problem

When bloggers and pastors began responding to the promotional materials for Love Wins, many evangelicals used the occasion to point out their disagreement with the young, restless, and Reformed instead of dealing with the substantive issues Bell's book brings to the surface. Conservative evangelicals sounded the alarm that Bell's book was unorthodox, and a number of evangelicals threw stones at the messengers: You're an alarmist. You're just a bunch of heresy hunters. You can't get along with anyone you disagree with.

Imagine being in a crowded building when the fire alarm goes off. Instead of looking for the fire or heading for the exit, everyone stands around the alarm and begins discussing its shortcomings:

"Wow, this alarm sounds so shrill. It hurts my ears. Someone should change the tone!"

"Who pulled this alarm anyway? I don't smell any smoke. I don't see a reason for the warning."

"Well, I can smell smoke, but I've got to tell you - these alarms just go looking for smoke. Who do they think they are anyway?"

"Even if you can smell smoke, you shouldn't sound an alarm until you see the fire for yourself. Silly alarms... so early. I'll just sit tight and wait until the flames get here."

A few days ago, I read a blog post in which the author was mourning the fact that we Americans aren't more like our British brothers when it comes to controversy. Why can't we keep ourselves from being embroiled in theological controversy? We Americans are the only Christians who feel compelled to join in robust theological debate with the intent to expose heresies.

In other words, fevered discussion of theological truth and error is the problem. The fever is the issue. Why not take a Tylenol and some Dramamine and chill out?

I can immediately think of two reasons to go after the infection. First, the Bible shows us a way of doing theological debate that is anything but sedated. Paul tells the Judaizers to emasculate themselves. John the apostle of love calls everyone who denies Christ's humanity an antichrist. Jude calls us to defend the faith against those who deny Jesus Christ as our only Master and Lord.

Here's another reason we shouldn't just shrug our shoulders and say: "Let's have a cup of tea and talk it out." Look where that kind of theological engagement has gotten England. The "everything goes" mentality has robbed the Church of its power and has spawned a radically post-Christian society in which the Church practically has to begin all over again to gain a hearing for the gospel. As one British theologian has joked, "Wherever Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea."

Response #2: The Body is Okay with Infection

The other response from evangelicals that has me scratching my head goes like this: Rob Bell's universalistic tendencies are nothing new. In fact, we've always had a segment of evangelicals who lean in this direction. So let's not get too worked up about universalism. After all, the denial or redefinition of hell isn't that big of a deal in the long run.

To be fair, this kind of evangelical isn't denying that universalism is heterodox. Returning to the sickness metaphor, I believe this group sees universalism as problematic. But the underlying message is this: This problem isn't life threatening.

I don't think so. And I don't think Rob Bell thinks so either.

At the heart of Bell's book is the issue of what God is like. The denial that God saves us from Himself and His holy, just, and awesome wrath is a denial that goes to the heart of the gospel. This is not a discussion on the level of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, views of the end times, or Calvinism and Arminianism (or any of the other "isms" that fall between the two).

Rob understands the stakes and he makes them clear in his book. He describes the traditional view as toxic. I disagree with his conclusion, but I admire his candor. Rob recognizes how high the stakes are in this debate. Why shouldn't we?

So the idea that we can move forward in good Christian fellowship, accepting these kinds of views as just one segment of evangelicalism, is hopelessly naive. It assumes that there is still a unified evangel in evangelicalism, something that is simply not true if this kind of teaching passes as evangelical.


Evangelicalism has always been a big tent. The question before us today is, How big can the tent be before it caves in? How big can the tent be before "evangelical" means nothing more than "a professing Christian who is serious about what he/she believes"?

Where do denominations and confessions of faith fit into this picture?

What is the center of evangelical theology? Are there boundaries? If so, where? Who decides?

The situation created by Rob Bell's book doesn't answer any of these pressing questions. But the discussion certainly reveals the sickly state of the movement. For the past few weeks, I've been grieved by the unfolding of events and the response. At the same time, I'm confident. In every day and every age, Truth wins.