In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says with a biting tone, “No one is able to say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (12.3, NRSV).
There were strong divisions amongst different groups of Jesus-followers in first-century Corinth. First, there were conflicts between denominations (yes, denominations in the first century). Groups of people who had learned of Jesus from different apostles, such as Paul, Apollos or Cephas (aka Peter), were at odds with each other. Second, the believers in Corinth were assigning greater status to people with certain spiritual gifts. For instance, someone who had “wisdom” might have been seen as more significant than someone who was skilled in providing care. In essence, the competing followers were at odds about which group “got it” and about whose talents were more praiseworthy. For Paul, this meant that the Corinthians were immature and uninspired. It meant that human beings, not God’s Spirit, were teaching the Corinthians how to say “Jesus is Lord.”
For his work as pastor, short filmmaker, and author, Rob Bell has become one of the most well-known figures in America. In fact, Time magazine names Bell as one of 100 most influential people in the world. In his most recent book, Love Wins, Bell wrestles with, amongst other things, the place of Hell (and Heaven) in Christian theology. Depending on who’s critiquing the book, Bell either argues for universal salvation (ultimately no one ends up in Hell), or he argues for universal salvation as a possibility given that we can’t know anything with certainty about Judgment. In Time, Bell says this, “In the book, I write about how some have believed that all will be reconciled, and while I long for that as I think everybody should long for it, I don’t take a position of certainty because, of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.”* Love Wins, more so than any other of Bell’s projects, has made Bell not only one of the most well-known but also one of the most polarizing people in the world.
I watched several YouTube videos in which Bell is either the subject of the discussion or the speaker. In one video, Bell and one of his projects (not Love Wins) are the subjects of a sermon. The speaker characterizes Bell’s beliefs as “humanism disguised as Christianity.” In another instance, an interviewee characterizes Bell as “a false teacher and a heretic.” In yet another video, Bell defends himself to an audience, affirming his beliefs in God; in Jesus as “the way”; in the communion of saints; in the bible is God’s word. After this affirmation, which echoes ancient creeds, Bell says, “I also believe it’s best to discuss books you’ve actually read.” The crowd then roars in approval. As I watched and listened to these videos, I heard echoes of the Corinthian divisions. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas. I belong to Paul. I belong to Rob Bell. I don’t belong to Rob Bell. Needless to say, these echoes are troubling.
With church numbers on the decline and disputes of all kinds on the rise within Christ’s body, I wonder if Paul would challenge us with the same question he posed to those ancient Corinthians: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (3.3). I don’t think Paul suggests that all quarreling is of the flesh. After all, Paul and Peter have a big ‘ole quarrel over the relationship between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus (Galatians 2: 11-16). Furthermore, Bell’s book has spurred a lot of positive thought-provoking discussion (there are those videos, too). But, too much of our quarreling doesn’t result in “peace and mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14: 19, NRSV).
Ultimately I hope the foundation and conclusion of our quarrels is not who is right; instead, I hope it is to whom we belong. Paul says to his Corinthian brethren, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2.1-2, NRSV; my italics). In a time when our words are failing us and we are known more for what we oppose rather than who we are for**, we would do well to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. To belong to him. And to let the Holy Spirit teach us how to say, Jesus is Lord.
Teach us, Holy Spirit.
*Meacham, Jon. “The 2011 Time 100: Rob Bell.” Time, April 21, 2011. http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2066367_2066369_2066460,00.html
**Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…And Why it Matters. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.