The recurring argument I seem to be hearing in relation to recent conversations about Rob Bell is about whether Bell is “orthodox” and whether he’s “evangelical.” I think a lot of our conversation on both points is based on how we define those terms. So for this week’s The Word (a day late, because…December) let’s define those terms in hopes of clearing up some things. More than that, I hope it’s generally helpful as we engage any conversation that includes these words, because their misuse seems rather rampant, and communicating about faith is hard enough without this kind of confusion, amiright?
First, capitals matter. Orthodox is different than orthodox, and Evangelical is different than evangelical.
Orthodox: the branch of the Christian family that dates back to the very beginning of our story, and became distinct from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 after the Great Schism. Also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Orthodox Christian Church.
orthodox: holding beliefs (usually religious or political) that have been determined to be generally true by the whole group.
This is much like the difference between Catholic (belonging or relating to the Roman Catholic Church) and catholic (meaning universal or all-encompassing or the whole shebang, as in “we believe in the one holy catholic church” not meaning Catholics but the whole thing including everybody who ever followed and ever will follow Jesus).
So, if you say, for example, Rob Bell is not Orthodox, nobody will disagree with you. He does not belong to the Orthodox Church. But if you say Rob Bell is not orthodox, then I don’t know if/how you can prove it. The original definition of Christian orthodoxy is the Nicene Creed. It does not espouse doctrine but a story, and it doesn’t mention hell, certainly not same-sex marriage, and, most surprising for many, the only reference to the Bible simply says it told us Jesus would be raised from the dead. That isn’t to say these aren’t important for us to discuss, but it does mean that our great-grandparents of the faith, without whom we would not be here, did not find them essential.
I know orthodoxy is a big topic, and I’m skimming the surface of it to make a point. But the point is this: orthodoxy as defined by the Nicene Creed is both more generous and open than much of Evangelicalism tends to want to claim, and it’s also more simple and concise than many would like. You know, like Jesus.
Now, let’s turn to our next word:
Evangelical: a branch of the Christian family that began in the 18th century and which David Bebbington has adeptly described as focusing on conversion, action, a particular view of the Bible, and a particular view of the cross called substitutionary atonement.
evangelical: derived from the Greek word meaning “good news” or “gospel” (meaning the story of Jesus as told to us in the gospels), the term describes someone who shares this good news/gospel with others. And remember, this does not mean only words, or even primarily words. It’s about actions, and the way someone lives life, and how we treat people that also communicates good news to others.
So if you say Rob Bell is not Evangelical, there’s an argument to be had. Maybe some Evangelicals claim him, but in strict definition terms, maybe he’s not in that camp (and maybe he never was). Of course, if he’s not Evangelical (and I can’t stress enough how I have no dog in this fight), he’s not alone in that. Of the world’s 2 billion Christians, only 13% are Evangelicals. Only thirteen percent. And if we counted up across two thousand years how many Evangelicals there have been, it would be far, far less than that, since for 1800 years Christianity didn’t even have such a thing. Please consider this fact when determining whether Evangelicals have the right to decide who is and is not orthodox.
Is Rob Bell evangelical? Well, has he been spending his life sharing and living the good news that derive from his faith in the story and person of Jesus? Then, yeah, he is. And if he’s still doing that work, even if it’s outside of Evangelicalism, even if it’s outside of the church walls altogether, but he’s still sharing and living good news of hope and reconciliation and justice and grace and love and kin-dom come? I don’t know what else you call that but being an evangel. He’s bearing witness in his life and words and writings and yes, his Oprah show, to the life of Jesus as he knows it. Maybe he’s not as “on the nose” about it as some would like. But think about what it means if you discount that as good news. You’re throwing out much of what each of us does every day in service to God- kindness to neighbors, generosity to those in need, integrity in relationships, love of enemies and friends, respect for God’s creation. In doing these things we proclaim the life to come, the everlasting life Jesus made and the Spirit is making possible in us and through us and despite us.
I’d hate to see us so limit the word evangelical that we don’t make room for the simple practice of living a life of faith that reflects our Maker. Accountants bear witness to God by not cooking the books and keeping things ethical. Married people bear witness through fidelity and steadfast love and forgiveness. Teachers bear witness by encouraging and honoring young people with great amounts of grace and patience. (Parents, too.) And in a TV world filled with reality shows that feed on materialism, unhealthy rivalry and competition, shaming, and general meanness, a talk show host who wants to hold space for meaningful, purposeful, life-giving conversations to happen sure sounds like good news to me.