How did Rob Bell become so arrogant?

I was recently given this front page article from last week’s Grand Rapids Press about Rob Bell’s view on gay marriage.  Since I’ve been blogging a lot about homosexuality, gay marriage, and the Church’s response, I thought this would be a fitting article to write a blog about.

In the article, there were some one-liner quotes from Rob that made me pretty uncomfortable, but the quotes were taken from a 55 minute podcast interview (you can find it here) with Rob.  I didn’t want to comment on the quotes without hearing their context, because that’s not fair to the person who said them, so I decided to listen to the entire interview before coming to conclusions.

And wow, was I surprised and saddened by what I heard.

Quick background on me and Rob BellI attended Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids from 2001-2004, and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary from 2006-2009, all during Rob’s years as pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids.  I now live in Lansing, an hour east of Grand Rapids, and have many friends who over the years have loved Rob’s ministry and work.  I’ve read all of Rob’s books and attended his conference on preaching in 2009.

I do not write any of these things on my blog to rip on Rob as a person.  And as I call him arrogant, it is a warning to me to not follow in his footsteps as I know it’s a path I’m incredibly susceptible to.  I know I risk sounding arrogant by calling someone arrogant, but after listening to his interview, it’s the best word I can find to describe his stance and I think it’s a warning to all of us that needs to be steadfastly given.  I write these things 1. Because I have so many friends who consider Rob a spiritual mentor & 2. Because this is my generation.

I have always appreciated, respected, and applauded Rob’s heart to reach people for Jesus that the traditional Church construct wasn’t reaching.  It’s an identical passion to what is on my heart.  And up until Rob’s recent book Love Wins, I always felt he did this while maintaining the integrity of the Bible, which is what made his points so helpful and profound.  I loved his first book, Velvet Elvis.  While it ruffled some Christians’ feathers, I felt Rob stayed within bounds of Scriptural orthodoxy and that the book would be a very effective tool for reaching certain types of non-Christians and church-burnouts.

The first thing about the podcast interview that struck me was how arrogant Rob sounded.  When asked about

how did rob bell get to be so arrogant?

Sally Finneran | sfinnera@mlive.com Rob Bell signs copies of his new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” Sunday, March 10, 2013 at Schuler Books and Music on 28th street in Grand Rapids Mich. (Sally Finneran | MLive.com)

his Evangelical and Baptist upbringing (which was in Okemos, the town next to me and where I served as a youth pastor for a year and half), Rob responded by making fun of it.  He sounded embarrassed of his upbringing and like he really wants to be cool and accepted by his current audience (Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) in San Francisco).  I’m all for humor and I think everyone who grew up in a Baptist/Evangelical upbringing (like I did) has some funny things to say about it, as well as some significant theological shifts they’ve made from it, but there is still a huge amount of gratitude and respect to be shown for this type of upbringing and for this tradition, not simple mockery and sarcasm.

Next was dishonesty about Mars Hill Church’s origins, the church Rob started in Grand Rapids that grew at an explosive pace.  He tells a similar half-truth in Velvet Elvis, but it sounded worse when listening to his actual vocal inflections.  The half-truth Rob tells in both the book and interview is that they just started this church up in their living room with a few people.  When they got a facility for Sunday services, some people tried to put a sign up with the church’s name on it, but Rob made them take it down, saying people had to “want to come”.  Then all of a sudden, they had a 1000 people their first Sunday (…How did they get there? It didn’t even have a sign!) and it just blew up from there to around 10,000 the time Velvet Elvis was written.

What Rob doesn’t tell is the story a church planting professor of mine at GRTS told our class.  He was the executive pastor at Calvary Church at the time Rob did his internship there.  What Rob doesn’t tell is that he was the regular Saturday night speaker at this gigantic, but traditional and conservative, megachurch in predominantly traditional and conservative Grand Rapids.  Many of Calvary’s younger generation would attend the Saturday night service to hear Rob preach as his style related to them.  Rob decided to start a church in the same town and guess who his first 1000 magical attendees were?  The 1000 followers he already had at Calvary on Saturdays.

I have no problem with this, and neither did my professor.  But be honest about it.  And be honest about how this gutted the younger generation of leadership from Calvary, something that really crippled their church and took them several years to recovery from.  That’s not nearly as sexy to talk about.  Don’t act like you got these 1000 people out of nowhere because you are such a rock star preacher.  Because that’s exactly how it sounds in the interview (at least in Velvet Elvis, he gives credit to the Holy Spirit…Which, though still misleading, is a bit more noble!)

And as a side note, do you realize how damaging this is to church planters?  It’s church planter pornography is what it is.  We are told a half-truth of how this huge, hip church was started, so when ours doesn’t start the same way, we think it must be because of our bad preaching…or because we aren’t good enough pastors…or because God doesn’t love us the same way…or because we aren’t dressed cool enough… or because we are bad Christians who don’t have enough faith… Don’t get me wrong: Rob Bell is a fantastically gifted preacher, but that is not the reason in-and-of-itself Mars Hill had 1000 people their first Sunday, and 10,000 people a few years later. (Do the math: if you have 20 people your first Sunday and you have 200 a few years later, you’ve experienced this exact rate of growth…minus the book deals and inspirational stories of not putting up a church sign, of course.)

Rob has so many good ideas as a ministry-thinker.  Even his book Love Wins is full of great theological content.  Chapter after chapter, I kept reading it saying, “Yes, Yep, I agree, I’ve said that, great point, I learned that in seminary…” and then he throws in one heretical (unbiblical) view and I just stop and say, “Why did you just do that?”  You have such a platform.  God is using you in incredible ways.  Why did you just do that!?

And with that one view, that one point that contradicts what the Bible says, Rob embarked on a new identity as a pastor, Christian, and thought-leader.  An identity that is separate from what made him so effective up to this point: the authority of Scripture.  With the authority of Scripture behind him, Rob was an amazing prophet and amazing communicator of God’s word.  Taking God’s truth and wording it in a way that those far away from Jesus could relate to it and find a relationship with Jesus they may not have found any other way.

But when you take away the authority of Scripture, that the things Rob is saying are not his words, but are actually God’s words, what are you left with?

You are left with Rob’s words.

I think Rob has painted himself into quite a corner at this point in his career.

And if all Rob has is Rob’s words, then he needs to be as confident (arrogant) about those words as possible.  Because what other authority does he now have to stand on?  Only his own.

So be loud.  Be sarcastic.  Mock.  Dodge legitimate questions with another joke.  Be condescending.  Be snarky.  And above all, be defensive.  Make yourself into the victim of purposeless attacks when all you are trying to do is help people.

I always loved that Rob never cared about what other people thought of him, he only cared about seeing people come to Jesus.  I always wanted to embody this, the way I think the Apostle Paul does in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

I’m now saddened that Rob’s passion for seeing people come to Jesus has caused him to throw away the very words of Jesus… for fear that those words will prevent people from coming to Jesus.

All of the posts in this series: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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21 responses to How did Rob Bell become so arrogant?


  1. I didn’t realize he was out here now — explains why he was speaking in Berkeley recently:). Love Wins, for me, was like reading my own thoughts in a more cohesive way than I could even express them myself.  And I agree with him on gay marriage as well.  
    I haven’t listened to the podcast but agree that in writing and speaking he can come across as arrogant at times. I think it’s an easy thing to have happen any time you speak from a place of “authority” and saying things as truth.


    • cjcris, thanks for the comment. If Bell was just a random person writing Love Wins and not using it as a teaching tool as a pastor, I wouldn’t have had an issue with his thoughts about getting a 2nd chance to not go to hell when we die. it’s a nice thing to wish or hope for, but he is (was) a pastor, writing authoritatively, extrapolating the Bible’s truths, and he said something blatantly unbiblical, but taught it like it was God’s truth. i’ll write about that distinction in my next blog post, but essentially you can’t teach something as a pastor that has zero biblical backing behind it. that’s a big difference between thinking it or wishing it. and on gay marriage, again i will expound much more in another post but it comes back to his position as a pastor/teacher on the Bible. the entire arrogance that i’m pointing out comes from his dismissive nature toward the authority of the Bible. his beliefs/opinions vs. what the Bible says — and his opinions/beliefs are winning out. don’t want to unpack it all in this comment but stay tuned to my next 2 posts and my point will make a bit more sense. thanks for reading and commenting, i appreciate it.


      • I’ll stay tuned:). I actually disagree that the theme of Love Wins is unbiblical. Same with gay marriage. But I’ll comment more once I see your take on it.
        – Cara


        • oh hi Cara, your username threw me off! I should have remembered by now that was you. I’ll try to get the next post up tomorrow. it was supposed to all be one big post but got too long.


  2. Thanks for the critique Noah. Bell has been stepping further and further away over time. One of the first warnings when i started sem was about Bell. Great blog!


  3. What happened to Bell is one of the outcomes of pastorness. A great many people who want to be clergy fail to admit that part of the draw to the profession is the attention. It seems unspiritual and selfish to confess as much. And that much attention changes people–happens all the time to musicians and actors, but we don’t tend to think as much of it. Still, the bitterness that he’s been showing is really disappointing. Not nearly as inspiring as his pastoral material. :


    • Jen and I just had this discussion tonight. 2-3 years ago, I think I wanted a bigger platform out of self-worth / insecurity issues. It’s something I’ve been aware of and praying about and trying to work against. Every time I read Relevant Magazine, I couldn’t help the pang of jealousy inside of me. But over the past 2-3 months, I’ve seen a real shift inside of me. I’ve been taking retreat days at a nearby retreat center once every 6 weeks, which has been great, and the Scripture God keeps giving me is 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, which I link above in this post. But Paul, the nutcase he was, really didn’t care what other people thought of him, whether they thought he was a rock star, or target practice for rocks (do you see what I did there?), the “court of men” was not his concern, his only concern was the “court of God”. This Scripture hasn’t left me. It’s really something God’s been teaching me for many years, ever since our church plant had ~30 people for the first 2 years, but I feel like I’ve made some significant progress recently. My point to all this is that it’s about if a pastor already knows who they are as a jacked-up adopted son/daughter of God, adopted because of Jesus’ blood shed for them. And that we are just PASTORS for crying out loud. We can’t even dunk a basketball. We’re really not very impressive. I think it is possible to have a large platform and keep this perspective. You see some Christian athletes and musicians that are seemingly able to do this very well, while yes, you see others where fame tragically changes who they are. I think the common thread of those who do it well is they know who they are, and they know their “reach” doesn’t determine who they are, Jesus determines who they are. And you have to know that before your platform gets bigger, and have loving community that will be honest with you if you start to forget this. i.e. like obnoxious older brothers


  4. I didn’t quite get the same amount of arrogance from the interview as you did… but I think Rob can come across that way, especially when he avoids questions. And I too tire of “Pastor Bob started with 5 people in his living room and now there are 20,000. Three cheers for pastor Bob!” kind of stuff (although it may be my envy coming out). But I agree with you — we need to be honest how churches like Mars Hill actually get started. I just finished Andy Stanley’s book and found out that Northpoint was planted with 2,000 people and 8 staff. I love Andy, but two thousand people is not a church plant… whatever it is, it is not a church plant.


    • LOL, 2000 is definitely not a church plant! There is a lot of “church planter porn” out there and it can be very damaging, and church planting conferences and rallies are typically the worst culprits. In the same church planting class at GRTS, our prof also told us how Saddleback Church got so big. It was because Rick Warren was already a traveling speaker in that area of CA for many years, speaking at many area churches and getting a big following. So when he decided to plant a church there, he already had a ton of people who immediately started attending. Not a slam on Rick Warren at all, or the process he took, just very helpful info for church planters to know so they don’t beat themselves up for not having a Saddleback sized church. And Paul, I think my next post will help explain where my arrogance assertion of Rob is coming from. It was supposed to be one post but it got too long. I feel like Rob is dismissing the Bible as an authority on several topics (But still conveniently using it for others), which I’ll unpack a lot more in my next post and I think will make my point clearer. So he’s speaking from authority, without actually having any authority except his own beliefs and opinions. I should have that up tomorrow sometime.


      • BTW, “church planter porn” is such a great, and accurate, phrase. But it’s not just church planters. “Pastor porn” is probably just as accurate.


        • well, if a church planter prays every night and rubs their lucky rabbit foot, they too will someday turn into a pastor! it’s actually a violent transition that you don’t really realize is happening to you until one day you wake up and say “dang, I can’t really call myself a church plant anymore because we’ve been around a long time… now I don’t have a convenient excuse for all of the problems in my church!!!!!! Now I’m just a boring pastor that has to be responsible and actually build something that functions for the long haul”


  5. Look forward to reading the sequel; listening to the podcast interview right now and I think your choice of word is right on.


  6. Noah, I’ve wondered at times whether Rob’s “arrogance” as you describe it isn’t a product of the broader extremely restrictive religious culture of that region. I read in his voice a bit more “worn down from fighting battles not worth fighting.” I wonder if he’s been pushed left by the right’s continual poor style of interacting with people they disagree with. I wonder sometimes how many hits you can take before you crumble.


    • You have a good point Tom, but no matter how many hits you’ve taken, it’s still not a license to hit back. I just get really turned off by his constant sarcasm and mockery as methods of dodging legitimate questions, as well as a seeming inability to show humility and respect toward opposing views.


      • He threw the first punch when he tried to take down what the sacrifice of the cross stood for. Trying to fight against God is going to leave a person feeling very alone.


        • Hi Mel, I’m not sure Rob tried to take down what the sacrifice of the cross stands for. I think he still believes the cross of Jesus is what is necessary to forgive sins, I think he has just expanded that forgiveness to those who don’t ask for it in this life. It’s a subtle but needed delineation between two types of universalism. One type says all are saved, period–Jesus is irrelevant. One type, called Christian Universalism, says all are saved because of what Jesus did on the cross to cover/forgive the sins of all humankind, whether people ask for it or not. So one values what Jesus did on the cross as essential, the other sees it as irrelevant. From what I understand, Rob is definitely in the cross is essential camp. (and technically as I stated in the post he is not a total “universalist”, as he still believes people could choose hell when they get their 2nd chance, but his concept is very similar). Does this help in defining his view for you?


  7. Rob had no intension of staying at Calvary and Ed Dobson knew that from the beginning. I often drove over from Lansing to be a part of the experience on Saturday night at Calvary. So, it was natural that Rob
    took the people with him that came to Calvary, at times, only because of the Saturday night experience there.

    Rob has always been more concerned for the disenfranchised. Even if that meant him shifting his
    theological perspective. Mars Hill Church in Grandville became too traditional over the years, in relation to who Rob had always been. Rob believes that following the sections of Scripture that encourage us to care for the disenfranchised is more important that other portions of Scripture.

    Rob was and is concerned about what other people think of him. As an artist, he is highly in touch with this within himself. He just wants to side with the people who think positively of his current emphasis.


    • Ya, I definitely agree it is natural for the people who were attending the Saturday night experience with Rob at Calvary to move over to Mars Hill with him. My point is that it would helpful if Rob were more honest about this in Velvet Elvis, as well as this interview. I see no problem in the people going over there with him, and that wasn’t the point my prof was trying to make. The point is that it sets up a misleading image for church planters that *poof* you’ll have 1000 people too if you can speak like Rob, have faith like Rob, etc. And in the interview context, the *poof* of these 1000 people on the first Sunday makes it sound like Rob is just so cool that all these people were there, not that there was a long history with these people. Nothing wrong with that history, but honesty helps lessen the *poof* effect and the damaging assumptions that go along with it.

      And I don’t disagree with either of your 2nd two paragraphs. I think those are just important facts people need to understand when they approach Rob’s current teaching, that it is different that his former way of viewing the Bible. My addition would be that I think he is now disregarding parts of Scripture in favor of the parts that he is emphasizing, which is stronger than seeing one part as more important than another (but still holding the “less important” part to be true and authoritative).


  8. You say it’s just ‘Robs words’ ….so was it just the apostle Paul’s words? Was he not conveying in letters his personal belief of what he felt to be true at the time.what gave him authority? Sadly most of what the church holds up as authority in scripture , never even came out of Jesus mouth! One to think about!


    • Hi Joel, we’re obviously coming at our belief in Scripture from different places if you are equating Rob with Paul in authority. We might agree to disagree here, but hopefully this is helpful… Paul had the proofs of apostleship from Acts 1:21-22, most importantly that he was an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection and that he was appointed by Jesus himself to have specific authority from God in the Church. So no, I don’t believe those were just Paul’s words, I do believe the Holy Spirit was divinely, authoritatively speaking through Paul and that Paul and the Church understood this (2 Peter 3:16), just as God spoke divinely and authoritatively through Moses, Jeremiah, Samuel and the many others who penned Scripture. There is more than just Jesus’ words that are (New Testament) Scripture, there are also those that Jesus’ appointed with authority to speak to the Church.

      One more helpful thing, while being an eyewitness to Jesus is one of the needed proofs of apostleship (and there are others), it also provides a way for that sort of authoritative revelation from God to end once that generation died out. If that didn’t happen, then your argument would hold a lot more weight, that Rob and Paul should or could be taken on equal grounds. If this were the case, and I am thankful I don’t believe it is so, this would also mean Joseph Smith, Mohammad, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and the many others who have claimed to have received Paul-like authority from God would also have to be taken as true, and this just isn’t the case. We would then have no clue what was from God and what wasn’t. I really do appreciate your comment, I think it’s a very valid question that needs to be asked. I hope my response is helpful!

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