I was saddened by reading an article by a former colleague whom I highly esteem and have always thought spiritually wise. What happened? In Leadership Journal (a magazine for pastors produced by Christianity Today), Kevin Miller wrote a blog post entitled “The Strange Yet Familiar Tale of Brian, Rob, and Don,” where he lamented how three dominant and exciting authors from a decade ago—Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Don Miller—have now left the church and gone astray. That was news to me.
I worked with Kevin at Christianity Today for fourteen years, but now I edit books like the ones Kevin criticizes, while Kevin, formerly the editor of Leadership, has become an Anglican priest. I work with or know Brian, Rob, and Don. Obviously, I disagree with Kevin. I don’t think the three are the problem. I think the mindset of the article is the problem.
Why does Kevin think these three have “left the church’s teachings and worship”? Here’s his case: Rob leans toward universalism, seeks a “more forgiving faith,” has left the pastorate, and now affirms gay marriage. Ditto for Brian. Don blogged about how churches don’t engage people and how his richest experiences with fellow Christians are outside church. How does Kevin explain their “predictable and expected flight paths”? After noting how the three make up “a morality tale about celebrity’s corrosive power,” he primarily blames evangelicalism’s tendency to frame everything as an individual’s relationship to God, which is fine until “experience trumps received teaching, and innovation trumps the Great Tradition.” Finally, he explains that, like Icarus, these three flew too close to the sun by seeking “a faith that will make sense to our culture” while ignoring Jesus’s warning that “the applause is loudest for the false prophets.” Ouch.
Kevin’s solution? To return to St. Cyprian’s maxim, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother,” by calling for Christians to have a more robust view of ministers and Scripture and to embrace cultural rejection. To me it sounds uncomfortably like mind the ministers; study the Scriptures the way we tell you to; or mother church will cast you out. To younger adults it might invoke bad memories of “don’t question, follow the rules, and obey the teacher.”
As I said, I like and admire Kevin Miller. But how does he overlook what seems so obvious?
Kevin gives no evidence that any of the three writers have actually left the church. He seems to assume that disagreeing with conservative evangelical churches means you have left the body of Christ. That would be news to people like Billy Graham, the founder of Christianity Today.
Second, even if he disagrees, why overlook the earnest and deeply Christian reasons each of the three authors have repeatedly given for their positions? Each provides detailed Scriptural and theological arguments in their books and blogs, confessing that their positions come from promptings from God about what it means to be a faithful disciple today. Why ignore that and imply they are cowardly compromisers? Are their arguments so frightening that they cannot even be acknowledged? For Kevin to imply that they are “false prophets” who have caved in to “the corrosive power of celebrity” is unkind, ungenerous, and uncalled for.
Third, why is it out of bounds to allow for the possibility that the Holy Spirit is at work maturing the body of Christ in our time and context? If, as Kevin assumes, the church (though he never specifies which one) determines right belief as determined by the paid clergy in conformity with the past, then how did the church come to have its current perspectives on slavery, racism, women’s rights, let alone most human rights? How does one account for Martin Luther, Billy Graham, or even Martin Luther King if God limits himself to working through the institutional church? Just because the traditional church has always believed something is not reason enough to dip it in concrete and use it as a weapon against other Christians.
If people are hearing the church’s message as “Everything is fine, just don’t question us and do what we say,” then should we be surprised when people flee our churches? Merely raising questions about my gay Christian friends and virtuous and devout Muslim neighbors should not be seen as rejecting the Christian faith. These are the very questions God wants us to wrestle with.
To me, the work of writers like Brian, Rob, and Don represent the church’s hope. They are who God is using to stir the church. We need vigorous discernment and discussions in order to hear the prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit today. And we can only do that if we have writers who are willing to challenge the Christian community’s idols and be willing to suffer the bruising wounds of their fellow Christians. Yes, the church is indeed the body of Christ. I am sure my friend Kevin Miller and I agree on most spiritual issues and that his church does not live by “don’t question; just obey.” But let’s agree not to shun these hard discussions or the ones brave enough to initiate them. We desperately need writers like Brian, Rob, and Don.