The current issue of The New Yorker has a long and unsettling feature on Rob Bell (that, unfortunately, I cannot link to as it is available to subscribers only). Written by Kelefa Sanneh and titled “The Hell-Raiser,” the article portrays Bell as a Christian leader who found himself searching for a “more forgiving faith.” Russell Moore has aptly summarized the article and some of the more salient observations of its author, including this one: “Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have not been the ones that kept up with contemporary culture, but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.”
I always find myself alarmed when I read about Christian leaders who destroy their ministries through gross moral failure or gross theological failure. When I read of men whose lives and families and ministries have been shattered by either kind of disaster, I always wonder how they got there. Neither kind of failure arises in a moment or without a long history of small sins and unwise choices, with so many sins of comission and sins of omission.
The leader who is caught in a hotel room with the woman who is not his wife, the theologian who is found trolling the Internet trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a minor, the pastor who is arrested for soliciting the services of a prostitute—each of these men once loved his wife. Each of these men once promised to himself and to others that he would remain faithful to her and prayed for God to still his wandering eyes and heart. Each of them was sincere. And still they fell.
Did it begin with an unresolved argument? Did it begin with working hours that were too long and neglecting just the small tokens of love and appreciation? Somehow, over months and years, he drifted away from his wife, he fell out of love with her and into love with himself and his own lusts and passions. And then he followed those lusts and broke her heart and destroyed his ministry.
In the same way, gross theological failure does not rush upon a man. The man who apostacizes, who rejects the central doctrines of the faith—doctrines he once affirmed and celebrated—has also made a long series of sinful choices. The leader who denies the doctrine of the Trinity, the theologian who determines that Jesus Christ could not possibly have been born of a virgin, the pastor who denies the existence of hell—each of these men once held fast to these very doctrines. There was a time when they believed each of these things and were convinced that they would die for them. Each of them was sincere. And still they fell.
Did it begin with becoming a professional Christian instead of a man who communed with God day-by-day? Did it begin with allowing doubt to become a virtue and belief to become a liability? Did it begin with a desire to read the wrong books, to listen to the wrong preachers? Somehow, over months and years, he drifted away from the truth, he began to believe and then teach the lies. And then he followed those lies and celebrated them and destroyed his ministry.
I find myself reflecting on the words of Jesus from Matthew 7: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The path to a marriage that remains strong and vital, the path to a faith that remains true and pure—each of these is a narrow path and the way is hard. Every kind of temptation lines that path—temptations of lust and ease and pleasure and popularity and adulation. They are all there, all crying for attention, all promising life and peace, all looking so attractive, so easy.
Little wonder, then, that the Bible so often portrays the Christian life as one of warfare, of one of buckling on the full armor of God, “that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). This life is a battleground. Only the foolish Christian, the foolish leader, refuses to take full advantage of the armor God supplies.