Former megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rob Bell has come out in support of same-sex marriage, saying during a recent stop on his book tour that he is "for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it's a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man."
The former pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., made the comment during a guest appearance this past Sunday at The Forum at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to discuss his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
Grace Cathedral is the Episcopal Cathedral of the Diocese of California and describes itself as "an iconic house of prayer for all" and is home to an "inclusive congregation." The congregation's dean, the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw, moderated The Forum discussion before a live audience.
When asked by Shaw if he was in favor of "marriage equality," the politically-charged term used by some who want "marriage" redefined, Bell said:
"Yes, I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it's a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think that the church needs to just … this is the world that we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."
Bell's comment, first reported on by New Testament professor and Huffington Post columnist Greg Carey, drew brief applause from the audience.
The Christian minister, whose Love Wins book was severely criticized by some evangelical leaders for challenging orthodox teachings on a literal, eternal hell and the exclusivity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, was also asked how one can negotiate the differences between truth and honesty while respecting and loving all citizens of the world.
"The powerful revolutionary thing about Jesus' message is he says 'what do you with the people who aren't like you? What do you do with the other? What do you do with the person who is hardest to love...?'" Bell responded. "That's the measure of a good religion. You can love the people who are like you, that's kind of easy. What Jesus does is take the question and talks about fruit, he's interested in what you actually produce and that's a different discussion."
He added, "I think people are drawn to your message when they realize that you don't have an agenda and that you are actually interested in them and you do want to serve them. … Serving actually does change the game."
Bell, 42, shared reflections on his journey into ministry, founding Mars Hill Bible Church, and various personal theological crises in his life that often affected the membership of the church. He related at one point during the discussion how a friend once told him, "With you, it's either 1,000 people coming or 1,000 people going."
Asked specifically about the reaction to his 2011 New York Times Best Seller Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell said he was already accustomed to constant criticism, and at some point simply chose to block it out and focus on what he felt was his calling.
"When Love Wins came out ... I had gotten used to pretty much everywhere I would go in public, I would run into people who at some point were part of the church and left because they thought I was going off the rails. That was pretty much anytime I would leave the house, because it's a small city. That was just a part of life," Bell said.
He added that he often heard stories about "extraordinary things" related to his writings and teachings, such as marriages being healed, people getting help for eating disorders and people getting out of prison and getting back on their feet.
"I had just decided those are the emails I will read. That is the work I am here to do. There are lots of people that have a strong sense that there is more to life and need guidance and help, and that's why I'm here. Trying to make these people happy was never the point," Bell remarked.
The Very Rev. Shaw asked for Bell's perspective on the future of the evangelical church, some segments of which he believes are on the way out, partly because their approach "doesn't work."
"I think there is a very narrow, politically-intertwined, culturally-ghettoized evangelical subculture that was told 'we're gonna change the thing' and they haven't. And they actually have turned away lots of people. I think when you're part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because that pain, it's very painful," he said, adding that he sees a "massive shifting" on the horizon.
"What you're also seeing is all sorts of fresh, new innovative work being done and things sprouting up all over the place that's just amazing signs of life," Bell continued. "I think you'll see a massive shifting. To me what would be beautiful is if the word 'evangelical' … came to mean buoyant, joyful, honest announcement about all of us receiving the grace of God and then together giving back to make the world the kind of place God always dreamed it could be. I don't toss the word out. Let's reclaim it, all of us."
Shaw and Bell closed out The Forum discussion with an update from the Christian author on his current projects and focus, primary of which he said is being a good father to his three children and a good husband to his wife. The Bells left Mars Hill Bible Church and Michigan more than a year ago to pursue innovative projects, such as a television show the former pastor is developing with "Lost" series creator Carlton Cuse.
"He (Cuse) and I are developing a show and when I get done with the book promo, we'll sort of … it could get real exciting, but we are working to create a space, a funny subversive, welcoming, interesting space somewhere between my 'Noomas' and sermons and interviews like this," Bell shared. "Throw in a TED talk, 'Letterman,' 'Ellen' and a little bit 'Lost' and put it in a blender. That's sort of what we're working on. It hasn't been done before, and a bunch of doors have opened for us that don't open for Christian pastors. He and I are really, really excited because we get to create a space that doesn't exist."
Bell continues his U.S. tour with a handful of stops along the West Coast before heading to the United Kingdom. In What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell tackles common misconceptions about God, according to publisher HarperOne.
His Forum appearance was Grace Cathedral's final one of the winter term and the church has previously hosted discussions with individuals such as the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, Eve Ensler and several other authors, artists and faith leaders.