What's Ringing the Robs' Bell: This Ship Has Sailed (Part 3, Final)

The USS Traditional Marriage has sailed.

So reports emergent-evangelical leader Rob Bell, who has recently signed on with the USS Same-Sex Marriage.

Bell declared at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, San Francisco, March 17: "I am 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. I think the ship has sailed and I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."

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Apparently the famed author-pastor is saying that the "ship" of traditional marriage has steamed away into a distant sunset from whence it will never return. Thus we must all give up the defense of traditional marriage, and get on board the new ship.

If that's the case, then Rob Bell, a knowledgeable man, has forgotten that whole theological-philosophical-cultural fleets have sailed, then cruised back, stronger than before they left.

"This ship has sailed," Pelagius might have said in the 5th century regarding original sin and its continuing grasp on human beings. Then St. Augustine captained the banished vessel, and sailed it back to port, where it remains roped despite the attempts by people from Rousseau, John Locke, the romantic idealists, and scores of others – many contemporary – to send the old vessel over the horizon.

The "ship" of biblical inerrancy and authority "has sailed," Johann Salomo Semler might have said in the 18th century. Semler was a founder of Higher Criticism, a method of interpreting the Bible based on the idea it should be treated merely as literature, not necessarily as the Word of God. Semler and others would be surprised at the resurgence of the Bible, if not in the West, certainly in the global South. That ship may have sailed from western ports, but it has found welcoming havens in many other parts of the world.

The "ship" of belief in God "has sailed," proclaim Richard Dawkins and his allies. But even Matthew Parris, a Dawkins' philosophical soul-mate, is not willing to wave farewell to the fruit of belief in God. Parris returned to his homeland of Malawi, (Nyasaland in his youth) after a 45-year absence. On his return he wrote, in The Times: "Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa… In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good." Despite Dawkins' declaration, the ship of the biblical worldview hasn't been lost after all.

Now Rob Bell is telling us the USS Traditional Marriage has sailed, that a new, sleek cruiser, the USS Same-Sex Marriage, has parked in its place, and the church must hop aboard. However, that vessel may be more the Carnival Triumph, which recently was piggy-backed into the Port of Mobile on the muscle of tug-boats, the huge cruise ship having lost all power days before in the steamy Caribbean.

I have sought not to make this series a screed against Rob Bell. As I have said in Parts 1 and 2, I respect his passion to connect with contemporary culture. But the major question is: With what are we seeking to connect culture?

If, as Bell's message suggests, all we have to connect people to is the creed of current culture, what's the point? If all we can do is affirm social trends counter to biblical tradition, we are no longer prophets, but sycophants. Is Rob Bell saying that since the USS Traditional Marriage has sailed we may as well join the celebrants on the piers in rejoicing that the burdensome old vessel has left the docks?

Further, if that ship has sailed, must we now search for another vessel of authority? To borrow a famous biblical phrase: To whom shall we go? The courts, advise many, beginning with the Ninth Circuit, and going all the way to the Supreme Court.

The somber admirals of the judicial system are not infallible. They may fire their legal salvos, but they cannot sink the ship of biblically-based traditional marriage. No wonder Justice Antonin Scalia said, "I'm curious, when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?"

Scalia's key question was "When?" The inference is that proponents of same-sex marriage are asking the Court to recognize the "now" of contemporary culture as the basis for creating a new universal principle in the law. Advocates of "living Constitution" theory would applaud such adjustments of Constitutional principle as Johann Semler would have celebrated tweaking the Bible

To change belief because the ship has sailed is to suggest that simply because a doctrine or idea is no longer docked on our shores, the ship no longer exists, and we must find another on which to embark.

Folks down on lovely Mobile Bay (I am biased: I once lived near its shores) watched the Carnival Triumph towed into their waters, and might have rushed to the pier to scamper aboard. They would have quickly learned that they were actually striding the dead decks of a stranded vessel.

They would have boarded for a carnival but only got the doldrums. That's enough to make passengers yearn for any rescue ship – even the USS Traditional Marriage.

Wallace Henley, a former Birmingham News staff writer, was an aide in the Nixon White House, and congressional chief of staff. He is a teaching pastor at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.

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