“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.”
No, that’s not a quote from Hillary Clinton. It’s Rob Bell, young evangelical superstar and, until recently, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, a West Michigan megachurch he founded in 1999. Speaking yesterday at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he officially came out in support of marriage equality.
“I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs—I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are,” Bell continued.
This declaration is the latest step in Bell’s “search for a more forgiving faith,” a process Kelefa Sanneh detailed in The New Yorker last November. Bell first truly rocked the conservative Christian world in 2011 by questioning the existence of hell in his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Six months after its publication, he resigned from Mars Hill.
Although the reasons behind, and the consequences of, Bell’s departure have been debated, one thing is for certain: leaving his church behind has made it safe for him to speak out in favor of same-sex marriage.
As any pastor knows, and especially a pastor with such a high profile as Rob Bell, even the slightest controversial statement (whether it actually is or not) can draw negative attacks, scare off members and, worse, funders. Sanneh notes that Mars Hill saw a 3,000-person decrease in membership after the publication of Love Wins.
Perhaps nobody knows this better than Jay Bakker who, after making the conscious decision for his Revolution church to be a gay-affirming congregation, suffered severe backlash. As he told Time’s Amy Sullivan in 2011: “I went from not knowing where I stood on the issue to performing a gay wedding the first day it was legal in California. Within a week, all my speaking engagements for a year got canceled. Our major donors pulled out and I had to let all five of my staff members go.”
Rob Bell is, of course, a different kind of pastor than Bakker and in a much different situation. Propelled by the success of megachurch fame and a slew of New York Times bestsellers, and no longer tied to a congregation, Bell is granted far more freedom. And maybe that’s just the forgiving faith he’s been looking for.
“The more people who speak out in the church, the safer we make it,” Bakker told me this morning, expressing happiness that he has a “fellow ally” in Bell. “Love really does win.”