Evangelical minister, author and speaker Rob Bell made clear his support for marriage equality this weekend during a speech at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
“I am for marriage. I am for fidelity,” he said. “I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man.”
This marks a decided step forward for the immensely popular and equally controversial Christian leader. Bell has been particularly challenged since the release of his book Love Wins in 2011, which – most infamously – contested the idea that hell is a place where bad people go when they die, arguing instead that God’s love is too great to leave anyone forgotten.
Bell studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA – the same school that, earlier this month, hosted the first LGBT film festival on a graduate evangelical campus. After graduating, Bell founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1999. By 2005, the church gathered more than 10,000 people each week for its two Sunday services. Along with his immense success as a writer, Bell created Nooma, a 24-part video series of mini-sermons that played a decisive role in shaping the culture of the evangelical world. Bell left Mars Hill in 2011 to move back to California with his family to pursue ways of reaching broader audiences with his message of the expansive embrace of the Christian church.
Bell’s most recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is a clarion call for the evangelical church to change. Bell contends that by failing to unequivocally embrace LGBT members, by rejecting scientific evidence about the origins of the earth, and by refusing to let women occupy all levels of leadership, the church is planning its own funeral.
Unsurprisingly, Bell has received sharp criticism from anti-gay activists, especially for his claims about LGBT equality. Because of his faith, however, Bell can do nothing else but speak the truth he has found about God’s love for LGBT persons.
His voice will have a strong impact within his religious community. Recent exit polls from the November 2012 election point to white evangelicals as one of the last strongholds for anti-LGBT, discriminatory sentiments. The courage and candor of leaders like Bell is precisely what has the potential to save the evangelical church from becoming a voice stripped of legitimacy, relegated exclusively to the margins. Change is possible. At least Bell believes it is, so long as evangelicals can boldly re-examine their most divisive convictions.
In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, author Elie Wiesel made a profound statement about the danger of remaining quiet in times of social and political crisis. “We must take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”