Underneath the Tunic or, What Do Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell Have In Common?

Equal treatment. Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell suffered the same hammer when facing the prospects of offering a different vision for how we talk about others in relationship to our pronouncements as final. For many the hammer is the only tool in the box and everyone who disagrees, or poses a different possibility, becomes the nail. Criticism is egalitarian.

Piper bid farewell to Rob Bell over Love Wins and Rachel Held Evans faced the prospect Christian booksellers would not carry her book, allegedly over her reference to female parts according to medical parlance. The result? Rob Bell owes Piper for the negative publicity that resulted in huge sales for Love Wins. And, Rachel Held Evans owes Lifeway for the negative publicity generating interest and sales for her new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

The kerfuffle created by the report that Lifeway will not stock Evans’ book, either a result of the poor sales of her first book or another unmentioned reason, continues to spur points and counter-points. This amounts to reader titillation. Baptists, and many Evangelicals, really do not care to be told what to read, or what not to read. We are often like kids who when told not to do something do so just because. When Lifeway decided not to carry Evans’ new book, it was akin to inviting their constituency to get it for themselves.

I read somewhere that after the Rob Bell incident a group of bloggers decided not to comment about a popular writer, I think Brian McLaren. They realized that their negative buzz spurred more people to investigate, purchase, and read for themselves thereby increasing sales.

Many of us know the conventional wisdom from businesses. People will generally tell another person if they had a good experience with a product. But, if they find the product lackluster or poor, they will tell as many as five friends. Do the math. Book sales seem to have a correlation. Recommend a good book and someone might order it for themselves – at least religious/theological books. Offer a devastating critique and the results may increase sales five times, especially if those warning of the dangers of a book are viewed as Gatekeepers.

Attempts to quash other views often leaves people wondering what do the powers want to keep under wraps. We are beyond the days of a formal magisterium, at least in the Free Church tradition. Gatekeepers in these contexts must constantly maintain their stranglehold on what is approved by publicly decrying and warning of the dangers. People cannot be trusted to read, think, and have conversations in which healthy conclusions are drawn. The real fear is that the position held by the Gatekeepers will not win the day.

A young friend emailed recently. He observed in his own tribe that many appear to be more interested in power than their purported interest in the Gospel. Job security and stability tend to be supported and framed when held alongside the party line.

My young friend confessed encroaching disillusionment. His only hope is a day when, in his tribe, there is a post- effect. That is, he hopes younger people will see through power groping to the re-formation of spirit and, akin to Jesus’ call to eschew the Gentiles lordship, a willingness to serve others. What my young friend longs for is an admission that there is something underneath these moves of power. It is really not the Gospel. My young friend and I belong to the same tribe.

My college friend Jerry Faught, a former Southern Baptist, weighed in on Vaginagate, as the Evans’ incident has been labeled. He was not the first. Christian Piatt wrote on the subject for the Huffington Post. In his Religion Dispatches piece, Jerry offers a scathing critique of the Southern Baptist Convention through the lens of Evan’ treatment by Lifeway, and others in the SBC. I warn you Faught’s conclusions are harsh. He writes,

In the end, Lifeway will not stock Rachel Evans’ book not because of her choice of words but because she is not a fundamentalist. She is a young evangelical who will never be comfortable in the male-dominated SBC. That Lifeway will not carry Rachel Evans’ book should be something she wears as a badge of honor. She is far too talented to waste her time dealing with persons or churches or bookstores that will never appreciate her and her viewpoints. To other gifted Baptist women who want to pursue your dreams, I implore you not to waste your time with the sexist SBC.

I hope young women, any women, will not abandon their dreams in the SBC. I fear they will. I really hope that these sorts of high profile events do not prompt our leaders to double-down but instead open up the possibilities of embracing and promoting that women make as important a contribution to the Kingdom of God, even in its expression among Southern Baptists. And, I mean equal contribution. I do not mean to hail them great nursery workers and cooks. I mean to honor their insight, theological reflection, and gifts of leadership.

We give more evidence of our natural bent to preserve our tribe at all costs – original sin? Evolutionary theorists would consider the approaches of more fundamentalist expressions are in themselves acts of self-preservation. Consciously or unconsciously tribes must always be in opposition to others out of fear of extinction. Moves to preserve a pattern of life may result in choosing to behave in ways that require a suspension of belief.

For instance, if we believe all people are created in the image of God but treat a group, any group, as less than equal, we have suspended our belief in favor of a decision to protect my tribe, group, even gender. Many do not like to face the prospect that how we hold our beliefs is as important as the beliefs we say we hold. It is enough to say the right thing, doing the right thing is secondary.

Sadly, in religious experience – even in America – gender is only one issue that illustrates how we program protecting our tribe into the fabric of our structures and systems.

What we need is a good dose of the very Scriptures we say we believe are an infallible guide for life. For example, the Apostle Paul radicalized the law by summing it up in one dictum, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Often we want to soften the call to follow Jesus in this way by pointing to contextual places where Paul calls for pointed action. If, we arrive at the place where our aim is loving our neighbor as ourselves, then maybe we could move on to considering the contexts in which that love may need to take the form of exhortation to faithfulness. But, most of the time what I witness is the move to apply those exceptions long before pursing the way of love.

When this occurs, the exception proves the need for the rule.

Underneath it all must be our willingness to love. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, it is the loving-kindness of God that leads to repentance. Maybe we should follow that pattern in our own lives.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

19 comments on “Underneath the Tunic or, What Do Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell Have In Common?

  1. J o e B l a c k m o n says:

    What do they have in common? Well, the primary, and saddest thing, that they have in common is a denial of the gospel. The gospel that they preach and teach will condemn people to hell and if they believe it themselves they will join those that listen to them.

    1. Joe,
      They do not deny the Gospel. At least I have not seen them on record as denying the Gospel. You may disagree with their understanding of the implications of the Gospel, but no where have they denied the Gospel. Do you have a place you could point to where they deny the Gospel?

      1. Tom Parker says:


        You may or not know this but this is always Joe’s MO to question others salvation if he has questions about their beliefs.

  2. Tom Parker says:

    I have no hope that those that are in charge of the SBC will ever allow women to use the gifts that God has given them. They will have to go elsewhere just like Emily did.

    It is really sad.

    1. Tom,
      I fear you may be right. Yes. Sad.

      1. Tom Parker says:


        Unless something has changed Joe Blackmon does not even belong to a Southern Baptist Church and if that is still the case I do not understand why he cares what we do a members of the SBC.

        It is folks like Joe who always respond in a hateful manner and question someone elses salvation–which is not their call–to the possibility of women in the SBC using their God given talents and gifts that are driving women right out of the SBC and they appear to could care less.

        It is other denominations gains and the SBC’s loss.

        1. Tom,

          Thanks for engaging here.

          I may be wrong, but it seems that Joe may be at a Southern Baptist Church. Not sure. If he is not, I will not speculate as to why he cares about the SBC.

  3. SFG says:

    When I read a post like this I have hope for the SBC, but then Joe Blackmon comments (or Denny Burk, or …) and I realize that for so many bright, intelligent, and Godly women and men it will be made clear to them that there are not welcome.

    Perhaps this is why most Southern Baptist Churches here in Southern California basically hide the fact they are Southern Baptist. They do this because they know that non-Christians here believe that they will NOT be welcome in a Southern Baptist church.

    1. SFG,

      Thanks for your commenting.

      I understand your sentiments. There are many who borrow from the top in the SBC who also believe the only tool in the bag is a hammer and everyone who disagrees is the nail.

  4. David (NAS) Rogers says:

    I’ve thought that the most respectful way to deal with someone is to listen and take their ideas as worthy of serious inspection, especially if they have demonstrable competence in an area that should be considered seriously. Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell are not fragile china dolls that one should fear to critique. Instead, a respectful but rigorous analysis of what they have publicly put forth is appropriate. It is indeed motivating to me to read Ms. Evans book now that I know of its absence from Lifeway. If I do, I will give it an appropriate analysis at the level it deserves. I do not offer rigorous critiques of the work of first graders but a college student will see me bleed red on the papers I get to see. Some people can take hardballs rather than Nerf.

    1. David,

      Thank you for commenting.

      I could not agree with you more. Anyone who writes a book and puts their baby out for public evaluation should also be prepared that not everyone will agree. Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell are no china dolls. But, they are people – human beings – that should be engaged rather than treated like someone’s punching bag in order to feel better, even more strongly, about their already convinced position.

      Many times critique exposes more about the one doing the critiquing than the material bled over.

      If you read and review Evans’ book, come back and post a link here. I would be interested in your take. I have not yet gotten a copy of the book myself. I have simply been intrigued over the response of a book not yet available to the public drawing such interest and ire from within fundamentalist circles.

  5. randall says:

    I’ve said for a while that the 2 main crossroads the Church has in front of them is our position on women in leadership/ ministry and homosexuality. It will be interesting to see how the Church begins to address these issues. Hopefully they will do so in a way that honors each other and actually points a watching world to the one who actually offers hope. Unfortunately, the Church wrestles with these issues (and others i guess) out in the public view. Too often it’s in a way that is often sour to those who actually the Gospel is intended to reach.

    1. Randall,

      Glad you stopped by to comment cuz.

      About ten years ago a friend of mine suggested what you describe. He noted, though, that the issue would be how the Church responds to homosexuality.

      I too hope that as we continue to work through these issues we will do so in such a way, regardless of one’s final position, that we do not undermine the very Gospel we proclaim.

  6. TJK says:

    Todd, I am a first-time visitor to your blog. In the interest of context, would you consider yourself to be Complementarian or Egalitarian? I understand that those are often loaded terms, but somesort of a box will help me to place your article within a framework. Thank you!

    1. TJK,

      Thank you for commenting and for your question.

      I find the two categories unable to contain my personal nuance around the issues. As a consequence, I would eschew either label. The best help I can be is the framework for considering this piece is intended to be more about opening up the possibilities for new creation in Jesus which in turn undermines powers that inherently treat people based on race, gender, sociological, or economic position in our world. When we inhabit and support structures and systems that keep people from living into the vision God has for them, not my vision of what God has for them, we participate in holding people captive rather than declare the Good News of the Liberating King.

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