Rubel Shelly and the Drama of Discernment

At our conference, Streaming, a few weeks ago we focused on issues related to discernment. And some of our speakers focused on the large discernment narratives in Scripture, other on key theological notions. For instance, Luke Johnson dealt with the discernment narrative in Acts 10-15 that culminated with the Jerusalem conference. Pat Keifert spent some time talking about Luther’s notions of the hiddenness of God and how that has to be factored into our conversations about what it means to discern God’s activity in the world.

But for most of us, discernment takes place within our own personal stories. We make judgements almost daily concerning how God is involved in our lives or how we are to interpret certain passages and apply them to our lives. So, we needed a piece at the conference that made the business of discernment personal, embodied and tangible in a life. And particularly in a life in which changes could be marked.

So, I asked Rubel Shelly to do some autobiographical reflections on the theme of Scripture and discernment. Rubel only reluctantly agreed. It’s tough for good people to talk about themselves, to put the focus on their own life. But Rubel’s life, which he insists is not a model, is certainly remarkable for the issues of discernment that have confronted him. Rubel grew up in a very legalistic wing of the Church of Christ and was a thought of a as a young lion for the conservative wing of our movement. But he became the person from whom many in our congregations learned about grace.

Rubel looks back on his watershed book, I Just Want to be a Christian, and winces a bit, even though he knows that it had a positive impact. He winces because he sees a legalist doing the best he can to think himself out of legalism. He’d write a different book now, perhaps, but given the circumstances of his life it was the only book he could’ve written at the time.

He also grew up in the segregated South. But he was nursed as a young, sickly boy by a large black woman named Dessie. Dessie and Rubel remained in touch until she died at the age of 105. He preached her funeral. And her positive influence on his life impacted the way he viewed racism over against the segregationist values of the society in which he was raised.

He told this story about Dessie at our conference alongside the story of being fired from his first church in New Albany, Mississippi. I am sharing a clip from that story below.

It has been my privilege to serve under Rubel these past four years as he has guided Rochester College through perilous waters. And I am thankful for his life.

For details about seeing the rest of Rubel’s presentation, along with those of Luke Timothy Johnson, Pat Keifert, and others, email Elizabeth at

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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11 Responses to Rubel Shelly and the Drama of Discernment

  1. craigbrown2012 says:

    Thanks for sharing a bit on the life/ministry of Rubel Shelly. He’s long been a preaching/teaching hero to me. Keep on encouraging us.
    Peace to your house.
    … Craig Brown – Vancouver, Washington

  2. scrumpyfu says:

    Fantastic stuff yet again from him. Had the opportunity a couple months back when he visited our congregation to tell him how much I appreciated his very public struggle with the more legalistic-bound portion of our tradition and how much he had taught me through his gracefulness and sincerity.

  3. Jehucal Malchijah says:

    …theology “must always be an unfinished process, for the data continues to come in, as the Living God persists in working through the lives of people and being revealed in their stories. We abandon the longing for a singular, fixed understanding of the New Testament that is not open to further revision.”

    So, here is Rubel’s story. For today. Which has changed over time. Should we accept this one, the last one, or one that is to come? The data is still coming in. Be kind of pointless to write any of this down.

  4. Actually, Jehucal, writing things down is one of the pointed ways we and others can tell that our understandings and attitudes have changed. We (that is, I) have an amazing, convenient, and proven ability to forget our past if we don’t live openly enough to have “a life in which changes could be marked.” Revisionist history is not possible when the history is transparent, so that the hero of the story is God at work in the unfolding story of Rubel. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!

  5. Shay Amburn says:

    I never was told why he was “cast out” of the “church”…I was a youngster, maybe around 10 or 11 but I remember it like it was yesterday. We weren’t allowed to read his books anymore (via the church, not per my family). I just don’t understand where people get their “beliefs” from. I’ve always enjoyed Rubel Shelly and will continue to learn from him. God bless him! God bless his quiet strength! He is an inspiration.

  6. Ken S says:

    Peter promised that those who obeyed and were baptized would receive A HOLY SPIRIT. Their spirit was UN holy and therefore Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell agreed that it was the disciples spirit which was made holy and not the Spirit or Mind of Jesus Christ.

    The same Peter called it A good conscience which also means consciousness or a co-perception of the word. Baptism SAVES Peter says because that is how we call upon or request A holy spirit or A good conscience. A requester gets more than a demander

    In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul said that the Jews could not HEAR the Word when it was READ in the synagogue: the command was to PREACH the Word by READING the Word. Nor could they READ it for themselves until they were converted to Christ which has the same meaning as what happens at Baptism. Those so discerning will hear Paul say that THE LORD IS THE SPIRIT which agrees with 1 John 2 where the Comforter or Paraklete is named Jesus Christ the Righteousness. He teaches until the end of the world as king and high priest.

    Jesus in Matthew 23 said that truth had been hidden in parables from the foundation of the world. In Isaiah 48 the Spirit OF Christ teaches that this was to prevent false prophets from pretending that they actually prophesied that.

    If you grasp that from the Wilderness onward Christ the Rock defined the Qahal, synagogue or ekkllesia both inclusively and exclusively. That was a Word of God only assembly so that the more that you pretend that you are a disciple commanded to teach and observe what He commanded in the Prophets and apostles, the more the plain words on white paper suddenly jump out at you after decades of studying for teaching by lifting out of context. That’s what I discovered after 6 decades of doing church.

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