As a professor and occasional interim pastor, I routinely hear a question (or something like it): “Is __________ (fill in the blank with any popular author, radio/TV preacher, apologist, musician) a good guy or a bad guy?” Often the question is asked in passing with the assumption that I can flash a simple thumbs up/thumbs down without so much as slowing down as I stride across the vestibule. But that assumption almost never matches reality. I rarely give people a 0% or a 100%. Most assessments fall somewhere in between.
Given the opportunity, I try to offer a nuanced answer (e.g., “__________ is outstanding in his soteriology and his book on marriage is spot on, but his hermeneutics don’t match mine, his view of tongues is quirky at best, and he’s no Baptist”). If the questioner allows me to finish my answer, he often assumes an impatiently blank look and asks a follow-up question: “So should I trust his radio program/podcast or shouldn’t I?” or “Should I read his blogs/books or not?” Again, the request is for a binary assessment.
Sadly, a lot of people think in binary categories, and our charged political climate is making it worse. You’re either a MAGA Champion or a Never-Trumper. There’s nothing in between. The government either wants to help us or to destroy us. The vaccine is either good (because Trump made it) or bad (because Trump made it). STOP. Reverse that: Now the vaccine is bad (because Biden is distributing it) or good (for the same reason). The most egregious display of this misery is almost upon us—the State of the Union Address, where all of our esteemed legislators model binary thinking en masse, responding either with wild applause or stony silence. There’s no room for making nuanced or qualified assessments, and certainly no room for doing so politely. So what’s a thinking member of society to do? More pointedly, what should a pastor do?
- First, make sure that you’re not guilty of this kind of binary thinking yourself—and don’t give in to the temptation to gain approval by doing so. You might get a niche following, but that’s not what church is about. Do whatever you can to avoid being labeled as a Republican Church, a pro-gun church, or a No-Mask/No-Vax Church; but don’t be a church open only to Mask/Vax apostles or Social Justice Warriors either. Avoid, too, being labeled a Hyles Church, a BoJo Church, a JMac Church, a Majesty Music Church, a Hillsong Music church, or a KJV-only church. Practice discernment and nuance in your liturgy, preaching, and recommendations at every level.
- Second, since people DO think in binary categories, do what is necessary to avoid creating, unwittingly, heroes or villains from the pulpit. If you mention a pastor/teacher/blogger/songster favorably in the pulpit, there are some people in your audience who will regard that person as a carte-blanche good guy. If you mention a pastor/teacher/blogger/songster unfavorably in the pulpit, there are some people in your audience who will regard that person as an irremediable bad guy. So be careful what you say about people and how you say it. It’s almost impossible for binary people to undo, once made, an assessment of this sort.
- But third, teach people relentlessly to think better than they do! Don’t simply resign, based on the fact that a lot of people are binary thinkers, never to address controversy or to recommend/caution the church in its choice of books or blogs or podcasts. Believers need direction in all these areas, and if you fail to give that direction, Facebook and NewsMax will happily do it for you. So teach people to think and read and listen and choose discerningly. Not once, but relentlessly. Don’t let your church become a binary church.
Before signing off, let me take my own advice and qualify my comments. There ARE, to be sure, legitimately binary issues in theology and ministry philosophy (we are foundationalists, after all), but there are also a great many issues/ideas/people/books/etc. that are too complex for a binary analysis. These matters deserve to be handled with objectivity, nuance, and qualification. Model this kind of assessment. Teach this kind of assessment. Your church will be richer for it.
**Edit: Great essay on this topic by Kevin DeYoung. He says things a lot more clearly than I! To use his categories, you don’t have to be a “1” or a “4.” There is an excluded middle for our consideration https:/www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/why-reformed-evangelicalism-has-splintered-four-approaches-to-race-politics-and-gender