19 February 2018

Against Black and White Thinking: The Case for Color, Part 2

In my previous post I suggested that learning to break out of black and white thinking is beneficial so that we can develop personal convictions that are neither oversimplified nor overly limiting. Today I want to expand on that idea a little.

A baby who is learning to take his first steps will usually want to do so with his parents close by, preferably with their hands holding his hands to steady him as he walks. Likewise, it's very common for a young, not-yet-mature Christian to desire similar helps as they "take steps" in the walk of faith. When they encounter a situation in which there isn't an obvious right or wrong answer (i.e., a "gray area"), they will tend to weigh their choices in terms of absolutes: "Is this wrong? Am I allowed to do to this? Is this a sin? Just tell me the right answer!" They might assume that something is a sin when it may not be, or else they might assume that if something isn't a sin, it must therefore be perfectly good and harmless.

However, as we mature in our faith, we learn that sometimes making the right choice is not always a question of right vs. wrong but of good vs. better. A more helpful question would be: If I do this (or, if the church or society accepts this belief or course of action), what will be the cost, consequence, or tradeoff?

Figuring this out is sometimes harder than it sounds. Black and white thinking, after all, is relatively lazy: It's always easier, and requires less discernment, to simply embrace or reject an idea wholesale. To brand it with the "Good" stamp or the "Bad" stamp, and then go on our merry way. It's much more difficult to take our time and sit in the presence of uncertainty for awhile (especially if it causes us uncertainty or discomfort) and pick out the good from the bad -- or, in some cases, the "better" from the "good." But it's always worth the effort.

In evaluating the cost or consequence of a particular course of action, it's important to remember a basic truth about life: namely, that saying "yes" to one thing means saying "no" to another. This is the case with even the most mundane, everyday choices. If I say "yes" to wearing the blue dress, I am saying "no" to wearing the black dress. If I order pizza for dinner, I'm saying "no" to tacos or hamburgers. Every "yes" is, by default, a "no" to something else.

So in your decision-making, think what consequences your choice will have, whether positive or negative. If they are negative, ask yourself if whatever you'll gain is worth that cost. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn't.

For example, ordering pizza for dinner comes with a handful of pros and cons: It's convenient and we love it (positive), and it's also hard on my budget, and not terribly healthy (negative). Most of the time, in my case, the negatives outweigh the positives, so I don't do it very often. But on nights when I'm very tired or busy, it's worth the cost. I will say "no" to eating healthy and saving money, in order to be able to say "yes" to having a stress-free dinner hour.

That said, I realize not many people are going to argue about whether eating pizza is good or bad (though we never know, do we?). So I thought for awhile about what a better, more complex example would be. And it occurred to me that an especially thorny issue, one that people have been arguing about since Jesus left earth (and will likely still be arguing about when He returns to it) is right there in front of us every week: The way we do church.

The "rightness" or "wrongness" of particular service formats, worship styles, or church government structures have provoked so much debate and dissension in the worldwide body of Christians -- in fact, it's why we have so many different denominations. What I have to say here certainly won't fix any of that; instead, these questions are meant to get us thinking: When we choose to "do church" the way we do, what is the cost, consequence, or tradeoff? What kinds of things are our "yeses" causing us to say "no" to?

Well, hopefully we are saying "yes" to lots of good things that are also a "no" to certain other negative things:

Our "yes" to requiring our preachers and teachers to be educated in the Word means we are saying "no" to false teaching.

Our "yes" to serving coffee and refreshments means we are saying "no" to the false idea that only explicitly "spiritual" Sunday morning activities matter.

Our "yes" to meeting in small groups means (in Western churches, at least) we are saying "no" to the North American tendency to live isolated lives, to neglect forming close relationships with people outside of our immediate "friends and family" circle.

Our "yes" to financially supporting missions work, outreaches, and ministries means we are saying "no" to the selfish tendency to hoard our resources for ourselves.

Unfortunately, our churches are oftentimes also saying "yes" to things that are a "no" to something greater. For example:

Our "yes" to having a senior pastor means that we have a visible leader that everyone can look up to, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to giving Christ His true place as the head of the church, "no" to the priesthood of all believers (except as a spiritual concept that we pay lip service to, but don't really practice); "no" to helping those with the spiritual gifts of pastor and teacher to fully develop those gifts (since the church has room for only so many professional clergy members).

Our "yes" to having paid church staff may help the church to run like a well-oiled machine, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to opportunities for regular people to disciple others and be discipled through service because it's easier and less messy just to pay someone to do certain tasks; "no" to confronting sin among prominent church members because we don't want to risk a paycheck (ours or theirs), we don't want to have to find someone to fill a vacant position, or we just don't want to "rock the boat."

Our "yes" to preaching at the congregation to tithe might help bring in the money that we need to pay the bills, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to living by grace as it relates to finances; "no" to relying on the Lord to provide our needs instead of meeting them ourselves through our own scheming.

Our "yes" to a predictable, printed order of service makes things feel streamlined and "organized", but it may also mean we are saying "no" to the spontaneous leading of the Holy Spirit; "no" to the blessings that come with letting Him decide what He wants His church to be about that day.

Our "yes" to money spent on new lighting and sound may mean a more comfortable place to worship, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to using more of our money to help the poor and meet the needs of the saints.

Our "yes" to allowing Sunday morning small groups to define fellowship among believers may be convenient, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to expanding our definition of fellowship to include the real, informal sharing of everyday life.

Our "yes" to segregating Sunday morning small groups by age or marital status may make some members more comfortable, but it may also mean we are saying "no" to some real opportunities for inter-generational edification and encouragement.

Note that I said the above things may mean we are saying no. There may be legitimate reasons for why those things are done, or maybe some of those reasons aren't true of every church. (Remember what I said yesterday about false choices?)

For many of the above scenarios, asking "Is this right or wrong?" won't help, because we just can't answer without making the Bible say something it doesn't say, or forcing it to speak to something it doesn't directly address. We can take away certain guiding principles, of course. But for many issues, there just isn't an easy, obvious answer, like with the church example above: Is it a sin for the church building to have great lighting and sound? Nope. Is it a sin to have Sunday morning small groups for certain ages? Again, nope. But asking "Is it a sin?" isn't the right question anyway. The real key is to ask what the cost is. If we do something (or choose not to do something), will that help us or hinder us from doing a greater thing, something we know God wants us to do? Don't be surprised if you have to puzzle over this type of question for a good, long time -- it's not an easy one.

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