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Modern Evangelicalism and the Trap of Binary Thinking

It seems that weekly on my social media feeds, broader evangelical leaders are decrying some new doctrine, fad, or cultural ideology. Wielding their words as weapons of war, these denouncements are seen as heralding and defending the truth as 2 Tim 2:15 exhorts pastors to do. My problem is not the defense of the truth but the manner these leaders choose to do so: with binary thinking. Rather than affirming those aspects of a viewpoint that are true because of common grace, evangelical leaders decry the entire secular ideology because it does not fit within a conservative, systematic, theological textbook.

A famous church-history pastor and scholar once said, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.” No, church, this is not a “Coexist” bumper sticker where we live in some harmonious relationship with all beliefs and religions – this statement says to affirm aspects of truth in a world full of evil because God is the ultimate source of truth. Even though the sinfulness of man is on display everywhere, common grace and the echoes of Eden break through the cracks of a secular society causing moments of truth to inevitably become part of every secular theory. For those who are skeptical about the above statement, note that the author is none other than the theological bulwark, John Calvin. Here is the rest of the quote:

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.2.15).


Binary Thinking In Our Times

To put some skin on this theoretical skeleton, right now, some presidents of major Southern Baptist seminaries are decrying Critical Race Theory (CRT) as inconsistent with the biblical narrative. Keep in mind, Southern Baptists still represent the majority of Protest Evangelical Christians in the United States and thus their leaders naturally reflect and influence where the denomination lands. My question to such leaders is, “Does decrying cultural ideologies better herald the truth of God’s Kingdom to his people and the lost, or would it be more helpful to bridge the cultural gap by finding the elements of truth in those ideologies that are consistent with a biblical worldview?”

I am not saying I am in total disagreement with these leaders (again, binary thinking would push us to say, “These leaders are dumb!”) – there are aspects of CRT that are frightening and wrong. At the same time, can we affirm some very valuable truths in this cultural theory? Can we agree that racism is an egregious act, one that violates the imago Dei? Can we agree there are elements of oppression between classes, races, sexes, etc? Absolutely. Affirming such truths is not affirming the entire theory of Critical Race; rather, it is highlighting what Calvin notes, that we can read “profane authors” and find gems of truth hidden in the rubble of cultural brokenness.

Before we get hung up on the details of CRT (which, for the sake of space and argument, I am intentionally oversimplifying), let us address the broader cultural trend among Protest Evangelicals to fall into the trap of binary thinking: believing we must wholeheartedly agree or disagree with a certain group or ideology. Binary thinking does not allow us to find elements of truth within the world, which produces a system of “us-vs-them” thinking in the church.

A Way Forward

Perhaps one of the most compelling voices of non-binary thinking is Scott Sauls, a Presbyterian Pastor in Nashville, TN. During the tumultuous season of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, Sauls wrote, “If I can find nothing to critique about the political party that I support, and nothing to affirm about the opposing political party, then it’s probably the case that I’m conflating my partisan politics with my Christianity.” Surely many Christians have fallen into the political binary trap, believing that the “other side” is completely wrong and “our” party is right. Binary thinking produces Christians who cannot affirm any aspect of truth in the opposing view. How then should we approach such cultural topics in a world full of deceit and evil?

We must be grounded in the biblical story, finding ourselves as part of God’s great drama in the world. We need to understand who our God is, what he communicated in the Bible, and have our lives saturated in the words of Scripture. When one views the world through a biblical lens, we can parse through the junk to find the nuggets of truth that exist because of common grace in the world. I believe some Christians fall into the trap of binary thinking because they cannot discern what is true and false due to their lack of biblical understanding.

When our lives are grounded in the biblical narrative, we become people of nuance rather than binary thinkers. Will we be able to affirm everything? Absolutely not. But we will be able to affirm some elements of truth as building blocks for telling a better story in God’s world. Using the common grace truths found within a cultural ideology allows you to affirm and point towards the ultimate resolution of the cross, resurrection, ascension, and second return of Christ, the fundamental truth that all else is truly based upon.

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