‘It’s not as simple as that’ – Moving beyond the either/or

Three times this week I’ve found myself querying simple either/or propositions about matters of belief.

The first was in a ‘Liberal Evangelicals’ Facebook group, where a Tea-Party-voting contributor had posted ‘If you are Born Again you automatically become Pro Life like JESUS!!’ Though arguing with fundamentalists usually isn’t productive, I couldn’t help responding ‘I understand where you’re coming from, but real life and Christian theology just aren’t ever as simple as these neat black-and-white divisions of ‘Born-again’/’not-born-again’, or ‘pro-life’/’pro-choice’…

The second was on this blog, where someone responded to the ‘Surprised by Hope’ post with the statement ‘The primary job of the church is to reach unbelievers with the gospel’. Something in me reacts against statements like this, so I found myself replying ‘I’m less inclined [now] to divide the world into “believers” and “unbelievers”’.

And thirdly, regular friendly commenter David responded to a recent post with the comment ‘Unregenerate man may say true things, but that isn’t the same as knowing the truth’. I broadly agree with this, but again something in me wants to query polarised terms like ‘unregenerate’ and ‘the truth’; terms that seem to offer only a binary either/or, in/out, true/false choice.

So what’s wrong with either/or?

I’ll admit that part of my reaction against these polarities comes from my personality (not that that invalidates the reaction). I’m a Myers-Briggs extreme ‘P’, and Ps like to keep options open and avoid decisions that close down possibilities. I’m also an Enneagram type 9, and 9s are mediators who like to see both sides of every dispute; to see some good in all viewpoints. And I’m temperamentally a Phlegmatic who values relational peace and harmony more than being right. Put all these aspects together and you have someone who really doesn’t like closed true/false dilemmas, nor right/wrong arguments.

I think it’s also a stages-of-faith thing. The earlier, more fundamentalist stage 2 is characterised by the need for hard-and-fast binary categories of good/evil, true/false, right/wrong, in/out, saved/unsaved. It’s a simpler way of viewing the world, and it’s very useful and necessary for a time. It filters out extraneous noise and complexity and allows us to concentrate on the essentials, so we can get a clear picture and learn the basics. Much of the Bible (and particularly the Old Testament) does seem to be written to address this stage – hence why fundamentalists often believe that they alone are truly ‘Bible-believing’. But not all of the Bible is like this by any means.

Later on, as we grow we become capable of handling more complexity. At the same time we also start to see that the world, and life, and belief, and morals, are all more complex than we previously realised. The old simple good/bad, right/wrong divisions have to be expanded and qualified; in some cases discarded, or radically rethought.

The Bible in binary?

However, it’s true that some things in the world do apparently fit into binary categories. For example, humans are either physically dead or alive; either physically present or absent; either physically male or female.

Yet even here there are shades of complexity. We can be half-dead or half-alive, somewhere between the two and with the possibility of going either way; we can be alive yet dying from a terminal disease, or at death’s door but reviving. We can be physically absent yet present via telecommunications. And we’ve started to discover that even gender categories are not as rigid or binary as we once thought.

Of course, it could be legitimately pointed out that these are exceptional, quibbling qualifications to what are essentially clear rules and norms, and I wouldn’t disagree. I’m just raising these examples to show that even in extreme cases there may be more than just the two polar options.

There’s no denying though that at times the Bible does present stark either/or categories – life or death, light or darkness, heaven or hell. Jesus famously said that those who weren’t with him were against him (Matt 12:30). I’m not denying these biblical dichotomies, and they are an important aspect of the truth. Sometimes we do need to lay aside our sophistication, cut out the complexity and hear the simple either/or version just as it stands.

However, when pressed further the Bible does generally offer challenging and qualifying (and frequently confusing!) shades of nuance and complexity. Often just when we think we’ve got it all biblically worked out and sewn up, another part of the Bible comes along and throws a spanner in our neat theological works. On almost any subject mentioned in Scripture, once we move beyond the proof-texts and survey the full biblical picture we’ll find multiple alternative perspectives.

(I think I’ve cited before a Bible study I tried to do on riches and poverty, mining the Bible for verses that were pro-riches, anti-riches and neutral/balanced; at the end of the evening our group was more confused than enlightened. Another obvious example is the ‘biblical’ view of the family, which Jesus seems almost to go out of his way to undermine.)

Does this mean the Bible can never give us clear answers, or that we can just make it say whatever we want? No, but it does mean that we need to be careful and thoughtful in how we read and interpret it. On one level, the Bible was originally written for specific people who weren’t us, in specific situations that don’t always apply to us. And on another level, it’s arguably also written for all types of people in all kinds of situations across all times and ages – which also means that not all of it will apply equally to everyone or every situation at any given moment.

Truth is too great and too complex to be one-size-fits-all. Or to look at it from the other end, the world and humanity are too complex for a single universally-applicable set of instructions, promises or whatever. Obviously we can’t just pick and choose the beliefs and morals we like; but we can embark on the demanding task of discerning what’s meant to be fixed and universal and what isn’t.


That said, it’s admittedly hard to see how we can add any nuance to the binary biblical categorisations of regenerate/unregenerate, born-again/not-born-again, spiritually alive/dead. These do seem to present us with starkly black-and-white alternatives and no shades of grey in between.

Nonetheless, I’d suggest that the reality of what’s going on in anyone’s salvation and regeneration may well be more complex than a simple one-off saved/unsaved distinction. Salvation is a lifelong, perhaps even eternity-long process which may start deep within a person’s spirit long before there is any outward sign of it. (We often have only the haziest idea of what’s going on in the innermost depths of our own beings, let alone anyone else’s.)

So it may well be that God is calling people to himself, gradually and slowly preparing them to receive and reflect him, long before they or anyone else are aware of it; perhaps while they are still outwardly or consciously heading in what looks like completely the opposite direction. Furthermore, God’s Spirit is at work outside the boundaries of the church, so there may be many without any Christian affiliation, within other faiths or with no faith, who are in the process of spiritual growth and renewal.

Above all, salvation is about things like relationship and incarnation, and these are not always subject to simple categorisations but are often questions of degree, or of direction of movement. True, in a sense you’re either in relationship with someone or not in relationship with them; but there are many different ways of being in or out of relationship, ways which sometimes transcend either/or categorisations.

(And even if salvation is all about belief, we have a nice handy Bible quote to show that believing and unbelieving can co-exist simultaneously: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’, Mark 9:24.)

Transcending unnecessary dichotomies

I’d say that a similar principle applies across a range of theological and spiritual issues. There are so many divisions and disagreements within the Christian church, and most of them are over issues that are not simple true/false, right/wrong dichotomies – though the protagonists on either side may see them as such. Homosexuality, women’s ordination, creation/evolution, pro-life vs pro-choice, charismatics vs cessationists, issues of biblical interpretation and inerrancy, use of sacraments and icons, ordination vs priesthood of all believers… all of these and many more are open to differing viewpoints based on scripture, reason, experience and tradition.

Please don’t think I’m saying that truth is all just relative and subjective; that anything goes and that it doesn’t matter what we think or do so long as we’re sincere. All I’m saying is that the truth is usually complex and is often paradoxical and counter-intuitive; and that trying to simplify and categorise it into either/or polarities is generally counter-productive and unnecessarily divisive.

You only need to look at the intensely polarised political situation in the USA at the moment to see the downsides of such binary divisions (and the UK may not be all that different). Whoever wins the US election, half the nation will feel disenfranchised by the result. We desperately need to learn to move beyond our entrenched either/or partisan positions; to reach out to the other, to expand our mental horizons and learn from alternative viewpoints. We need to accept that we may be wrong, and that what we know is always vastly outweighed by what we don’t know.

(Some wise person suggested that rather than being merely for or against in any debate, we can learn to be with; standing with people of differing views and beliefs, listening and loving rather than attacking and defending.)

If you’re currently at the either/or stage, that’s good and right – for a season. I’d just ask you to recognise that it may not be the only valid way of seeing the world; that sometimes things may be more complex, and that your trusted authorities may not always be right – or (in the case of the Bible) may not always be saying what you think they are.

Conversely, if you’re at the ‘more complex’ stage, I’d remind you (and myself) not to be too critical or dismissive of the ‘either/or’ people – and to consider that at least sometimes the simpler version may be the more important one, or the one we need to hear.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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12 Responses to ‘It’s not as simple as that’ – Moving beyond the either/or

  1. Celeste says:

    I’m really fund of your post ! 😉
    Find them wise, courageous and open-minded, sensible and smart without leaving a deep involvement toward God and Christ (I can feel it through your words)…
    Wanted to encourage you..
    And just a comment about the one you received “The primary job of the church is to reach unbelievers with the gospel’… I think the primary job of church is to love… God, the others and ourselves… It’s without any doubt the greater command… and Paul (the apostle) said that, even if I speak like angels, and give myself as a martyre, I’m nothing if I have not love…
    I do not deny my own doubts and questions, but although the times I didn’t “know” anymore what it is “right” to think or believe among this great complexity you are speaking about, I say to myself, because of this great “order” that Jesus himself gave us, that I’m not too far of the right path when I long for loving !


    • Thank you Celeste, that’s very encouraging! 🙂

      I really agree with you that the primary job of the church is to love – or (to put it another way), to let the One who is Love express and incarnate himself in us and through us.

      I do have a tendency to see everything as very complex, but yes, sometimes I just need the simple and childlike message that God is love, he loves me and I love him, and because of his love I can love.


  2. dsholland says:

    We have had similar exchanges on other posts. If you look through your archives I’m sure you’ll find me saying, “You can’t say anything without not saying something else” (or words to that effect) which is just a restatement of a basic building block of logic.

    This reminds me of an event I attended last year. I may have told the story in a previous post as well – I’m old so I re-tell stories a lot 🙂

    After a lecture on a Women’s role in the Church I was in a discussion with another man and we were arguing about submission. He said to me – “you are talking to a caricature not to me.” I had that moment of blindingly clear understanding, because he was absolutely correct.

    It isn’t about the binary distinctions (which are real and do exist) it is about finding the truth in the binary views to enable communication. If we talk to caricatures we should not be surprised by their apparent two dimensional perspective. 😉


    • Hi David, as usual, I both agree and disagree with you (once again not being either/or!).

      I certainly agree that, if we look hard enough, we can generally find some truth in two opposing (or apparently opposing) views, enabling true conversation. More importantly perhaps, we can find some shared humanity in our ‘opponent’ and realise that, whether or not we disagree, we need not be enemies.

      I suppose what I disagree with is the ‘you can’t say something without not saying something else’. That is true in some cases and if you work according to certain rules of logic, but life doesn’t always fit those rules. In many ways this whole blog is an attempt to ‘say things’ while not closing down the possibility of the ‘something elses’. We can say things and yet acknowledge that those things are partial, incomplete and possibly partly wrong; and that they don’t necessarily exclude the possibility of other things which seem on the face of it to be saying something very different or opposite. The Bible is full of such apparent contradictions, which I prefer to see as paradoxes. Sometimes truth actually consists in the two opposite things held together (Jesus’s humanity and divinity). Other times it’s more of a spectrum or continuum in which there are far more options than just the binary either/or.

      But yes, there are some binary things. Mainly in computers. 🙂


  3. Tim Page says:

    Once again you describe things as I see them but express them far more clearly than I often feel able to, even in my own head! Thanks for the time you give to these posts: I find them really helpful.


    • Hi Tim, thanks so much for saying that! I find the process of writing really helps me in working out what I think, crystallising views and ideas that I hadn’t even really known I had while they were just floating around in my head. (When someone asks me what I think about something, I usually have to go away and think about it, and then crucially write about it before I feel I can give a proper answer.)


  4. TheotheDog says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t see any of your issues with black-and-white assertions of truth as ‘exceptional, quibbling qualifications to what are essentially clear rules and norms’. What I think you’re good at, and indeed what I think all good writers on theology are good at, is taking into account the infinite complexities of being human. Human nature is wonderfully, gloriously complex, and hence often muddled and contradictory, isn’t it? And everything points to the facts (a) that God wants it that way and (b) that, in our (very human) attempts to systematize and summarize we often risk watering down and damagingly simplifying such divinely created complexity. Truth, or at least our perception of it, is bond to be human-shaped (or canine-shaped, as the case may be); and that surely is a reason for rejoicing, rather than regret.


    • Thank you Theo – that’s very kind of you. It’s a slightly frustrating paradox that reality – and therefore theology – is so infinitely complex, yet our human minds are so inevitably limited and bound to simplistic, partial models of reality. Yet on the other hand I suppose even infinite complexity is composed from simplicity, and there are some simple truths – like ‘God is love’, though unpacking exactly what that means may not be so simple!

      And yes, complexity is something to be enjoyed and rejoiced in rather than despaired over. Thank God it’s not all just ABC and do-re-mi – though of course even Bruckner’s marvellous 8th is made up of complex variations and permutations of do-re-mi.


  5. Heidi says:

    I am so there. I am at the point where I am getting very frustrated with fellow believers who find things an “all or nothing” proposition. Someone today tried to tell me that “hate God’s enemies” is more important than “love your enemies” (aren’t His enemies our enemies, too? And don’t we destroy our enemies by making them friends, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln?) and that God’s judgment was more important than loving our neighbor. The illogic just flies in God’s face, and has become Zealot-ish in its pandering to the political (the discussion stemmed from a posting of another “Muslim President” thing and the panic over sharia law). It makes my head spin that Christians can be that simple anymore. I guess I’ve outgrown all that, gotten wiser and older and more aware and more Spirit-led. The anti-intellectualism (I love Os Guinness’ term “fat minds”) is so unbearably shocking, and the fact that people rely so much on their pastors to tell them what’s what in the world makes me despair to the point of a broken heart. Love, compassion and the fruits of the spirit have given way to mammon and the flag and have exposed so much emotional and spiritual corruption that I just want to curl up and escape. I am seeking more introspective, or contemplative, ways of celebrating my relationship with God, but I miss good fellowship that isn’t divided by politics and worldviews.


    • Hi Heidi, thanks very much for your comment. I strongly identify with your frustration! Simple-minded knee-jerk reactions and lack of thoughtful engagement are unfortunately far too prevalent within the church, and perhaps particularly so in the US (I have to say that rather tentatively as I’m in the UK!). I suspect that a lot of it arises from fear (particularly fear of the ‘other’), and from lack of maturity, as well perhaps as from unhealthy attitudes towards nation and material riches and all the other easy idols of the modern west.

      There are quite a lot of more mature, reasonable and non-partisan voices out there, even among evangelicalism, but it can be hard to hear them amidst all the shouting. Through writing this blog and being part of a ‘Liberal Evangelicals’ facebook group I’ve encountered a lot of more thoughtful Christians. But I totally understand your desire to escape into more introspective ways of engaging with God, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – at least for a season.

      I too am currently drawn towards more contemplative modes of prayer and worship, to solitude and silence, and to the more sacramental and symbolic streams of Christianity. I do still need to be part of a wider community and fellowship, but my current engagement with that community is fairly limited and indirect.

      So I pray you find good fellowship with like-minded people, while also exploring the paths of your own soul.

      All the very best and God bless you,


  6. Casey Penk says:

    Thank you for the intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful, and Christ-centered post. I am simply stunned with both the honesty (admitting to areas where you are unsure) and compassion (extending understanding even to those who disagree) you demonstrate in your writing. It’s extremely uncommon to see faith and reason balanced in this way.

    I agree with what you say almost completely. I’m basically new to this idea of studying the Bible and looking really closely at different issues; so I have been looking for fundamentalist answers to many questions. Just establishing a repository of questions and answers is quite the undertaking, considering how many questions and how many answers there are. So getting some basic, black and white answers is a good start. I can then flesh out the details with more shades. I think a similar model can work for most people, so long as they persist and keep faith that they will find truth. In my view, it requires a submission to God – to trust that He will provide you what you need (answers).

    Good analogy to the US political situation. What a remarkable reminder the Rep/Dem divide is of the dangers of partisanship. I have found from personal experience that overplaying your hand (going for the hard line) can backfire. Compromise and compassionate understanding can go much farther.

    Power and faith have become increasingly decentralized over the past few years (to me at an astonishing rate). And there is room for healthy debate and skepticism; as you say, “your trusted authorities may not always be right.” The church seems to be accommodating this shift, with the movement over the past few years to shift from bureaucracy-focused churches to Jesus-focused churches. I find that to be an admirable and uplifting turn.

    You addressed so many heavy topics, and I am processing all of it, so my thoughts are a bit scattered. Nevertheless, thank you for the thoughtful insight. I think the Holy Spirit works through blog posts today; God is searching for us even on the barren wasteland of the Internet. 🙂


    • Hi again Casey, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment, and also for saying such wonderfully encouraging things!

      I think you’re right that getting some basic, black-and-white answers or working principles is a good start. That’s how we start in learning any new thing, whether it’s language or music or sport or arithmetic. It’s only once we’ve got the hang of those that we can start to find the exceptions and complexities, and perhaps eventually to discover that we need to revise our original models quite radically to accommodate new data and experience.

      I’ve certainly found this with Christian theology. I still believe every bit as strongly in Christ – probably more so than ever – but I’ve found that my understanding of things like the atonement, and hell, and the Bible, and homosexuality have all changed hugely over the last 20 years. And I’m sure they’ll continue to change as I go on.

      Bless you,


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