Keep It Simple; Not Simplistic

“Love the Lord your God with all your…mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

There is a difference between something being simple, which essentially means easy to understand or not elaborate whereas simplistic is the tendency to ignore complexities and complications.  

Children, for example, are able to grasp the essential measure of biblical truth if they can remember John 3:16 or the lessons found in the songs, Jesus Love Me and Jesus Loves the Little Children1.   Hopefully, as we mature our ability to wrestle with some of the complexities of biblical teaching increases with our aging, although not everyone will grow to the same levels.  But if, for some reason, we do not grow a lot in understanding much beyond what we find in John 3:16 or those two songs, the lessons within still provide us with what we need to be grounded in the Christian faith and to obey the two great commandments: love GOD and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We need that strong foundation of belief and obedience to truth for this is how we build our lives on solid rock and not on shifting sand, a metaphor of Jesus.  We need that foundation because the world we live in is full of complexities which are constantly in motion.  Additionally, new complexities are added upon the old.  Changes spawned over several hundred years by the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, near unceasing warfare, and all of the after-effects of modernity including technology development coming at warp speed has forced all of us to deal with change at a pace which is constant…and often unwelcome.  

Add to this, postmodern challenges to the tenets of modernism, political instability, economic uncertainty, and the rejection of societal norms which we see expressed in increasing activism.  The world has turned into a Ball of Confusionfor many people.  The “good old days” don’t exist except as a haven in the minds of those who are dealing with a sense of loss of control and/or resentment. 

The danger for those in this latter group is the temptation to prefer simplistic responses to complex issues, that is, responses that ignore real complexities and complications.  This danger is equally true for the Church as it is for every other segment of society.  One example is something I came across a week or so ago in which an “evangelical” pastor condemned the “evil of intellectualism” that he believed had infected some in his congregation.3 This is not a unique or isolated view.  I have witnessed it, not necessarily in his exact words but certainly with a similar attitude.  I have heard pastors I know speak of experiencing it within their own ministry contexts.  

The theme of anti-intellectualism in the Church is not new; it has been the foundation of fundamentalism for at least of century and reflects a deep distrust and “antagonism to learning, education and the educated…in a conscious display of simplicity, earthiness, even colorful simi-literacy.”4   

This is taking the gospel (which can be communicated and understood simply) and making it simplistic in a way I doubt was ever envisioned by Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, John, Polycarp, Augustine, Origen, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others.  How do we love GOD with all of our mind if we devalue the mind’s ability to wrestle with and comprehend levels of complexity…or worse than devaluing it, calling it “evil?”  How can any of us have the experience of being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) if we neglect feeding them with the spiritual food of the Word and the wisdom of the saints acquired and tested over centuries…or at the very least, earnest prayer?

John Wesley, the 18th century Anglican priest who founded Methodism, and a central figure within my denominational tribe, was clear in declaring that there is great value in the use of reason to grasp spiritual truth, marking it only second in importance to Scripture.  It was said of Oswald Chambers, a noted early 20th century teacher, evangelist and missionary, “If [he] had a pet peeve it was, in his words, ‘intellectual slovenliness, disguised by a seemingly true regard for the spiritual interests.”5 To his students he said, “More than half the side-tracks and all [author’s emphasis] the hysterical phenomena that seize whole communities of people, like [an infectious] epidemic…arise from spiritual laziness and intellectual sloth on the part of so-called religious teachers.”6

This is, in no way, a call to big intellectual pursuits for everyone.  However GOD has wired each of us, in gifts and in passions, we ought to pursue these earnestly for the sake of the body of Christ and for our own joy as He blesses us in our practice.  This is however an admonition to (1) accept that our world is very complex and that there is room for the Church to engage that complexity with tools of the mind, (2) not despise those who feel called to do that; they too are honoring GOD, and (3) recognize that every mind is a “terrible thing to waste” and question those who think it’s wise to do so.                                

If I don’t learn to think, then I don’t think I’ll ever learn.”- Craig D. Lounsborough

  1. Jesus Loves Me by Anna Bartlett Warner (1859), Public Domain, Library of Congress.  Jesus Loves the Little Childrenby C. H. Woolston (original publication date is unknown).  It may still be under copyright as the last publication date was in 1976. 
  2. Ball of Confusion (The Temptations) written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.  Recorded on the Gordy label and released in 1970, Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.
  3. My apologies.  I cannot recall or retrace the source.
  4. The Free Dictionary by Farlex (online).
  5. Oswald Chambers, Abandoned to God by David McCasland, 1993, p. 106.  
  6. Chambers, p. 106.  

© Byron L. Hannon, 2020.  All rights reserved to text content unless noted otherwise.

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