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“Certainty and routine breed complacency.”

So wrote James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their celebrated book, “The Leadership Challenge.”

If this is true, then we are in trouble, because churches love their routines.

In this post, I want to explore the concept of open-minded thinking and how it might help us break out of the soul-crushing rut of routine.

Churches should be learning communities, able to envision and implement effective strategies for reaching a rapidly changing world.

As we explore this topic, I will be asking four questions:
1. What is open-minded thinking?
2. Is it a biblical concept?
3. Are there dangers in promoting open-minded thinking?
4. What should we do?

What is open-minded thinking?

We’ve all heard it. I’ve probably used it myself. Though the joke has become trite, it does communicate an important truth.

“It’s fine to be open-minded, as long as you’re not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

I’ll talk about the important truth this refrain communicates in a moment, but for now, let’s define our terms.

In 1961, Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal came up with a model of personality called the Five-Factor Model. According to this model, differences in personality can be measured according to five distinct traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The Five-Factor Model of Personality

The Five-Factor Model of Personality

This model has been subjected to years of research and is now highly regarded as one of the best descriptions of human personality. For this article, I just want to look at the first of these traits: openness to experience.

Openness to experience is the willingness to explore, tolerate, and consider new and unfamiliar ideas and experiences.

People who have a high level of openness to experience:

  • Explore new ideas and experiences,
  • Are intllectually curious,
  • Enjoy novelty,
  • Are adaptable,
  • Enjoy experimentation,
  • Are less dogmatic about their ideas,
  • Are willing to consider alternative opinions, and
  • Enjoy a variety of experiences in life.

In other words, they are open-minded thinkers.

Such people value new ideas, are more focused on the future than on the past, seek better ways of doing things, and welcome untried paths to achieve an outcome.

They also tend to appreciate the arts, are more emotionally driven, experience life as an adventure, enjoy new ideas, and have high levels of imagination and curiosity.

Openness is also important for learning. Learning is not just a matter of correcting mistakes and solving problems. It also requires envisioning new and more effective solutions.

Since learning is critical to the church’s life, and since open-minded thinking is necessary to learning, it seems reasonable to ask ourselves: “To what extent is this concept in harmony with the Scriptures?”

Is open-minded thinking a biblical concept?

In the strict sense of “biblical,” the answer is “no.”
If you grab one of the many Bible Dictionaries available today, you will not find an entry for “open-minded thinking” or “open-mindedness.”

This is a modern concept that comes from the field of psychology and organizational behavior. To read back into the Bible concepts that didn’t even exist when it was written is to commit one of the cardinal errors of biblical interpretation. We don’t want to do that.

But I am not talking here in the technical sense of “biblical.” I am asking: “Are there aspects of this concept that are compatable with a biblical worldview?

I think there are. So, let’s looks at a few passages that seem to support the need for open-minded thinking.

More Noble

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11, ESV).

What the apostles were preaching implied enormous change for the Jews.
Paul’s preaching challenged their core assumptions.
It was a challenge to their concept of the temple as the only place where God could be experienced.
It was a challenge to their concept of the Messiah.
Accepting it would force them to abandon their ethnic exclusiveness.
Paul was calling them to frame-breaking change, change that would rock their world.

These “more noble” Jews would not have even entertained Paul’s words unless they had an open mindset.

Don’t be a conformist

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV).

Anyone who has studied the book of Romans knows that chapter 12, verses 1 and 2 mark a major shift in focus from theology (chapters 1-11) to Christian action (chapters 12-16). Paul’s reasoning is that God’s gracious provision of salvation through Jesus Christ impels us to live in a certain way.

He refers to this change of lifestyle as a transformation that occurs through the renewing of our minds.

Such a transformation requires openness to new ideas.
It means we must change our way of thinking to conform to God’s way of thinking.

The world systems drive toward conformity of thought. For most of the world’s history, dissent from the ideas of the ruling king was met with severe punishment, most often in the form of execution. In the United States, we are fortunate to have had forefathers who saw fit to protect our freedom of speech. But even in America today that right is being threatened and people are being squeezed into conformity of thought.

For the Christian, the Scriptures provide an anchor that not only keeps us within the will of God, but also enables us to create new categories of thinking and action.

In other words, Christianity is a force that drives open-minded thinking.

Do you have ears?

“He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9, ESV).

This was one of Jesus’ favorite expressions. It was his way of saying: “You had better listen up.”

In his commentary on Matthew 11:15, Theodoret of Cyrus wrote:

“The prophet predicts that the Jews will reject the Lord when he appears. Though they had heard the sacred oracles, they had not listened to them. And even though they saw many miracles, they did not want to understand. . . . In fact those who were physically blind saw him with the eyes of the soul, but those whose physical eyes were healthy were spiritually blind. Not only were their eyes shut, but also their ears were plugged up. For this reason the Lord urged: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.'”

Openness to new ideas is necessary if we are to hear Jesus.

To claim otherwise is to claim that we already have heard everything Jesus has to say to us.

The Holy Spirit said.

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2, ESV).

The missionary movement has been responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout the world. These missionaries have been able to do this largely because churches have gotten together to provide logistical and financial support for these missionaries.

This amazing story began with the church at Antioch.

But, where did this idea come from?

The text clearly states that the Holy Spirit told them to do this. And they had ears to hear. They were willing to listen to the Spirit and to follow through with action.

This required open-minded thinking.

Unless we are open to new ideas, we will not be able to hear what the Holy Spirit has to say.

About this time, you probably have red flags being raised in your mind about the potential dangers of open-mindedness. So, let’s tackle that issue.

Are there dangers in promoting open-minded thinking?

The simple answer to that question is “yes.” There are dangers.

But there are also dangers of being close-minded. So, how do we resolve this dilemma? Can a Christian be both conservative with regard to the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith and also open to new ideas?

The first step toward a resolution is to understand what open-mindedness does NOT mean.

1. It does not mean all opinions are of equal value. Many people today have sacrificed their intellect in an effort to appear “tolerant” and “open.” While all people have a right to express their opinions, not all opinions are of equal value. As followers of Christ, our opinions should be constrained by the Scriptures and sound reasoning.

2. It does not mean that it is impossible to know truth. Jacques Derrida is credited with destroying the field of philosophy. He is the father of postmodernism, a perspective that is ravaging university campuses around the world. According to Derrida, all human communication is ultimately meaningless. All logical arguments are merely constructions created by powerful people in order to control others. Do you want to know the real roots of our current lack of civil discourse? This is it.

But this view of human communication is contrary to a biblical perspective. Logic and rationality come from God. He is the truth and everything else answers to Him. This means there is a standard outside of our own minds toward which we can all strive.

3. Open-mindedness does not mean that we should be constantly jumping from one new idea to another. This is a common error of many young preachers. They are full of new ideas. With every seminar they attend or course they take they latch onto some new program or strategy. This is all good and well IF you give time for the new idea to come to fruition.

4. Open-mindedness does not mean we are free to modify the core of the Christian faith.

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1–4, ESV).

There is a sense in which all Christians must be conservative; we must conserve the core of the faith as it was originally proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles. To do otherwise is to cease being a Christian.

4. It does not mean being gullible. People who deny the validity of logic and rationality and, instead, depend on emotions to direct their lives are walking the path to destruction, destruction of themselves and of the communities in which they exercize influence. They become gullible to all forms of emotional manipulation. Open-mindedness must be balanced with discernment, what we call “critical thinking” in the academic world.

And this leads us back to the challenge of how do we as Christians resolve the dilemma produced by these opposing concerns: a concern for faithfulness to God’s truth and a concern for having ears to hear what the Spirit is saying?

What should we do?

To answer that question, let’s consider Newton’s Third Law as an analogy of our task.

That law states if an object A exerts a force on object B, then to move in any given direction object B must exert a force of equal magnitude and opposite direction back on object A.

If we are to move forward in our efforts to discover new ideas and strategies for reaching the world, we must be willing to exert the force of open mindedness.

But we must also exert the force of conservatism (or discernment) anchored in the Word of God. This creates a dynamic tension between two opposing forces.

Photo of man on a tightrope

Balancing open-mindedness and critical thinking

Ultimately, there is no resolution of this tension. We must maintain the tension. It is not an either-or proposition. To forfeit either of these two forces is to fall into the grip of chaos.

Like acrobats navegating a tightrope, both ends of the rope must be firmly anchored in place.

The church desperately needs a dose of open-mindedness, perhaps not so much in the area of theology as in the area of application. We dutifully follow routines inherited from the past even as our impact on society dwindles. We need fresh thinking about the HOW of our commission.