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What is generalism?

Question: "What is generalism? What is a generalist?"

Generalism is a term with varied meanings, depending on context. As most commonly understood, a generalist is someone who possesses a broad range of skills, as opposed to a narrow, refined expertise. In ethics, however, generalist refers to someone who believes that universal moral principles apply in all situations. This type of generalism is essentially the same as belief in objective morality.

In terms of skills and abilities, a generalist is reasonably competent in many different areas, but he or she may not be a true expert in any one field. In medicine, “general practitioners” are qualified to diagnose and treat most conditions. Those same generalists, however, refer patients to specialists when the situation requires a more advanced knowledge. The specialist might be a world-class expert in his or her field but, unlike the generalist, is not well-suited to treat a wide range of conditions.

Spiritually, generalism is often required of church leaders. Pastors will find themselves presented with the need to both teach and rebuke (Titus 1:9), to comfort (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and to discern (2 Timothy 2:15). Pastors and elders are often pressed into service as counselors, mediators, teachers, mentors, janitors, plumbers, cooks, and nurses!

Besides pastors, many other Christians find themselves in the position of a “spiritual generalist.” Not every believer is gifted with a single, dominant, extraordinary skill that outweighs all others. Most believers who seek to serve God will find themselves involved, to varying degrees, in different types of service at different times. This does not negate the concept of spiritual gifts. Believers who feel a strong call to a narrow field might choose to specialize in it. Other Christians can serve God perfectly well as a generalist, meeting needs as they arise.

In ethics, generalism is the contrasting view to particularism. Ethical particularism rejects the concept of objective moral values, holding instead that moral decisions can only be made as each particular instance unfolds. An ethical generalist, on the other hand, is one who believes there are universal moral laws that apply in all circumstances. Ethical generalism is more consistent with the Bible, which clearly describes a difference between good and evil (Isaiah 55:9; Genesis 2:17; Deuteronomy 30:15). Scripture does not eliminate the need for sound judgment (John 7:24; Romans 2:12) but rather seeks to apply universal principles appropriately in any given situation.

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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