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Pastor, When You Hear Hoof Beats In The Hall Think Horses, Not Zebras

When you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras” has been a popular medical proverb since about the 1950s. Zebra is a medical slang term for a rare or a surprising diagnosis. The saying means then that one, such as a doctor, should look for the common or probable cause first, rather than the rare or exotic. That the most likely diagnosis is the simplest and most obvious one.

“When you hear hoof beats in the hall, don’t look for zebras” has been cited as a “folk truth.” The saying, while used mostly in the medical field, is also applicable to leaders in business, government, and even churches. It is an idiom based upon the concepts of William of Ockham.

Ockham’s Razor Unpacked

William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349), a medieval Franciscan scholar espoused the idea of cutting away all excessive rationalizations and theories. This became known as the law of economy or the law of frugality. Ultimately, it was shortened to “Ockham’s Razor.” The “razor” refers to the shaving away of extraneous assumptions. In shorter terms it means, the best answer is probably the simplest one. Or in other words, all else being equal, simplicity is best.

Ockham was not the first to promote simplicity. Aristotle held that “the more limited, if adequate, is always preferable,” and Ptolemy considered it best “to explain phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” Albert Einstein would agree that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

So, is this actually true? Is the simplest explanation usually the best one? Not always. Ockham never said complexity is inherently inferior to simplicity, nor did he declare complex explanations necessarily wrong. Complex scientific, societal or theological questions often demand complex answers, and that’s not at odds with Occam’s razor. The principle merely states that unnecessary complexity is unnecessary.

Ockham’s razor is about finding the simplest solution that works. If two computer programs can do the same tasks, the one with less code is more efficient. If two cars perform similarly, the one with less bells and whistles is more efficient. When misused, however, Ockham’s razor can become a blunt instrument of overgeneralization. The principle does not mean, for instance, that we blindly follow the simplest theory, whether right or wrong.

Ockham’s razor nonetheless remains a useful tool for trimming the fat off the complicated explanations that are associated with a particular ideology, philosophy or political or religious persuasion. Specifically, Ockham’s razor can help to give our assumptions, prejudices and biases a “good close shave.”

Putting Ockham’s Razor To Use In Ministry

Studies show that medical professionals are prone to make a rare disease diagnosis more frequently than a common disease diagnosis because the striking, the exotic and the novel stays longer on the mind. Ministers are prone to a similar effect. When confronting complex problems ministers are conditioned to first remember the rare yet explosive ministry horror stories from our past church experience or the experiences shared by colleagues. For example:

  • A member pulls you aside with a complaint and prefaces it by noting that “everyone is saying.” You jump to assuming that the entire congregation is talking about the matter when with further questioning you realize in reality it is only two or three guys having a parking lot conversation after church.
  • A staff member is underperforming, and you see it as a disaster that will bring down the ministry and immediately begin compiling a list all their shortcomings and how to address each one. Upon talking with the staff member further you come to realize that they are simply young and don’t really know themselves. A strengths assessment, spiritual gifts inventory and a personality test reveal where they are naturally gifted and where they are not. A process is put in place to align their job duties around their strengths and gifts and working around their weaknesses and the staff member to begin to thrive.
  • A couple comes to you for marriage counseling, and you immediately assume the sensational, that one or both of them are having an affair. Only to realize after listening to them the root cause of their problems boils down to a lack of communication skills.

Ockham, who was Christian, believed his theory can also be used to prove the existence of God. Out of all the myriad of evidence that there is a God, the simplest and most self-evident one is the universe itself. This is seen in the indigenous peoples from around the world who for thousands of years have believed that all of nature can be traced back to a divine creator.

Ockham’s theory can also be applied to Scripture interpretation. A hermeneutic is the methodology for biblical interpretation. In the field of biblical interpretation, four major types of hermeneutics have emerged: the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical. A fifth hermeneutic and arguably the simplest “lens” for interpreting Scripture, are the words and actions of Jesus. In fact, historically, Christians have said that the whole Bible was to be interpreted “in the light of Jesus.” This is called the Jesus hermeneutic which says we should make use of Scripture the way that Jesus did.

Finally, if you struggle to practically apply Ockham’s theory then consider using The 5 Whys Process For Understanding The Root Cause Of Any Problem as an exercise to get to the most basic cause of a complex problem, which is usually the simplest answer.





Posted on March 21, 2023

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5