Away with these foolish false dilemmas:
In somewhat earlier times one could go to a Chinese restaurant and often they had menus that said you could choose an item from column A and one from column B. Instead of just one or the other columns, who had the ability to select from both.
Let me move from yummy food to Christianity and basic logic. One of the most annoying and most foolish of the various logical fallacies is the fallacy of the false dilemma. This fallacy states that we must choose only one option out of two when there is no reason why both cannot be chosen.
It demands an either/or when it should be a both/and. I will get to unhelpful and unbiblical Christian versions of this in a moment, but first a few obvious examples:
-You must have either chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream. Um, why not both?
-You can only love your city or your country. Um, why not both?
-You should either be a good husband or a good parent. Um, why not both?
–You should either watch TV or read books. Um, why not both?
You get the point. Sometimes there is no good reason to demand an either/or when a both/and is fully appropriate. My main reason for writing this article is because I see on a regular basis Christians pushing rather dumb false dilemmas. It happens all the time and it does bother me.
Let me start by saying that yes, there ARE some areas where we MUST choose either from column A or from column B. We cannot do both. Here are a few obvious examples:
-You either love Christ or you love the world, but you cannot do both. It is one or the other.
-You either accept Christ as Lord and Saviour or you accept the State as Lord and Saviour, but you cannot do both. It is one or the other.
-You either believe that Christianity is fully true, or that Islam is fully true, but you cannot do both. It is one or the other.
However far too many believers are trying to force us into some false dilemma when it is NOT supposed to be an either/or choice. One main version of such false dilemmas has to do with the Christian calling, and things like preaching the gospel.
We will be told that evangelism is basically our one and only main calling, and other callings, such as social action, cannot also be engaged in – or at least must be far, far down the list of our priorities. I see these being claimed all the time.
Let me offer a few examples. The American pastor John MacArthur, who I generally quite appreciate, wrote a rather unhelpful book back in 2000 called Why Government Can’t Save You. Because the main premise of it was a false dilemma (either worship God and evangelise, or get involved in political and social involvement), I wrote a review of the book explaining why he really missed the mark here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2001/11/28/a-review-of-why-government-can%e2%80%99t-save-you-by-john-macarthur/
I am not aware of any biblical Christian who believes that the government can save us. But I do know of countless believers – including myself – who take seriously biblical passages about how God values righteous and godly leaders, and how righteousness exalts a nation, and so on. Politics IS important, in other words.
Sure, it is not identical to the Kingdom, but God DID ordain the state, and we are to seek godly government – government that is honouring to God and his ways. So it is simply foolish to tell Christians to not give a rip about what is happening in politics and society.
And of course more recently MacArthur HAS started giving a rip about government and politics when churches were ordered to close by Governor Newsom in California. He then became quite political and involved as he defied the state on this. So I am glad he seems to have changed his views a bit over the years!
Just recently on the social media one Christian put this post up: “The first believers were totally consumed by the Word of God and their one passion was the proclamation of the gospel under tremendous persecution. The freedom rallies (legitimate as they are and I support them), pale in comparison when compared with the cause of Christ and His Kingdom. Have a great day everyone.”
This is how I replied: “Yes and no of course. Sure we should preach the gospel. We should also be salt and light. Scripture nowhere seeks to force us to choose one or the other. It commands us to do both – simultaneously. And it is a whole lot easier to preach the gospel when we have religious freedom. So I will do both, and do both for the glory of God! Bless you!”
The fellow kindly did go on to say he basically agreed with me. And he is perfectly correct to say that many Christians have lost a passion for sharing the gospel. But many other believers really do think we must choose one or the other. And I see them making these claims so often on the social media and elsewhere. But I reject such unhelpful and unbiblical false dichotomies.
An example I have used over and over again is the great William Wilberforce, the fantastic English Christian, parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer. Guess what? He faced the same foolish false dilemmas. How many Christians told him he should just preach the gospel and stop wasting his time in politics?
Thankfully Wilberforce refused to heed this fleshly and unscriptural advice. He knew that God had called him to do both. And he did, praise God. He was a shining light of biblical Christianity, sharing his faith in public, while he also helped bring an end to the abhorrent slave trade.
I don’t think many Blacks today would be upset with Wilberforce for not sticking to the ‘just preach the gospel’ mantra. He instead rightly got fully involved in this hugely important social issue. Had he bought this foolish false dilemma, we still might have slavery today in the West.
And I could go on and on about so many other false dilemmas that folks will push. It is not just the evangelism vs social reform debate. Plenty of other things come to mind. For example – and as I have written about recently – some Christians will make the silly claim that instead of reading theological books, or books about the Bible, we should just read the Bible.
My answer, once again, is this: Um, why not both? Why in the world are you trying to force us into this false dilemma? No one denies that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God, while all other books are not. But that does not mean we just throw out all other books.
By that reasoning we should toss out all sermons, all teachings, all conferences, all seminars, and all churches, since they all involve non-inspired ‘mere’ humans. But it is God’s will that fallen and finite human beings are used to help the Body of Christ, be they pastors, or teachers, or what have you.
It is NOT either the Bible or teachers. It is NOT either Scripture or sermons. It is BOTH the Bible AND good teachers, good books, good sermons, good theology, and so on. See more on this issue here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/21/godly-spirituality-or-fleshly-pride/
By way of summary, let me run with a strong quote I have often used before by D. A. Carson on this issue. It comes from a 2005 book of his that dealt with the emerging church movement – a movement filled with these false dilemmas. He said this:
So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those are forceful words indeed – but necessary words. We must reject any foolish demands that insist on an either/or in various areas when they are clearly about both/and. We can choose one from column A and one from column B!