How to Argue Like a Christian: False Dichotomies

Your wife walks in the door fresh from the local dress shop. “Just look at this beautiful dress I bought!” she says. You notice that the dress is indeed very beautiful — too beautiful!

Ahem. It looks really nice,” you say, “but how much did it cost?”

With a wicked grin she says, “Just $10,000.”

After you pick your jaw off the floor and put your eyes back in their sockets, you say, trying to suppress your anger and surprise, “That’s too much. You know we can’t afford that kind of money!”

She responds, “You don’t want me to wear anything! Do you expect me to go around naked? Well, do you? I’ve worn out all my old clothes and now you won’t let me buy a thing! You are such an ogre!”

Your wife has just committed the logical error known as the “false dichotomy.” In other words, she’s falsely assumed that the only possibilities are the two extremes: a $10,000 dress or nakedness. Of course, there are numerous other possibilities, and she knows it, but her goal isn’t to seek the truth; it’s to win the argument. So she hopes you are fooled by her ploy. You aren’t.

We make the same mistake in many of our doctrinal debates. For example, in discussing whether the Spirit indwells the Christian, we often assume that either the Spirit operates solely through the word of God or else the Spirit empowers the Christian to do miracles and to receive new revelations. Once we make a case against miracles and revelation, we believe we’ve proven the word-only position.

However, this is a false dichotomy, that is, we’ve falsely assumed that there are only two choices. Among the other possibilities to consider is that the Spirit operates on the heart of the Christian in a way that reinforces the action of the word. There are other possibilities.

Similarly, when we discuss scriptural silences, we assume that either all silences are prohibitions or all silences are permissions. Obviously, there’s another possibility: that some silences are prohibitions and some are permissions. Hmm. It’s very easy to demonstrate how foolish it would be to believe that all silences are permissions, but it’s harder to deal with the in-between possibility that some are and some aren’t.

In fact, the view of the institutional Churches has been, since at least the 1950’s, that some silences may become permissions for the sake of expedience. So, for example, the silence of the scriptures on orphans homes can be considered permissive, orphans homes being an expedient means of caring for orphans, as we are certainly commanded to do in James.

Now the point isn’t to re-argue the orphans home question but to point out that there are often in-between positions that are ignored in our debates. Of course, some in-between positions are very wrong — but sometimes truth is found in between the extremes.

Similarly, Gary McDade argues,

Under the new covenant music is called for in worshipping God. There are only two types of music in the world: Instrumental and vocal. Does the New Testament call for instrumental or vocal, or does the New Testament offer an option of either instrumental and/or vocal music?

Actually, there are three kinds of music: vocal, instrumental, and vocal accompanied by instrumental. The New Testament merely urges us to “sing.” And accompanying the singing with instrumental music hardly means we’re not singing. The argument is a false dichotomy.

There are, of course, other arguments to be made regarding the instrument, but this one doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I don’t believe that those who argue from a false dichotomy do so intending to deceive. In fact, I’m confident that many of them have been themselves deceived. Nonetheless, the tactic is so common in our argumentation that we urgently need to identify it and call those who use it to account.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to How to Argue Like a Christian: False Dichotomies

  1. Robert Baty says:

    One of the false dichotomies that I see quite often is:

    > creation v. evolution

  2. Robert Baty says:

    Isn't it the case, regarding the Holy Spirit issue example, that when folks make certain assertions of personal "experience" regarding what the Holy Spirit does, apart from the Word, they might be considered as most appropriately subjecting themselves to appropriate, non-fallacious, ad hominem arguments which have been a recent subject of discussion here.

    It is one thing to "argue" about the manner of the Holy Spirit's influence, based on what the Bible says. It is quite another to try and use personal "experience" to influence the discussion.

  3. interestedobserver says:

    Another false dichotomy that gets me is the debate on abortion that goes on in our culture. The people who are anti-abortion (and Obama correctly pointed out in the debates with McCain that there is no one who is pro-abortion) are still, in my view not completely pro-life because many of them are in favor of war as well as the death penalty, both of which are anti-life.

  4. Donald says:

    I think I agree with Robert Baty's comment. While I certainly believe the Genesis account is true, it doesn't nullify the whole theory of evolution. The problem I have with most evolutionary theorists is the extent to which evolution occurs. There is very strong evidence for microevolution all around us. Macroevolution in my opinion is false, and should Darwin be alive today, I believe he would agree based on comments he made.

  5. Robert Baty says:

    If it be proposed "correctly" that "there is no one who is pro-abortion", it is just as easily proposed that "there is no one who is pro-war and/or pro-death penalty".

    It wouldn't get us far in discussing such important issues, but at lesat there would be some consistency.

  6. Alan says:

    The notion of prohibitive silence ignores the biblical expectation that we use our judgment and common sense. Several passages make it clear that we are expected to be able to recognize other equivalent matters to which the scriptural instruction would also apply. So the passage applies to matters that are not stated. For example:

    Gal 5:19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;
    Gal 5:20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions
    Gal 5:21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    The works of the flesh are "obvious." We are expected to recognize "the like" — other things not stated which would also prevent us from inheriting the Kingdom of God.

    See also

    Col 3:8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

    Such passages are not limited to instruction about what is sin. Hebrews 10:24 tells us

    Heb 10:24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

    "Consider how" means that we are expected to come up with ways to encourage. We are expected to figure out ways to spur one another on toward love and good deeds — ways that are too numerous to list in scripture, which would vary from case to case.

  7. Joe Baggett says:

    The biggest one to me is truth vs. grace. This false dichotomy is devastating. Most of it comes from our poor understanding of what truth is. The bible speaks of both so you can't have one without the other and one does not drown the other out. Truth is not the operational principles of the church or what can and who can or can do it during a one hour assembly once a week. Jesus said” I am the way the truth and the life.” Once we realize that grace is not only a covering for sin but the power to change and overcome then the truth of Jesus comes alive within us.

  8. I often hear: "Well, you understand that if a person believes X then they must also believe Y (and Y is of course very wrong)."

    This general case extends to "if you believe 'I should not buy this dress' then you must also believe that 'I should go around naked'"

    There are many other possibilities. As an engineer, the saying is "there is always one more possible solution." I extend this to biblical discussions as "there is always one more possible interpretation."

    Not all solutions are good ones. Not all interpretations are good ones, but they are possible interpretations.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks, Dwayne.

    You may have noticed how Robert Prater insists that if I believe God's grace will cover some error, then I must believe that we may intentionally violate God's will. Then he argues at length about why we should not intentionally violate God's will.

    This type of argumentation is quite common within the conservative Churches of Christ, and an example of a straw man argument. I mean, by the same logic, if I argue that God's grace covers any sin, then I must think it's okay to intentionally sin.

  10. Joe Baggett says:

    Here is the issue. We all are in error in some way. Anyone who claims to not be in error at all is foolish and prideful. I'm sure I could find some error in doctrine that Robert has as do I. As soon as I determine what his error is then under his logic I would have biblical cause to disfellowship him. You see how quickly this line of thinking gets away from the character and nature of God? Robert, I plead with you to break away from this thinking? It is spiritually crippling and only leads to despair. Most of us on this discussion board once thought as you do and only through much soul searching, suffering, and praying did we realize that God’s nature is not one consumed with doctrinal perfection but, love.

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