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.