Christians need to think straight in many of these areas:
A false dilemma is a logical fallacy in which an either/or is being demanded, when a both/and is the way to go. One can get rather technical about all this, but let’s keep it really simple. An obvious and easy-to-understand example features a TV ad for tacos.
Adults are arguing and debating about which must be used: soft or hard taco shells. A little girl rightly asks, “Why not both?” Why not indeed! It is a false dilemma to demand one or the other when both can do. In this case it is a personal preference – a matter of choice. Thus there is no right or wrong answer.
When it comes to more important matters however, we must be a bit more careful. Some things clearly ARE a case of either/or. Let me offer just one quick example of this. You can either embrace and affirm the teachings of Islam or you embrace and affirm the teachings of Christianity, but you cannot do both.
The reason for this is quite clear – and quite logical. At the very heart of the Christian faith lies the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and that he died on a cross and rose again for our sins. Islam denies this. So if you accept the core beliefs of Christianity, then you cannot accept the main teachings of Islam. They are mutually exclusive.
But in many other areas we do have clear cases of both/and. We do NOT need to pick one while denying the other. Instead we can affirm both. But so often I find rather fuzzy thinking in this regard. When I find the need to emphasise a certain truth, that does NOT mean I am negating or minimising another truth. In many cases we can usually affirm both truths simultaneously. Let me offer a few examples of this (out of many).
1. Evangelism or social action – why not both?
This is something I likely have penned a few dozen articles on, but it keeps coming up. Some believers insist that we should only evangelise, and ignore any works in society around us. But it has always been both. Simply read some church history here.
Wherever Christians have gone with the gospel, they of course told people the good news that Christ died for their sins, but they also performed many good works. The early church could not do this quite as much because of all the intense persecution.
But as things quieted down, believers led the way in so many charitable works and causes, be it in education, caring for the sick, helping the poor and destitute, and so on. They set up schools (and eventually even universities, they built hospitals, they worked with the poor and helped those in prisons and in so many other areas.
The two went together, and that is how it should be. But as mentioned, I discuss all this in plenty of detail in other articles. Here is just one.
2. Love or obedience – why not both?
This is another area where too many Christians can get things wrong. So many believers (often progressive or lefty or liberal or biblically illiterate types) will claim that all that matters is that we love. We are to just love God and do not have to worry about things like obeying laws and commands.
Another way they say this is that we should run with ‘relationship and not rules’. They think having nice, syrupy feelings about God and others will suffice, and we need not worry about keeping commandments or obeying rues. But no one who actually reads the Word of God could ever come away with that sort of nonsense.
Over and over again in the Bible we are told that if we love God we will keep his commandments. And that is not just Old Testament stuff. It is repeated constantly in the New as well. Jesus made it clear that if we are to love him, we must keep his commandments.
The idea that we must choose between loving God and obeying God is as dumb as saying we must choose between breathing in or breathing out. Here is just one of a number of articles you can peruse for more detail on this issue.
3. Daily reading or deep study – why not both?
I have recently done some articles and posts to again urge believers to spend at least 10 minutes a day in Scripture. With a New Year upon us, some believers might want to make a resolution to be more faithful and committed in this area. And the reason why I write such things is of course to spur on those many believers who either rarely read their Bibles, or have never read all 66 books of the Bible.
Some critics have come along and suggested I am urging folks to sloppily rush through their Bible reading. No – when I speak of things like a daily 10 minutes of Bible reading, it is A) just a bare minimum, and B) just a suggestion of one way to read Scripture all the way through in a particular time frame. But obviously we also must do careful, prayerful, deeper study and meditation of Scripture. It is NOT an either/or but a both/and.
We can in fact do both each and every day if we want. For example, we might set aside 15 minutes each morning to go through part of your daily Bible reading plan, while in the afternoon you might set aside an hour to do some in-depth study of a particular passage or chapter or biblical theme.
However, I have often written about such things, including here.
Bonus case: Faith or works – why not both?
I offer one more example, but admittedly it is a bit different from the others, and may not be the best fit here. It is sort of related however, and I will need a bit of care as I seek to explain things. I write as an evangelical Protestant, so I accept the biblical teaching that a person is saved by grace through faith, and not by works, as texts like Ephesians 2:8-9 make so crystal clear.
We cannot save ourselves by being nice, trying not to do bad things, performing various good works, or observing certain religious rites and rituals. Only Christ saves, not ourselves. HOWEVER, once we are saved, then that saving faith is made manifest and evidenced by our good works.
As we go on to read in Eph. 2:10, once we do get right with God through faith in Christ, the result will be good works. We THEN become his workmanship or handiwork, something we are not and can not be before we become Christians. That is the correct and biblical order that we must cling to here. This is how that full passage goes:
8. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9. not by works, so that no one can boast. 10. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Thus I am NOT claiming we are saved by faith AND works. We are saved by faith alone, and true saving faith is always evidenced by a life of good works. Thus Paul is not in conflict with James. When James asks in James 2:14, “Can such faith save them?” he refers to a ‘faith’ devoid of works. THAT sort of faith is not true saving faith at all.
Just to be clear, let me repeat myself: Getting saved, justified, made right with God is NOT a case of both/and. It is faith alone. However, that saving faith will result in works. Again, I have spoken about this often. See this article for example.
As I say, there are many examples that we could use here. But while we need to sometimes insist on an either/or, in many other cases what we want is a both/and. Doing that will greatly help us in rightly understanding and applying the Word of God.
Bill Muehlenberg teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. His independent blog, Culture Watch, has over 5,000 articles commenting on the major cultural, social and political issues of the day. Bill's podcast is exclusively produced for Good Sauce readers and fans.
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