As I mentioned a couple days ago, I’ve wrestled over the years with a lot of seemingly contradictory theological themes as well as various aspects of Christian living that seem to be at odds with one another. And I know that my struggles aren’t uncommon. This is why I chose to address what I perceive to be some common false dichotomies, first in the specific context where I live and serve, and second in the general pursuit of Christlikeness.
As with all ideas, false dichotomies have consequences. So what are the stakes? The following is a very brief and limited list, but I think it reflects reality from my observation and experience.
1. When we embrace false dichotomies, we tend to live by personality and preferences instead of principles. We figure that either way we’ll be leaving something important out, so we may as well just pick one side and go with it. And the one we pick usually ends up being the one that matches up best with our personality and our preferences. We choose what’s natural for us. We’re naturally sensitive, so boldness takes a back seat. We’re naturally blunt, so graciousness just isn’t a big priority. We are who we are, and who we are can’t blend with who we should be. This is enslavement to personality and preference. On the other side, some people want to be ever-radical. So we identify the status quo, the party line, the values of our particular subculture, and we automatically take the opposite track just to feel like revolutionaries. Either way, we’re living not by comprehensive principles but by monochromatic personalities and one-sided preferences.
2. When we embrace false dichotomies, we tend to criticize our fellow believers for “imbalance” even when they’re just emphasizing something different than us. We get nit-picky when our brothers and sisters stand on a different spot on the spectrum, when their lives don’t reflect the exact same proportions as ours, when they emphasize different truths and virtues than we do. We begin to think that someone who’s outraged at abortion might not be loving, or that someone who’s tender-hearted towards the homeless might not care about “preaching the truth,” or that someone who’s passionate for the truth and loves discussing theology must not be relational or loving. We are unable to simultaneously appreciate soft-hearted Christian workers like Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) and roaring defenders of the faith like Apollos, both of whom greatly served the early church (Acts). We feel forced to choose between the expositional strictness of John MacArthur and the missional ministry of Tim Keller, between the theological thunder of John Piper and the passionate practicality of Francis Chan. We even begin to think that these people who obviously care about one side of the spectrum must not care about the other.
3. When we embrace false dichotomies, we tend to echo the surrounding culture and its priorities instead of creating a counter-culture. When we stack up biblical values against each other, we often find ourselves unstable, thrown back and forth by the clashing dichotomies we’ve created. And in our instability, we turn to our environment for stability. We become mirrors for cultural values, wind-socks that serve merely to measure the prevailing breeze. We take what’s politically correct, coat it with Christian glaze, and call it biblical. For instance, it’s a tired-but-true observation that our generation’s addiction to “tolerance” has distorted the biblical concept of “love.” Likewise, though it’s less trumpeted, it’s no less true that the fear of being uncool has caused us to say that every kind of strict standard is “legalistic.” So we think, “If I don’t affirm this false idea or dance around this person’s sin or half-way apologize for this ethical conviction, I’ll be intolerant, or even worse, legalistic.” So we pit truth and righteousness against kindness and love, as if the two can’t co-exist. We put a muzzle on truth in the name of love, or we shotgun-blast people in the name of truth. This is what always happens when we embrace false dichotomies — we pit biblical values against each other, and in our confusion, we slowly morph into mere echoes of the culture. And there is nothing that fades more quickly than a Christian echoing the culture.
4. When we embrace false dichotomies, we embark on a never-ending search for “balance.” We try to split all of our passions and our priorities and our time 50-50. We learn to ride the fence in everything, never quite jumping completely into anything for fear of losing our perfect equilibrium, which can easily be just another masked form of ungodly comfort and unChristian safety. We can never be blood-earnest about anything. And we’re unwilling to go to battle or pour ourselves out or take a stand, because we simply don’t know what we believe in or what we stand for or what we’re about — we just know that we believe in ten things at ten percent each lest we be disproportionate and “imbalanced.”
5. When we embrace false dichotomies, we cripple our ability to know and marvel at God Himself. Ours is a God who rages with anger and whispers in love, who seethes with jealousy and soothes with compassion, who stokes the fires of hell for those who hate Him as He lovingly prepares a home in glory for those who love Him. When we are duped by false dichotomies between wrath and love, between justice and mercy, between God’s utter distance from us in His holiness and His intimate nearness to us as His adopted children, we have no alternative but to create God in our own image. We assume that His personality must be like ours, that He must care about all the things we care about (and in the same proportions), that He must lean the ways that we lean. We forget how God described Himself to Moses after hiding him under a rock so he wouldn’t be disintegrated by God’s glory: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6b-7). God is not one or the other, but both. He is not some, but all.
The stakes are high when it comes to these false dichotomies. We are playing with fire, because ultimately, we are playing with God.
Part of maturity, as I continue to learn, is that the pendulum swings less violently (I’ll deconstruct the pendulum metaphor at a later stage when talking about solutions, but for now it’s an accurate portrayal of the problem). As we grow, we get more passionate for the gospel, but less hurtfully zealous. We learn to exercise caution when necessary, and we grow in the courage necessary to throw caution to the wind. We become people who love God’s people and love the lost in an equal but different way. We slowly ripen into people who love truth and show compassion, people who can function in either structure or spontaneity, people who don’t pick and choose between biblical values but learn to synchronize and coordinate them. This is who I want to be, but I find the pursuit challenging. So I hope to share some of what I’ve learned as I’ve tried to take my experiences and my fluctuations and my waverings and held them up to the light of Scripture. I hope you’ll chime in and help us along the way. I’ve found (and I found once again through the Dean’s Series this year) that everyone thinks about these things, to one extent or another. The navigation is not easy, but we are not without directions.