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Believe it or not, using poor reasoning can be a way to bear false witness against your neighbor. Even if you’re not aware you’re committing logical fallacies when you converse with people, it’s easier than people often think to misrepresent others’ viewpoints and to believe and propagate falsehoods about them.
Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:12–13)
In my article, Practical Thoughts on How to Disagree with Others, I talked about confirmation bias, ad hominem, and straw man arguments. But there are some others you should be aware of as well. The child of God loves truth and wants to look like God, who is truth (John 14:6). Is this biblical desire in your heart?
All ideas have consequences, certainly. It’s common, however, to assume a particular conclusion is the logical result of someone’s opinion when it isn’t. This assumption is called a non sequitur, which is Latin for “does not follow.” A false assumption of someone’s motives, or an unfounded belief that a person’s ideas will inevitably lead them to one undesirable end, are subtle falsehoods. Here are some examples.
Just because people abuse Scriptural truth doesn’t mean the Scriptures are untrue. A person can love and sympathize with immigrants, all the while maintaining a conviction that the solution to their plight is more complex and nuanced than some people realize. Someone might disagree with the President while remaining a loyal and committed American. A Christian may care genuinely about the lost, but may not witness to unbelievers as much as another does.
Even if the worst is correct about a person’s motives or beliefs, it would be wisest and most humble to ask them why they think the way they do, and then respectfully engage them in a conversation that has God’s glory and their best as its goal (Galatians 6:1-2).
Even so, a caveat must be made: relentless engagement about one issue after another, even if those issues are significant, can be like a continual dripping to the hearer, and will serve to exasperate him or her instead of helping them (Proverbs 27:15). Choose your words and their timing carefully, and do your best to be winsome and gracious so you will have the best chance of earning the right to speak another day.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11).
Each of these statements is an example of a false dichotomy. They present two and only two options, when in fact, others exist as well.
No matter what your view, if you can’t believe anyone would see things another way, you are probably self-righteous toward people who think differently than you do. Even if you’re right, self-righteousness is a spiritually dangerous state to land. James 4:6 tells us that God is opposed to, or arrayed in battle against, the proud.
Loving people well involves patience. It consists of taking the time to draw out the waters of their hearts (Proverbs 20:5), forsaking momentary victory in favor of caring for and nourishing souls toward indelible change. It’s easier to see where people should be—and to try to rush them there—than it is to discern where they are and to shepherd them along the nonlinear path they may take toward more in-depth understanding.
We had never learned to “agree to disagree” because to church members, such a concept was blasphemous. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed? What communion hath light with darkness?” At Westboro, every decision had moral implications. Every question had a single correct answer. Miscommunication required blame, and mistakes required punishment. My sister and I knew how to cajole, issue ultimatums, attribute ill motives, and assign moral failure to the other party in a dispute, but we couldn’t compromise and we couldn’t move forward without a resolution as to which one of us was wrong. Without an absolute authority who could resolve the problem and declare one side just and righteous, we floundered. – Megan Phelps-Roper
Megan Phelps-Roper, a granddaughter of the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, chronicles her departure from her church and her family in the book Unfollow. As extreme as the church’s positions are, it’s not difficult to see almost any current social media debate between professing Christians in light of what she said.
Megan came to be in charge of her family’s Twitter account, where she spouted vitriol to the masses. Until that is, her future husband (among others) began to engage her. His first tweets toward her were angry but later were filled with compassion.
And so he started asking questions. Some other people on Twitter were making more theological arguments. His were more emotional, kind of forcing me to look at the human impact of what we were doing. We’d always been dismissive of the idea that what we were doing was truly hurtful to anybody. They were just being dramatic. They were worshipping their feelings. So we’d been very dismissive and callous to those things.
At home, I continued, we always equated love with rebuke, because of that passage. [Lev. 19:17-18] As long as we believed our words to be truthful, we were free to rebuke the rest of the world at any time, in any place, and in any way that we wanted. We could be harsh, and crude, and insulting, and it didn’t matter, because everyone else was Hell-bound anyway. Those verses justified almost everything we did—including picketing funerals. I feel so stupid saying this, I said, but we really believed that it was irrelevant how we spoke to people. “Gospel preaching is not hateful!” we always said, “Truth equals love!” But now it seems so painfully obvious: of course, it matters how we talk to people. – Megan Phelps-Roper
Sadly, Megan is not a Christian; she left Westboro and turned her back on the Savior she used to profess (1 John 2:19). Her words, though, carry a needed warning to the church at large. Can you see the many ways that Megan and her family bore false witness against others, justifying their actions based on Scripture? Can you see the non-sequiturs and false dichotomies in their viewpoints?
Dear Christian, it can be so easy to look at the Westboro folks and villainize them, as if they were the proverbial Hitlers of our time. Will you please pause and consider yourself?