False Dilemmas


False Dilemmas are called ‘false’ because we may not actually need to make a radical “either-or” choice as often as we are made to think so. Something or all of both may be true, or their may be another good choice.

Even in some of my own favorite authors or preachers, I have to admit I find a lot of false dilemmas.  I’m sure I’ve presented them myself at times!  Shop around the Christian bookstore and you may agree.  We often feel the need to promote one  aspect of the truth by denying other aspects.  We are uncomfortable with mystery, and would rather break things down into opposing statements.  We like action, and this seems to generate it.


This is not to say that “everyone is always right.”  Instead, this is to say that sometimes the truth is found in listening to both sides and seeing where Scripture and tradition guide us.  It could be that something of both aspects is true, rather than one or the other extreme.  Scripture is still our final authority, but at times we neglect or deny parts of it to simplify or to advocate a viewpoint.

Let me give you some examples from the subject of Prayer.  Perhaps you’ve read or heard these types of statements and have wrestled between choosing one or the other.

Private and Corporate Prayer

“Prayer is a personal spiritual experience, so prayer in church is secondary to our personal prayer life.  Remember, Jesus went off alone to pray…”


“Prayer is grounded on our worship together on Sundays, and so personal prayers are secondary to worship.  Remember, Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name…’”

Which one do you choose?  Personal or Corporate prayer?

Say or own Prayers or Learn to Pray with Helps? 

“Pure prayer is just a person talking to God from his or her own heart.  Ordered or written prayers get in the way of authentic prayer.  The Bible says that ‘God looks on the heart.’”


“Prayer is a learned discipline in which we use tried and true, biblical and historic prayers to learn how to pray well. Our silly attempts to pray without help is misguided and gets in the way of really learning to pray.  The Bible says that our minds need to be renewed and our hearts will lead us astray.”

Which one?  Prayers from our own hearts, or prayers from the Bible and the saints?

Experiencing God or Prayer as a Discipline?

“True prayer is an experience of God’s presence, without that experience prayers are dry and ineffective.”


“True prayer is a lifelong discipline, so experience and emotion are not essential.”

Which is it?  Prayer as a tangible sense of God’s presence, or prayer as a lifelong discipline?

Have you ever felt you were being tossed two and fro between these extreme views? Have you felt like Christian leaders were demanding that you choose one (and only one) in order to be biblical or authentic or spiritual?  I have!

I have been thinking this week about how often these false dilemmas toss us around. Maybe that is part of what Paul meant when he wrote that maturity in Christ means that we are, “no longer to be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine… rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”

Christ is the key to avoiding these false dilemmas and growing into maturity in him, no longer being tossed to and fro by them.

So, for example, our subject of prayer.  What if prayer is a beautiful mystery in which our prayers on Sunday together and our personal and family prayers blend together?  What if neither is the beginning or end, and both are important and necessary?  Why the need to choose personal prayer over corporate prayer and vice versa?

The next time you or I pick up a book that claims that only personal prayer or only corporate prayer are important, we can avoid being tossed back and forth by simply affirming that we need not choose between the two. We don’t need to deny or downplay one aspect to affirm the other.

What if prayer can be a personal experience in which we learn a discipline by using biblical and historic prayers, mixed with out own voice and expressions?  Can’t both be true and helpful?

What if prayer is a lifelong discipline which also includes experiences of God’s presence both in terms of dramatic ones, and in terms of a faith that he is with us even when we don’t sense his presence? What if both our discipline of prayer and our experience of God are necessary?

In all of these, why do we need to divide into opposing camps when it comes to prayer?  Some traditions deny written prayers and celebrate spontaneous prayer.  Some reject spontaneous prayer and affirm only official, ordered prayers.

Some traditions emphasize dramatic experiences of  God to the neglect or denial of a lifelong discipline of prayer. Others focus so much on corporate worship that personal spiritual life is absent, and still others focus so much on personal spiritual life that the worship of the Church is an afterthought.

We are tossed to and fro in these winds of opposing doctrines!

What if we kept Christ at the center and affirmed the great mystery of prayer?  Prayer need not be overly analyzed and dissected, with each of us choosing various camps or interpretations of it.  Prayer can be all of those wonderful things, and at various times in our lives each aspect of prayer may be more meaningful to us.

Prayer is just an example – there are so many other areas of our Christian life and Church life in which we needlessly deny one aspect of the truth of Christ in order to affirm another.  On Sunday, we will begin looking at the doctrine of the Church in the same way.  What are some false dilemmas we may have been accepting about Church? Maybe its time to accept all that Christ tells us about his Church, and celebrate the mystery of his Body without denying any true aspect of it.

I hope you will join us as we seek the mystery of the Church, grounded on Christ himself.

Published on

July 29, 2011


The Anglican Pastor

A classic resource from the founding team of Anglican Compass.

View more from The Anglican Pastor


Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments