“For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (II Corinthians 10:12).
Most people find comfort in knowing that others feel the same about a position as they do. Yet, just because others agree, it does not indicate whether a particular position is true or false. Jesus warned, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14; see also Luke 13:23-24). From this, we must conclude that a majority position is a better indicator of falsehood than of truth. The Proverb writer warns that even if others support you in error, the error will not go unpunished (Proverbs 11:21; 16:5).
Do you remember trying to convince your mother to buy you a new lunch box because “Everyone has a new one!”? Too often sin is justified by this same lack of thought. The world lies in the power of Satan, but we must not be of the world (I John 5:19). Just because “everyone” is participating in a sin, it does not mean the sin is acceptable. “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles – when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you” (1 Peter 4:1-4). Your friends in the world may not understand, but you must!
Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in the world, yet does it size make its teachings correct? I have had members of this denomination point out its size in the middle of a disagreement as if to say “all these people can’t be wrong.” But is this any different than brethren who take comfort in the fact that they are a part of the “mainstream” churches? “Mainstream” just means the majority follow a particular set of beliefs. The fact that a majority believes a particular doctrine does prove the doctrine.
Guilt by Association
Some will reject a truth because it was delivered by the wrong source. Sometimes it is referred to as “killing the messenger.” In Luke 11:14-15, Jesus healed a mute man by casting out a demon. The work was obviously good, but those who opposed Jesus could not accept it, so they accused Jesus of having power over demons because Satan granted him that power. The remainder of Luke 11 shows Jesus making the Pharisees look very foolish, which did not endear Jesus to them. As a result, “And as He said these things to them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to assail Him vehemently, and to cross-examine Him about many things, lying in wait for Him, and seeking to catch Him in something He might say, that they might accuse Him” (Luke 11:53-54). It did not matter that Jesus spoke the truth about the Pharisees and their beliefs. All that mattered to them was finding evidence that Jesus was wrong in some fashion. If they could prove that, then they would feel justified in rejecting all that the Christ had said.
The same thing happened to the blind man in John 9:24-34. When Jesus was accused of being a sinner, the man ably pointed out that sinners ought not to be able to heal. When he further turned the Pharisees' accusations on themselves, the Pharisees declared that he was a sinner because he was born blind (John 9:34). This was sufficient justification to throw the man out of the synagogue. By accusing the man of sin, they felt justified in ignoring all that he said, right or wrong.
A similar charge was brought against Paul, “‘For his letters,’ they say, ‘are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible’” (II Corinthians 10:10). Some felt justified in ignoring Paul’s commands because he was not an impressive man in person. Paul warned that his teaching remained true, whether it was delivered by letter or in person (II Corinthians 10:11).
Justification by Association
This line of argumentation is often used to endorse products. “Because X says it is good, it must be very good.” It can also be used to support a position. “X believes this way, so, it must be true.” In the Corinthian church, people were creating artificial divisions and then giving these divisive positions the appearance of credence by claiming that a well-known leader held the position. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; see also I Corinthians 3:1-8).
The fault is that who believes a certain position does not make the position true or false. If it is a false position, it just means that some famous people have been snookered into believing it. If it is a true position it just means that on this particular point the famous person happens to believe the truth. But truth doesn’t become more real because of who believes it. Truth stands on its own. So does it matter if Oprah Winfrey says Jesus would not condemn homosexuality? Is it relevant that Billy Graham says baptism is not necessary for salvation?
Take note that sometimes the famous person called in for endorsement is not an expert in the matter being endorsed. Just how learned is Oprah Winfrey on Jesus’ doctrine anyway?
But even when a knowledgeable person takes a particular position, the fact that an “authority” holds a particular view doesn’t make the view true. Every authority on any subject holds his or her own particular biases. When using a commentary, it is important to know the religious background of the commentator. For example, Albert Barnes was a Presbyterian. Since Presbyterians are followers of the teachings of John Calvin, you would not expect to find much in Barnes’ writings contradicting the Calvinist point-of-view. Adam Clarke was a Methodist, so you would expect Clarke’s commentary to have a bias supporting the Methodist view of Christianity. A. T. Robertson was a Baptist, so you would expect to find him justifying Baptist doctrine. Instead, quotes from commentaries become more notable when the commentator makes note of views which contradict their denomination’s stand. It is interesting when a commentator must admit that his brand of religion is wrong on a particular point. The fact that a commentator supports his own denomination’s belief is not noteworthy. Commentaries and other reference material do not establish a truth.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your opponent only holds his position because of his ignorance. After all, he disagrees with you, so how much can he know?
Debaters will sometimes point out that their opponent hasn’t gone to a theological seminary, or isn’t fluent in Greek or Hebrew, and therefore, is somehow unqualified to discuss the matters at hand. Even when the point is shown to be worthless, it still leaves doubt in the audience’s mind. At times the doubt is injected with the simple charge, “You haven’t thought this through very well, have you.” Or, they may claim that your argument is not worth answering. The real problem is that you are “wrong” before your response is even considered.
Sometimes the ridicule becomes particularly harsh. “You would have to be an idiot to believe such a thing!” Or, “That group is nothing more than a cult!” Or, “If you are going to believe that, I’m not talking to you anymore.” None of these statements answer the opponent’s position. Instead, they ridicule the person and apply pressure to separate oneself from the frowned upon view.
Another form of this line of argument is to claim that only the church or certain church leaders can correctly interpret Scripture. Therefore, any stand contrary to the church must be false. The Scriptures teach, though, that they are truth (John 17:17). While the church is required to support the truth (I Timothy 3:15), the Bible does not teach that decisions of the church are always true. If we need evidence of that, we need only go to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 to see that churches do not always follow the Lord properly.
There is no easy defense against such charges. To defend yourself will distract you from the points that need to be made. At worse, you will come across as being prideful. The best you can do is to ignore the charge and do a thorough job of laying out the evidence. If I am expecting such a response, I will hold back part of my proof when making my points. When my competency is challenged, I then proceed to layout so much evidence that the one making the charge suddenly looks foolish because he doesn’t have any supporting material.
Arguing from Illustrations
Illustrations are a fine way of getting a point across. Some ideas are difficult to grasp, so comparing the difficult idea to a simple, everyday event eases the learning. Often the illustrations also make the story more memorial. Jesus defined “neighbor” by telling the story of good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The point was well told that even those unfamiliar with the Bible know of the story and its moral.
A problem, though, arises when an illustration is offered as proof. An illustration clarifies, but it rarely proves a point. For example, picking on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) again, PETA once drew an analogy between the Holocaust and the treatment of animals in scientific studies. While the analogy illustrates how severe PETA considers experiments with animals, the illustration doesn’t prove it is wrong. The holocaust was infamous for how poorly humans were mistreated. Yet, the illustration does not prove that animals are equivalent to humans. PETA may think they are, but the illustration doesn’t prove this point, it only illustrates what PETA believes.
In a sense, arguing from illustrations is similar to straw-man arguments. A connection is drawn between to points and then arguments are made against one set of points. People naturally think that the argument against one set of points then applies to the other set. They rarely stop to wonder if the connection was truly legitimate or not.
In Colossians 2:10-15, Paul compares circumcision and baptism to show the salvation we have in Christ. Some have argued that since babies are circumcised, they can then be baptized as infants. The problem is that the analogy between circumcision and baptism was overworked to draw more than what was being illustrated. There are limits to the parallel of circumcision and baptism. After all, only boys are circumcised, so should we say that only boys should be baptized?
Another illustration is found in the argument that Christians are God’s children (Romans 8:16). When a child displeases his father in an earthly family, he may be scolded, but he is still a part of the family. Hence, it is argued that when a Christian displeases God by sinning, he still remains God’s child and will always be saved. Notice how one simple illustration is stretched to greater and greater applications. Yet, I know of families where a wayward son was disinherited. The parents still loved the child, but they couldn’t support his sinful life. Though the argument can be defeated within the illustration, it still does not excuse the misuse of the illustration to mean more than for what the original author used it.
Diversion is the attempt to connect an unrelated idea to the topic currently being discussed. Though the new topic is a separate issue, the person you are talking to will insist that the new topic be addressed first before going back to the original topic. The unstated goal is that you will never get back to the original topic.
When a position is difficult to defend, people will commonly shift the emphasis of their arguments to another, easier to defend, position. For example, when arguing that abortion or euthanasia is right, the defenders claim it must be right because an individual has the right to choose. But the right to choose is a choice between two right actions. You have the right to choose to buy a new car or put the money in the bank; either action is legal. But a person’s right to choose does not make abortion or euthanasia right or wrong. First abortion or euthanasia must be proven to be ethical, then we can talk about your right to choose.
Diversion is also used as a distraction technique. When talking with some about why they are not attending services, they begin to talk about the hypocrites in the church. The fact that hypocrites exist doesn’t prove whether a person should be at church; it is not as if hypocrisy is a communicable disease. In fact, I wonder who is the bigger hypocrite, the one attending but failing in living the Christian life, or the one who thinks he is a Christian but refuses to attend.
Lumping Too Much Together
Just because two ideas lead to the same conclusion, it does not mean the two ideas are related. For example, “All teenagers have two legs. All ostriches have two legs. Therefore, all teenagers are ostriches.”
Similarly, just because one or more events came to a particular conclusion doesn’t mean it will always have the same result. Just because the Huskers won two years in a row, it doesn’t mean they have a good chance of winning the third year. There are many factors involved. As an example, it is sometimes argued that if women are allowed to sit in on business meetings, the next thing you know they will be leading prayers or preaching. The presence of women in business meetings does not necessarily imply that women will exceed their authority in the church. Where it has happened has been due to other factors, such as a misunderstanding of authority or a strong influence of feminism in the church. The improper concluding state does not imply that every preceding event was the cause. To argue whether women should be present in a congregation’s business meeting must be addressed on its own merits. (For clarity, if a particular state necessarily follows from a preceding one, it is worthy to consider in an argument.)
Just because a part has a property does not mean the whole has the same property. One could possibly argue, “The body is composed of invisible atoms; therefore, the body is invisible.” A part can have different characteristics from the whole of which it is a part. You can see this faulty reasoning in the argument that since a church is made up of individuals, anything the individual can do, the church can do. As an individual, I can operate a business, does this mean that congregations can raise funds by operating a business? Many denominations have decided the answer is “yes.” They operate bookstores, day care facilities, apartment renting, and many other activities for profit. However, in I Timothy 5:1-16 we can see that there are some activities which are not a church’s responsibility but are an individual Christian’s responsibility. Especially notice verse 16, “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.”
The opposite is also a problem. Just because the whole has a certain property, it doesn’t mean that the parts share the same property. This line of poor reasoning is commonly known as the division fallacy. A person could argue, “The church may come together to partake of the Lord’s Supper; therefore, the Lord’s Supper may be taken by individuals apart from the church.”
If you randomly flip a coin and three times in a row it comes up “heads,” what are the odds that the next flip of the coin will also come up heads? Many people will naturally assign very low odds to such occurring. It is true that if you set out to flip a coin for the purpose of getting four heads in a row, the odds of succeeding are very low (½ to the fourth power or 6.25%). However, the original question was tricky. Three of those flips have already come up heads. At this moment in time, what is the odds of getting another head? The true answer is 50%; the same probability of flipping a head on the first toss.
Random events are just that, they are random. Prior events do not affect their behavior. Yet we have a hard time dismissing our prior knowledge when dealing with a current event. This is the trap gamblers fall into. They pour money into slot machines because they “know” that they can’t lose every time. In fact, if they have lost on a particular machine a large number of times in a row, then they feel that a win must be due shortly. The reality is that unless a machine is rigged, the odds of winning remain slim each an every time the handle is pulled. The past does not influence future probabilities.
Human beings are very good at spotting patterns. But we must be careful not to assign patterns to things that occur randomly. Have you ever heard of the old saying, “bad things occur in threes?” Do they really come in sets of three or do you notice the third bad event more after two bad things happened?
We also do this in talking about our runs of luck. “My good luck just ran out.” Or, “I better stay at home today, I’m having a run of bad luck.” If it is truly “luck” then we are discussing random events. There are no runs.
Some things do just occur randomly. “I returned and saw under the sun that – the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). We tend to think that everything must have a cause. But it is not necessarily so. Jesus once pointed out this flaw in reasoning out to his audience. “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:1-5). We must be careful to distinguish between things that randomly occur and things that are within our control.
Because two things happen together, we assume one caused the other. One could argue, “As a child’s shoe size increases, his handwriting improves; therefore, people with big feet have better handwriting.” Many arguments for modern-day miracles are of this form of illogical reasoning. Because X prayed for Y to get better and Y improved; therefore, X has the gift of healing. The prayer and the healing are two events. It is possible that the two are related, but it is just as probable that the two just happen to occur in the same time frame. The closeness of when they occurred is not sufficient evidence that they are related events.
Because one thing happens shortly after another we assume the first is the cause. So one could argue, “Roosters crow just before the sun rises; therefore, rooster crowing causes the sun to rise.” Here the events are tied, but we did not perceive the correct tie. Rosters crow because dawn precedes the rising sun. Yet often once we latch onto a particular conclusion, we cannot be persuaded that our assumed pattern of cause and effect could be wrong.
This type of incorrect associations has caused many people to come to the wrong conclusion concerning the conversion of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 10. Because Cornelius and his household were baptized in the Holy Spirit prior to their baptism in water, people have concluded that Cornelius and his household were saved before baptism. Cornelius’s two baptisms did occur closely in time, but if the baptism in the Spirit saved Cornelius, then why did Peter order Cornelius baptized in water? What is overlooked is that Cornelius’ baptism in the Spirit was evidence that God has accepted Gentiles as candidates to be His children – something that had not been apparent before to Christians. The baptism in the Spirit was evidence that these Gentiles could become Christians with God’s blessing; but it does not necessarily give evidence that they were saved prior to their obedience to God’s command (I Peter 3:21).
Most things return to an average or normal state. For example, many ill people will eventually get well even without treatment. Those in the medical profession understand this, so treatments are carefully studied to rule out normal healing versus an improvement due to the treatment.
However, this same natural event is exploited by quacks. They can offer a “cure” that has nothing to do with the illness, knowing that some will get better anyway. Since people seek out treatment at the extreme of their illness, they assume the cure given was the cause that returned them to normality. Those who don’t return to normality die; therefore, removing any negative publicity.
Once again, we must determine if a claim of healing power was an actual effect or if the person recovered normally. Miracles in the Bible were notable in that there was no recovery period – something that doesn’t happen in a normal recovery.