False Dilemmas in Gospel Ministry

Sometimes Gospel ministers tie themselves up in knots for no good reason. We sometimes create false dilemmas. We unnecessarily pit one truth against another. We don’t slow down and consider that two or more things may be true and complementary--in tension, but not in opposition. A famous example of this is the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Properly (i.e. biblically) understood, both are absolutely true and taught in the pages of Scripture. 

One false dilemma that I see some ministers tripping up on is that which regards the content and manner of our preaching. Is preaching primarily about the message or is it primarily about the way we deliver the message? It's both! If I had to choose between content and delivery I would always err on the side of content. After all, preachers are heralds of the King of Kings and the message is not our's to compose or edit. We preach not our opinions but the Word of God. Jesus Christ is the central focus of what we say, as he is revealed in the particular passage we are expositing. However, recognizing the primacy of the message does not mean that we do not care about how we proclaim the word. How we say something is often just as important as how we say it. 

Aristotle made the observation that effective speaking involves ethos (i.e. love, affection), pathos (i.e. passion, emotion), and logos (i.e. word, proposition, content). The character of the preacher cannot be ignored. While it is true that God’s Word is true and authoritative regardless of how I live my life outside the pulpit, Paul told his son in the faith, Timothy, to look out for his life and doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16). God can get pure water out of a rusty faucet, but that does not mean it ought to be the goal of the preacher to be as rusty as possible to allow all the glory to go to God. Additionally, how the sermon is delivered is important. If the text attracts with honey, don’t preach like you have swallowed vinegar! In other words, the text ought to dictate the mood of the sermon. We should also not seek to be as boring or sedate as possible so that God gets all the glory. Preaching the Word of God with passion and conviction and appropriate hand gestures and facial expression and voice modulation do not militate against the fact that it is God the Holy Spirit who is working with the Word in the congregation. To pit God against passionate preaching is a false dilemma. Of course a preacher needs to be himself and as some say, find his voice. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, "preaching is logic on fire." One ought to be both an “ordinary means of grace” preacher and a passionate preacher. 

Another false dilemma occurs when we pit a concern for a redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture against a concern for what is typically called “experimental Calvinism.” Once again, properly understood these do not compete with one another but in fact support and enhance each other. Undoubtedly, unjust caricatures of each of these do work against one another. Some think that a redemptive-historical focus requires that a text never be applied to the needs of a congregation in a sermon. Others think that experimental Calvinists have their noses stuck in the belly buttons. The truth is that these two views are complementary. One way to show this is to remember that the late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary wrote a handy little book called Redemption Accomplished and Applied that spells out the connection between these two aspects of the Christian faith. God has revealed himself progressively throughout the history of Israel and the apostolic church and Christ has wrought out redemption in space and time (redemptive-history). Our Puritan fathers called this “impetration.” And the Holy Spirit takes the benefits of redemption from Christ and applies them to us. This is application. We need both emphases. Without a redemptive-historical focus we tend toward a psychologized and privatized faith. If we fail to be experimental in our Calvinism (that is, we actually experience grace) then we are in danger of a formalism in which we end up attempting to master a game without actually being Christian, or we end up Antinomiam, suggesting that Jesus has lived the Christian life for us. This dilemma sometimes rears its ugly head in the form of pitting doctrine and life against one another. This ought never be so! 

A final false dilemma that has more recently arisen in our circles is that of pitting of biblical theology and systematic theology against each another. Once again, properly understood, these mutually reinforce one another. Biblical theology concentrates on the historical unfolding of special revelation. Its best articulation is found in the writings of Geerhardus Vos and those who follow in his footsteps, although the biblical-theological or redemptive-historical approach can be found in the likes of John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. Indeed, covenant theology just is another name for biblical theology. Systematic theology is concerned with correlating all of Scripture and addressing areas of doctrine that arise from within the text. Christian doctrines interrelate. Systematic theology seeks to understand and categorize this interelationship of the entirety of biblical teaching. These forms of theology need one another. This is not to say that there are not aberrant varieties of each; but we need both, and seeking to dispense with one or the other is like cutting off an arm or a leg to maintain one’s balance.

These are by no means an exhaustive collection of false dilemmas. You could certainly supply others that you have seen at work on your ministry or those of others. It is important that we subject ourselves to careful critique and examination to see whether we have set up such false dilemmas in our own ministry empheses. May the Triune God grant us the wisdom to know when we face a real dilemma and when we have created an unnecessary false dilemma that will actually do harm to those to whom we are seeking to minister. 

Jeffrey Waddington