What’s Wrong With False Dichotomies?

Gab Nones

August 10, 2020

Are you familiar with the game called “Fast Talk”?

The mechanics of the game is quite simple: The facilitator will give two options, and the player will have to choose between them. For example: XBox or PS4; white chocolate or dark chocolate; and so on.

The player is required to choose one of the two regardless. This game may be fun to play, but this can be quite problematic when applied in real life.

In reality, our situations are so much more complex than the game of Fast Talk. The choices we make are more complicated than simply choosing one over the other.

“What if I don’t want either options? What if I don’t agree with any of the two choices?”

This is what usually happens in a false dichotomy.

Also known as a false dilemma, this fallacy occurs when only two options are presented, when in reality, there are other valid alternatives that exist. This is usually characterized by “either this or that.” Other valid choices are omitted, and people are forced to pick only one between two extreme choices.

The Problem with False Dichotomies

Many problems and unnecessary arguments happen when we fall into the trap of false dichotomies.

False dichotomies are divisive and polarizing. Just like with Fast Talk, false dichotomies force people to pick a side and seemingly demonize the other. It assumes, or even imposes, that there are only two valid choices. Which side are you on?

For instance:

You’re either pro-government or anti-government.

Either you speak up on social media or you’re an enabler of evil and corruption.

There are, however, a lot of valid alternatives in the middle of these extreme choices. As a matter of fact, a person may have sentiments and opinions about the government while still being non-partisan.

False dichotomies are too limiting. This fallacy tends to limit people to just one side. Instead of being open to other plausible choices, people often feel trapped between two limited choices.

These false dichotomies divide not only the nation but even Christians. This is why as Christians, it’s important to ask God for wisdom and discernment in developing our worldviews and opinions about socio-political matters. Let God’s word be our guide in order to keep us from falling into the trap of false dichotomies.

Responding to False Dichotomies

Jesus showed us how to respond to false dichotomies with wisdom and discernment. In Mark 12, Jesus was presented with a dilemma about taxation.

Unjust taxation was one of the systemic oppressions that the Jewish people experienced in the hands of the Romans. The people hated paying taxes to Rome. The religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with this matter. In a bid to discredit Him, they presented Him with a false dichotomy:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

Mark 12:13,14

The Pharisees provided only two options: to pay taxes to Caesar or not

If Jesus tells them to pay taxes to Caesar, He will be seen as a traitor to the Jews; His followers will surely desert Him. But if He tells them not to pay their taxes, He will be tagged as a rebel against Rome. Either of these choices will get him into trouble. 

But Jesus showed so much wisdom by responding this way:

But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.

Mark 12:15–17

Jesus did not fall into the trap by choosing between paying or not paying taxes. He gave an answer that satisfied both the Jews and Gentiles. Most importantly, He answered in a way that honored God.

By telling people to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught them to submit to the Roman authority. But when He told them to “render to God the things that are God’s,” He was telling them that God is the ultimate authority and that, ultimately, He is the one they are to submit to.

Sadly, we can also be purveyors of false dichotomies if we’re not careful. When we’re too convinced that our opinion or side is more right than the others, we could be forcing people to choose sides instead of trying to promote unity and understanding.

In order to avoid the trap of false dichotomies, we need to take a posture of humility.

When we resort to false dichotomies to impose our own view, we give into the lie that our view or opinion is supreme over others’. However, we can never see the condition of everyone’s hearts and we may not always fully understand their points of view.

In Philippians 2:3, Paul reminds us to do nothing from rivalry or vain conceit. Instead, “be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” 

When we are humble, we value other people more than being right. We are open to the possibility that we can also be wrong and that the opinions of others may also be valid. 

When we position ourselves in humility, we will see that no political party, no influencer, or no person has the supreme point of view except God alone.

God’s word is the final arbiter and the supreme authority in any situation—not our opinions or experiences.

The Real Dichotomy

The common view is that the world is divided into two sides by a vertical line: the left versus the right—yellow versus red; the rich versus the poor; the young versus the old; the ignorant versus the informed.

One side is pitted against the other. Both sides claim dominance or supremacy over one another. However, the ultimate dichotomy in this world is not vertical but horizontal.

God created us to enjoy a relationship with Him, but sin has caused all of us to fall over to the wrong side. This dichotomy is according to the gospel. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory, and we are all against God.

We’re all in the same boat—equally flawed, sinful, and in need of forgiveness and grace. In the same way, we are all limited, shortsighted, and deficient in our own ways.

But God, who is on the right side, didn’t destroy us. Instead, He showed us grace and reached out to us through Jesus Christ. Instead of hating us or destroying us for being on the wrong side, He came to us to restore our right standing before God.

Jesus died to demolish the wall that separated us from God to rid of the dichotomy once for all. 

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

he took the humble position of a slave

and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form,

he humbled himself in obedience to God

and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Philippians 2:7,8 (NLT)

False dichotomies create walls among us, but the gospel breaks that wall in the same way that it broke the wall of hostility between us and God.

While we were fallen and on the bad side, Jesus (who is on the right side) didn’t destroy us, even when He could have! Instead, He went to our side, so He could take our sin upon Himself and pay for it with His life. Because of what He did, we can join Him on the other side and enjoy a right relationship with God.

Following Jesus’ example, the best way to handle our differences is to humble ourselves and to love one another—despite our differences. Jesus did not only free us from the trap of false dichotomies but gave us the power to serve others who are different from us. We can no longer say that we are better and have the supreme choice, for we know that we are not! Instead we try to understand others and try to reach out and serve them—not to argue. This is what Jesus did for us. This is the power of the gospel: breaking the barriers between God and us, so that we can create bridges towards other people and connect them to God, too. 




The Author

Gab Nones

Gab is a husband to Hazel whom he shares everything in life with, from faith to memes. He's a father to Lucas and Cara, whom he goes on daily adventures with. He also wants to change the world by preaching the gospel whenever there’s an opportunity.