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Errors in defining the "church" and delineating its authority and role.

Page contents

You may read through th page in the order presented or click on the links below to find the subject of most interest to you.

Local/ universal fallacy

Territorial (Political) fallacy

Organizational fallacy

Membership fallacy

Clerical fallacy

Celebrity fallacy

Authoritarian ("Opinion maker") fallacy

Local/ Universal Fallacy

This simplest of fallacies regarding the church, as its name suggests, is the error of mistaking a local congregation for the whole Body of Christ or vice versa. It is, unfortunately, quite common. Taken in one direction, it can result in assertions that all "true" Christians in a given location must be members of a single local congregation. When generalized, this branch of the Local/ Universal Fallacy becomes the premise underlying the Organizational Fallacy (see below). Taken in the other direction, this fallacy leads to assertion that all of the members of a given local congregation must necessarily be "true" Christians. When generalized, this branch of the Local/ Universal Fallacy becomes the premise for the Membership Fallacy (see below)... Return to top of page

Territorial (Political) Fallacy

This is the fallacy of presuming the existence of the land called "Christendom," a collection of physical nations with defined borders on a map in the present world within which all of the residents are Christian simply by virtue of their residence there. Such thinking is error because Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is not a physical place to which seekers may be sent but that it exists within and among believers. Luke 17:20-24.

Because this fallacy started with the mass "conversions" of the Third through Fifth Centuries, in which whole tribes or nations (and even one Empire) of pagans became "Christian" members of a single church organization through the conversion of their rulers, this fallacy is always accompanied by the Political Fallacy. The Political Fallacy states that, because all of the people of a land have, by decree, followed the Christian faith of their rulers, they may properly be compelled by secular political power to live and (more importantly) pay tithes like Christians and to submit to the divine right of their rulers to govern them as a matter of compelled conscience. Mass conversion to Christianity was used in the early days of the Territorial Fallacy as a means of establishing political control in chaotic situations: witness its use by Constantine and his successors. Unfortunately, the concept of "Christendom" is still used for political ends in a somewhat different and reversed fashion by insistence that all people who live in a "Christian" country (as the United States is said to be) should be forced to live like Christians.

The danger of this fallacy is that a pagan who is forced to live in public according to Christian norms or "values", but who has not undergone any inward repentance or regeneration, is still a pagan. Unfortunately, however, a pagan who is thus forced to live before others a Christian life and is told all his or her life that he or she was born "Christian" may believe that no inward change is required. Thus are sown some of the tares, the children of the devil, among the wheat of the Body of Christ.

It is interesting to note that the Reformation did not do away with the fallacy of Christendom, even in Protestant churches. By the height of the middle ages, the situation which existed in the days of Constantine had been reversed — i.e., instead of the state dominating the organized church for its own ends, the state was under the influence of the bishops and was considered the "secular arm of the Church." In Luther's day, though the practical political power of the Catholic church was somewhat less than it had been two or three centuries earlier, the concept that the state should be the servant of the Church was still very much accepted by nearly everyone in Europe, and none of the major reformers challenged it. Instead, in the end the concept of Christendom was maintained and the right of every prince to choose the form of Christianity all of his subjects would be compelled to follow was simply substituted for Catholic rule throughout western Europe. Mass religion was too potent a means of political control for the rulers of Europe to permit individual freedom of conscience... Return to top of page

Organizational Fallacy

This fallacy, a form of fallacious equation, is the error of presuming that God's work is limited to the formal program of one human organization or group of related organizations or, on the flip side, that all persons who are in right relationship to God will necessarily be obedient members of one human organization or group of organizations and serving in its programs exclusively. Of course, few Christians would actually say outright that God only works through their church or denomination. But most churches employ a good deal of subtle or not-so-subtle suggestion that "God's work" or "the work of the Gospel" not only includes but also equals their organizational program. The church program then becomes the presumed referent in interpreting a number of scriptures which speak of God's work in and through His people. This fallacy also often travels in the company of fallacious binarization and use of generalizations, the territorial, clerical, local/ universal, silent God, legalistic/ individualistic, monolithic and ecclesiastical convenience fallacies, and of arguments ad hominem belittling Christians from other groups... Return to top of page

Membership Fallacy

This fallacy holds that all of the members in good standing of a denominational group, or of a local congregation belonging to that group, receive or are assured of their salvation through their membership and/or continued participation in the group. Only a few denominations maintain formal doctrines which assert this fallacy, but it is nevertheless a widely held misconception among the rank and file in many denominations... Return to top of page

Clerical Fallacy

The clerical fallacy is the error of drawing a sharp line between clergy and laity on the assumption (derived from the Organizational Fallacy) that God presently works, or at least does his publicly visible or "important" works, only through persons who have been duly credentialed by a recognized human organization. In its common form, this fallacy also suggests (though often subtly) that clerical credentials are evidence of superior spirituality over all lay people — or, to state it another way, that all truly committed, spiritual Christians will demonstrate that commitment and spirituality by becoming obedient full-time servants of the local church, the denominational organization or, at least, of some Christian organization recognized by one of the above. It arises from the combination of several other fallacies, and often combines itself with the Silent God Fallacy to create the insistence that only duly recognized members of the clergy can hear from or speak for God.

As a disclaimer, the above discussion is not intended to imply that religious education and ministerial credentialing processes have no value. They have value, as has been proven for centuries. I object only to the false inferences often drawn from the existence of these processes that 1) credentialed ministers are spiritually superior to mere "laymen" and 2)that God is bound by human credentialing processes to use for His more important works only persons to whom men have seen fit to grant credentials. God should not be reduced to the status of a human personnel director. (See the article on the purpose for the spiritual gifts, linked below, on another site.) God is looking for willing workers, who he will then equip as he sees fit, not "qualified" workers... Return to top of page

Celebrity Fallacy

This fallacy is the error of looking to worldly celebrities who become, or call themselves, Christian, as leaders of the Church. This has always been a source of strife and division since the earliest times, when those in the Church who had worldly position wanted that position to be recognized in the Church (see James 2:1-7), and still causes trouble today, whether the celebrities looked to are merely the wealthy (as in James), the Emperor (as in Rome after Constantine) or entertainment industry celebrities (as occurs today). But worldly celebrity is not a valid qualification for anything in the Church. It must be remembered that the kingdom of God and the world do everything — including the granting of attention and rewards — according to exactly opposite principles... Return to top of page

Authoritarian ("Opinion Maker") Fallacy

This is the fallacy that, because most Christians are not competent to understand the scriptures, they must follow their leaders blindly. It is exactly parallel to the "opinion maker" phenomenon in the secular world. In the world, common people count only as statistics and are incompetent to have their own opinions on most important matters because they lack the means to put those opinions into practice. The opinions of common people in the world are important to the leaders who have the power to make things happen only to the degree that they directly support what some leader believes or wants to do — if statistics or vocal mobs show that enough people support a leader's opinions, the leader derives power from the threatening mob or equally threatening donor base or statistical "people" supporting him or her. However, an ordinary person's power to publicly choose an opinion — that is, to be widely known to hold it — is limited to a choice between the "canned" positions of the recognized "opinion makers," simply because of the way the power game is played. A common person who sincerely insists on an opinion other than one of those stated by a recognized "opinion maker" will most likely be counted as having no opinion at all. This is true in all fields of worldly opinion, not just politics. Moreover, if a serious political issue is involved and the dissenter is too noisy about his disallowed opinion, some means will likely be found to silence him.

Unfortunately, this approach is usually also taken in the Church. Power games almost as vicious as those played in the world are also played in the visible Body of Christ, though this should never be. And the playing of power games requires that the Christian world be divided into recognized leaders and followers, and that the followers know that they can only choose between opinions of rival leaders, not think on their own or (heaven forbid!) ask God for wisdom in understanding His Word.

Moreover, "Christian" organizations have historically tended to be more vicious than most secular power organizations in the matter of silencing freethinkers who refuse to follow one of the allowed, recognized opinion makers. But, as has previously been stated, the kingdom of God works on principles opposite from those of the world, and power games have no place in it. Moreover, the truth remains true even if no opinion maker recognized by the world or the Church believes it. So, while God ordains some to offices of authority in the Church, and leaders whom He sends are to be respected and given double honor, their opinions need not be followed blindly, and those Christians whose opinions do not exactly match those of a recognized leader should not be persecuted or simply ignored... Return to top of page

Common Divisive Fallacies site index

Related material on another site

The purpose of the spiritual gifts.

God is King, showing that God's Kingdom operates on exactly opposite principles from worldly kingdoms.

Other fallacies referenced above

Presumed Referent Fallacy

Fallacious Generalization

Fallacious Binarization.

Silent God Fallacy.

Legalistic/Individualistic Fallacy.

Monolithic Fallacy.

Ecclesiastical Convenience Fallacy.

Argument Ad Hominem Fallacy

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©2000 by Ian B. Johnson