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No False Choice

L. R. Tarsitano—Saint Andrew's Church, Savannah
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity—November 5, 2000

"Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is."

(Ephesians 5:17)

A common sort of psychological test (such as was administered to seminarians by my diocese when I was studying for the priesthood) asks impossible questions like "would you rather eat a ten foot rope or drink a gallon of green paint." The answers are supposed to tell a trained examiner something about the mental health of the person being examined, but the questions go a long way to driving even the sanest person trained in classical logic almost completely around the bend. 

This sort of question is called in logic "a false dichotomy," a forced and false choice between two things presented on an either/or basis. In the real world, a person might, for example, choose to eat a hot dog or a piece of apple pie, rather than either a length of rope or a bucket of paint. 

It all might sound rather silly, until we remember that false either/or choices can have dire practical results. The worst kind of politician loves to use false dichotomies in his stump speeches—vote for me or you do not love our country, vote for me or the world will come to an end. Adolf Hitler presented his country with the false alternatives of a world war or national humiliation. In the event, as we all know, he gave them both. 

There are, of course, times when real choices have to be made. To steal or not to steal is a real choice. To lie or not to lie is a real choice. To be a faithful husband or to be an adulterer is a real choice. To worship the One True God or to worship idols is a real choice. But there are religious versions of the false dichotomy as well, and these can most certainly get in the way of our Christianity. 

"Do you rejoice in God’s mercy or do you repent you of your sins?" is a question based on false alternatives. "Is God all-powerful or do you have a free will?" is another such misleading question. As odd as it sounds, the right answer isn’t to pick one or the other, but to answer yes—yes to both propositions, since the one does not exclude the other either in logic or in reality. 

It is customary around the feast of All Saints’ (because of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses to be debated on that day) to commemorate the Protestant Reformation, and this is a good thing to do; but we often also hear at this time of year one of those misleading religious questions that is based on a false dichotomy: "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" If we take the Protestant Reformers seriously at all, and if we respect both their memory and their teaching, the only logical, reasonable answer is "yes." 

The major English Reformers and the great Continental Reformers like Luther and Calvin had no real argument with the Catholic Church, although their precise definitions of that "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" confessed in the Creeds may have varied a bit here and there. The Reformers’ argument was with the claims of the Church of Rome to be, in and of itself, "the Catholic Church." 

Their dissent was not against the ancient doctrines of the Catholic Church (when that name meant simply "the Christian Church throughout the world and its one communion in Jesus Christ." Their problem was with the many things that had been added to Catholic faith and practice in the Middle Ages, in part through lax discipline, in part through philosophical speculation that went well beyond the limits of revelation in the Holy Scriptures, and in part through Roman efforts to dominate the local churches in other lands. 

The very name "Reformation" tells almost the whole story. To "reform" something does not mean to give it a new or different shape, and certainly not to make it into something else. Rather the Reformers sought to restore the Church to her original faith and practice, and to heal the wounds and deformations that she had suffered at the hands of men. When we remember, too, that the original "protest" of Protestantism was a testimony on behalf of the God-given authority of the Holy Scriptures as the Christian Church had always believed them, we get a true picture of what it means to be, as the great Reformers were, a "Protestant"—one who holds to the faith and practice of the undivided, primitive, and catholic Church precisely because the faith and practice of that One Church of Jesus Christ is derived from the Holy Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. 

It is a false dichotomy to set the truly Protestant against the truly Catholic, or vice versa, and this is nowhere more the case than in the historic Church of England or in the various Anglican national churches that she helped to found. I mentioned Bishop Ravenscroft, the first Protestant Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, in a sermon a few weeks ago. He is buried in the chancel of Christ Church, Raleigh, and his Latin epitaph carved into the floor reads, "Primus Episcopus 
Catholicae Ecclesiae Reformatae in Carolina Septrentionale"—"First Bishop of the Reformed Catholic Church in North Carolina." 

Bishop Ravenscroft was certainly both a Protestant and a Catholic of the highest and most faithful order, and to be both is a major part of the Anglican vocation, witnessing to our fellow Christians (as well as to the world) that it is possible to be today the same kind of Christian that Peter and Paul, James and John, the martyrs and the saints were, without falling into the Roman trap of absolutism or making the too common modern error that "freedom of conscience" means that we are each entitled to make up a religion of our own that God must accept on our terms. 

When we live out the life described in our Prayer Book, we are being both Protestant and Catholic in the best sense of both words, in the unified and constructive sense of both words, and we are obeying the injunction of St. Paul that began this sermon: "Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is." The Church as Jesus Christ gave her to us, founded in his own crucified and resurrected Body, established in his redeeming and precious Blood, is the will of our Lord for our life together and his wisdom applied to what we should be in this world. 

Some of our Christian neighbors think that to be a "Protestant" is to live a life of subtraction, defining Christianity by what is left out of it or by a thoughtless rejection of anything that is believed or done by the Church of Rome. But this is a new kind of "Protestantism," that has no roots in Christian history. The Reformers we honor did not reject those elements of Christian faith and practice that the Roman Church had retained from the ancient Church, but only those things that Rome had added illegitimately to the ancient Church’s faith and practice in contradiction of the Holy Scriptures. 

The Reformers did their work, and often gave their lives, to pass on to us a complete Christian Church, a Church that teaches and maintains all things necessary for our salvation and for the glory of Almighty God. That Church is "Catholic" because it does teach the whole faith to all men, in all places and in all times. It is "Protestant" because it proclaims the sufficiency of the Bible, God’s Word Written, to reveal to us God’s will for our eternal life and the good news of salvation, and to be the final, divine authority in matters of doctrine, discipline, and worship. 

Who can reasonably choose between the Catholic Church and a Protestant loyalty to her as Jesus Christ gave her to be, a loyalty always ready to make the greatest of sacrifices for her reformation, for her health, and for her welfare according to our Lord Jesus Christ’s commandments? To choose between the Catholic and the Protestant is a false dichotomy, a choice as false as asking, "Would you rather lose your heart or your lungs?" In either case, we end up with less than a life, and with a dead body. But God has called us into the Body of Christ to live, and to live that life abundantly we must live it all as faithful Catholics and Protestants. 

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.