One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor – Evangelical Sophistry

*The follow post is written by Al Molineux

Have you ever listened to a sermon or read a blog that seems to have the ring of truth about it but leaves you with misgivings because you recognise that what’s on offer it is not the whole story? I heard one recently and it left me with the need to dig a little deeper into what was being said. The speaker made huge statements about key issues facing evangelicalism at this time and linked them in ways that appeared to be legitimate. It didn’t help that his audience seemed to be lapping up every word.

He was attempting to make a reasoned, and thought out argument, but what we were given was a great example of sophistry.

At its heart sophistry is an argument, viewpoint, or thesis that at first sounds plausible but is essentially misguided – at least in the way that the case is made. It is not that I am saying that the conclusions are without merit but that the style of argument does not prove what the speaker intended.

It went a little like this (shortened for the sake of space):

Speaker ‘we need to be biblical’ – Audience ‘yes’.

Speaker ‘we need to have a balance of grace and truth’. – Audience ‘yes’

Speaker ‘family life is breaking down’. – Audience ‘yes’

Speaker ‘people have no respect for God’. – Audience ‘yes’

Speaker ‘Pastor X has questioned beliefs that we hold dear’. – Audience ‘yes’

Speaker ‘She/he is undermining God’s word’. – Audience ‘yes’

Speaker ‘this means that they are no longer an evangelical’. – Audience ‘yes’

At first glance it may not be completely apparent why this is problematic; let me try to explain.

Sophistry can take many forms but in the context discussed here it follows this well worn pattern:

1) The speaker/writer makes a number of statements that are seemingly easy to agree with. For example ‘we need to be biblical’ or ‘we need to have a balance of grace and truth’.

Neither of these two statements are easily measurable. To quote Paul Simon ‘one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor’. The listener/reader is inclined to agree with what is on offer because they judge them from their own context and so are drawn into the sophistic trap.

Most Christians will concede that having the correct mix of grace and truth is essential because it suggests to them a comforting balance; but who is to judge what the correct mix is.

I am a big of a fan of television cooking competitions. Watch a few shows and it is not long before you hear the idea offered that good cooking needs the correct balance of both sweet and savoury. Here is where the difficult lies. Every judge has a different palate. They approach the dish in different ways. They can agree with the idea of balance but they cannot agree with how this should be achieved. In this context the statement ‘good cooking needs a good balance of sweet and savoury’ becomes a truism in that it does not offer any useful, measurable guidance. So it is with the notion of ‘a balance between grace and truth’ – we can agree with it as a statement but how on earth can we measure whether we are agreeing with the same theology or practice.

2) The next stage is to introduce statements that appeal to the hearers sense of fear. Often these revolve around the various levels of dysfunctionality found in society. The link is made to the problems highlighted in point 1 and so we see cause and effect confirmed in the mind of the listener/reader.

3) Added to the above is a good number of statements about unrelated subjects that show how poor the theology is of the Christian preacher being disagreed with. Quite often there is enough reference to the original speakers work to be recognisable but in truth what is offered is a caricature.

4) It is often at this point that questions are raised about the opponents evangelical pedigree; sometimes even to the point of calling them a heretic. Firstly it is worth noting here that the original meaning of the word was ‘a free thinker’ and used to identify those who didn’t tow the party line so to speak. This is where evangelicals have a problem; essentially there is no formal party line. For sure people will trot out various reference points that suggest there is common agreement, but most groups are subject to being called heretical by other sincere evangelicals at some point. It is not that long ago that some reformed evangelical Calvinists were throwing the accusation at Pentecostals. Indeed, if you care to read the comments section on most Christian blogs it still occurs today all too regularly. Again Paul Simon’s ceiling and floor analogy is useful to us here in understanding our own folly.

All of the above is intended to ensure that the audience agrees with the stated position of the speaker. This is done by a growing sense of the hearers need, or inclination, to say yes to the various statements being proposed.

We emotionally say ‘yes’ to the truisms of ‘we need to be biblical’ and ‘we need to have a balance of grace and truth’ even though they are subjective and not measurable.

Our insecurities are engaged and we agree that ‘family life is breaking down’ and that ‘people have no respect for God’.

It seems obvious that ‘Pastor X has questioned beliefs that we hold dear’ and that ‘She/he is undermining God’s word’.

At this point the hearer has become so used to saying ‘yes’ to the statements offered that the final premiss is agreed to without question ensuring that the audience will feel comfortable in dismissing Pastor X and their ‘heretical’ views and nod assent to the conclusion that ‘this means that they are no longer an evangelical’.

The reason that the above example can be called sophistry is because it sounds like a reasoned argument when in fact the link between the initial truisms (being biblical and the need for grace and truth) and societal dysfunctionality has not been proved, at least not in this sermon. Added to this is that Pastor X’s views are being linked to the other statements in a spurious way.

I suggest that this form of argument treats neither the subject nor the audience with respect. If we feel the need to disagree with another’s theology surely we can do so without resorting to sophistry.


Thanks to my good web friend, Al Molineaux for this challenging guest piece. Connect with him on Twitter.

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  • Pat68

    I’ve been in churches like this and I think because people have so vociferously agreed to so many points, they’re afraid to stop, so they just keep nodding in agreement, amening, etc. Often, these speakers are good at manipulatively presenting their points in such a way that the listeners often feel like the speaker is surely authoritative and must be right, so they hesitate to disagree even when their gut may tell them differently. I mean, the speaker has already issued a heretic label to their target and people don’t want to risk the same fate, so they just agree.

  • You are right Pat. We all have a constituency. And if yours says that a particular belief is heretical then it is hard to take a stand.

  • Dan English

    I wonder how many of “these speakers” intentionally manipulate? I only ask this b/c my time in the christian sub culture I am connected to has led me to see many who would fall into the “sophistry” category, but I don’t think they are actively seeking to manipulate their audience. Good people with the best of intentions.

    Does that make sense? It’s weird to be sure, and I am not justifying the sophistry, but many don’t seem to be aware of how manipulative they might be coming across.

    I guess time and honest conversations lived out in community can reveal this??


    • I think you make a valid point Dan and on reflection I wish I had taken the time to include such a sentiment. I agree that the majority will employ the tactic without knowing that they are doing it.

      I hope some might read and learn : )

      • Dan English

        Thanks for the reply Alan. I truly lament that many employ this tactic without knowing that they are doing it. There is a need for those in these community contexts, who are aware, to push back (humbly & gracious, and at times confidently). Really enjoyed this article. Thanks for taking time to write & share.


        • Thanks Dan – are you on Twitter. Sorry if I haven’t noticed.

  • Dorfl

    I’m honestly not completely clear on what the phrase “we need to have a balance of grace and truth” actually means. I mean, I have trouble imagining someone saying “There is too much truth in here. It’s drowning out the grace. We must have less truth!”

    • Pat68

      Dorfl, when I read this phrase, I think of people who believe in laying out the truth no matter how it makes another person feel. There is no regard for people’s feelings and these individuals will not consider being tactful. They just say what they want because as they see it, it’s the truth, so let the chips fall where they may. On the other hand, some can administer grace to a fault that it comes at the expense of truth.

      • Dorfl

        That might be it. I hadn’t thought of looking at it that way.