One of the talents of a trained debater—be it a politician, public relations person, or a preacher—is to establish identifiable targets to knock down. Hidden and moving targets are difficult to confront. A stationary target, and especially one we ourselves have set up, is easiest to hit.
In the realm of language and philosophical arguments, this is what is known as “straw-man theory”. It likely comes from military training where recruits are handed a weapon and instructed to attack a straw-filled target dressed up like some enemy. A commander is far less likely to witness new troops going AWOL (fearfully running away and disappearing from duty) when fighting against a person made out of straw. Once the training is deeply embedded in the soldier, they typically can transfer their skills to a live target and it makes no difference whether that target is viewed as straw or flesh. The order from then on is attack and destroy.
To win at an argument or fight, it is far more effective to pin down the opposition in order to strike a fatal blow. If that can’t be easily accomplished in reality, then making up a straw man that looks similar, can give both the enemy as well as all onlookers the impression that we have tackled the great dragon and given it a licking (that means spanking, not a dog’s greeting).
The method is to create a caricature with similarities to the opposition, but that speaks words that you put in its mouth, and does things that you describe as wrong, and that can’t be argued against by others (because it doesn’t actually exist), and then prove them wrong. In order to combat a straw-man argument, the opponent is often forced to prove the error of this fictitious opponent rather than directly confront the fabricator, thus creating a protective buffer as well as a distraction.
This method is common in all arenas where conflict may occur, including in churches. The problem for Christians, however, is that straw is not our enemy and training against what is not real will deceive the recruit into approaching evil as if it is dressed in red, sporting a long tail, and holding a pitchfork.
The problem with straw-man theories is that they are made up targets that don’t actually fit reality. A Christian may be given milk rather than meat to start out, but they are to always be taught the truth, be that viewed as good or bad. Misrepresenting evil and sin is just as vile before our Lord as distorting his word or creating caricatures of God.
Teachers of Christians must instruct carefully in line with God’s revealed word and avoid the attractive tendency to pack straw around their theology and doctrines. Sadly, religious training camps have hired many officers who perpetuate their own straw-man training, from generation after generation, who are now convinced that they know what the enemy looks like as well as what God desires, but who have hay sticking out from their own teeth.
Sampson fell for a straw-man tactic, when his foreign bride complained “you hate me”. In her effort to pressure him to tell her his secret, she invented a viewpoint and applied it to him. In order to demonstrate that her concern was just straw, he spilled the beans and ultimately lost his life.
Proverbs speaks of those who come first to present their views, who often seem right, until the other side has a chance to confront the straw-fallacies in the first story. This is one of the dangers with surrounding ourselves with those who speak, think, act, and look like us. In this case, diversity is a protection against straw-man attacks from inside our own circle of preferences.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were absolutely convinced that they had everything figured out, but they couldn’t even recognize the Son of God when he stood before them and spoke to them. Their religion had morphed from stone into straw.
Religious leaders tried justifying their decision to find a way to kill Jesus by using a Straw-man reason. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The Romans were not under threat by what Jesus was doing, nor by Jews following him; it was the Jewish leadership that Jesus was replacing in the minds of the people. Those Jewish religious leaders, however, knew that the threat of Roman destruction was far more persuasive a reason to justify killing someone, so they made up a false-fear that would likely have a more significant impact on swaying others to join in on their jealous plot.
Crusaders were absolutely convinced that “God wills it”, as they attempted to slaughter Arabs and foreigners living in and around Jerusalem. Their ministers told them that was the enemy, and they brutalized others rather than bare the Cross like their Lamb who gave his life instead.
Proponents of robot-mentality fate, for the past 500 years, use Straw-man tactics to try and undermine acceptance of God-designed human choice and responsibility. As one pastor recently stated, “The idea that people can make any kind of choice [other than what God supposedly has predetermined must occur], undermines and reduces the sovereign glory of God.” It sounds horrible that Christians would accept anything that would threaten the greatness of God, but the Bible never suggests such a problem. Rather, the tactic is a powerful tool to manipulate crowds to denounce accepting the biblical teaching of “therefore choose”, and distract people away from thinking that they have any responsibility in what they choose to do because apparently every detail of their life was pre-ordained to occur.
Entire categories have been invented in order to teach straw-man doctrines, like suggesting that Jesus has abolished Jewish Rituals but not the stone-carved Old Covenant Commandments. Rather, if you break one, you have broken all, and there is no difference in obedience before God. Another grouping is to list doctrines as “core” versus “non-salvific”, but that is not taught in Scripture, because willful disobedience, no matter how trivial, is still rebellion.
Loved ones who have passed away are often said to be in a better place and smiling down from heaven on us now. It preaches well and the grieving understandably prefer to hear such encouraging words. However, that is a hollow straw-man theory that doesn’t find stable support in Scripture. The same straw is found in teachings on the Rapture doctrine.
Believers are coddled that they can never lose salvation, once they think they have it, because straw has been stuffed into a theory that says what people naturally want to hear rather than upholds what Scripture actually states.
Entire segments of the Church have replaced the authority of Scripture with the repetition of tradition, fulfilling the Lord’s prophecy that many have a horrible way of putting their straw-filled tradition ahead of the blood-stained words of God.
Christians are told to disregard entire passages, like warnings in Hebrews, or revelations about saints being judged for eternity according to their works, because enormous straw-man doctrines have replaced the truth and caused followers to embrace what is not real.
Santa Claus and his chimney-hopping reindeer with gifts are straw-stories attached to Christmas. For Christians, Easter bunnys and eggs have more straw in them than chocolate. The tooth fairy is yet another fabricated lie of straw, passed off as entertaining activity for kids. The distorted idea is it is ok to lie to children in the name of fun.
I recently heard a pastor state that baptism is not required for salvation, because if it was it would be salvation by works. His faith-alone theology, something made up out of straw by the founder of Protestantism, prevents him from admitting that God commands baptism for those who desire salvation.
Straw is useful to cows and to the military and in public debate, but it has no lasting place in upholding truth. If you don’t think you have scare-crows around you, you might want to check under the hats of all that you claim to believe. Those who surround themselves with reality and life, will avoid filling their minds or their ranks with straw-men.
Remember, God has promised to judge everything and everyone with fire. No matter how long it might have stood up or how well it is dressed or who you want to blame for setting it up, straw doesn’t stand a chance.
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation…but each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid…If any man builds on this foundation using…hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is…It will be revealed with fire….” (1 Cor 3:10-15)
Build your faith with solid truth and don’t assume your respected teachers always know the difference. As the Spirit commands, “test the spirits [of your ministers] to see whether they are of God, for many false teachers have gone out”. We need each other to continually hold us closely and humbly to the actual words of God in order to avoid participating in the distortions of straw-man Christianity.