A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope

The argument is sometimes made that there is a “slippery slope” of “concessions” by the church to modern culture in the area of inter-personal relationships, and especially gender issues. The various stages on this slope are, perhaps:

  1. Abolition of slavery;
  2. Women in leadership in the church;
  3. Full acceptance of homosexuality in the church;
  4. The latest one I have read about: acceptance of “polyamory”.

Now to be fair by no means all of those who use the “slippery slope” argument start it with abolition of slavery. But some do. And the general argument seems to be that acceptance of one of these stages necessarily opens the way to the next stage. So, the people who argue like this position themselves with pride on a supposedly solid mountain top, often based on a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, and condemn any shift from this position as starting on the slippery slope. Perhaps they are thinking in terms of the psalmist’s image of his feet slipping in Psalm 38:16 and elsewhere.

But is the slope in fact a slippery one, or is it broken by a ledge or barrier made of solid rock, a “shelf of rocks” as Ben Witherington renders part of Matthew 16:18, of biblical truth? Can this determine how far Christians can legitimately part company from one another without betraying the gospel abandoning their faith?

This is in effect one of the issues I have been looking at in my recent posts, which are turning into an unplanned series. In particular, I wrote a few days ago about Reflecting Culture, not Changing Attitude. In this post I argued, with quotes from Gordon Fee, that there is a real distinction to be made between the arguments against a wider leadership role for women in the church and the arguments against full acceptance of homosexual practice. In brief, the former arguments are dependent on the culturally specific situations and understandings of the apostles, whereas the latter arguments are presented as issues of morality and unchanging truth. Between these two types of argument there is in principle a clearly defined boundary, a barrier across the slope defining the limits of Christian truth and stopping those who rely on the truth of the Word of God from slipping right down the slope.

Now I realise that there is room for debate on exactly where this boundary between the two kinds of arguments lies. Some of this debate has been taking place in comments on this blog. But those debating this do seem to agree that in principle there is some kind of barrier like this, somewhere lower down the slope than abolition of slavery, but above the unrestricted sexual licence which is now apparently called “polyamory”.

Or is “polyamory” in practice just a new name for unofficial polygamy? If so, it is somewhat ironic that the taboo against polygamy in western countries is much more a cultural than a biblical one.

So there is no real basis for the “slippery slope” argument, which makes sense only if it is admitted that there is no distinction between unchanging biblical truth and arguments based on cultural relativity. Instead, those presenting arguments in this area need to clearly set out their views on where the boundary lies, based on proper biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, and accept that it is OK for Christians to show some diversity as long as they remain within this boundary.

14 thoughts on “A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope

  1. The only solid rock is Christ. One gay man I spoke to told me ‘they want to remove my Christ from me’. The morality argument is not solid rock. The body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body. Therein lies the rock when it comes to fornication – which involves sex for money or the abuse or exploitation of sexual desire. Paul’s point is apophatic – he forbids what not to do – not out of prudery, or any indication that sex is sinful, but that the act is incompatible with belonging to Christ. While he contrasts one flesh and one spirit, it is not because the spirit is somehow only moral or only cerebral, but because the Spirit is incarnate in us through the death of Christ. So the same-sex question is – can one partner be as Christ to the other? The answer to this is not to be dealt with in a comment – perhaps not even in an essay.

    By the way – I have never heard or read anyone other than me in my stories, liturgies, and prayers who has been dealing with the question of same sex relationships in love from this Christ-centered point of view. Almost all argue negatively from a moral point of view, or positively from a point of view based on pragmatics and privacy. I have not made my argument out of intricate thinking policy but through the love of God in Christ as I have died, lived, stumbled and walked to apprehend it as I am myself grasped.

    I learned and learn my life in all aspects from Christ through Christ and in Christ. The Anointing teaches. The gospel story that is most apt is the one about the Sadducees and the Levirite law. Let it not be said of us as it was of the Sadducees (in Matthew and Mark’s version only) – you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.

  2. Great post, and intelligent argument as always.

    William Webb, in his Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, doesn’t address either polygamy or polyamory. But, like you, he does talk about why homosexuality is not a slippery slope issue; his research shows the slope as God designs it actually runs the other way with respect to the plan for redemption of people. Worth a read, I think.

    Thanks again for your post!

  3. Yes, Bob, the solid rock of the ledge is Christ. He is the one who provides for us the boundaries of the truth in his own word. Homosexual activity, as a variety of “fornication”, is clearly set out as being “incompatible with belonging to Christ”, which is the basis for Christian morality, see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. I am glad of the reminder to put the matter in this way. But one partner in a homosexual relationship cannot be “as Christ to the other” because this relationship, just like any sexual relationship outside marriage, goes against God’s standards for sexual morality.

    JK, an interesting point about the slope running the other way. I’m not sure I like the image in which the truth of God’s word is the lower ground. But I would suggest that Jesus has provided a safe path by which the slope can be climbed and a repentant person can climb on to and take refuge on the rocky ledge.

  4. I have heard the slippery slope argument used by both sides. First, by liberals who argue that going against homosexuality could lead to a dismantling of all the work and effort achieved in female-ordination within the church. Second, this argument has also been used by conservatives who argue that condoning homosexual behaviour could lead to acceptance of pedophilia and even polyamory.

    This leads me to believe that the slippery slope argument has no credibility or does have credibility. Which is it? I’m not sure yet.

  5. Kevin, thanks for mentioning paedophilia (the British spelling), which I should perhaps have counted as a fifth stage on my slippery slope – to me, even less acceptable than polyamory.

    I was thinking more of how conservatives use the slippery slope argument. I can see how it can also be used by liberals, especially in reaction to the conservatives’ use of it. But I hold neither use to be valid.

  6. The slippery slope argument always sounds warnings bells to me. Last time I heard this argument, it was concerning drinking alcohol. The argument was, “well, perhaps a glass of wine with your Sunday dinner is not wrong in and of itself, but once you start drinking, its a slippery slope…!” The only slippery slope in this case was the one the book found itself on after being thrown out of the window…

    However, I do note with interest that the NT does understand something of a “slippery slope”, when in James we see in 3:15 “Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, soulish, demonic.” (my translation). I’ve always read this as teaching that there is a continuum, a slope if you will, from the earthly -> soulish -> demonic. However, I would be the first to say that this continuum is not in question in this debate.

    Finally, I believe all these issues need to be looked at and studied on their own. Arguments for or against homosexuality, polyamory, or whatever else, need to be made without referring to slopes of any kind 🙂 Also, I think its somewhat offensive to talk about women in leadership in the same breath as having, for example, multiple sexual partners; its hardly the same issue, and not very nice to put it all in one basket. Of course I expect you would agree with me here.

  7. Peter – I think there is the usual terrifying subjectivity here – in moving from Christ to his word – if we mean the written canon, we move from rock to our own hermeneutic. We have all the same issues of the tension between tradition, culture, and our own prejudice.

    For me, my ‘no’ is to any and all abuse of power. So inequality, coercion, and exploitation all fall under the rubric of immoral behaviour for me. My ‘yes’ is to growth, life, and worship. In Christ, I do not see any coercion and I do know worship. This is tangible and sensible, the work of the Spirit. In the current policies in the countries strongly influenced by Christendom, I see a non-threatening openness and a willingness to avoid the coercion of the past for those who are different. This is not sin.

    I have appealed to my experience in Christ and I have now appealed to cultural policy. I have no other appeal except to recognize the terror of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. If God has moved me, he will support me. If I am deceived, I will love with the love I have found – because I have found it through the death of the Saviour. So I conclude that I am not deceived – for if I were to conclude otherwise, I would ignore the Gospel.

  8. Well, Bob, on your argument how can we know anything about Christ apart from “the usual terrifying subjectivity”, either the same hermeneutic we use for the rest of the Bible or the subjectivity of our personal religious experience? But I don’t accept that biblical hermeneutics is entirely subjective as you seem to. Of course it is difficult to separate out issues of tradition, culture and prejudice. And I make no claim to have done this perfectly, which is why I allowed for some uncertainty about exactly where my rocky ledge is.

    I agree with you in wanting to avoid coercion. The only coercion I see in this whole issue is that being applied by certain church hierarchies against those who dare to disagree with their policies. I do not want to apply any coercion against homosexuals. But church bodies can select their own leaders according to their own criteria, and it is not coercion to avoid selecting people who do not meet those criteria.

    In the end I appeal as you do to the subjectivity of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

  9. Peter – thanks. I squeezed my yesses and nos between two poles – fearful subjectivity and fear of the Lord. I too continue maturing I hope – there are many obvious questions to which my openness has no answer. I think it likely that you are not in favour of coercion – I hope you did not think otherwise of my writing.

    One thing I find myself wondering repeatedly – where are the other 9? One Samaritan turned to thank Jesus for his healing – where are the others whose subjective experience was healing from leprosy but who did not say thank you?

    As to the church’s right to select without discrimination, here we are on legal ground. Personally I might debate whether this is coercion or not. Sometimes it has been at least in Canadian practice in recent history. As an employer myself, I sometimes exercise discrimination prior to employment, but I know I could not fire someone for being of another race, religion, or sexual orientation. I would have to find another reason.

  10. Thanks, Bob. I am not even talking about firing someone, more of hiring them. And the choice of who to hire is not coercion. But I suppose it has always been a condition of continuing service as an Anglican or other minister that one adheres to certain standards of sexual morality, which would include both no adultery and no homosexual activity. Here in England ministers are regularly fired (well, other wording is used) for getting into adulterous relationships with parishioners. But for some reason it doesn’t happen so certainly if the relationships are homosexual. As for the legality of this, I can’t comment on Canadian law. Here in England the Church of England has a special legal status in these matters. But even without this the position would be the same: just as doctors, lawyers etc lose their jobs for inappropriate sexual liaisons with their clients, so it would be expected of ministers of religion.

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  12. I think these arguments can take two forms, and often those presenting them and those responding to them fail to distinguish those forms. One form of slippery slope is “if you allow X, people will take it as license to do Y”. The other is “if X is morally allowable, then by the same reasoning so is Y”.

    There are good and bad forms of both. Good forms of the first type arise when you allow something morally questionable that people will take as license to do something clearly immoral. But this relies on the first thing being questionable to begin with, and it also assumes a conclusion about what people are likely to do, and either can be questioned in many cases

    There are lots of good instances and lots of bad instances of the second type. A good instance would be that allowing gay sex on the principle that any consented-to sex is ok means you also have to see incest as ok, because that can be consented-to (at least among adults). But it’s a bad argument against those seeing gay sex as ok because of a more sophisticated principle. So these arguments have to be tailored to particular views to be successful. If you target anyone seeing gay sex as ok, you can’t move to another case without knowing the reasoning, because the point is to apply the same reasoning to other cases.

    So I’d have trouble using any of these arguments except against particular expressions of particular views.

    It’s also worth noting that people go in reverse. They say that if we recognize slavery as wrong, so too do we have to recognize some other thing (e.g. complementarian views) as wrong. Those arguments are extremely common and fall prey to exactly the same difficulties. They depend entirely on the particular arguments used to oppose the first thing (e.g. slavery) and then applying those arguments to the second (e.g. gender-based restrictions in ministry or roles in the home). If someone has different reasoning, then the whole game changes.

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