Last year, I was chatting with a friend about the contentious debate regarding the role of women in church leadership taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination in which my friend is firmly embedded.
In the course of the conversation, I noted that a diversity of opinion exists even among Southern Baptists who maintain that women ought not to hold the office of elder in the local church. While some believe that women should never preach from the pulpit or exercise any kind of leadership outside of women or children’s ministry, others feel convicted through careful study of Scripture that women ought to be encouraged to exercise their gifts of teaching and leadership under the authority of the elders—including preaching at a weekend service.
Given this diversity of thought within the denomination, which ostensibly exists to gather together as many Baptist churches as possible for the sake of missional impact, isn’t this something upon which Southern Baptists could agree to disagree?
His response somewhat surprised me. He said, “Yeah, but if you let the women into leadership, it’s just a matter of time before you-know-what starts creeping its way in.”
Unfortunately, I knew exactly what he was referring to. The “slippery slope” argument against women exercising their spiritual gifts in the local church has featured heavily in some of the more animated pleas to enforce tighter restrictions.
As the argument goes, if we let women preach and lead in our churches, it’s only a matter of time before we completely abandon historic Christian views on sexuality and gender, opening the door for ordaining openly gay pastors and lobbying for minors to receive gender-affirming surgical treatments.
Too often, where there is disagreement over how to interpret the Bible on disputed matters of theology and church practice, those who hold to a theological viewpoint that is currently being reevaluated argue not on the strength of their biblical exegesis but instead employ a scare tactic. That is, if you change your mind on this, what else are you going to change your mind on?
To be fair, examples of Christian leaders who changed their mind on one theological point and who later kept adjusting their theological beliefs until they departed from orthodox Christianity are not entirely lacking. Nevertheless, when these examples are held up as the inevitable result of an intramural theological battle between orthodox Christians, we are comparing apples and oranges.
In a recent example, apologist Ken Ham argued that, of all things, young earth creationism is an essential bastion of orthodox belief on human sexuality. As proof, Ham cited an article written by Professor of Christian Ethics David P. Gushee, in which Gushee explained how and why he changed his mind on LGBTQ+ inclusion.
To be sure, Gushee’s view on human sexuality has departed from 2,000 years of unbroken Christian tradition. But why? Ham believes it has something to do with the fact that Gushee believes the earth is older than 6,000 years.
“When you reject a historical Genesis, you open the door to further compromise because God’s Word is no longer your authority: man is your authority, and you’ll often alter the Word of God to fit with man’s ideas,” Ham writes. “I’ve been saying this for decades.”
This argument, to me, rings frivolous. Non-literal interpretations of Genesis date back as far as Saint Augustine and are attributed to other Christian giants of the past, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, and Thomas Aquinas.
Conversely, no such historic affirmations of a doctrine of LGBTQ+ affirmation exist.
Further, as Beth Allison Barr has demonstrated in her book “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” historic cases of Bible-believing women preaching and holding positions of influential leadership are found throughout the medieval period, just as they are in the New Testament accounts and other historical accounts of the early church—though many of these stories have been edited from our collective memory.
Again, no such parallel exists for queer theology. Apple, meet orange.
Nevertheless, the question remains as to why apparently so many Christians who switch to an egalitarian view of gender roles eventually give way to LGBTQ+ affirming theology. To some who equate complementarianism with “the plain reading of Scripture,” it seems that rejecting the Bible on one issue is a slippery slope to rejecting it on other issues.
And the fact is they are right—but only sort of. The slippery slope is contingent not upon the theological stances themselves (whether old earth creationism or egalitarianism) but how a person arrives at those stances. This is a question of hermeneutics, or method of interpretation.
For some former complementarians, they see the injustice, and often abuse, perpetrated against women within the church, and they can feel in their bones that something is not right. They know that other Christians hold to egalitarian theology, though they don’t know how to square the doctrine with the difficult, unclear, and often disputed passages of Scripture that speak to the issue. And since they are not made aware of sound interpretations of those passages supporting anything other than complementarianism, they just end up ignoring them entirely.
But a hermeneutic of ignoring Scripture tends to lead a person to ignoring more Scripture, especially where they find it too difficult to affirm and can’t find a legitimate interpretive alternative. That, indeed, is a slippery slope.
Nevertheless, sound interpretations of the relevant New Testament passages that uphold an egalitarian or soft complementarian view (I tend to find myself in the latter group) do exist.
For instance, I have written at length about what I believe to be a widespread misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in which women are apparently told to “keep quiet” in the church.
Further, as I have recently mentioned, a closer look at the Greek text of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 (the other complementarian clobber passage) reveals that Paul’s meaning isn’t completely transparent. When Paul says that he does not permit a woman to “have authority,” the word rendered as such from the Greek is the only occurrence of that word in the New Testament. It is also difficult to find in contemporary texts, making it notoriously difficult to translate.
Paul could have been speaking to a specific issue in which a particular woman was “abusing authority” rather than merely “having” it, changing the complexion of the text from a universal prohibition on women in leadership to a specific pastoral instruction for a situation taking place in that particular congregation at that particular moment.
Nevertheless, given the fact that you will not find these important interpretive considerations on the pages of most commentaries or in the mouths of most preachers, an alarmingly large swath of Christians who have been journeying with the church for decades are completely unaware of them. Thus, they are left only with meager hermeneutical tools that lead them to a slippery slope of ignoring the Bible.
This isn’t the first time this has been a problem for American Christians. A similar hermeneutic of ignorance was present in theological considerations regarding chattel slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War, as Mark Noll has chronicled in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”
While abolitionists felt in their bones that the American system of slavery stood in stark opposition to God’s vision for humanity, they had difficulty finding it in the text. And since slavery did exist in biblical times, in both the Old and New Testaments, they opted to encourage people to ignore those texts in favor of affirming “the broad principle of common equity and common sense” found in Scripture.
To the largely Christian South, with myriads seeing slavery in the black and white lettering of their most sacred text, this argument was entirely unconvincing—and thus we had to wage America’s bloodiest war to settle the question for good.
Catch this. American abolitionists arrived at the right answer: Slavery is wrong. But the way many of them got there lacked a commitment to the whole of Scripture, which when carefully interpreted did actually support their position. The result was disaster.
To be sure, nuanced and biblically robust abolitionist arguments did exist. They just weren’t widely publicized. You would not often find them in widely circulated American publications or on the lips of preachers. So at the popular level, many came to associate abolitionism with a lack of commitment to Scripture.
Speaking of apples and oranges, this isn’t at all to say that complementarians are akin to pro-slavers. Healthy forms of egalitarianism and complementarianism are orthodox Christian teachings, neither of which is inherently immoral. In the case of justice issues, whether slavery, the racial segregation that followed, or others, one side was clearly wrong. However, in issues of church practice, such as the place of supernatural spiritual gifts, mode of baptism, or gender roles in leadership, there’s room for disagreement.
However, it is to say that when we ignore or downplay the good faith and biblically robust arguments of other Christian thinkers with whom we disagree, we create the false notion that to depart from one orthodox view for another equally orthodox view is actually heresy.
If we convince enough people of that notion, it may slow some from changing their understanding regarding the role of women in church leadership. But when they do change their minds, they may think that they have to walk away from the Bible entirely—or at least large parts of it. Thus, they don’t slide down the slippery slope so much as they are pushed down it.
Nobody wants that—not even the staunchest complementarian who has done hours of study in the New Testament Greek and is entirely convinced of their view. So, let us remember the oft-quoted adage: “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
Promoting liberty and exercising charity in the non-essentials requires both humility and intellectual honesty. In a world of polarization, let’s build a counterculture that emphasizes both of those values in our communities of faith.
In other words, please no more slippery slope arguments.