Ref 21, Books & Culture, and the Feminist Slippery Slope

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In the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Books & Culture, respected home school guru Susan Wise Bauer laments criticism of her recent endorsement of John Stackhouse’s book Finally Feminist. Stackhouse follows the well-trod path of arguing that the Bible’s teaching on gender relations is so complicated and even contradictory that we cannot take its prohibitions at face value. He also equates the struggle for gender equality with the struggle against slavery, and criticizes conservatives for offending the culture by “not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call.”

Bauer expresses disappointment at criticism of her endorsement, as if evangelical feminism was an established reality among evangelicals, which it most certainly is not. Moreover, she lauds Stackhouse for not seeking to settle the issue through careful analysis of the Bible’s propositions, but instead for seeking “a paradigm, a pattern in Scripture which would make sense of the puzzling statements that Paul makes about the place of women in the redemptive community.” This, too, is a well-worn strategy, namely, that of declaring unpopular Bible propositions to be “puzzling,” and then laboring to find a “paradigm” that will “make sense” of them.

But the main point of her article was to express dismay over the “slippery slope” argument employed by some conservatives against evangelical feminism. Actually, it wasn’t just “some conservatives,” but Al Mohler on his blog and Lig Duncan and I here on Ref 21. In reading her critique of our “slippery slope” argument, in which Al, Lig, and I drew a straight, descending line between the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals, it was clear to me that she had not understood our actual argument. It is helpful to realize when this has happened, and it is good to explain more fully.

What is Bauer’s critique of the “slippery slope” argument? First, she points out that this term originally was used by Aristotle for a logical fallacy in which adverse results are assigned causes without adequate proof. Secondly, she implies that the “slippery slope” argument only seems plausible because homosexuals have in fact employed the arguments and tactics of feminists; this does not, however, prove that the feminists were wrong about gender equality. Thirdly, she cites the “slippery slope” as implying “a certain obliviousness on the part of the people who go over it; the implication is that Christians who sign on to egalitarian points of view don't know that they are being deceived by secular cultural norms.”

A fourth argument by Bauer is particularly noteworthy. She asserts that conservatives are warranted in crying foul only “when a church moves from egalitarianism to an open rejection of the biblical teachings on sexuality.” This, of course, assumes that gender egalitarianism is not a rejection of biblical teaching (which we believe it is). Note also that only “open” rejection of Bible teachings should be condemned. Presumably this means that when people say that they are not rejecting the Bible, they should be immune from criticism even if in fact they are rejecting the Bible. Moreover, she curiously argues that conservatives have proven their hypocrisy by criticizing feminism but not speaking out against such “openly” anti-biblical practices as elections for church officers and the use of Robert’s Rules of Order. (Something must be going on here, but I have no idea what it is.)

It may be helpful to respond to these criticisms, both in the interest of correcting mistaken impressions as to our actual argument and commenting on areas of actual disagreement.

First, when we use the “slippery slope” argument against evangelical feminism, we are not using it in the sense proscribed by Aristotle. It may not be fair to the ancient philosopher, but the reality is that many terms carry a common meaning today that is not quite the same as the original definition. Such is the case with “slippery slope.” Bauer understands us to lament the increasing practice of homosexual ordination to church office and then trace back its cause to evangelical feminism. But this is not our argument. Rather, when we speak of the “slippery slope” between feminism and homosexual advocacy, we mean that the effect of the arguments employed to secure the former have had the systematic effect of promoting the latter.

The reason we see the ordination of women as the start of a slippery slope has little to do with feminism itself. Rather, it is the arguments regarding Scripture that once applied to the roles of women in ministry will inevitably be applied to homosexual ordination as well. And what is this argument? The argument is that we must rethink traditional Bible teachings in light of changing cultural norms. Bauer may object to this assertion – and I am not in a position to judge her particular motives – but I do not hesitate to say that this is the prevailing impulse behind evangelical feminism in general. Surely, we are not going to argue that it is merely coincidental that the embrace of feminism in the church has followed hard on the heels of feminism in the culture? Evangelical feminists are frequently heard to cry, “We’ve achieved so much in society, why aren’t we able to make the same progress in the church?” This is the plainly stated logic of Stackhouse’s lament regarding the scandal created when conservative Christians do not celebrate in the church the same advances enjoyed by women in the culture. Therefore, those who would seriously have us believe that evangelical feminism arises merely from an objective reassessment of biblical teaching are going to have a hard time persuading us.

But if our concern is ultimately over biblical authority, why is this the issue that gains our attention? Doesn’t this show that we are secretly hostile to women or threatened in our insecure masculinity? Well, no. The reason is that recent history shows that it tends to be at this heated topic of “gender equality” that the cultural mandate over Scripture gains acceptance. “We’ve got to get with the times,” feminists have argued from the pews and the press. Given the strong bias towards egalitarianism in our society and the rhetorical barrages regularly launched by the feminists, this is the issue where church bodies cave in. But once the feminists arguments about Scripture are conceded, a principle of Bible interpretation is enshrined – “openly” or not – and there is no practical way to stop its application to other similar issues (like “sexual preference equality”).

Perhaps Bauer’s take on recent history is different from mine, but I have not found that the acceptance of Robert’s Rules of Order has had the effect of catalyzing a new approach to Bible interpretation in which culture is king. Instead, what recent history shows is that denominations which ordain women soon have divisions over homosexuality. Perhaps the most recent example is the Christian Reformed Church, which a decade or so embraced egalitarianism in the pulpit and which now has a gay/lesbian club at their denominational college (Calvin College). The same phenomenon has occurred among liberal Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and… well, really, in pretty much all liberal denominations. In each and every case, the breaking point where a new approach to Scripture was conceded happened to be gender egalitarianism.

Bauer suggests that our slippery slope theory is bound to produce hysteria. “If allowing women to be ordained will destroy the authority of Scripture,” she asks, “why doesn't the slippery slope argument go, ‘Ordain women, and Christ's bodily resurrection will be the next thing to go,’ or, ‘Ordain women, and we may have to relinquish our belief in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of the sins, and the life everlasting’?

In fact, I am happy to make this very argument, citing numerous examples (the PC(USA) and the United Methodist Church come immediately to mind). After all, feminists have in fact been in the lead when it comes to recent revisions of the doctrine of the Trinity, alternative theories of the atonement, and the substituting of milk and honey for wine and bread in the Lord’s Supper. It can hardly be denied that outcries against the oppressive definition of God as “Father” has resulted from feminism in the church! The reason for this is not that they are women, but that their feminism has demanded a culture-over-Scripture hermeneutic. So yes, our slippery slope argument is concerned about far greater errors than the ordination of homosexuals; the slippery slope slides all the way to the bottom. But experience shows that gender egalitarianism is where churches and denominations tend to step onto the slippery slope: the arguments feminists use to prevail on gender egalitarianism (including the ones made by Stackhouse and Bauer in her article) will end up making a shipwreck of our entire faith.

Lastly, let me respond to Bauer’s complaint that our slippery slope argument implies “a certain obliviousness” on the part of evangelical feminists. I’m not sure I would put it that way, but for my own part I do see charged emotions clouding the reason of the feminists. We see this, for instance, in the logical fallacy so weightily employed by Bauer in her article: that between the abolition of slavery and gender equality. The analogy is made because both involve the loosing of former restrictions and the rejection of cherished traditions. But in this case the analogy is false because in the case of slavery we are dealing with a matter that is clearly forbidden in Scripture, while in the case of gender restrictions to church office we are dealing with a matter that is commanded in Scripture. Moreover, discrimination based on color is both irrational and immoral, whereas proper gender distinctions are rational, natural, and biblical. Bauer’s fervent use of this false analogy does indeed suggest “a certain obliviousness,” or at least an emotionally charged argument that is not aware of its implications.

In the slavery-feminism argument, Bauer clearly sees a stick with which to bludgeon conservatives. Indeed, Bauer provides a choice instance of the kinds of flights of rhetoric that are increasingly common among evangelical feminists. She writes:

“The slippery slope argument has an uglier aspect as well. If gay rights borrowed language from the women's rights movement, and the women's rights movement borrowed principles from the civil rights movement, and we are indeed on a slippery slope, shouldn't we trace the church's slide into decadence right back to the liberation of African Americans?”

Well, Bauer may be oblivious to this, but this argument is nothing short of a smear. At least none of the conservatives she has cited – Al, Lig, and I – have ever given the slightest cause for an insinuation of racism. Our argument is strictly hermeneutical; our concern is over the approach to Scripture and the proven effects of this in the church. Bauer charitably adds, “Let me be clear: I am not accusing complementarians of being racists.” How kind of her, her argument having had no other point than to insinuate that very thing. I take it as a settled rule that if you have to write, “I didn’t mean to suggest that my opponent is a pervert/racist/serial killer/fascist…” you probably have in fact suggested that very thing.

So, yes, Susan, I do believe that those who are at the point of stepping onto the slippery slope are often oblivious to where they are heading – if not inevitably, then consistently. And I see a consistent rhetorical approach among the feminists that suggests that emotion and passion might just be clouding their argument. But those are not the point made by the slippery slope argument. Rather, what we are maintaining is that once the arguments made by the feminists are conceded, fairness and consistency will demand that those same arguments be applied to other similar issues, among them the ordination of homosexuals, but most lamentably that such arguments will have the effect of dismantling the entire doctrinal structure of the Christian faith.

Posted January 24, 2007 @ 9:42 AM by Rick Phillips

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