Is there really a slope between embracing egalitarianism and endorsing homosexuality?
Since the beginning of the evangelical complementarian movement, proponents of traditional views have been warning of a slippery slope from women’s ordination to more theologically liberal positions, including the affirmation of homosexuality.
Many evangelical egalitarians have responded in protest, loudly accusing conservatives for succumbing to the slippery slope fallacy. Egalitarians are correct to identify the slippery slope as a logical fallacy, but they’re incorrect to identify it as an erroneous form of argumentation. As David Kelley writes in his book, The Art of Reasoning, “Slippery slope arguments can be good ones if the slope is real.”
At the outset, we should acknowledge that many egalitarians don’t believe the Bible condones homosexuality. But generally speaking, the ability to maintain those commitments is more a function of doctrinal precommitments, not hermeneutics. While defending their position, many egalitarians employ the same hermeneutical method used to affirm same-sex relationships. Interestingly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a complementarian church that endorses homosexuality. In fact, if a church affirms homosexuality, you can be sure that the church is also already thoroughly egalitarian.
1. Two historical points: (1) The first evangelical “egalitarian” organization, the EWC, quickly embraced homosexuality such that the Christians for Biblical Equality organization had to split off and form its own, non-affirming organization. (2) In a book that details the history of debate on homosexuality within Anglicanism, the author connects women’s ordination and homosexuality to the issue of biblical authority: “Homosexuality is seen as an issue on which followers can be united and energized in a way that was not the case over the ordination of women priests in the Church of England a decade ago, though that was clearly also an issue of Biblical authority, just as strictly delineated in Holy Scripture.” Stephen Bates, A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 15. In this book, Bates calls the women’s ordination issue a “dry run for the row over gays a decade later” (Bates, 90).
2. In the argument below, I am engaging only with those I am referring to as “evangelical” egalitarians, that is, interpreters who believe the Bible is God’s Word — every last syllable of canonical Scripture—and as such is authoritative. As will become clear, I believe the egalitarian reading of Scripture blunts God’s authoritative Word, and in this way the egalitarians confession is better than their practice. That said, I am not engaging those who take Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the Scriptures, scissors in hand, ignoring whole swaths of Scripture they deem uninspired. This is far too easy an approach to these issues, and inevitably the text left in hand looks more like a human reflection than a divine message.
3. Biblical hermeneutics consists in two main questions: what does the text mean, and what does it mean for me? Because we believe the Bible is God’s Word for God’s people, biblical interpretation involves at least one more step than is required when interpreting other, non-inspired texts: discerning not only what a text meant when it was written, but what a text means for today. More often than not, the interpretive gap between egalitarian and complementarian readings of Scripture consists in this movement, traversing the hermeneutical “ditch” between the original author’s context and our context today.
But why? What’s the hermeneutical link between egalitarian and gay-affirming readings of the Scriptures?
Every time we read the Bible, we engage in basic hermeneutics. For example, complementarians believe that Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2 teach male headship in the home and the church. This is not a novel, New Testament teaching; it simply follows the pattern of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. The New Testament is normative for the church today because it reflects God’s creation design for males and females. Egalitarians respond to these texts in a number of different ways; each response causes these biblical texts to end up essentially saying the opposite of what a plain reading would suggest. What hermeneutical judgments allow egalitarians to arrive at these conclusions?
Some egalitarian interpreters respond to these texts by saying the New Testament is simply wrong to make these assertions. This is not an evangelical position, so I’m not going to engage it. The “slippery slope” here is so obvious that it does not need to be established.
Others argue that the New Testament doesn’t mean what the church has always understood it to mean.
Still others argue that on these matters, the New Testament is culturally conditioned. Our modern context means that these texts no longer apply in the same ways they did when they were written. Cultural “progress” has effectively rendered these texts obsolete. This third option is the most prominent among evangelical egalitarians, but more often than not the difference between the second and third approaches is slight; cultural developments are often the catalysts for “seeing” new readings of the text.
This “progressive” argument finds the most purchase in evangelical circles because it ostensibly allows the interpreter to avoid contradicting outright the plain meaning of the text. Instead, the interpreter is able to seal-off the text from contemporary application as a non-binding vestige of patriarchal culture.
One very common version of this argument was popularized by William Webb under the term “redemptive-movement hermeneutic.” It has elsewhere been described as a trajectory or redemptive hermeneutic. The gist of this argument is that if the Bible seems more permissive on certain issues than the culture, then the text’s “redemptive spirit” reveals a trajectory set in motion by the text that we should realize to completion today.
4. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
In this way, the Bible’s teaching establishes movement toward an ultimate ethic that is not actually articulated in the Bible. For instance, the New Testament writers forbade women from pastoral ministry, but they were not reflecting God’s ultimate ideal when they did so. We have to go outside the Bible to discover our ultimate ethic.
Other egalitarian interpreters, such as Craig Keener, argue that the commands regarding women have more to do with women’s position in society during the 1st century than God’s moral will. On the whole, when the New Testament was written, women were largely uneducated and thought to be inferior to men. Therefore, the argument goes, Paul and the other writers simply accommodated to this cultural situation so as not to cause undue offense for the sake of the gospel—while at the same time setting textual time bombs (e.g. Gal. 3:28) that would eventually lead to the full inclusion of women into leadership roles in the home and the church.
5. Keener argues, “Wives were to submit in a Christian way to those in authority over them in that culture, but neither the authority structures nor the expressions of submission are the same in all cultures. . . . In a time a transition between old and new authority structures, we must choose structures most in harmony with the principles of God’s kingdom; and given the fact that Paul was one of the most progressive writers in his day, I think that there is no question where we should stand today.” Craig S. Kenner, Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 209.
Webb and Keener do not affirm homosexuality. But interpreters who argue that the Bible condones homosexual practice make these same hermeneutical judgments when they compare the culture of the biblical world to ours. In other words, the common appeal in both arguments is cultural trajectory. The trajectory is the slippery slope, and the perceived cultural or ethical development is the grease.
For example, in a popular book arguing that the Bible supports same-sex marriage, Matthew Vines writes this, “The context in which Paul discussed same-sex relations differs so much from our own that it can’t reasonably be called the same issue.” How can Vines say this? Because, according to Vines, Paul’s culture had a different understanding of homosexuality than ours: “Given the cultural status of same-sex behavior in the ancient world, it’s not surprising that Paul condemned it.” But because our culture today is more enlightened and progressed than the Bible’s, the biblical prohibitions against homosexuality are obsolete. Vines argues, “The bottom line is this: The Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation.”
Tellingly, Vines’s argument includes a critique of the complementarian position; he characterizes the complementarian affirmation of “equal value, different roles” as a kind of “hierarchical gender complementarity” that “would fade away in Christ.” In fact, it is this prior erasure of gender complementarity that gives Vines confidence to assert that “the essence of Christian marriage involves keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a relationship of mutual self-giving,” which “doesn’t exclude same-sex couples.”
6. Vines, 106.
7. Vines, 106.
8. Vines, 130.
9. Vines, 142.
10. Vines, 143.
Vines and other revisionists rely heavily on the scholarly work of James Brownson, who makes explicit the fundamental connection between the Bible’s teaching on women and homosexuality. Like Vines, Brownson appeals to scriptural “movement” to validate both:
If we are to discern the underlying forms of moral logic that shape the sexual ethics in Scripture, we cannot avoid the question of patriarchy, the cultural pattern in which males are assumed to be dominant and females are expected to be submissive. Although examples of this cultural pattern appear throughout Scripture, there are also countervailing movements. . . . [D]o the egalitarian examples in Scripture function as unusual exceptions, or is there a movement in the canon away from patriarchy and toward a more egalitarian vision?
11. Brownson, 57.
Brownson’s answer to this question includes movement toward both egalitarianism and acceptance of homosexual practice:
12. Brownson, 80, 83. Brandon Robertson makes a very similar argument in favor of LGBT+ affirmation: “The ethical trajectory of the Bible should lead Christians towards a position of greater inclusion and acceptance of those who have previously been considered ‘unclean,’ and that the New Testament imperative of Jesus is to listen to and rely on the ongoing revelation of the Holy Spirit to guide our faith and practice.” The Gospel of Inclusion: A Christian Case for LGBT+ Inclusion in the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 3.
The overall movement of the moral logic of Scripture with respect to patriarchy is thus away from roles defined by household responsibilities in the ancient world . . . and toward a vision of mutuality and equality. . . . [M]y survey of patriarchy in Scripture does suggest that at least some of the biblical prohibitions and negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism were clearly linked to assumptions regarding patriarchy. . . . To the extent that these concerns shape biblical discussions of homosexual activity, they must be subjected to a wider critique, based on the larger biblical movement we have chronicled, away from patriarchy toward a more egalitarian vision.
Brownson’s “wider critique” based on the “biblical movement” allows him to conclude his argument in favor of homosexual practice: “The evidence suggests that there are no forms of moral logic underpinning these passages that clearly and unequivocally forbid all contemporary forms of committed same-sex intimate relationships.”
In this way, the “texts of terror” faced by a generation of feminists and the “clobber texts” faced by a generation of LGBT-affirming revisionists are dealt with. Their authority is blunted by relegating them as a bygone word to a bygone age.
13. Brownson, 276.
But more often than not, your average church-going egalitarian who may be on the road to LGBT affirmation has not read Webb or Keener, Vines or Brownson. Instead, he or she has simply grown up in a culture that has been increasingly conditioned by the feminist push toward male-female interchangeability.
The egalitarian impulse downplays the natural and social differences between men and women in order to argue that a woman can do anything a man can, period. This effort began with the push to expand women’s participation in every sphere of life, especially those traditionally and historically reserved for men—everything from military service to the pastorate. The egalitarian argument proceeded on the assumption that men and women are functionally interchangeable—in society, church, and the home; anyone attempting to exclude women from leadership in any of these spheres was increasingly cast as backward at best or misogynist at worst.
But this functional interchange paved the way for a formal one. If a woman can do anything a man can in the home, why the need for a man in the home at all? Would not two women suffice? Would not two men? If a woman can be anything a man can, who’s to say she can’t be a father?
In other words, the fallacy of functional interchangeability makes plausible a more fundamental, formal and sexual interchangeability, and with it nothing less than the redefinition of society. It turns out that using androgynous standards in every sphere of life leads to androgyny in every sphere of life.
14. This section draws heavily on an article I wrote that exclusively addresses this argument: Colin J. Smothers, “The Fallacy of Interchangeability,” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 1.1 (2019), 8–14.
Philosophically speaking, then, the slippery slope is further greased by the commitment to male-female interchangeability.
Creation and Redemptive History: A Way Forward
In Scripture, however, the authors appeal to God’s creation as normative for the church. Tom Schreiner rightly notes in his critique of Webb’s hermeneutic that “when it comes to divorce, homosexuality, and the women’s issue, the New Testament argues from the created order.”
15. Thomas R. Schreiner, “Review of Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals,” JBMW 7 (2002): 48.
Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of the redemptive movement hermeneutic is equally pointed:
On this [redemptive movement] view, the biblical texts are on a trajectory aiming at love, justice, and equality, though not all texts have arrived there yet. One problem with this approach is that the interpreter has to assume that he or she is standing at the end of the trajectory, or at least further along (or better at plotting line slope intercept formulas!), than some of the biblical authors in order to see where it leads. Webb, for his part, thinks that it leads toward racial reconciliation and toward egalitarianism between men and women, but he does not believe that it is so inclusive as to permit homosexual relations. And yet others, such as Luke Johnson and Stephen Fowl, appeal to the very same logic of redemptive trajectory in order to legitimate same-sex relations.
16. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Into the Great ‘Beyond’: A Theologian’s Response to the Marshall Plan,” in Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology, I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 90. Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 144–48; Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 119–26.
17. Vanhoozer, 91n16.
In other words, Vanhoozer identifies this ethical trajectory as the slippery slope we are attempting to define.
But instead of seeing history as broken up in a series of consecutive, progressive ages which are increasingly more enlightened and ethical, the Bible presents the church today as inhabiting the same “age” as the early church—an age inaugurated by Christ. In this view, the church should understand herself to be, as Vanhoozer puts it, “in the same redemptive-historical position as was the early church.”
If he’s right, then the church simply isn’t able to negotiate which ideological interests should be interpreted as more “redemptive” than the Bible’s, realizing that our assessment of the morality of Scripture’s culture or ours is not determinative and binding. Instead, we ought to trust God’s timeless Word alone as normative. Otherwise, how can we trust our subjective judgements enough to rightly predict the eschatological world the Spirit is creating apart from the divine Word?
18. So Vanhoozer: “Can one decide what counts as redemptive movement without pretending to stand at the end of the process, without claiming to know what kind of eschatological world the Spirit is creating?” Ibid., 91.
Both egalitarian and gay-affirming interpreters are committed to a particular construal of past and present cultures, and the perceived ethical “progress” between the two. Complementarian interpreters, on the other hand, deny this extra-biblical construct. We are not committed to the moral norms of any culture, including the more patriarchal culture of the Bible’s provenance—which like our present culture was morally corrupt. Instead, we are committed to the ethics revealed in Scripture, not beyond. One’s perception of where Scripture is leading is, by definition, subject to change. But God’s revelation in creation and Scripture will never change, and this divine revelation alone provides solid enough ground to build a life, an ethic, and a bulwark against worldliness.
So, is there really a slope between embracing egalitarianism and endorsing homosexuality? Yes, sadly, there is.
What is it? Simply put, it’s an insistence on the Scripture’s subjective ethical trajectory, and the grease is our subjective cultural perceptions that insist we apply certain texts in certain ways. Thankfully, we have far surer ground on which to stand: God’s good creational design, his will revealed in his timeless Word, every syllable of which is authoritative and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
Editor’s Note: this article was originally published on November 23, 2019 at 9Marks.