When I write about some of the problems associated with the doctrine of inerrancy, when I tell people that we need to use care when discussing issues related to homosexuality and the Bible, when I suggest that the future might be an open one or when I point out that imputation is not – strictly speaking – a biblical concept, people often warn me about the “slippery slope.”
In one sense I understand.
I grew up in the holiness tradition, a tradition which practically invented the phrase. So I’m very familiar with the slippery slope concept and have used it (regrettably) many times to urge people to stay far away from anything which might cause one to slide down it.
So I find it curious that I’m now on the receiving end of those urges. But from where I stand today, things look very different. And having come from the other side, but without abandoning that side (I am, after all, in a Nazarene church!), I believe I have perspective which might be of value to some people.
The “Slippery Slop” Fear
I’ve always fancied myself a seeker of truth. I’ve clung to a quote from Clement that has become a personal mantra of mine: “If our faith is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed. For it would have been proved that we do not possess the truth.”
It is with such tenacity for truth by which I’m driven. With such a drive comes questions that can only be satisfied with simple, often pat answers, for so long before closer scrutiny raises deeper questions which destroy taken-for-granted convictions.
From where I stand today the slippery slop warning is driven by fear, not truth. This weighs on me since, according to the scriptures, fear comes from the devil. I understand the desire to live a holy life and to stand on the word of God with my beliefs. But when we let fear drive our convictions it becomes all too easy to not let God’s word – God’s truth – to be made visible and explorable. We shut it down and stop asking questions. The end game – and I cannot say this forcefully enough – is that while we want to stand on God’s Word, we have actually changed it into our word. Fear of the slippery slop often results in a careless handling of God’s Word.
The Slipper Slope Down Both Sides
The phrase “slipper slope” is used by us holiness folk as a euphemism for “going liberal,” becoming “wishy-washy” or in some cases, “falling away.” But from where I stand today there is an equally distasteful banana slip-&-slide down the other side of the slope. We can call this “legalism,” “turning Gods word into your word” and in some cases, “falling away” – not by abandoning the idea of the faith, but by creating a works based faith instead.
Let me illustrate.
When I was a kid I had a friend named Billy who one day was playing near the train tracks. While gathering stones he was caught off guard by the train which happened suddenly upon him. And though there was a large fence separating Billy from the train, the loud noise coupled with it’s large cargo that seemed to rock side to side as it went by gripped Billy with fear. He made haste away from the tracks looking back at the train and not forward to where he was running… out into the middle of the road where he as struck by a car.
Fortunately Billy walked away with merely a broken arm. But his story illustrates how the slipper slope metaphor actually works – especially amongst us holiness folk.
All we see is the train which grips us in fear – liberalism, falling away, becoming wishy-washy. So we run away from it thinking we’re safe, only to slide down the other end and right into the traffic of legalism with its terrible tendency to change God’s word into our words and insisting others abide by the cushion-rules we think are keeping us safely away from the train.
Jesus and the Two Sides
As I’ve studied first century Judaism it has occurred to me that we might be able to illustrate the two slopes by comparing them to two groups that Jesus often confronted. (I’m not suggesting these are perfect parallels.) The scriptures often put these two groups together like this: “The Pharisees and the Sadducees.” This is interesting because these two groups are on opposite ends of the theological and political spectrum.
The Sadducees, we might say, are somewhat akin to “liberal Christianity.” Pharisees often questioned whether the Sadducees where even genuinely of God’s people. The Sadducees where more concerned with political matters then spiritual ones, but this does not mean they did not hold religious convictions. They did. In fact, like “liberal Christian’s” today, the Sadducees denied the bodily resurrection (and pretty much all things supernatural) – a theological point of contention with the Pharisees (Acts 23:6-8).
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were “zealous for God’s law.” So much so, in fact, that they created a “hedge” around the law, adding to the scriptures as a way to ensure that they didn’t break them. Josephus, an early eye-witness to the Pharisaic movement, writes:
“For the present I wish merely to explain that the Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not recorded in the Law of Moses.”
In terms of ethos, we might say Pharisaism is akin to the modern holiness ethos in many ways. You remember the old “regulations” about dancing, or dress codes or playing cards, where scant biblical support is often sought along with vague interpretable passages in an effort to justify these extra biblical regulations. But today we might compare this to the tendency of many to make claims that the Bible does not make (such as “homosexuality is a sin”) – extra-biblical convictions imposed on the Bible in an effort to avoid the “slippery slope.”
Throughout Jesus’ ministry both groups are often addressed by our Lord. But it is no small fact that Jesus addresses Pharisaism more often, and usually with harsher tones, than he does the Sadducees.
As a member of the holiness movement still, I think we should not let it escape us that Jesus saw legalism as a more dangerous issue to be addressed than liberalism (i.e. he confronted and dismantled the teachings of the Pharisees more than he did that of the Sadducees). I believe Truth is found at the top of the hill, but there are slopes on both sides. Sliding down the slope of legalism – the sad reality of the holiness tradition – is a very real danger we need to be aware of. And, frankly, climbing up the hill from the holiness side as I am, slipping down the side of liberalism is the least of my concerns.
So don’t let the fear of a “slippery slope” prevent you from seeking Truth. It’s crippling. My advice? Stop thinking in terms of a so-called “slippery slope” and start putting your energy into seeking Truth. For the “slippery slope” is a smoke screen, and fear is its power.