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Is Egalitarianism on a Slippery Slope?

On May 08, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I have evangelical friends with all kinds of different views on gender. Come to think of it, I have evangelical friends with all kinds of different views on a whole host of topics: child baptism or believers baptism, just war or pacifism, Arminianism or Calvinism, and, yes, even egalitarianism or some form of gender hierarchism (often called, somewhat misleadingly, “complementarianism”). Since evangelicalism has no official magisterium, such diversity is inevitable. And, while I’m as committed to the egalitarian cause as the next person, I’ve come to view this diversity as a good thing: It means that instead of relying on the coercion of some official leaders or evangelical “gatekeepers,” we egalitarians are left to rely on the persuasion of our arguments and the example of our lives. And, while we might try to convince others that our interpretation of Scripture is better than hierarchal interpretations, we nevertheless acknowledge that those with different interpretations might be just as honest and well-intentioned as we try to be.

However, I have noticed a growing trend among some within the male hierarchist camp to go beyond making biblical arguments for their view to instead playing the self-appointed role of evangelical “gatekeepers.” Instead of simply debating various interpretations of Scripture, they insist that egalitarian interpretations are dangerous and therefore should not be tolerated within the evangelical camp. The argument—that, for lack of a better term, we’ll call the “slippery slope argument” (or SSA for short)—goes something like this:

(SSA) Egalitarianism (or “feminism”) is the first step onto the slippery slope that leads directly to dangerous and unacceptable “liberalism.” After all, look at all the liberal churches out there; they all support women in ministry! Many of them used to be within the evangelical fold, but they have all strayed away. You start with an egalitarian interpretation of Scripture and, next thing you know, you’re denying the authority of Scripture and straying from the evangelical faith.

If you’ve spent any time among evangelicals and raised the issue of gender, I suspect you’ve heard something like SSA. I also suspect that this argument has convinced a number of evangelicals to steer clear of egalitarian interpretations of Scripture altogether. And, to be honest, at face value SSA has some plausibility. After all, we probably all have friends who jumped on the bandwagon for some social cause or another and ended up riding the bandwagon straight out of the church.

Still, if we step back from anecdotal evidence for a moment—after all, people leave the church for all kinds of reasons—and subject SSA to a bit of logical scrutiny, I think we’ll find that it is not as persuasive as it may at first appear. As I see it, there are at least three (and probably more) problems with SSA.

First, SSA focuses only on the evidence that supports its conclusion and downplays all contrary evidence. So, while it points to liberal churches that support women in ministry, it downplays the ample evidence of all of the evangelical churches that also support women in ministry. The divide between churches who do and churches who don’t support women in ministry does not cut between “evangelical” and “liberal.” There are a number of evangelical traditions that have long supported women in ministry, including (but not limited to) many churches within the Wesleyan-holiness and Pentecostal streams as well as a number of traditional black churches. If such churches were allowed to count as evidence alongside so-called liberal churches, the argument would be significantly weakened.

Second, SSA assumes that, because liberal churches also support women in ministry, egalitarianism must have been the cause of their liberalism. But this certainly doesn’t follow. A lot of times, two things might be related to each other without one being the cause of the other. For example, I recall learning in a college sociology class about a study that demonstrated that in New York City the consumption of ice cream directly correlates to the city’s murder rate. When ice cream sales go up, so does the murder rate. When ice cream sales go down, the murder rate does too. But, even given these findings, one would be hard pressed to convince anyone that ice cream consumption is a cause of homicide! Rather, there is a “lurking variable”—presumably, the temperature—that serves as an underlying factor for both. In hot summer months, people consume more ice cream, but more people are also out of the confines of their homes and on the city streets, where murders may take place. So, though there is no causal connection between eating ice cream and the tendency to murder, there is a strong correlation.

Finally, SSA assumes, well, that there is a slippery slope! But as we all learned in beginner logic courses, the slippery slope is an informal logical fallacy, not a valid form of reasoning. In other words, unless there is some kind of necessary link between view A and view B, it is a fallacy to argue that A “inevitably” leads to B. But, since we’ve already seen that there are a number of evangelical egalitarians who haven’t become “liberal,” we must conclude that there is no necessary connection between these two views. Sure, some egalitarians leave evangelicalism for mainline churches, just as some hierarchists leave evangelicalism for, say, Catholicism. But these contingencies say nothing about the relative value of egalitarian or hierarchist views. In short, the slope from egalitarianism to liberalism is not as slippery as the argument assumes.

Once we account for the numerous flaws in the reasoning behind SSA, it seems to me that the argument crumbles apart. This, of course, doesn’t mean that egalitarianism is automatically true. It just means that we evangelicals from all sides of the gender debates can get back to doing what we do best: opening up our Bibles and reasoning together.

This essay is adapted from the article, “Assessing Hierarchist Logic: Is Egalitarianism Really on a Slippery Slope?,” Priscilla Papers 27.2 (2013): 5-9. You can purchase your copy of the entire issue.

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