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Susan Wise Bauer

On Slippery Slopes, the Blogosphere, and (oh, yes) Women

The place of women in the redemptive community.

I was saddened and disappointed in your remarks," one of my readers wrote me, "and I pray that you might reconsider your position in the light of the glory of God." Another reader lamented, "I do have grave concerns with your statements on this issue." A third demanded, "Has God said, or not?"

Just so you know, I haven't come out against the Trinity or the bodily resurrection. I remarked on my blog how much I liked John Stackhouse's new book Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender.

This fairly mild pronouncement got highlighted on Gender-News.com, which published a headline story announcing that "many evangelicals may have been blindsided" by my blog entry, and quoted Randy Stinson of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as saying, "She is undermining biblical authority by holding her current position on the gender issue." On the Reformation 21 blog, a poster wrote that my approving citation of Stackhouse's book shows that I have taken a position "in knowing contradiction to the teaching of the Bible; at that point the earth begins to give way." "If you have benefited from Susan Wise Bauer's books," another blogger begged, "I hope you will consider writing to her and expressing your concern about this public declaration… . This pronouncement could be confusing at the least … and destructive at the worst."

No wonder Stackhouse sounds so weary in the preface to Finally Feminist. "Aren't we 'done' with gender?" he begins. "Haven't all the relevant issues been raised, all the texts scrutinized, all the alternatives arrayed?" Well, yes. But if my blog post can whip up that much anxiety, we're obviously not "done" with gender yet.

"If you can get egalitarianism from the Bible," says Ligon Duncan (elected moderator of the PCA in 2004), "you can get anything from the Bible."

John Stackhouse, growing up in a church filled with intelligent, godly, articulate women who sat silently in public meetings while men and boys led, turned to Scripture to find out why this was so. His examination of such passages as 1 Timothy 2:11-15 left him puzzled: he found that neither egalitarian or complementarian interpretations managed to "explain all of the clauses … with full plausibility" or resolve the tensions he saw between those passages and other parts of Scripture. "I then began to think that this problem was true not only of expositions of this one text but of the whole gender question," he writes. "No one I had read (and I had read quite a few) could put all the relevant texts together into a single finished puzzle with no pieces left over, with none manufactured to fill in gaps, and with none forced into place."

So Stackhouse began his own quest: not to create a perfect arrangement of propositions which would settle the issue once and for all, but to find 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.

Finally Feminist lays this paradigm out. From Genesis to Revelation, Stackhouse argues, God's overriding purpose in working with his creation is to make the truth of the gospel in Christ clear. To accomplish this, God works within human culture, rather than wiping it out and starting fresh. His acts of redemption are limited by the human context in which they take place. As an example, Stackhouse points to the miracles of the Gospels. Jesus did not heal everyone, or raise everyone from the dead, even though this was well within his capacities. Rather, he limited his miracles so that they acted as "signs of the inbreaking of the kingdom through him and thus signs of his authority and identity." In the particular time and place of the Incarnation, this served God's sovereign purposes.

Stackhouse then turns to the letters of Paul, to see how they too fit into this paradigm. The church to whom Paul writes lived, as we still do, in the "already but not yet," a time when "God's direct and glorious rule is already and authentically here, through Jesus Christ, but it is not yet fully realized in this world still marred by sin."

As inhabitants of both worlds—the community of redeemed, and the sinful culture that surrounds them—the believers of the New Testament are told to live within the structures of their society. Never mind that those structures were developed by a pagan nation which paid no homage to God; Paul tells them to honor the emperor (even if that emperor happens to be Nero). He tells them to pay taxes, to work with their hands. He tells slaves to be content, and not to strive for freedom.

No evangelical could argue with any heat that these straightforward commands reflect God's ultimate plan for his redeemed people. They are given so that the church of God can thrive in hostile surroundings—and so that the spread of the gospel will not be hindered. Would boycotting your taxes hinder the preaching of the Word? Then don't do it. Would escaping from your master increase suspicion among the unsaved that the gospel is merely a cover for rebellion? Then don't escape.

But while the church is striving not to cause unnecessary offense to the unbelievers around it, another dynamic is unfolding, at least within Christian homes and the church: "kingdom values at work overcoming oppression, eliminating inequality, binding disparate people together in love and mutual respect, and the like." And this, of course, is central to Stackhouse's understanding of the "difficult passages" having to do with gender. There is tension between the message of the gospel and the particular commands to the churches. "Paul means just what he says about gender," Stackhouse writes, "everything he says about gender, not just the favorite passages cited by one side or another… . He believes that women should keep silent in church and that they should pray and prophesy. How can they do both? By being silent at the right times, and by praying and prophesying at the right times."

As the church accommodates itself to avoid unnecessary offense in the "already," we also catch glimpses of the "not yet": "exceptions," as Stackhouse calls them, "that do not make sense unless they are, indeed, blessed hints of what could be and will be eventually in the fully present kingdom of God. We would expect, perhaps, to see exceptional women teaching adult men … offering leadership through their social standing and wealth … bearing the titles of … deacon and apostle." And so we do: in Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe, Andronicus, Junia.

What, then, of the church today? In a society that is (at least theoretically) egalitarian, a different kind of offense looms. "The church," Stackhouse concludes, "is … not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call." Many evangelicals are clinging to patriarchy as God's perfect plan for his people, rather than recognizing it as a sinful and temporary cultural phenomenon. In this way, Stackhouse suggests, we are doing exactly what Paul was trying to prevent: we are hindering the gospel, driving away unbelievers who might otherwise hear the truth of Christ's deliverance and be redeemed.

Stackhouse's paradigm is well-reasoned and based on careful exegesis of Scripture (which I do not have room to review here). It is thoroughly orthodox in its insistence on the inspiration of every part of Scripture. It is likely to be extremely convincing to all those who are already egalitarians.

Critics of Stackhouse's approach insist that there is no need for a paradigm, because there are no difficult passages. Genesis 1 obviously teaches that patriarchy is part of the unfallen created order. There is no conflict between 1 Corinthians 14 ("Women are to keep silent in the church") and 1 Corinthians 11 ("When a woman prays or prophesies"). God's word to his church is perfectly plain and clear. To insist that these passages are capable of more than one interpretation is to undercut the authority of Scripture. "If you can get egalitarianism from the Bible," says Ligon Duncan (elected moderator of the PCA in 2004), "you can get anything from the Bible." Read through any random selection of evangelical blogs, and you'll see that roughly 90 percent of them have a particular "anything" in mind: If we say that the Bible allows the ordination of women, next we'll have to admit that the Bible doesn't bar homosexuals either.

Women and homosexuals: they're inextricably linked all across the evangelical cosmos. Al Mohler writes that "feminism must necessarily be joined to the homosexual agenda." Egalitarian thinking, says Rick Philips on Reformation 21, "launches its adherents onto the slippery slope: by following this principle one cannot fail to end up endorsing homosexual unions." Ligon Duncan insists that as soon as the PCUSA approved the ordination of women, it had already "decided the issue of homosexual ordination."

As a defense of the Bible, this is very peculiar. If allowing women to be ordained will destroy the authority of Scripture, 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"?

There's a political reality underlying this particular line of argument that has little to do with Scripture. Egalitarianism shares some its premises with political feminism, a movement which originated in the 1970s and which (as Stackhouse points out) is blamed by many conservative Christians for "a wide range of social pathologies," including promiscuity, "depression of wages" (brought on by too many women in the workplace), the phenomenon of latchkey children, a rise in divorce, and hatred of Christianity.

Whether or not political feminism is responsible for all the ills laid at its door, this much is undeniable: as political feminism matured, it lent its language and much of its agenda to the growing gay rights movement. Politically, gay rights did build on the women's rights movement, just as women's rights had built on the civil rights movement of earlier decades.

These are secular political movements. Their task has been to figure out how a wildly diverse population can co-exist in a democracy, a secular political entity which theoretically gives every citizen an equal voice. They mix the good and the just (women should be paid equal wages for equal work; homosexuals should not be fired or assaulted because of their sexual preference) with the unholy and un-scriptural. But since when do secular political movements provide a model for the church?

This is, unfortunately, not a rhetorical question. Plenty of churches are democracies, which is not necessarily a scriptural model. Plenty of churches have adopted other elements of American political structure, more or less uncritically. To those who argue that, in some denominations, the ordination of women has led to the open acceptance of homosexuality, I would agree that this is indeed a real phenomenon. It has occurred because, in those denominations, the church has completely lost sight of the fact that it is supposed to be the gathered people of God, a counterculture which lives apart from the power-structures of the world.

When a church moves from egalitarianism to an open rejection of the biblical teachings on sexuality, hordes of conservative theologians ought to post essays on their blogs about why we shouldn't model ourselves on the world. They ought to argue that the church shouldn't be adopting secular political modes of leadership, including elections and Robert's Rules of Order. They ought to point out that the power structures of the church are supposed to be entirely different than those of American politics.

So far, they haven't.

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?

Let me be clear: I am not accusing complementarians of being racists. I am criticizing the slippery slope argument itself, not the motivations of those who make it. The theologians who insist that the commands restricting women are obvious and universal—and if you don't think so, that's your problem—have to do some fancy footwork if they're going to assert that the equally "clear" passages on slavery suddenly became no longer applicable sometime in the 19th century.

Stackhouse finds, in the church's changing attitude toward slavery, a proper model for the church's changing attitude toward women. He points out that while women and homosexuals are never linked in the restrictive passages of the New Testament, women and slaves are. Women and slaves in the early church, freed in Christ, were nevertheless encouraged to observe cultural norms to keep the gospel from disrepute.

But slaves have been freed from that particular cultural norm—or such is the overwhelming consensus today. "In the case of slavery," Stackhouse writes, "Christians worldwide have come to agree that the social conservatism of the New Testament was a temporary matter." This was not an agreement reached without struggle; Stackhouse points out that theologians of the 19th century "marshalled powerful, Bible-based arguments" on both sides of the issue. "[A] straightforward interpretation of the passages regarding slavery conveys no obvious condemnation of the institution," he concludes, "and seems instead to encourage Christians in both roles, master and slave, to stay right where they are and simply behave properly. Yet there is no important Christian leader anywhere in the modern world today who defends slavery."

Stackhouse argues that the abolition of slavery provides us with a model for the Holy Spirit's slow, ongoing work in doing away with a sinful, oppressive cultural norm—a change that doesn't at all undercut the authority of Scripture. Many evangelicals point to thousands of years of patriarchy as proof that patriarchy is an essential part of God's creation. Yet slavery, which we have now rejected, was as universal as patriarchy, and the Christian church has rightfully rejected it.

The abolition model is much more useful than the slippery slope. "Slippery slope" is actually the name of a logical fallacy, described by Aristotle, in which a series of events is traced back to an earlier event without any proven causation. I can't possibly be the only evangelical who thinks that it's odd that a logical fallacy should become the chosen metaphor of evangelicals whose primary concern is to see the world as God sees not, not as "the culture" sees it.

As a metaphor, the slippery slope is loaded with associations. It suggests 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. And the metaphor conveys a sense of irreversibility: once you've gone down the slippery slope, you can never claw your way back up to the top.

Both of these implications are, I think, false. John Stackhouse's book should stand as one among many examples that egalitarians are in fact very aware of the corrosive effects of culture. After all, our interpretations of the difficult passages on women have been colored by centuries of decidedly un-Christian practice. And surely we shouldn't assume that a Christian who disagrees with us about such passages—whether from a complementarian or an egalitarian viewpoint—is lost forever.

Perhaps we could replace the slippery slope with a more biblical metaphor, such as the narrow path. Even if one is fully committed to staying on a narrow path, there may be points at which the exact borders of the path grow a little indistinct. One might even be walking on the verge for quite a while. But the group on the verge and the group in the middle of the path are both heading in the same direction. They can even shout helpful advice to each other, as John Stackhouse does in Finally Feminist. On the other hand, if someone's already skidding down a slippery slope, all you can do is yell "Disaster!" and keep others away.

Susan Wise Bauer is the author most recently of The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome (Norton), the first installment in a four-volume history of the world.

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