‘Egalitarianism’ as a slippery slope?

I have heard or read a number of people recently arguing that an ‘egalitarian’ (hate the term…) position is to be rejected by evangelicals because it necessarily involves an approach to the the Bible which tends towards the erosion of Scriptural authority. This argument comes in two forms, one which has a degree of prima facie plausibility but is weak, and one which would be powerful but is in fact simply implausible. The plausible/weak form is based on hypotheticals: ‘someone who treats 1Tim 2 or Eph 5 like egalitarians do must therefore …’ The problem with this is the hidden premise in the argument is the theological (exegetical/hermeneutical) imagination of the one making the argument: in fact what is being said is ‘I cannot imagine a way of responsibly understanding Scripture that allows these conclusions…’ The limits of my, or anyone else’s, imagination are not particularly interesting theological data; historical reality (how have people who take this view in fact dealt with Scripture?) is far more interesting, which brings us to the second form of the argument.

This involves an assertion that it is a matter of historical fact that someone who accepts an ‘egalitarian’ position will probably – not necessarily, but probably – soon cease to be evangelical because they have lost any adequate account of the authority of Scripture. An acceptance of the ministry of women is a/the first step on a slippery slope to liberalism, and that can be shown by historical example. This would be a strong argument if it were plausible. Any serious student of evangelical history can point to positions that do seem generally to correlate with a later loss of evangelical faith – the most obvious would be the refusal (on solid grounds of Biblical authority, usually) to use traditional but non-Scriptural language in talking about the Trinity. If it could be shown historically that there is in fact a correlation between the acceptance of the ministry of women and a later denial of Biblical authority then that would be a telling point.

There is only one problem: there is no historical support whatsoever for this position; in fact, I would argue that there is a significant body of historical data pointing in precisely the opposite direction. Since the Reformation, there has been a broad correlation between a high view of Scriptural authority and an acceptance of the ministry of women.

Those who advance the ‘egalitarianism as slippery slope’ position often rely on assertions drawn from personal experience: ‘I have seen this over and over again’; ‘in three decades of ministry it has become clear to me’; ‘I, sadly, can think of many former friends who…’. There is a place for personal reminiscence in forming historical argument, but it is a carefully delimited one. Responsible scholarship knows the extent to which our narration of our own experiences tends to be conformed to what we think we should have observed. I am sure Christian pastors and scholars who say things like the above are honestly reflecting what they think they have experienced, but I am equally sure that, were we able to test their narratives against the facts of their life, we would find the intrusion of a considerable amount of unconscious bias. What is needed is proper historical scholarship: in the case of the Trinitarian language issue above, there is a classic case (drawn from older Dissenting history rather than evangelicalism): the Salters’ Hall synod of 1619. We have lists of those who subscribed to a traditional confession of faith, and of those who refused on grounds of fidelity to Scripture; we can trace their future careers, or the later denominational alignment of their churches; the correlation is easy to demonstrate on the basis not of imperfect recollection, but documented historical evidence.

Where is the equivalent detailed historical work that shows that those who embrace the ministry of women tend to fall from a conviction of the authority of Scripture? It is just not there. I submit that there is a good reason it is not there: there is no available historical evidence to support assertions that ‘egalitarians’ tend to cease being evangelical. Such assertions are, when tested against historical evidence, simply fantasies.

More than this: as any student of evangelical history knows, until the second half of the twentieth century, evangelicalism was more consistently hospitable to the teaching and leading ministry of women than any other Christian tradition except the Quakers. (And the change in the C20th was generally other traditions becoming more hospitable, not evangelicals becoming less so.) Major evangelical leaders have often accepted the ministry of women: Wesley and Booth stand out, but there are many, many others. And major evangelical traditions have rejoiced in, and benefited from, the ministry of women, from Primitive Methodism through the Salvation Army and the holiness movements into Pentecostalism. Evangelicals in historic denominations that were slow to embrace the ministry of women have repeatedly shown themselves in practice to be more open to women’s ministry than their denominations ever really allowed them to be. (There is a delightful vignette in Tim Larsen’s Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals concerning Hannah Whitall Smith’s preaching at the famous 1875 Brighton Convention: ‘[t]he most popular sessions … were those in which Hannah preached … to audiences of 5,000 or more, mostly clergymen [of the Church of England] who were theologically opposed to the preaching ministry of women.’ This is hardly an unusual narrative in evangelical history.)

(And all this without even considering the contribution of women’s preaching and leadership to the evangelical missionary movement, which is defining for evangelical identity through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries …)

I think I know the history of evangelicalism moderately well, but I am very happy to acknowledge that there are others who know the field far better. Indeed, we are blessed to live in an age of several truly great historians of evangelicalism. So I ask very simply: where, in any of the works of any of these historians – David Bebbington; Mark Noll; George Marsden; Timothy Larsen; … – where is there a single suggestion that there is a correlation in evangelical history between an acceptance of the ministry of women and a loss of evangelical conviction? Can those who trumpet this ‘slippery slope’ argument so loudly point to one single reference from a credible historian? I am confident that the answer is no.

If we expand our gaze from evangelicalism to Protestantism more generally, there is in fact an observable broad correlation between views of Biblical authority and views of the ministry of women: those who accept the ministry of women tend, prior to the second half of the twentieth century, to be those with the highest accounts of Biblical authority. Of course, prior to the rise of higher criticism, an account of the authority of Scripture was common to all strands of the church, and so this is not about ‘Bible believing’ vs ‘liberal’; rather it is about how the authority of Scripture is lined up against respect for the (subordinate) authority of tradition. It is, repeatedly, those who are most insistent in repudiating the tradition who are most ready to accept the ministry of women. To throw out only the very obvious examples: Baptists and Quakers in the seventeenth century; evangelicals in the eighteenth; Primitive Methodists in the nineteenth; Pentecostals in the twentieth; … Prior to the 1950s almost every denomination which embraced the ministry of women did so on the basis that they believed the authority of Scripture trumped cultural norms.

Of course, the correlation is only approximate – the Brethren would be an obvious counter-example, in that they fit into this pattern of radical counter-cultural Biblicism but refuse the teaching ministry to women. Further, obviously correlation is not cause, and the observed correlation stands in need of historical explanation, but the first point is simply to note that it is there – and its being there already suggests very strongly that the ‘egalitarianism is a slippery slope to liberalism’ argument is without foundation.

(What is the explanation? My version would go something like this: there are various theological positions that seem easy to find in the Biblical text but that have been difficult to hold because (Western) host-cultures have found them dangerous. These include (inter alia) separation of church and state; a thoroughgoing commitment to religious liberty; pacifism, or something rather close to it; believers’ baptism; communal possession of goods; the refusal to swear oaths; and the full ministry of women. Groups that deny the authority of tradition and see their commitment to Biblical authority as being essentially counter-cultural will find it easier to embrace some or all of these positions.)


  1. David Reimer
    Aug 31, 2012

    SH wrote: “[T]here are various theological positions that seem easy to find in the Biblical text but that have been difficult to hold because (Western) host-cultures have found them dangerous.”

    Well put. Thanks for this!

    The “slippery slope” arguers generally fail to notice there is danger on both “sides”. My own sense (only that) is that the besetting danger of “egalitarian” commitment is a misplaced sense of entitlement. On the other hand, the besetting danger of “complementarian” commitment is to restrict inappropriately (and unbiblically) the channels through which God can speak.


    • Steve H
      Aug 31, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by, David – I always appreciate it when real Biblical specialists confirm my prejudices about the text!

  2. simplepastor
    Aug 31, 2012

    Hi Steve, thought provoking as always. I’d be interested to hear your analysis on the impact then of higher criticism and why you seem to point the mid 20th century as a turning point. Have those who took a ‘liberal’ view of scripture in their enthusiasm for full ministry equality essentially caused a reaction in evangelicals not just against their view of scripture but what they saw to accompany it, women’s ministry?

    Secondly, where do all these anecdotes keep coming from then? If there is no truth to them, is it purely the fault of faulty memory? If those anecdotes are smoke, is there really no fire? So even taking into account their bias (and of course both sides have that) is there nothing to it?

    • Steve H
      Aug 31, 2012

      Thanks for commenting.
      Higher criticism – I just mention this because it opens the possibility of the ‘Christian but not (at least theoretically) committed to Biblical authority’ position.
      1950s – the point here was the change in culture. This is not as simple as some would paint it – our Western cultures are still deeply and pervasively sexist both in the assumption that women should put up with being constructed as sex objects by men, and in the multiple barriers to equality of opportunity that exist. (For many real life examples check out http://www.everydaysexism.com/). That said, one of the cultures I inhabit – the academic elite culture of universities – has promoted a rhetorical commitment to gender equality (if not a practical commitment) to be a cultural norm. This has changed the context: Baptists permitting women to preach in 1650 were castigated by their wider culture, as were evangelicals in 1750, Primitive Methodists in 1850, or Pentecostals in 1950(ish); now, on this issue, I am in conformity with one of the cultures I inhabit (rhetorically; when I insist, as I fairly regularly do, that there has to be at least one female voice in a list of extracts/speakers/… it can become easy to spot the extent to which rhetoric and practice diverge…). This has changed the shape of the argument significantly.

      Anecdotes: yes, everyone is biased, which is why going to the historical evidence is so important. Imagine a story that ran ‘in 1975, 200 evangelical pastors signed a statement supporting the ministry of women, and 100 signed a counter-statement opposing it. Now, only 50 of the 200 would still be recognisably evangelical, whereas 98 of the 100 would.’ That’s evidence – we can argue about the significance of it, but it is evidence. The anecdotes come, I think, from two places. The first is a well-known phenomenon, usually called ‘confirmation bias’ (unusually, the wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias is fairly good). If I am convinced that (say) all Belgians are happy, I selectively remember happy Belgians I meet, discount encounters with depressed Belgians as strange exceptions, and so can say, with honesty, if misplaced confidence, that ‘my experience is that Belgians are generally happy.’ Someone who is antecedently convinced that evangelicals who are egalitarian tend to lose confidence in Biblical authority will find her experience confirming that belief. The second is linked, and about confusing correlation and cause: the mainline churches in the USA, at least, are – like British universities – places where a rhetorical commitment to gender equality is normative. An American evangelical who joins a mainline denomination will almost certainly embrace, at least rhetorically, ‘egalitarianism’. Particularly if one has a confirmation bias already in place, it would be easy to observe this person and assume that his egalitarianism led to his loss of evangelical conviction…

      Is there no fire? I know of absolutely no credible evidence that there is any fire. Given the energy with which the position is promoted, I would have thought that any good evidence would be very regularly repeated in very public ways. So my working assumption is that there is no fire.

  3. Andrew Wilson
    Aug 31, 2012

    Great insights as ever, Steve. For what it’s worth, my guess is that the first argument, which you dismissed very quickly, is the real issue in the discussion: it’s the point Grudem, Keller and co make in their books and public comments on the subject. I’ve just spent a few days speaking at an egalitarian Bible week, and met evangelical leaders who were honest enough to say that (a) Paul did have a complementarian vision of marriage, and (b) we don’t have to have that now. I don’t think it’s a restriction of imagination to suspect that such an argument could easily appear in other contexts, regarding other issues, depending on the preferences of the wider culture (which I pointed out, as a good complementarian, and was received very graciously). Anecdotal, of course – I don’t know who would bother keeping stats on these things – but perhaps more of a factor than you might think. As such, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between exegetical egalitarians (Paul said and did x, so we do x too) and hermeneutical egalitarians (Paul said and did x, but we can do y, because times have changed / he was behind the curve on slavery / trajectory hermeneutics is valid / women back then weren’t educated / Ephesus was rabidly feminist / etc). The former should pose no slippery slope problems for anyone; the latter might well, though.

    On a totally random note, have you ever written anything on Peter Enns, evolution, errors and so on? I’d love to read it if you had – you always seem to think more clearly than most people 🙂

    • Steve H
      Aug 31, 2012

      Hi Andrew, thanks.

      I can respect the first argument, but I don’t find it very persuasive. Suppose I have two friends – in fact I do – one of whom argues ‘I cannot understand how anyone can claim to be committed to the authority of Scripture and at the same time accept that women can speak in the assembly’ and another who argues ‘I cannot understand how anyone can claim to be committed to the authority of Scripture and at the same time accept that infants can be baptised’. In terms of understanding Scripture, I agree with one, and not the other; but in terms of the limits of their imagination, I struggle to find either argument convincing: I have met enough evangelical paedobaptists whose commitment to following Scripture was so utterly transparent that I cannot doubt it; I struggle to believe that any ‘complementarian’ (don’t like that word either…) who had seriously engaged in the breadth of evangelical opinion would not be able to say the same of people committed to the ministry of women.

      (To take an iconic example, I am not going to claim that there was something wrong with John Stott’s commitment to Biblical authority because he disagreed with me on baptism (and on establishment, and …); seriously, knowing Uncle John, or knowing all we know of him, could anyone really say that his commitment to Biblical authority was somehow weakened or compromised or called into question because he accepted the possibility of a woman teaching in the church?)

      Did Paul have a complementarian view of marriage? In modern terms, I suppose not – our modern nuclear family would have been totally foreign to him (this is really important: if the household consists of multiple generations of men and women, some of whom are freeborn and some of whom are slaves, then discussions of authority are rather more complex than we might suppose…). More relevantly, perhaps, marriage seems to me to be rather beside the point; Paul assumed that women were teaching in the church assembly, accepted this, and commended women who were so doing. (Usual list of references…)

      I’m glad my ‘egalitarian’ sisters and brothers received your comments graciously…

      We all ‘neuter’ various Biblical texts. The Bible is clear that charging or paying interest on a loan is wrong, but we all (in the West) do it; the NT really does seem to promote community of goods, but none of our churches live that out; you and I will agree that the Bible teaches that God has graciously given various charismatic gifts to His Church, to be used for mission – but many people disagree; it was and is simply true to say that every Biblical text dealing directly with slavery supports the practice, or at least assumes that it is normal; most of us today would argue that we need a more sophisticated hermeneutic in dealing with these texts and that slavery is actually wrong; …

      This is not a challenge to the authority of Scripture; it is actually, in my view, a necessary recognition to support the authority of Scripture. I am utterly committed to Biblical authority; to be so I need to be able to read the Bible in a seriously Christian way, a way that allows me to repudiate slavery (e.g.) in the face of the brute meaning of certain texts. I would argue, first, that – unlike the issue of slavery – that there are actually many texts in the NT that support, commend, or assume the full ministry of women; and second that, the texts that don’t (two?) need to be treated the same way that we treat texts supporting slavery, as accommodations to the culture of the day that were proper then but do not establish permanent ethical principles.

      All of which is to say, I have never met an ‘exegetical egalitarian’ – or an ‘exegetical complemetarian’ – on your definition; Paul assumed slavery was inevitable and normal; no-one I have met assumes that today. We all do hermeneutics, and properly so; the question is which hermeneutical moves are right and proper, and which are illegitimate.

      I never read Pete Enns book, so no, I’ve not written on it.

      • simplepastor
        Sep 3, 2012

        Steve, I’ve not read all of Stott’s comments on this issue to be certain but his commentary on 1 Timothy suggests that although he would allow a woman to teach or preach, it would also be under the authority of a senior male minister. Which means he would have been plagued from both houses.

      • Steve H
        Sep 4, 2012

        Yes, I’ve argued before on here that we need to get beyond a polar distinction, and Stott would be an example of someone in a mediating position…

      • simplepastor
        Sep 4, 2012

        As an egalitarian (I know you don’t like the term but I’m not sure what else to use) what is your reaction to a position like Stott’s? Is it weak for not going far enough, a coalition fudge so to speak that pleases no-one? Or is it more positive than that?

  4. Val
    Aug 31, 2012

    I love you comment about confirmation bias and happy nationals. I lived in/worked in Nepal (and area) for about a year. Every two-week tourist, visitor, trekker who passed through commented on how happy the Nepalese were in their poverty. Really? If they are so happy in their poverty, why are they selling their girls to Indian Brothels or a servant/slaves to the rich was my reply? If one sees smiles does that mean they are happy or they are excited at the prospect of ripping off a white-skinned tourist?

    It is what I am wondering about evangelicalism. From the outset I was taught my witness was important. So, if someone asked me about women not having leading roles in the church I replied it was fine, not my issue, etc. God was more important than such a little thing. Then I went to a church where women were leaders and that was no longer an issue. A move or two later and I ended up back in a church where – denominationally women could be leaders – locally women weren’t even allowed to teach (not highly noted, so it took a while for me to realize). Were the women really happy here? On the surface they were as nice as any church, then, when I got to know them all I got was griping about their husbands not being enough of a leader, doing this or that, etc. I don’t know the stats, and no woman that I know who are in this would admit it, but this comp. stuff seems to make women pretty upset, despondent, and marginalized in home and church. I am not surprised every other woman’s article in comp. circles is similar to “you don’t have to do it well to be who you are called to be” Placating the gnawing feeling something isn’t right/marriage is one big disappointment as it eats into everyones sense of self and bogs down their freedom. Yet, to the world, it is all smiley faces.

  5. Andrew Wilson
    Aug 31, 2012

    Thanks so much for the detailed reply, Steve. I agree with a lot of what you say, but strongly disagree that marriage isn’t relevant (it’s the main point where I find some forms of egalitarianism problematic, in fact). Lending at interest and baptising babies are not prohibited in the NT, which means they are not analogous. Slavery, of course, was not commanded or explained in terms of creational ordinances or the relationship between Christ and the church, and that means the analogy breaks down significantly at that point. And with spiritual gifts, I’d have to say that I agree with you – the arguments both have the form “that was then, this is now”, and as such I think complementarians should all be charismatics 🙂

    But of course I agree that egalitarians are often just as committed to the authority of Scripture as complementarians. I just think there is a type of egalitarian argument about marriage, which I encounter frequently – Howard Marshall makes it in DBE, for instance – that leaves itself open to relativising all sorts of other biblical imperatives (including those about spiritual gifts, ironically!) That, I think, is the strong point of Keller’s argument in the video you talked about recently.

    But again, thanks so much for the response – your stuff is always helpful, and I really appreciate your clear thought and gracious debunking of problematic arguments (including some which I have used!)

  6. kyleblanchette
    Sep 3, 2012

    Andrew —

    It seems to me that Paul does explain slavery in terms of Christ’s relationship to the church and believers in several places:

    Eph 6:5-7– “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (this is exactly parallel to “wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church.” Paul here is saying master is the master of the slave, just as Christ is the master of believers, who are slaves to Christ. It is the will of God to obey one’s master, as unto the Lord.)

    1 Cor. 7:22–” For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.”

    Rom. 6:22–“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”

    Slavery is assumed to be a reality by Paul and much of the NT, and injunctions are given with respect to *how* to do slavery in a Christianly manner (they show up right there in Eph. 5). You need a trajectory approach to see how the NT is “leavening” slavery, and to judge theologically where this trajectory points. Any view that sees slavery as ultimately wrong is unavoidably going “beyond” the text in the sense of following the internal logic of its trajectory beyond the concrete realities on the ground in the 1st century (as evidenced by the text). There is simply no concrete command to abolish slavery anywhere, and lots of concrete commands with respect to it. But the NT is clearly pointing in that direction. So hermeneutics must step in. There is no purely “exegetical” abolitionist.

    Now, whether Paul is “appealing to the order of creation” in 1 Tim 2 in the sense complementarians need–in a sense sufficient to distinguish female leadership from the issue of slavery–is precisely what is often up for debate. But I think the analogy to slavery holds here insofar as a slave’s relationship to his master is explained in terms of our relationship to Christ.

    • simplepastor
      Sep 3, 2012

      “There is simply no concrete command to abolish slavery anywhere”

      I think 1 Timothy 1:10 would qualify. Paul calls the business of slave trading ‘ungodly’ ‘sinful’ ‘contrary to sound doctrine’ ‘lawbreaking’ and to put on a list that includes murder. What more do we want him to say? Paul says we shouldn’t buy or sell slaves and those who own slaves are to treat them not as slaves but as brothers (Philemon 16) in Christ and then to respect it. I don’t think any trajectory is needed.

      • kyleblanchette
        Sep 3, 2012

        Hey simplepastor–

        If I’m not mistaken, 1 Tim 1:10 is referring to the practice of stealing the rightfully owned slaves of others. That’s what Paul is forbidding.

        As for Philemon, I certainly agree that that text points towards abolition, but surely it is far from a full embrace of abolitionism in the sense we believe in it today. Paul instructs this man not to receive back this slave as a slave, but he gives different advice to people who already own slaves (such as the advice I quoted from Eph 6), namely simply to treat them well–not to release them. And he could have said that if he wanted to, but he didn’t.

        What do we get when we “add” these two verses together? A clear trajectory: Paul’s comments put a theological time bomb next to slavery, without coming fully to a full-blown abolitionist position. We have to discern that through theological synthesis: it simply does not fall out of specific commands, some of which actually permit slavery. But the NT, taken together, certainly does point to abolition–that is the *logic* of its redemptive movement, but that logic must be discerned.

        And this is the same kind of case egalitarians are making for female ordination: there are passages that are in tension with one another, and when it all shakes out via theological/hermeneutical synthesis, something like an egalitarian position emerges. It seems pretty evident that we already do this with respect to slavery. So the real question is whether the same interpretive principles apply to female leadership.

        • simplepastor
          Sep 3, 2012

          Hi Kyle, thanks for the reply. I don’t think that is what 1 Tim 1:10 is saying, it can be translated kidnapping but it can mean what the NIV translates it as, ‘slave trading’ which is after all kidnapping. I must have the wrong books on my shelves because everyone I have including Stott, Longman, Guthrie, Perkins, Barcley, NT Wright, Dunn all say it refers to slave trading, the act of making someone a slave and not just stealing someone who already was a slave. Of course this shouldn’t be surprising because Paul seems to putting the ten commandments into a contemporary light as stealing is prohibited and so is kidnapping (Ex 21:16). It’s hard to say from today which slaves were actually bondservants and which ones were kidnapped, sold into slavery slaves. But it seems that 1 Tim 1:10 is actually banning the catching, selling and buying of slaves.

          So I don’t think there is a trajectory in terms of view of the practice. Paul is being consistent with some of the moral law of the OT. So I’m not sure, then, as a result whether slavery is then analogous to the issue of female leadership.

  7. Kyle
    Sep 3, 2012


    You might be right; I’m not sure. But whether Paul is referring to stealing people who are already slaves, or kidnapping someone in order to make them a slave, Paul is referring to making someone a slave via illegal means. 1 Tim 1:10 can’t be stretched to support full blown abolitionism. In other places, Paul clearly tells slaves to submit to their masters (even their abusive masters, in some cases), and tells masters to treat their slaves kindly–not to release them. So either way, there is tension between such texts and texts like Philemon. Nowhere does Paul say that all slaves should be released. You have to follow the trajectory of what Paul is doing with slavery in order to get there. The ethic is not found in concrete commands, but in the moral trajectory.

    • Kyle
      Sep 3, 2012

      And the point is, of course, that there are similar tensions with women in leadership positions. Some passages seem to restrict it, whereas others seem to allow it, offer rationale for it, and even give examples of it. So we have to resolve that tension and follow the trajectory, just as we do with slavery and abolition. Paul gave us the theological seeds for abolition (and an end to female subordination), and we water them. It is *less* biblical to get frozen in concrete commands while missing what Paul is doing in providing us with a clear redemptive direction.

    • simplepastor
      Sep 3, 2012

      But the ethic is found in concrete commands – Ex 21:16 and 1 Tim 1:10, I can’t see what’s not concrete about them. If the law says something is illegal and unlawful and Paul is saying something is illegal and unlawful what more do you need? Paul is arguing that Christians (nor anyone else for that matter) should trade in slaves, and should treat the ones they have not as slaves but as brothers and that everyone else in a servant role should respect those they’re working for. There is no need for a trajectory for something that is already present. I don’t think the same can be said for issue of ministry roles for women.

      The other thing of course is that trajectories are not certain but necessarily speculative. It is almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty that the trajectory one prefers happens to be the one Paul intended. And of course what is allowed is exactly the point in contention and so can’t be quite as clear a seed as anyone would like and that’s why we all go round the merry go round on this issue.

      • Kyle
        Sep 4, 2012


        *All* interpretive principles yield probable, rather than certain, results when it comes to figuring out what the Bible teaches. Pick any contentious issue in the church–issues that have nothing to do with matters of trajectory even, such a baptism, the Lord’s supper, contraceptives, predestination, etc.–and it becomes clear that this is the case. So trajectory hermeneutics are not disqualified in virtue of not arriving at certainty; no interpretive principles do that. They must be disqualified on other grounds if at all.

        I respectfully disagree that there is any command in the Bible for all Christians to release their slaves. There is a suggestion (though hardly a command) by Paul to Philemon to do it, and there is a prohibition against kidnapping people and making them slaves, but there is no general command not to hold slaves, nor to release all slaves already held. Quite the contrary, there are commands for slaves to submit to their masters, even their abusive ones in one instance, and of course commands for *how* to treat slaves.

        Yes, this slavery was different from the slavery of antebellum south, but undoubtedly it involved *owning* persons, so “servant role” is too soft here. When we are called “slaves of Christ” (in the same passages that talk about slaves submitting to masters), certainly what is intended is far more than that we “serve” Christ like a butler would serve his employer. It’s that Christ *owns* us. Paul tells Christians how to treat such slaves, but he does not tell them to release them. This is pretty widely accepted in NT scholarship, I think. Paul makes concessions to the culture, for certain reasons.

        So it won’t do to avoid the necessity of appealing to a redemptive trajectory on this issue (and consequently, from having the option to appeal to it for women in leadership) by finding more in the concrete commands regarding the prohibition slavery than is actually there. Besides, the vast majority complementarians use similar, culturally-sensitive reasoning on other issues too, like head coverings. The question is whether there are conflicting passages that must be resolved in theological synthesis. It seems to me that there are on both female ordination and slavery.

        • simplepastor
          Sep 4, 2012

          At the danger of going round in circles ad infinitum, here’s another reply. Firstly, of course our history of agreeing on issues in which trajectory theory is not needed should at the very least suggest that those using it would be wise to exercise far more caution in their pronouncements than is often the case. The case is ‘clearly’ not black and white.

          But back to the issue of slavery. I wonder if you’re comparing Paul to the wrong form of slavery ie…slavery of Wiberforce’s day as against say the sort of slavery that exists and is campaigned against today. So Paul is doing what campaigners do today, calling enforced slavery illegal, requiring Christians to behave differently. Slavery in the first century was probably more like slavery in the 21st than in the 18 & 19th century.

          Remember that a slave that was instead being treated like a member of the family may not have wanted freedom in the sense we would have understood it. In many cases it would almost certainly have condemned them to a life of extreme poverty and an early grave, as is the case today. Paul unlike today offers pastoral advice to those in that same situation,

          Finally, if Paul’s line of arguing was listened to across the empire it would have been a one generation issue at least in terms of enforced slavery. But not all ‘slavery’ was of the kidnapped enforced type that required (at least in the mind of Paul) and abolitionist solution. See this http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog/article/whats-wrong-with-slavery for example.

      • Steve H
        Sep 4, 2012

        How about eating blood as an example of a trajectory hermeneutic? I might even blog about that…

        • simplepastor
          Sep 4, 2012

          That’s an interesting example that I have to admit I’d not considered before, although perhaps depending on who I was eating with or the culture in which I was in, that may still be a prohibition to respect. So again that might not show a trajectory from application to non-application but be more contextual.

          Most of the time I have no idea how the meat I eat met its end so have I have no idea whether it was strangled, I’ll live under the presumption that I’m safe. 🙂

      • DjR
        Sep 4, 2012

        @Steve H, re: “eating blood”; could add oaths (Matt 5:34 // Jas 5:12) and the injunctions in 1 Tim 2:8-9, among many others I’m sure.

        On a different track, so not a “concrete command”, but a “creation ordinance” (if that’s the right term here), is one I encountered this past July during a Bible study in Malawi. We read 1 Corinthians 11, in which vv. 14-16 run:

        “14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

        They didn’t know whether to smirk, laugh, or cry, or what. There is no way, in God’s good creation, that those women are ever going be able to grow hair any longer than the men’s — and that’s not very long at all! “Nature” doesn’t quite teach the same thing in the Middle East as it does in sub-Saharan Africa, it seems.

  8. Kyle
    Sep 4, 2012

    “Firstly, of course our history of agreeing on issues in which trajectory theory is not needed should at the very least suggest that those using it would be wise to exercise far more caution in their pronouncements than is often the case. The case is ‘clearly’ not black and white.”

    My point was that this point holds for *any* issue of biblical interpretation upon which Christians widely disagree–and there are many such issues that do not even use trajectory theory at all, such as baptism, communion, predestination, church polity, inclusivism/exclusivism, contraception, divorce/remarriage, and more. So trajectory as an interpretive principle is no more damned by disagreement than any other hermeneutical principle.

    I realize that slavery in Paul’s day–aside from slavery based on kidnapping–was not the same as the slavery of the antebellum south (as I noted), but I don’t think you can avoid the fact that it still involved legal ownership. Slaves simply had less rights than free persons, and in many instances Paul does not tell slave-owners to release their slaves, but instead to treat them kindly, and he called for slaves to submit to their masters, as unto the Lord. Paul tolerates, and even in some sense perpetuates the slave-master relationship, in certain texts (like Eph. 6). This is in clear tension with texts like Philemon, which point to full abolition. But Paul does not teach the full abolition that we embrace today (changing slaves to freed status, with all of those rights).

    I certainly agree that it would have caused massive problems had Paul commanded abolitionism. But that’s the point. He didn’t command abolitionism, but made concessions to the culture for certain prudential reasons. We have to infer it from the trajectory of what he was doing in the surrounding culture, and how slavery was being “leavened” by the gospel, eventually to be set aside. Christians did agree that slavery was fine–even in accordance with natural law–for a long time, based on biblical interpretation. It was arguably trajectory hermeneutics that convinced them otherwise. The question is whether there are similar tensions and concessions with female leadership. I think there are.

  9. Kyle
    Sep 4, 2012

    Simplepastor: trajectory *is* all about context. The very point is that when you look at the context of various commands, you can discern an underlying direction to which they are pointing, and that becomes the timeless ethic that is then applied accordingly today. It’s not about moving from “application” to “non-application,” but rather looking at the various concrete applications in the Bible, discerning an underlying ethic, and applying it accordingly in our contemporary context.

  10. Nathan
    Dec 3, 2012

    Thanks for this, Steve.


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