The fear of the unknown has been a powerful force for Christians over the years. If you let go of a particular doctrine, welcome a particular person, or adopt a particular belief, THERE’S NO TELLING WHERE IT COULD LEAD!
It’s amazingly effective for several reasons:
- There is no way to effectively dispute the future. It hasn’t happened yet.
- It doesn’t actually engage an idea or its implications for the present.
- It aims to keep listeners reliant on authority figures and gatekeepers for protection.
I’ve used the slippery slope argument myself in the past.
One day in seminary we were discussing Christian unity, and I mentioned my horror over a theoretical “liberal” Christian teaching my child’s Sunday school class. “THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!!!” There’s no telling where a liberal teacher could lead my children…
My professor, who had a good bit of conservative Baptist in him, pushed me to rethink my fear-based logic.
A good ten years of living with the Gospels has helped me see how unhelpful it is to live by fear in the first place, to say nothing of asking who or what we’re supposed to put our faith in to begin with. Didn’t Jesus say he was leaving his followers with peace after all?
If we are interacting with anything, be it theology, a social issue, or a political cause, from the position of fear and uncertainty about sliding down a slippery slope into the great and potentially terrible unknown, let’s at least ask if we’re using fear to excuse ourselves from engaging with ideas we’d rather not face. There may be times when a bit of caution is warranted—for instance, my personal alarm bells go off if someone starts treating the Trinity as optional or suspect.
All of that to say, if there’s a pattern to the Gospel stories, it’s Jesus leading his followers down one slippery slope after another.
You can’t glean wheat on the Sabbath… who knows where that will lead!
You can’t forgive a cripple’s sins… who knows where that will lead!
You can’t heal on the Sabbath… who knows where that will lead!
You can’t forgive a woman with an adulterous past… who knows where that will lead!
You can’t heal a Gentile woman… who knows where that will lead!
Things continue along similar lines with the early church.
You can’t preach to the Roman soldiers… who knows where that will lead!
You can’t convert Gentiles without making them Jews first… who knows where that will lead!
It’s one slippery slope after another in the New Testament. So the issue isn’t how to avoid all of the slippery slopes.
We need to figure out which slippery slope Jesus is leading us down.
Jesus gave us a few clues about these slippery slopes:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:34-35, NRSV
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”
Luke 6:43-44, NRSV
How do we produce good fruit and become loving people, then? I can think of no better metaphor than Jesus’ teaching: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15).
The logic of slippery slopes is this: Stay close to certain beliefs and practices, avoid certain beliefs and practices, and then you will stay close to Jesus.
The vine and branches logic is this: Stay close to Jesus and then you’ll know which beliefs and practices to hold onto to and which to avoid.
I remember several women from my days in a fundamentalist church who were the most sincere and loving prayer warriors I’ve ever met. If we tried talking about Bible translations, atonement theory, politics, and who knows what else, I’m sure we’d all go a little crazy these days. However, there was unmistakable fruit in their lives. You felt loved when you met them. They were connected to the vine.
You could say there’s a family resemblance among those who understand they are the children of God. They’ve been transformed by the common love that flows from the Father, Son, and Spirit.
We all hope and pray that we’re on the same page as Jesus, and I’m sure that we’ve all got something quite wrong about him. If there’s one thing I hope I am closer to getting right than not, it’s this idea of slippery slopes.
If Jesus was all about keeping people from sliding down slippery slopes, then he did a terrible job of it. If anything, he blatantly broke the Law or at least rejected how his contemporaries interpreted the Law.
Jesus led his followers down a slippery slope where the law of love and the law of the Spirit trumped the particulars of the written Law.
There aren’t letters bold and all-caps enough for me on this. People had chapter and verse support for opposing the ministry of Jesus. The literalists of his day found his ministry deeply troubling and obviously opposed to the purposes of God.
It was a slippery slope toward love and Spirit.
It was a slippery slope away from boundaries and external rules.
It was a slippery slope away from written laws to the law being written on our hearts.
Jesus slipped down to the center of God’s love that has the power to transform us, to lead us toward holiness, and to fill us with more than enough love to pass on to others.
Perfect love drives out fear, by the way…
So whatever is going on around us, love provides a steady foundation. When we are rooted and grounded in love, we can gladly slide down any slippery slope. Perhaps those things are actually what’s sliding away after all, while we remain fixed in the love of Christ.
This is why Paul writes:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Ephesians 3:16-19, NRSV
When you are rooted in the love of Christ, you’re (ideally, at least) less reliant on authority figures and laws that tell you what to believe, what to do, or how to stay safe. The unknown will always be unsettling. That is why our best bet is to rest in the one who has already overcome the world.