Standing Firm on the Slippery Slope (Richard D. Phillips)

A few weeks ago, the editorial team at Ref21 asked me if I would be willing to write something regarding Fred Harrell (pastor of City Church, San Francisco) and his recent postings in which he attacked the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. In doing so, I made a connection between Harrell’s prior shifts (first, adopting the ordination of women and, second, endorsing homosexual relations) and his most recent movement away from the clear teaching of God’s Word. My conclusion was to posit this as evidence of a slippery slope, further noting that in our cultural moment the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of ordaining women to office in the church.

It would be an understatement to observe that this post touched a raw nerve for some readers.* Two responses, however, were somewhat surprising to me. First, in commenting on Harrell’s trajectory, I found it necessary to provide some context. In doing so I noted some of his former ministry associations, drawing an accusation that I was smearing particular people and groups–as if to suggest that they too must hold similar views to Harrell. This criticism seems to me to arise from a most uncharitable reading of what I wrote. But I am happy to clarify that my point was simply to note that Harrell is a product of reputable ministries and not a wild-eyed liberal whose trajectory bears no relevance to his former denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America). I do not mean to suggest that his former associates inevitably share his views. Likewise, if someone was to draw conclusions from my career it would be necessary to note my association with James Boice and Tenth Presbyterian Church. To do so would not be to tar Boice with my failings but simply to provide necessary context.

A second response to my post was to deny that there is validity to the idea of slippery slopes. My initial response to this criticism is to marvel that people can take this position in light of recent church history. Cue the Santayana reference! Still, the topic is important enough that I think it good to defend the position I took earlier.

First, let me define what I mean in referring to the slippery slope. The slippery slope simply notes that those who remove the restraint against worldly conformity place themselves in peril of further and more damaging accommodations. The slope becomes slippery when the source of friction is removed. Far from the logical fallacy of which it is charged, there is a logical basis for the slippery slope argument: when the authority of Scripture is yielded to cultural demands, the loss of that authority renders us vulnerable to further cultural demands. Herein lies the wisdom of Scripture: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3). Indeed, the very first Psalm begins with a portrayal of the slippery slope, charting a progression from “the counsel of the wicked” to “the way of sinners” and ultimately (one thinks of the so-called Jesus Box) to “the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1).

In making these observations, I do not mean that anyone who changes his or her view in the direction of cultural preferences is irrevocably bound to further concessions. It is blessedly true that people and churches have taken a perilous step to the left (or right) and later reconsidered, and to note examples of this happening does not prove that their previous action had placed them in peril. It is because the slippery slope can be escaped by recommitting to Scripture that warnings of peril are of value. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that those who make any concessions to culture over Scripture have already abandoned the atonement of Christ. I am suggesting, however, that the slippery slope is…well, slippery. Those who remove traction from their feet may very well slide much further than they first thought possible. As Fred Harrell’s progression illustrates (together with those of the PC(USA), CRC, RCA, Church of Scotland, and other denominations), the abandonment of clear biblical teaching at one cultural pressure-point (women’s ordination), imperils us with further capitulations (homosexual acceptance), and if unchecked will find itself challenged to avoid “touching the Jesus Box.”

Second, I noted that in our time, the slippery slope is usually entered at the point of women’s ordination. This tendency is not surprising, since the assault of secular culture against the Bible is most tenaciously focused on gender and sexuality. To uphold biblical gender norms, including the Bible’s clear teaching on male-only ordination (see the recent PCA study committee report), is the single most inflammatory position that Christians may hold in our culture. For this reason, it is hard to find an example in recent history when a Christian leader or church denomination moved from biblical conservatism to unbiblical cultural conformity when the slide did not begin with the ordination of women to church office. It stands to reason, then, that we should avoid thinking that we can conform to the worldly demands regarding gender and avoid further accommodations of greater significance.

This brings me to the topic of women deacons. Several critics accused me of asserting that to support the ordination of women to the office of deacon is to abandon the gospel. This response is noteworthy because I made no mention of women deacons in my post. I will admit, however, to being unpersuaded that the move to ordain women deacons is unrelated to a broader agenda of cultural accommodation. In saying this, I do not mean to question the sincerity of those individuals who advocate the position that women should hold the office of deacon. But I would note the growing tendency among these same persons to employ women in roles that are as associated with the office of elder. For example, in many churches pastored by ministers who are supportive of the ordination of women deacons, women are placed in the pulpit during worship services for the public reading of Scripture and offer the congregational prayer. Women are assigned to distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper (an action historically associated with what the BCO calls “the admission of persons to sealing ordinances,” i.e., church discipline). These are functions associated with the office of elders, not deacons. Moreover, it is a matter of record that increasing numbers of men are seeking exceptions from their presbyteries on the matter of women elders and pastors. Word has recently come that pressure is being exerted in one PCA presbytery to install a woman as its stated clerk, making her a member of a court composed exclusively of ruling and teaching elders. Where is the outcry against these tendencies from those who say that they are only wishing to ordain women as deacons?

In light of this growing body of evidence, and without wanting to question anyone’s sincerity, I would suggest that unity and mutual trust are strengthened not only by assurances but by actions. The slippery slope runs in many directions, of course, depending on the cultural pressures. Everything I have noted about the gender pressures of the left, for instance, equally pertains to racist pressures on the right. If we are to have unity in the coming years, it behooves us all carefully to consider how our actions line up with our assurances. Moreover, since the sole restraint to all our sin and tendency to compromise is our obedience to the voice of the Spirit of Christ speaking in Holy Scripture, the counsel given by Jeremiah at another moment cultural of peril seems urgent: “Stand by the crossroads, and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). In this way alone will we navigate the perils of our times, fortifying both our fidelity to Christ and our mutual bonds of unity and trust.


*One well-known pastor wrote me privately to accuse me of being schismatic. It is a feature of our times, I am afraid, that to defend the consensus on which we have built unity is to be labeled as divisive.