Saturday, March 8, 2014

Slippery Slopes, Boiling Frogs & Camels' Noses

A Parade of Imagined Horribles

I enjoy the DirectTV advertisements, “Get Rid of Cable.” (Have you seen any of them?) All of the commercials begin with a cable customer having a problem with his cable service. Each time the irritated customer’s negative reaction devolves down a slippery slope of wildly illogical and bizarre consequences. The premise of each advertisement is that having cable will inevitably lead to misery and self-destruction. For instance, one of the commercials begins as a bored cable customer waits for the cable repairman. In his boredom, he looks out the window and witnesses a dead body being placed in the trunk of a car. In apparent fear for his life, he attempts to vanish in order to get away from the criminals who saw him looking out his window. In his scheme to flee, he fakes his own death, dyes his hair and eyebrows blonde and attends his own funeral as a man named “Phil Shifley.” The commercial ends with, “you don’t want to attend your own funeral as a man named Phil Shifley, get rid of cable.”  The commercials are hilarious because of their employment of the logical fallacy called slippery slope.

Slippery-slope arguments assume that one choice automatically cascades into a domino of worse choices that ultimately results in a destructive, objectionable end.  Other popular metaphors of the slippery slope are “the boiling frog” and the “camel’s nose.”[1] The slippery slope argument goes something like this:

If you do the first thing,
It will lead to the second thing.
Which will eventually lead to a bad thing.
So, don’t do the first thing.

This debate technique is categorized as a logical fallacy along with other fallacies like begging the question, appeal to authority, etc., because of two weaknesses: 1) lack of evidence of the automatic sequence of one choice leading to another and 2) a lack of proof that the last choice is actually objectionable or wrong.
Now, slippery-slope warnings are included in Scripture and they are anything but fallacies; they are Spirit-breathed truth that must be heeded.  James 1:15 gives us a slippery-slope warning: “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Solomon warns of the slippery slope of laziness (Proverbs 24:33-34). Paul adds to the warnings with the slippery slope of “sowing to the flesh” (Galatians 6:8a).  In addition, Jesus warned about the slippery slope of the doctrine of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:15).

The Scriptures warn us that one sin can indeed lead to another sin. But, as I see it, the slippery slope argument is being used today mostly about debatable things. So, rather than reflecting the Scripture’s warnings of one sin leading to another sin, the slippery slope warning is being used to claim that debatable things automatically lead to sinful choices.

Recognizing some of the characteristics of scripturally valid “slippery slope” warnings will serve us well. We will be vaccinated from prematurely sounding false alarms. Such a sieve will also assist us in evaluating warnings and concerns that we receive from other believers.

The reason for this post is a concern that the fallacious version of the slippery slope is being used as a hurtful weapon in the family of God. From my perspective, there seems to be an increasing amount of hurried, haphazard insinuations about ministers and ministries of being on the slippery slope of compromise without any biblical, loving, due process. Seemingly without trial or jury, a believer can warn of another believer’s slippery-slope tendencies and it is embraced as truth. Understand, my issue is not with prayerful spiritual discernment, but rather with this unfounded suspicious divisiveness.  I believe this needless splintering and dividing over (for example) differences with applications of secondary or tertiary separation, uses of certain technology in worship, sources of congregational music, views regarding traditional service formats, etc. are fallacious slippery slopes. 

Below are some consequences from our failing to take pause before sounding-out hasty, suspicious warnings about other believers or ministries.

·      We project our own personal weaknesses and proclivities onto others.  I suggest that we violate the spirit of Romans 14 whenever we assume that because we are weak in faith in a particular area, everyone else must be as well. What may be a slippery slope for me, may be something done in faith and “unto the Lord” by someone else.

·      We practically “muddy” the sufficiency of the Spirit and the Scriptures for moral and ethical formation. As a saint perseveres in their faith, the Spirit and the Word will give them all sufficiency for faith and practice. Erecting warning signs at every perceived slope effectively denies a believer the privilege to “exercise their senses to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). In things indifferent, we are to help our people learn how to think rather than teaching them exactly what to think. That is truly being skilled in the Word. Dr. David Doran brings clarity to this point here.

·      We draw extra biblical lines in the sand that divide us so severely that we lose ministry opportunities in the future. How do we react when someone we have warned of a slippery slope fails to heed our warnings? Do we view them as having been irretrievably lost? By venturing over our self-designated slippery slope have they now gone the way of the world?

·      We call “sin” what God has left in the “debatable” category.  It’s important for us to remember that every activity in life and ministry has not been categorized as “right” or “wrong” in God’s Word. Some areas have been left in the debatable category. That is not to say that God is indifferent about any of our choices. He most certainly is not (Romans 12:2b)!  But like the Pharisees who attempted to fence in the law, we must be careful not to “teach for doctrine the commandments of men” and bind consciences.

·      We use fear rather than grace as the primary motivator for sanctification. There are a variety of scriptural motivations for living a holy, separated life. One of those is a reverential fear and awe of God: “Those that fear the Lord depart from evil.”  Yet, we must take care about “crying wolf” about the consequences of ignoring our slippery-slope warnings. Grace should be the primary tutor for teaching us “to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and that we should live soberly and righteously in this present world.”

·      In the setting of a local church, we effectively make a charge against an elder. As we noticed, valid, biblical slippery slopes always involve sin. Making an accusation of a church’s slippery slope is an accusation against the elders of that ministry. Participating in feeding a sense of distrust in the hearts of sheep towards their under-shepherds is a grievous sin.

·      Such premature warnings often lead us to un-Scriptural separation and needless division. Divisions, separations, and the parting-of-ways are unfortunately necessary at times before we all join together in united chorus around the throne. However, we search the New Testament in vain in order to find a prescribed separation that is to be done clandestinely without biblical due process.  Rather, we should give diligence to maintain unity (Ephesians 4:3; Philippians 1:27). In addition, there is a clear due process for dealing with conflicts (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-20; Titus 3:10; II John 11).

·      In our zeal we actually teeter on the slippery slope of externalism and legalism. Often were the warnings our Lord gave about cleaning the outside of the cup while ignoring the inner man. Zealously fighting, fencing, and protecting our slippery slopes can unwittingly lead us down the other side of the slope. The warnings of Christ about that slick side of the slippery slope outnumber the other warnings.

Hopefully, such concerns will not be misconstrued as defending a cavalier, libertine approach to debatable issues. May such an equally dangerous and debilitating approach be avoided. “Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he falls.” “Flee youthful lusts.” “Avoid all appearances of evil.” “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” But, that was not the burden of this post.  

To conclude, I believe we are doing damage to the flock of God by “answering matters before we hear them.” We hurt the cause of Christ when we slander and judge motives, while at the same time attempting to justify our unbiblical separations. We flagrantly agitate and frighten sheep in local folds by spreading suspicion. Further, we violate the Scriptures by writing off Christian brothers and sisters without practicing the biblical due process of loving, truthful confrontation and exhortation.

The fallacy of the slippery slope is working fantastically for DirecTV. 

The fallacy of the slippery slope is producing fractures in the Body of Christ.

[1] “Boiling Frogs”-Gradual temperatures go undetected until the frog expires in boiling water. “Camel’s Nose-Legend that a camel asked to warm his nose in a nomad’s tent. He ended up taking over the tent and pushing the tent-dweller out into the cold.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Thanks for this refreshingly Biblical look at what is going on today. May your tribe increase, Brian, in an age where Christian "leaders" are majoring on minors and making little things big things.