Along the Way: At the Bottom of “The Slippery Slope”

When I wrote ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in 2014, I received immediate pushback and censure from colleagues at Asbury Theological Seminary, and from the larger conservative Wesleyan world.  One parachurch group described me as “the latest evangelical to go down the slippery slope.”  As it turned out, there was an exodus by many people from evangelicalism in 2014, orthodox Christians who saw the movement becoming increasingly fundamentalistic/legalistic in theology and judgmental in temperament—an exodus which still continues six years later. [1]

The recent dismissal of two Asbury University professors for being LGBTQ+ affirming has taken me back to “the slippery slope,” which they have now surely gone down in the eyes of some of their colleagues and others for whom being an LGBTQ+ ally is the new unpardonable sin in the “one strike and you’re out” game being played in some denominations, educational institutions, and parachurch organizations. [2]

The phrase “the slippery slope” has become the  indication of someone’s abandonment of faith (as defined by the group leveling the charge), a stigma akin to being “unclean” in the Bible, so that offenders are henceforth placed outside the camp.  “The slippery slope” is the icky exit offered to those who once were found, but now are lost—a means that relegates offenders to persona non grata status.

Having been alleged to have gone down that slope, I want to send back a report from the bottom of it.  I offer it to the two Asbury University professors, who now find themselves on the slope—and to any others who may be on it in the future.

Interestingly, critics only speak of the slope, leaving the bottom to a speculative nether-world status akin to the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. [2]  But the fact is, going down the slope is not only survivable, there is abundant living at the bottom—something critics don’t want folks to know.  At the outset, there is pain.  No one sets out to be rejected. But as the initial wound heals, it becomes a place of  expanded wellness and wholeness.  Here are some things at the bottom of “the slippery slope.”

First, there is an expanded understanding of friendship.  Jeannie and I have some longtime friends with us at the bottom, but a plethora of new friends now added to the list–a lot of them are LGBTQ+ people.  At the bottom of the slope, we experience friendship not contingent on secondary (and often invisible, fleeting) factors. We have found community created not by institutional ethos statements that are required to be signed by those who want to be students, faculty, or employees.  We have friendships that are not subject to being lost at a moment’s notice or by a declarative act. 

Second, there is an expanded vision of humanity and the oneness of the human family.  Recognizing the nonbinary nature of creation (revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the sciences), we recognize the sacred variety of people (Psalm 139:14), and we are enriched by the love they show and the gifts they brIng.  At the bottom of the slope, Joseph’s coat of many colors is our clothing, and the imago dei is the basis of our life together.

Third, new passages of Scripture create the vantage point.  The one that has become my North Star is Colossians 3:11, “Christ is all and in all.” [4]. The first three words (a statement of Christ’s Lordship) has been at the center of my faith for nearly sixty years.  The last three are words I see better now in the last six years.  This verse has become a window for seeing other passages in a new light (especially the Covenant, the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit), and for understanding that Jesus (the Word made flesh) is our lens for interpreting Scripture, because in the final analysis, he is the Gospel. [5]

Fourth, there is an expansion of community.  I now understand in new ways that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, a breadth of faith not just a depth.  A host of fully-devoted Christ followers (living and dead) have become mentors, opening onto a grander vision of the Kingdom of God.  Christians across the theological spectrum (and some from other religions) have increased the size of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrewsv12:1) beyond what it once was for me.  There is indeed light from many lamps.

Fifth, at the bottom of the slope, I find God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and I recognize that I am alive at a time when God is doing a new thing, as God has done in the world and church before.  We are in a new pentecost, with a fresh wind blowing and new wineskins being made to hold God’s new wine. [6]  More than anything else, at the bottom of the slope, I find the path of an ongoing journey into the new heaven and new earth (e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:15-20).  And I say with E. Stanley Jones, “I am a Christian under construction.  God isn’t finished with me yet!”

The past six years, at the bottom of the slope, have yielded these treasures and more. The bottom of the slope enables me to understand that you have to be outside the box in order to realize it’s a box.  As long as you stay inside, it looks like a room, and fellow insiders decorate it so as to make you believe it is the only room worth living in.  By their words and deeds they say, “You need not go elsewhere; indeed, you must not—or you will head down the slippery slope.”

Don’t believe it….get out of the box….come on down!  The bottom of the slope is a place of fresh air,  where you can drink freely of the Living Water.

[1] David Gushee, ‘Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism’ (WJK, 2017).  David’s experience of pushback and rejection is very similar to mine.  We have compared notes.  He will publish a book in August that will further describe the validity and vitality of a post-evangelical Christian faith.  I tell my story in chapter one of ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality.’ (Abingdon Press, 2019).

[2] The U.S. Government allows private Christian institutions to be exempt from Title IX  anti-discrimination laws.  Both Asbury institutions have been granted exemptions.  This post is not about the legality of their actions (based on ethos statements that are not LGBTQ+ affirming), but rather about the morality of their actions.  Christians always distinguish between legality and morality.

[3]  This is exactly the image Franklin Graham used in the July/August 2014 issue of Decision magazine, with the cover title, “Cowards Destined for the Lake of Fire.”

[4] E. Stanley Jones wrote, “Nothing in all literature can compare with this” in his book, ‘In Christ’ (Abingdon Press, 1961), Saturday, Week 40.  

[5] Today, this is referred to as The Jesus Hermeneutic.  Richard Rohr describes major features of it in his book, ‘What Do We Do With The Bible?’ (CAC Publishing, 2018), 41-56.  I write similarly in my book, ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality’ (Abingdon Press, 2019), 23-28.

[6] I write more about this in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’ (Cascade Books, 2013.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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