Stepping over Boundaries and Finding New Metaphors

Dear Kimberly,

Since you’re inundated with your Yale studies and deadlines for papers at this busy time of year, I’m happy to help out by writing this month’s post, even though it will mean two posts by “72” in a row.  (I can assure our readers that you, “27,” will be back with another letter in late December. I know they’ll be eager to hear from you.)

Actually, this revised schedule works out well because I had wanted to add some further thoughts to my October post anyway—especially about how the slippery-slope metaphor and similar ones are used as warnings intended to keep people in line.

Fear is the designated sentry guarding boundaries

I thought about such warnings as I watched the new movie Never Let Me Go, which is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian science fiction novel about children in an English boarding school who are unknowingly destined for a cruel future unlike that of other children. In one scene, a new teacher arrives and watches the children playing a game of cricket. When the ball is batted across a simple wooden picket fence, easily accessible through a gate, the boy chasing it stops short and doesn’t even attempt to retrieve the ball.  The teacher calls another child aside and asks why.  “There was once a boy who ran off beyond boundaries,” the girl replies. “He was found later in the woods with both his hands and feet cut off.”  The teacher asks who told the children these stories. “Everybody knows them” the girl says simply, as though puzzled by the teacher’s seeming naiveté.  The teacher continues her questioning. “How do you know they’re true?”  The girl replies with the assurance of a true believer: “Who would make up stories as horrible as that?”

That scene illustrates how fear-as-a-control-agent works.  The fear is planted in the form of a warning—a warning about particular consequences that will result if a boundary is crossed (“There was once a boy” and look what happened to him!).  Such stories are not questioned but are socially reinforced within the particular community or reference group where the stories were planted (“Everybody knows them.”).  If questioning does occur (“How do you know they’re true?”), the question rather than the belief is considered absurd (“Who would make up stories as horrible as that?”). The question is dismissed rather than mentally entertained or discussed.  Case closed.

And so people are kept in line and become afraid to cross over particular boundaries because they’ve learned that to do so is to court danger.

Of course, missteps and slippery slopes can be dangerous in a literal sense (I just saw the movie, 127 Hours!), but the problem comes when we move away from literal examples and use them as metaphors to discourage honest questioning — particularly, in the case we’re discussing, the question of certain traditional interpretations and applications of biblical passages.  True, there are actual consequences of our actions, but there are also fabricated consequences — warnings about inevitabilities that have no basis in fact but are voiced by those who want to keep others from stepping over certain established boundaries.

Concern about gender boundaries

Perhaps no other boundaries concern conservative Christians as much as boundaries built around gender.  Whatever the metaphor (slippery slope, camel’s nose in the tent, or crossing over fences), you and I both know, Kim, that warnings against violating established gender norms are sounded loudly and often. We’ve both mentioned this in our recent letters about Elisabeth Elliot’s writings.

In this slippery-slope way of thinking, if a person takes one step (acceptance of the idea that women and men are equal and were not created to have separate, divinely-instituted roles), another “downward” step will follow. And soon that person will end up in what such doomsayers consider the worst place of all.  As you pointed out, for Elliot that “worst place” is the acceptance of homosexual relationships.

That same downward-track idea also comes through in the writings of other major writers who likewise espouse patriarchy (although they now prefer to call it by its supposedly softer name, complementarianism, which we’ve already discussed in previous posts).

Wayne Grudem, in his book Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism, describes a series of steps that he considers to show a movement away from biblical truth.  In his model, the slippery-slope slide begins with interpretations of Scripture that advocate women’s ordination and the rejection of male headship in marriage. These steps are followed by a “rejection of anything uniquely masculine” and the endorsement of female terminology for God.  The final step, according to Grudem, “Is the endorsement of the moral legitimacy of homosexuality.” He claims that all of these steps indicate “a rejection of the effective authority of Scripture in people’s lives,” which he calls “the bedrock principle of theological liberalism.”

It’s really about the Bible

Back in 1978, shortly after Virginia Mollenkott and I coauthored the book, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, I was invited to be one of two keynote speakers at a conference on Christianity and homosexuality in which contrasting views would be presented.  I was seated on the speakers’ platform next to the other speaker, a professor and administrator from a conservative theological seminary who had been chosen to represent the traditional conservative viewpoint.  As we shared a hymnal, he whispered to me, “As soon as your book All We’re Meant To Be [on the equality of women and men] was published a few years ago, I said to my wife that your next book would be on homosexuality.” (The music had started, so I didn’t have a chance to ask what he meant and why he predicted that — although I was puzzled, because at the time the first edition of All We’re Meant to Be was published [1974], neither my coauthor, Nancy Hardesty, nor I would have considered writing a book on homosexuality.)

In my innocence at the time the theologian made that remark, I thought that maybe his statement to his wife meant that once a person interpreted the Bible to teach that God respected the full personhood of all human beings as equal in worth and dignity and that all oppressed groups should be lifted up, then it would be only logical to realize that LGBT people should also not be regarded as lesser human beings any more than women should be so considered.  Jesus had taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves and not to lord it over others.

But I should have realized the theologian was engaged in slippery-slope thinking instead, and rather than having seen my writing as a desire to lift up, he was thinking of it in terms of sliding down—that I taken the first step (feminism) toward slipping away from the authority of Scripture (or more accurately, his interpretation of Scripture).

Similarly, Marry Kassian in her book, The  Feminist Gospel: The Move to Unite Feminism with the Church(later published as The Feminine Mistake), sees a trajectory of “namings” centered around a woman’s agency and experience — first, a woman’s assumption that she has a right to name or identify herself and her place in creation; next, a right to name the world (including seeing patriarchy as a systemic problem); and finally, a right to name God (including what Kassian calls “the feminization of God”).  Like Elliot and Grudem, Kassian concludes that “Feminism is a slippery slope that leads toward a total alteration or rejection of the Bible.”

Persons of this persuasion see only one way to interpret the Bible—a hierarchical view.  Homosexuality is therefore feared because a model in which two persons who are committed to each other in a same-sex relationship is seen as destroying the hierarchal model of heterosexual marriage in which one sex (males) are divinely ordained to be dominant over the other sex (females).  To question that model is seen as an attempt to destroy what they consider a sacrosanct theological system built on hierarchy, which insists that males and females were designed by God to fulfill distinct, designated roles.

Gender in the news today

This ideological gender construct is not confined to internal disputes within church walls or theological seminaries, nor is it relegated to an earlier time. It comes up constantly in news reports, books, articles,  blog discussions, and political decisions of the day—whether they relate to gay marriage, don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies in the military, workplace pay, family planning decisions and more. Another example is the recent article, “Housewives of God,” that appeared in the New York Times magazine November 12.  Shortly afterward, the Ms Blog used the article as a take-off point for telling us more about the new patriarchy and complementarianism. (See “I Am Biblical Woman, Hear Me Roar” by Kathryn Joyce, author of the 2009 book, Quiverfull: Inside the Biblical Patriarchy Movement.)

One of the most extreme examples of beliefs about masculinity was presented in a commentary by Bryan Fischer, an official in the right-wing American Family Association, who complains that the Medal of Honor is being “feminized.” After President Obama recently awarded the medal to a brave soldier for risking his own life to save others, Fischer wrote: “When are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night? I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery.”

Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones has written an incisive commentary about Fischer’s remarks, showing how far removed they are from the teachings of Jesus.

Why so much talk about gender hierarchy and slippery slope dangers?

The big concern among many who are disturbed by the questioning of a society’s gender norms is that social order will be disturbed and chaos will result.  Especially when religious authority is viewed as the keeper of order, there must be an insistence on conformity because such order is viewed as God’s will.

I don’t know If you had a chance to view the recent PBS series, God in America (available for viewing online), Kimberly, but if you did, you probably noticed how often this same issue arose from the time the first European settlers came to America, beginning with Anne Hutchinson’s daring to say she had had a personal experience with God and Scripture independent of what the clergy taught.  She thus saw nothing wrong with holding Bible studies in her home. As you know from your own studies, she went to trial (the trial is partially reenacted in the PBS series), and when she insisted on her right to understand and teach Scripture, she and her family were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Then came along the great revivals of George Whitefield which also met with disapproval from church authorities.  The TV program’s narrator had this to say: “Like Anne Hutchinson, Whitefield had fallen afoul of a religious authority that distrusted any message that gave an individual power over their religious experience.”

The narrator’s voiceover comment is followed by the onscreen appearance of Yale Divinity School professor Harry S. Stout. (Is he one of your professors, Kim?)  Stout explained, “They were still part of a view of the world as a world divided between superiors and inferiors, and you had to know your place. And if you didn’t know your place, order would break down and all chaos would ensue.  Whitefield smelled the dissolution of the old aristocratic order. He saw what had been was not what was going to be” (from Hour One, “A New Adam,” God in America).

This same thing has happened over and over in church history.  And it is happening now as women and men realize they were not created to be confined to stay in their respective places but to be supportive of each other in living up to their full potential within their homes, their work, their public activities, and their faith.

We need different metaphors to encourage questioning

Many girls and women, particularly those from conservative religious backgrounds, wonder how they can be true to their faith and yet not be afraid to ask questions that arise from their own experiences that don’t fit with what they have been taught the Bible says about gender roles.  Will considering another viewpoint or biblical interpretation damage their relationship with God?  Should they worry that their questioning will begin a slide down a dangerous slippery slope that will take them far away from God?

First, I really believe what the hymnwriter said about God’s love, It is a “Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” We have a God who holds on to us “with kindness and with love, not with rope” (Hosea 11:4, CEV), a God who “keeps us from falling” (Jude 24).

Second, our questioning need not lead us away from God; it can in fact do just the opposite. It can strengthen our love for God and our sense of wonder as we open the minds God gave us to come to new understandings and insights about what it means to know, love, and serve God.  Our questions can lead to new truths that energize us to work to bring justice and compassion to the world.

I really think we need to move away from slippery-slope thinking and find new metaphors for our questioning and where our questions can lead.  We need to help women — young women especially — to move away from a fear-based faith fed by certain religious teachings that hold them back from being all that they were meant to be. (Many religious teachings and approaches not only hold young people back, but perhaps even more often, they drive young people away. See one minister’s analysis of why.)

One alternative metaphor to the slippery-slope concept could focus on building up rather than sliding down. We can think in terms of a construction site rather than a dangerous mountain crevice.  Our faith can be viewed as a solid foundation, dug into the rock, and our new understandings can be part of a strong edifice built upon that strong foundation rather than something that will destroy it.

Another metaphor is that of growth. We can think of our faith as a sturdy, growing tree, watered and nourished by God’s loving care so that we, “being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (From Ephesians 3:17-19, The Inclusive Bible).  The tree metaphor is a very biblical one, of course (see Psalm 1).

Questioning, stretching our minds, and always learning is an exciting way to live.  I know you realize that, Kimberly, and you live it!  I hope both of us can help others to do the same.

In the warm bonds of friendship,


Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. Letha,

    Thanks for another thoughtfully researched piece! I particularly love the effort at the end to construct new symbols for “doing theology” or interpreting scripture. This was in fact what the first Christians had to do in formulating Trinitarian thought on the full humanity and divinity of Christ. Christ was not just a symbol of the Father – but her actual Son incarnate – a separate being of the same essence. There is a hearty tradition in our faith for thinkers like yourself!

    A few issues at stake in your post strike me as (a) the definition of the word feminist – and how it is constantly equated with “issues” (that are not issues but rather people) such as homosexuality, abortion, equal pay for equal work rather than the simple belief in men and women’s inherent equality in the image of God. Even difference feminists would argue that men and women were created uniquely for slightly differentiated purposes. Also at stake is(b)the distrust of hierarchy by many feminist groups because of its pattern of abuse – when in fact – there is most certainly a beloved hierarchy between ourselves and our God! Lastly, (c) any new metaphors we create must always acknowledge how learning is a constant building and/or growing AND deconstructing and/or falling away from the Scriptural interpretations we cling to. In the end, it is God who draws us into the mystery of her love and not ourselves.

    Best of luck to Kim! Peace, E

  2. As always, Letha, you give us so much to think about! Your final comments about “building up” made me think: Didn’t these people pay attention in Sunday school when we learned that song about the foolish man who built his house on the sand and the wise woman who built her house on the Rock! (Okay, maybe I changed the words but I can still sing and do the motions at the same time!). In reading your post I was also reminded of my mother’s fear that a taste of wine at the Episcopal communion rail would lead straight to alcoholism. And the memorable line in my first published article declaring that dancing led to sex. Slippery slopes indeed!

    But among conservative Christians, there are many other sources of fear as well. Certainly a perennial source in American history since its invention by John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century is Dispensationalism. A headline in my local newspaper this morning reads ” Billboards predict the Rapture.”. Well actually the story reveals that the billboards in nine major cities so far did not come up with this on their own but were put up to it by fans of Family Radio. Its founder Harold Camping has declared that for sure Jesus will return on May 21, 2011. His proof for this is Luke 17:26-27, “as it happened in the days of Noah…”. Since the flood began? Covered the earth seven feet deep? Whatever, on May 21, 4990 BCE, exactly 7,000 years ago. And God gave Noah a week’s warning. Thus, Jesus will come next May 21. For sure. They bet that the dazzling precision of the math will discourage people from asking, “Just which geologist has determined that the ‘Flood’ began on May 21, 4990 BCE?”. But stay tuned to the Weather Channel for the next episode of “It Could Happen Tomorrow”!


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