My Problem with “Opening the Floodgates”

I had a lot of great discussions with Katie (and other YAR’s) this week at San Jose. Katie asked that I write a post about how I, as someone who did not grow up in the church, understand what the church teaches about queer sexuality.

First of all, I will say that, generally, Christian thought about same-sex sexuality appears backwards to me. It seems to neglect our Lord’s commandment to love and instead go around being Satan (which, I learned, is translated as “prosecutor”). And the old “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing isn’t the commandment - love is unconditional, and what you are saying when you say “love the sinner, hate the sin” is “I love you but…”, which is conditional. There are serious pitfalls in this thinking (and, I will admit, even in my own on the subject).

Another problem I find in the teaching of sexuality is what I call Floodgate theory
but which can be identified as the “slippery slope fallacy”. What is Floodgate Theory? Floodgate Theory is the idea that if we allow this one particular demographic or practice, this one particular idea, this one particular interpretation to become accepted, then what will we accept next? If we accept queer sexuality, then what about bestiality, adultery, pedophilia, or incest? The fear is that if we let this tradition go, all other traditions will fall apart too and then the whole church will be lost and Jesus will come and judge us all to be condemned to hell.

I won’t address the fear that underlies the theory, but I will address the theory. First of all, I don’t like the theory as it is used in argument/debate. It doesn’t address the particular question at hand, only future consequences that are not directly related to the question - “is it right to accept people with a homosexual orientation?” is a much different question than “what happens if we accept them?” Second, what if I (someone who does not think condemning queer folks is treating them decently) used the logic against those who are trying to condemn: “well, what happens if we condemn queer folks? Do we start condemning people of color? Do we start condemning non-Mennonites? Non-Catholics? Gentiles? Jews?”

The problem with it is this: it could be exactly right. Once you let one idea become accepted, it allows many other ideas to be accepted that follow along its logic. And once you condemn one particular idea or demographic, it lets others be condemned also.

Given that, I wonder how many of our Anabaptist radical ancestors heard the same theory. “No more infant baptism?!? That’s nonsense! What next, the pope is not divine? The Eucharist isn’t scriptural?” Yep, exactly.

Our Anabaptist forebearers had to challenge church tradition, based on doctrine which was based on interpretation which was, in turn, based on scripture. Now some of us YAR’s are trying to challenge the same kind of doctrine, except that this doctrine doesn’t have to go through hoops to get to scripture: it’s right there in Paul (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6). Though, I would argue against Paul; I don’t trust him on this issue. And again, floodgate theory can apply there: “What, you don’t think Paul is right? What next, we throw out all the epistles? Maybe the Gospel of Luke too?” Maybe.

I’d like to see what happens if the church did accept queer sexuality. Perhaps the floodgates would open. But is it our job (humans, that is) to hold on to history and determine what is godly or ungodly, or is it God’s job?

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8 Responses to “My Problem with “Opening the Floodgates””

  1. Skylark Says:

    “Floodgate theory” sounds a lot like the slippery slope fallacy described in every logic/philosophy class I’ve ever had.

    People resist change. Change has an element of unknown, and that’s scary.

    I frequently hear people respond to the “We should love people unconditionally” statement with protestations that this would mean blithely accepting the Klansmen, the Nazis, the serial rapists, the Wiccans, and any manner of behaviors we generally hold as offensive. Then they say something about getting their definitions of who to accept and who not to from the Bible.

  2. Nevin Says:

    Folknotions,

    I don’t know if you specifically had me in mind in writing this, but since this is the kind of argument I used in the “is it really a sin?” thread, I felt obligated to respond. I definitely think you’re right that “Floodgate Theory,” as you call it, is widely abused. But, as you cogently observe, its logic is not necessarily totally flawed. Maybe Floodgate Theory has it exactly right in regards to a number of issues. Maybe the floodgates really will open, and maybe that is a good thing. I don’t know if what you’re trying to say, then, is that adultery, incest, et al. aren’t wrong, but at the least it seems to me that you are saying that we may need to give them another look, reevaluate our understandings of them, and that doing so is not a bad thing. Let me then just express to you my feelings on that issue. I think you might be exactly right. Maybe we do need the floodgates to open. Maybe there really is nothing wrong with incest (we’ll use incest as an example because I think that the logic used to defend LGBT lifestyles extends most easily to incest, of the many examples typically given). But, my experience has been that whenever I so much as suggest to proponents of LGBT rights that, if we accept LGBT lifestyles, we may need to accept other such lifestyles as well, I’m generally jumped on as employing the “slippery slope” argument and not understanding that homosexuality and incest are completely and totally different things. Of course they are very different things, but as you observe, there might be some truth to the Floodgate Theory, and maybe we do need to reconsider our views on incest. What I would like to see is for more people to acknowledge, as you seem to be doing, that maybe this IS exactly what we need to do. Maybe we do need to reconsider our fundamental views on sexual norms, and the institution of marriage. Maybe we do need to radically alter our understanding of Scripture—heck, maybe Marcion was right. (As regards Marcion—I don’t think he was right, and I sincerely doubt that will ever change, but simply being able to entertain the notion that perhaps he was is a very valuable exercise, I think.) What bothers me is when someone passionately advocates LGBT rights but becomes livid when I suggest that by that logic, they have little grounds on which to condemn incest. They accuse me of the slippery slope fallacy and imply that *of course* incest is wrong, in the process coming off as just as closed-minded about incest themselves as any fundamentalist Christian. What I want is for more people to come out and say—like you are—that, Yes, what we’re advocating is radically different, and we may need to totally revaluate our views on a wide variety of subjects because of the new logic we’re proposing. That would impress me greatly. I can’t guarantee I’d agree with them, but at least then I could feel as if I was evaluating an honest, if radical, suggestion, rather than a proposal for change that is willing to go exactly *this* far, but then no further. So, in conclusion, my difficulty is not so much with the floodgates opening, but with those “rocking the boat” *themselves* refusing to allow the floodgates to open. I’d like to see what would happen if the church accepted queer sexuality too. And I’d like it if more Christians supporting LGBT rights honestly wanted to see it too.

  3. eric Says:

    There might be some truth to the fear, but Skylark is right that it’s still a logical fallacy. As Folknotions pointed out, the other questions raised by a decision are not the same as the decision itself. It doesn’t matter whether or not floodgates open, that doesn’t alter the question at hand. You still can’t claim the LGBTQ is wrong just because it calls incest into question for you.

  4. folknotions Says:

    Never heard of the slippery slope fallacy; but not surprised that someone already thought of this idea, I rarely say anything original.

  5. lukelm Says:

    Nevin,

    (As I mentioned in another thread, these responses kind of range to your posts in other threads as well, but I’m trying to keep them as close to the relevant threads as I can.)

    I appreciate - and agree with - your instinct that this whole LGBT issue is about something more fundamental than just whether to let same-sex marriages into the church. Yes, there would have to be some more basic shift in how the church deals with sexuality. But I’m not sure you’re going in the right direction in what you imagine this change might be. I mean - do you REALLY think that we should rethink incest? I agree it is an interesting thought. And yes, maybe I’ll be the first to ever say it - I could imagine the possibility in some far-off or future culture where incest could be viewed as okay. Polygamy I think is probably more of a possibility of being relevant to the church nowadays, not really for our culture, but because the church in other parts of the globe is working in cultures where it is widespread. I think churches in those places will need to do serious looking at the place polygamy has in individual’s lives and in the culture to understand whether it should be accepted. I can think of some ideas why it would be usually harmful to the women involved, but I really don’t have any clue. And for “free love” - I’m not convinced that accepting gay marriage really moves the church even an inch down that particular slope. Commitment and faithfulness still remain normative. (Not that I’m opposed to a little free love in everybody’s life! But that’s for the “sex before marriage” thread.)

    That’s my direct response to these things. But when I responded earlier in the “is it a sin” thread (comment #30) more indirectly, I was actually trying to say exactly what you’d like to hear - that because of this issue the church is going to have to radically change its approach to sexuality. An excerpt:

    Real, living sexual ethics is not about categories, taboos, and being allowed to take a selfish pleasure for oneself, or having to sacrifice it. Real sexual ethics is the same as all other kingdom ethics. It’s giving, accepting, freedom from fear, loving, and building others up… This is the real gift we queers can offer the church right now. This is what Katie and BMC are working to bring to the church. We (well, me, and a lot of others I know) don’t just want to fit into our little gay marriages on the old law-based model and fade into the way of the church. The church’s sexual ethic is dead, and through struggling with our reality, maybe we can offer life not just to the queers of the Anabaptist world, but to everybody.

    Something will have to shift. What needs to happen, however, is not to compile a list of more and more obscure expressions of sexuality and pass positive or negative judgments on them. The church just has to gets its mind around the idea that sexuality is a part of life that needs to be dealt with like any other part of life - by offering it to a living God, listening to that living God, being free and fearless, working for the highest good, giving and loving others. There’s no list of “sexual issues” that we would then by necessity need to compile if we let a few queers stick around - hopefully, what would happen would be a paradigm shift where the church realized that Christian sexual ethics are not about a list of right and wrongs (with a foundation built on fear) but on real humans living real lives in relation to God and others.

    Again, as I asked in that previous thread, why is the church terrified of this? If everyone poked their head out of the box that their sexuality is shoved into, would we really all go sliding down into oblivion? (The box, of course, works for some people and is comfortable to varying degrees, so there’s a lot of inertia against getting out of it.) I think it just has everything to do with that most primal of human feelings: fear.

    Nevin, you mention that LGBT advocates are often bothered when you bring up this issue. The possibility is very distinct that they are indeed just not as open-minded as they really claim to be. However, I’d bring up two other possibilities:

    1.) The “slippery slope/floodgate” line of thought has been used for decades against LGBT people. The most common variants involve murder, rape, and bestiality (”well, if I can’t call gay people wrong because God tells me so, then how can anybody say that murder is wrong?”) So if you’re talking to someone who’s been beat over the head every day with an orange bat, don’t be surprised if they have a big reaction when you pull out something orange from behind your back, even if it’s not a bat.

    2.) And be careful that it really isn’t a bat. From your posts here it seems that these are just genuine ways you are processing this issue. But even though something may be logically sound it can still be used in conversation/debate in a wrong way. Usually the slippery slope argument has nothing to do with the argument itself and is merely meant to create demonization by association - namely, “I’m going to throw out some things I know you’ll have an emotional response to, and by associating you with them I’ll have effectively attacked you.” This isn’t how you’ve used the arguments here, but too often it is used that way in conversation.

    While I wouldn’t say this line of argument is a “fallacy” exactly, I don’t see how it can ever be anything but a peripheral and unimportant part of any issue, usually just a way of avoiding focus on the actual argument at hand by using diversion tactics. The logic in it is entirely dualistic, implying that the only options are complete stasis or complete chaos - essentially the same things as saying “I don’t think we should take a step to the west because there’s a crater two miles to the west.” It could be a small thought that we don’t want to move toward a crater, yet this really doesn’t have too much to do on whether we should take a step now. The real argument needs to be about whether we should move or stay, not about what’s two miles to the west. It closes off possibilities of evolution, future discernments, and the continuing work of God among humans.

  6. Nevin Says:

    Real quick (yeah, right). Yes, I really do think we might need to rethink incest. I mean, why not? And to clarify: what I’m trying to emphasize is not that accepting gay marriage will make us accept this and this, but that accepting gay marriage may make it so that we *should* accept this and this, or at least think about it. *Why* do commitment and faithfulness remain normative? (Especially if both parties in a relationship are fine with the other not being “committed” or “faithful” in the way we use the terms.) What’s so good about them? (And I just realized that I’m blatantly contradicting my response to your similar question in the “Is it really a sin” thread by bringing that up. So, for the sake of consistency, or at least the appearance of such, we’ll rephrase it to “What in Jesus’ teachings preclude extramarital sex, or raise up those two ideals you’ve identified as so important?” Now it may well be that there is stuff in Jesus’ teachings that does so, but we’d at least need to consider the possibility that we’re reading our own cultural biases into the text here.)
    As for your bit on how we should change our approach to sexuality. I think it’s an interesting idea, and that you have good things to say in it. I think you’re quite right that we cannot just compile a list of sins and not-sins. My main concern is that such an ethic is too vague to actually say anything at all. It’s not too different from Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics, which are purportedly based off of agape love. The idea is all well and good in principle, and Fletcher gives a nice list of the “six fundamental principles” of situation ethics. The problem is that when we are faced with tangible, concrete situations, those very ethics tell us precisely nil about what is actually right and wrong. They’re so vague that it’s possible to justify almost anything in the name of “love.” Both sides of the homosexuality debate think they’re living out Jesus’ love. Both sides of the just war/pacifism debate believe the same. I’m not a big fan of “sin lists,” but we do have to come up with some norms. (And, let’s be honest—don’t we Anabaptists get pretty dogmatic over issues of violence/nonviolence? “Real humans living real lives in relation to God and others” don’t—usually—react as we tend to say one should in any of the infamous “What would you do?” situations. But we still say they should, don’t we?)
    A clarification. The above is just my specific beef with the kind of ethics you’re proposing. I have similar beefs with most every other system, and I’m just making the point that there might be some difficulties with the ideas you’re putting forward. In terms of my original point—that proponents of LGBT rights need to admit that we need to do more than just accept gays, that rather we need to totally rethink sexuality—you’re putting forth exactly what I’m looking for. You’re saying what I’m saying, and offering an alternative ethical paradigm (even if it’s not one I’m totally keen on). Kudos to you for that.
    Lastly. I’m fully aware—or at least I’d like to think that I am—of the reasons that proponents of LGBT rights react so negatively when I bring this up. That’s why I try to always clarify that I’m not saying that homosexuality is in any way equivalent to “insert sin here” or anything like that. It goes both ways, though. Just as LGBT Christians are rightfully sick of having slippery slope arguments used against them illegitimately, so I get sick of not being allowed to bring up actual questions about the logic of a position for fear of offending or being perceived as a bigot or homophobe.

  7. j alan meyer Says:

    It goes both ways, though. Just as LGBT Christians are rightfully sick of having slippery slope arguments used against them illegitimately, so I get sick of not being allowed to bring up actual questions about the logic of a position for fear of offending or being perceived as a bigot or homophobe.

    And this goes back to privilege, which is something we’ve discussed endlessly (but not without reason) on this blog. It may go both ways, but that doesn’t make it a level playing field where both LGBTQs and Christians who don’t support them are equally persecuted. There’s still a huge power and privilege imbalance. I’m sorry you get sick of not being allowed to talk about your views of homosexuality, but that’s not the same as LGBTQs getting sick of being told (by any specific argument) they’re “living in sin” (as opposed to us sinless straight people, I might add). I don’t think you were meaning to take it this far, Nevin, but remember that no matter how discriminated against you may feel by the LGBTQ-supportive community, there are still plenty of other bigots and homophobes out there spewing their message of rejection and hate.

    Overall, Nevin, thanks so much for your openness and honesty, and your willingness to respectfully discuss this. I’d have to say that’s a first for me in topics about LGBTQs. I personally don’t think you’re bigoted or homophobic, but I think the onus is and should be on you to always display that in your conversations about this topic.

  8. Chad Says:

    But Isn’t Homosexuality a Sin?

    “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals, and 362 to heterosexuals. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t love heterosexuals, it’s just that they need more supervision.”
    ~ Lynn Lavner, a comic

    Only the most diehard bigots consider homosexuality itself a sin, namely being sexually attracted to your own gender. The issue is about having sexual acts with members of your own gender.

    Leviticus 20:13 is a the main biblical chestnut use to justify beating up, killing or even denying equal civil rights to homosexuals.

    “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
    ~ Leviticus 20:13

    (literal word for word translation)
    And a man who will lie down the man the woman’s naps abomination he does both-of-them death he will die their blood in them.

    Clarity is not one of the deity’s major virtues. It’s almost as if God said Plant your rutabagas in a straight row, and the overeager Christians took it to mean Kill all the homosexuals. It is worthy of Monty Python.

    Note the other sins punishable by death in the old testament:

    not being Jewish (Deuteronomy 17:2)
    sex before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13)
    refusal to obey your parents (Deuteronomy 21:18)
    gathering firewood on Sunday (Numbers 15:32)
    eating lobster (Leviticus 11:9)

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