I’ve been blogging for a long time, and slavery was never something on my radar when it came to topics to discuss. I’m not the Civil War’s equivalent of a “Holocaust denier.” The aspects of our regional past and our denominational history that touch upon slavery are the least flattering portions of our story, and I’d rather tell other parts of the story.
What changed this for me? Why have I written a series of posts on the question of slavery? Was it Ferguson? Was it Eric Garner?
No. It actually didn’t have anything to do with race at all. I’ve been writing about slavery because of the ERLC’s recent national meeting about marriage and homosexuality.
I didn’t attend the meeting, but I did participate in the online conversation that went along with the meeting and I crossed swords with a few of the ERLC’s detractors. Alan was involved in one of those conversations alongside me. We were defending natural marriage from the scriptures. The conversations were energetic, with multiple participants jumping in and out (just another day in Twitter).
Here’s the thing: Our interlocutors kept bringing up slavery. Particularly Rachel Held Evans did this. Her point was to say that we just ignore the Bible on slavery, allowing our consciences to override the Bible, so why don’t we do so on the question of homosexuality?
I think she’s got a little bit of a point. Robust exegetical work on the topic of slavery is not something that everyone out there is doing. Although I think there is a sound exegetical reason to give for affirming the Bible as authoritative but being an abolitionist with regard to slavery, I’m prepared to admit that for most of us our abolitionist sentiments have not arisen out of our study of the Bible. In other words, even if there is a good biblical reason for being an abolitionist, that reason is likely not why you are an abolitionist. We follow culture on that one. We generally do just what Evans claims that we do.
We’re going to face this argument more and more. Every time that the Bible says something that people do not want to hear, they’re going to say, “The Bible was wrong about slavery. You were willing to ignore the Bible and trust your conscience in that case, so why not on [fill in the blank]?” We’d better be ready to answer that question.
So, I want to have an understanding of slavery that:
- Deals honestly with all of what the Bible says about slavery, using the same consistent principles of hermeneutics that we apply to every other question,
- Retains the authoritative nature of Jesus’ life and ministry, the Old Testament, and the apostolic witness in the New Testament, and
- Supports the present-day abolition of slavery as a good thing.
What makes this difficult is that the first two items are clearly not abolitionist in their nature. The only way that these three objectives can be achieved is if you can demonstrate that there is something about that slavery and that time that is different from our time and the slavery we have in mind—a difference profound enough to justify both the slavery-friendly biblical stance and the slavery-averse modern stance.
I’ll freely admit that this is not the most objective way to go about research: To know what you want to find and then to search for evidence to support it. Like it or not, however, this is what I am indeed doing. I choose to abandon neither my abolitionist convictions nor my inerrantist convictions. The preceding posts reflect my honest efforts to succeed on both counts.
What if it were not possible? What if I were forced to choose one or another? “Let God be true and every man a liar.” I’d support slavery before I trashed God’s word or vaunted myself up in superiority over my Lord.
Thankfully, I do not believe that I face such a choice. I think that I have made a sound case: (1) Slavery is separable from the abuses that occur under it, (2) Perfect freedom is not possible in a fallen world, so everyone is a slave to something, (3) in times more primitive than ours and cultures unlike ours, slavery can serve some limited positive function that justifies it’s not having been abolished in biblical times, (4) in the modern world, however, there is no reason for us to have slavery. QED.
Before I drop the mic, I want to point out one final thing about the comparison between slavery and homosexuality. I’m trying to make the point that there’s a consistent and hermeneutically sound way to understand what the Bible says about slavery without defending Simon Legree. But there’s another profound difference between this conversation about slavery and the conversation about homosexuality. Alongside biblical regulation of slavery and biblical ambivalence about slavery there is a consistent theme running through both the Old and the New Testaments extolling the virtue of freedom. The Hebrews get their Exodus from slavery into freedom. The bondage of servitude to the Babylonians is a punishment, but God eventually offers the Jews their freedom. “If the Son has set you free, then you are free indeed.” Jesus told us that we are slaves, but Jesus told us that we are free, also.
With regard to homosexuality, the content of the Bible is much different. There is no sense of two opposite ideals held in tension as there is between slavery and freedom. Rather, there is just a consistent message from Genesis to Maps saying that sexual activity between two men or between two women is a dark, dark sin. This is not about progressive revelation, for the Bible does not “progress” on the question of homosexuality; it stays the same all the way through. What liberals want is not progressive revelation; they want progressive-er revelation. Progressiver revelation says that we need to progress beyond Jesus. It denies that we have a full and perfect revelation in the life of Jesus as preserved to us in the inerrant scriptures. It says that we must edit and correct Jesus.
I also tried to offer some ways that the slavery motif describing salvation is actually a critique of the “Progressive Christianity”—shot through with left-wing libertarianism—that I think Evans is purveying. If we are editing and correcting Jesus, then Jesus is our slave, rather than our being His. If we will remember that we are called to be slaves of the Lord, then when Jesus declares to us that God’s very reason for creating people male and female was so that the exclusive locus for sexual activity could consist of a male leaving his father and mother and being joined to his female—when we read that and remember that this comes from the master over our slavery, we will treat it with a little more humility than it receives from some quarters. It’s really not even our business to debate whether Jesus was right or wrong. We’re not in management; we’re in labor.
Well, if Jesus is not the perfect and complete revelation of God to mankind, then we’ve progressed right out of Christianity altogether. Evans’s claim is that we do just this with regard to slavery—that Jesus left unfinished business on the subject of slavery, so we’ve fixed His mistake and moved on. My agenda in this series of posts has been to prove her wrong, or at the very least to prove that she’s not necessarily right. I don’t know how well I’ve done that. It has taken me far outside of my field of expertise. But in my opinion, if we want to be able to dialogue at all on ethical issues from a biblical perspective in the coming age, we’re going to have to be prepared to offer answers about what the Bible says about slavery.