THEOLOGY & APOLOGETICS  



Slavery and Gay Marriage

Scriptural Interpretation vs. Social Forces

By Mark King








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Regarding the abolitionist view, it is clear that the Bible does not demand abolition of slavery. Abraham of the Old Testament owned slaves (although the abolitionists often insisted that these were merely "servants.") Slavery existed in Israel. In the New Testament, Christian slaves were instructed to obey their masters. The New Testament even affirms that Christians can own slaves. While the New Testament does condemn homosexuality and sexual immorality, calling on those practitioners to repent, nowhere are slave owners called to repent and free their slaves. In fact, Paul recognizes the right of Philemon to recover and benefit from the labor of his slave Onesimus. The abolitionist interpretation of Scripture is clearly wrong.

But what of the Southern, pro-slavery arguments from Scripture? The slave trade is soundly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments (Deuteronomy 24:7; 1 Timothy 1:10). Escaped slaves from other countries who sought refuge in Israel were not to be returned to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:15). In the New Testament, Christian masters are told to treat their slaves with fairness and to refrain from threatening them (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1). The Southern pro-slavery arguments conveniently neglected these Scriptural principles (kind of like the man who emphasizes that his wife should submit to him "as unto the Lord" but forgets that he is supposed to love his wife "as Christ loved the church"). Christian slaves are called on to submit to their masters, but masters are never told to make their slaves submit (just as Christian wives are called on to submit to their husbands, but husbands are never commanded to make their wives submit).

Paul did recognize the rights of ownership that Philemon had over Onesimus, but Paul did not "return" Onesimus to Philemon. It appears that he asked Onesimus to return voluntarily and that Onesimus agreed. We simply don't know how Paul would have responded if Onesimus had refused. Paul reminds Philemon that Onesimus is a brother in the Lord and asks him to receive him as he would receive Paul. How does Paul expect to be received? "And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers" (Philemon 1:22). Furthermore, it is clear that in the New Testament slaves were accepted into the church as full members on the same footing as masters. There was nothing barring a slave from being an elder. However this was simply not allowed in the antebellum South.

It is possible for a Christian to be a slave owner and to treat his slaves with dignity and respect. There was nothing barring a Christian slave owner from being a fully fellowshipping member of the New Testament church. Slave owners in ancient and antebellum times often resorted to physical torture, sexual abuse, or threats of separation from family to coerce obedience. However the Scripture forbids these methods.

Both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery advocates misused or neglected important portions of Scripturetweet in the debate and we are still living with the consequences. (Douglas Wilson makes this point much more eloquently in his book Black & Tan: A Collection of Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America.)

Neither the abolitionists nor the Southern slave owners got it right. However, because the church in the US has largely embraced the abolitionist view, it is now open to attacks on other fronts. Once again, it was not careful biblical exegesis that caused the church in the US at large to arrive at this view, but progressive social forces — the same social forces that are now at work normalizing divorce, rejecting gender roles in the home and church, and embracing gay marriage. Because the abolitionists won by virtue of government mandate, many have concluded that all future theological and moral questions are to be determined in this way. So, when the issue is abortion or gay marriage, token homage is paid to the Scripture, but the real power to change is believed to be at the ballot box and in the court system — and that is where many Christians focus all their efforts. When this occurs, we have already lost.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to be clear. I am glad that slavery is illegal in the US. It was a horrible racist arrangement. We are still dealing with the disastrous results of slavery and the way it was abolished. There is much more that could be said about slavery in the Bible and in the US and I hope to write more, but I welcome your comments.



Image Credit: Unsplash; untitled; Creative Commons



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Published 9-27-16