One year ago, on June 8, 2015 evangelical iconoclast Tony Campolo stated publically
that the church should welcome gay couples and support gay marriages. Among the reasons for his change of heart is the church's precedent of changing her opinion on other social/moral issues:
I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.
It has been my belief for several years that these issues are related, and Campolo believes so too. Much of the church supported slavery on biblical grounds, but we now "know" slavery to be wrong. Some critics conclude that the Bible is wrong on issue of slavery and therefore an unreliable moral guide. Others like Campolo will conclude that the church's reading of the Bible was wrong. Either way, it was not a fuller understanding of the text that wrought the change, but a shift in social mores that forced a new reading of Scripture. The same is true for gender roles in the church and home, and gay marriage. It seems that any time these two issues are pressed, someone will respond with slavery as proof that, one way or another, we have been wrong before and we should not be so dogmatic today.
Mark Noll in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
notes that the slavery issue was "solved" in the United States, not by theological reflection on the text of Scripture, but by force of arms. The United States government declared that slavery was wrong and thus undermined the authority of Scripture. Those who supported slavery did so on a very literal reading of the biblical text, often citing chapter and verse. Those who opposed slavery seemed to be opposing Scripture as well or at least to be treating Scripture in a less than straight-forward manner, often positing that teachings on love and brotherhood were in tension with specific instructions regarding slavery. (We see the same rationale today for accepting gay marriage.)
The issue of slavery is a "Catch 22" for the evangelical believer today. If the critic asks "does the Bible advocate slavery?" — what is the correct answer? If the believer answers "yes" in light of very clear admonitions in Scripture for slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22), he or she is immediately written off as a horrible person (probably a racist) or the Bible is revealed to be an unreliable moral guide. (President Obama has made this very argument.) We KNOW that slavery is wrong — there is no other possibility. If the Bible says anything different, it is simply in error! How do we know this? Society, culture, and the American ideal of individual liberty and pursuit of happiness tell us so.
If we say the Bible does not advocate slavery then we are in danger of suggesting that at least certain parts of the Bible are wrong, or that the meaning of the Bible is so ambiguous that we simply can't take it at face value. (The same is true of our reading of the texts regarding gender roles and homosexuality.) Either way the Bible and/or the Church lose moral authority.
What is required is an honest assessment of what the Bible actually teaches about slavery. It is very difficult to do this for we are often presented with two and only two possibilities — the Northern abolitionist view of the Bible's teaching on slavery and the Southern pro-slavery arguments from Scripture. I suggest that neither of these is biblical.
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 Scripture 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.