Slavery and Gay Marriage

Scriptural Interpretation vs. Social Forces

By Mark King

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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.

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Published 9-27-16