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What the Bible really says about slavery

What the Bible really says about slavery

The debate over what the Bible says about slavery is a matter of more than academic interest to proponents of LGBT equality. If the Bible is “wrong” on slavery, that is, if it seems to permit it, then aren’t we free to believe that it is “wrong” on the morality of same-sex relationships (assuming that the texts of terror do speak uniformly against such relationships–which is a whole ‘nother debate.)

Writing for the Huffington Post, Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary says it is easier to use the Bible to support slavery than to oppose it, and that attempts to argue that Biblical slavery was of a different character than the slavery we encounter in American history textbooks miss the point:

Don’t let anybody tell you that biblical slavery was somehow less brutal than slavery in the United States. Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others. Slaveowners possessed not only the slaves’ labor but also their sexual and reproductive capacities. When the Bible refers to female slaves who do not “please” their masters, we’re talking about the sexual use of slaves.


The Bible does not attempt to hide the presence of slaves. Beware modern translations that use “servant” to cover up slave language. Slaves were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Imagine ancient Rome, where slaves made up between one-third and one-half of the inhabitants — perhaps half a million people! The Senate once considered requiring slaves to wear identifying marks, but they stopped short in the face of a chilling realization: if slaves could recognize one another, what would prevent them from organizing and pillaging the entire city?


There’s a simple explanation for nineteenth century debates on slavery and the Bible: the Bible isn’t exactly clear on the subject. If anything, the Bible made it easier for slavery’s advocates than for its opponents. On the other hand, Robert E. Putnam and David E. Campbell suggest that while religion contributed greatly in the motivation of abolitionists, their adversaries would have promoted slavery with or without religion.


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Benedict Varnum

Hi Craig – sorry to leave this through the weekend.

The clearest thing to note to you is that one might as easily suggest that it would be kinder to direct you to the nearest ACNA parish, rather than overturning the traditions and authority of our church’s historical process, used as our tool to discern how best to be Christ’s Body the Church together today.

(And I do understand that at present you find yourself disagreeing with the authority of the bishops and laity of the church, but I suspect you’ll find infinitely more in the patristics about obedience to authority than you will about homosexuality.)

The issue that you’re not addressing is the same one that was raised in the original article; when you say “there is no basis from authority” (emphasis mine), you’re right back in the sights of the original point of the article, which is that those traditional bases from authority can be mis-used. I argued above that this calls us to use discernment in how we follow the authority of scripture (I don’t believe you have spoken to this yet).

If the examples already given aren’t persuasive, Jeremiah 28 (the less-known Hebrew Bible reading from last Sunday) offers another example of a prophet mis-interpreting God’s will, adding to the Biblically-attested collection of prophets and pharisees that blindly follow an incorrect interpretation of the Law rather than God’s actual will.

Why is this theme so prevalent in scripture, if not to call us to use the gifts of our reason and compassion? Why does Jesus, confronted by those who want to trap him in the paradoxes of the law, give examples that shame them, or parables about everyday life? Surely God incarnate could have provided the perfect interpretation from the law.

Instead we’re invited by the nature of the parables to bring our selves and the experiences of our lives into the conversation. When this occurs with slavery, lived experience eventually over-ruled the Biblical contexts accepting slavery.

When it occurred with fabrics woven of two separate cloths, we over-ruled the Levitical prohibition against such garments.

I find in this not a faithless church nor a rebellious people, but a people liberated by Jesus to follow the greatest commandments and to deepen in relationship to God, self, and one another. The growth of the church through the Book of Acts to encompass not only the Jews following the law, but the gentiles and others “outside the law” attests further to me that God can raise children of the covenant with Abraham and Sarah from anyone in God’s creation.

From the Book of Acts, Jesus does not insist on or explain the law after the resurrection, but rather speaks about the kingdom of God. When he ascends, he does not send down the KJV, or instructions for the council at Nicaea about which books to include in the canon for the Bible, but the Holy Spirit. The interpretations of the desert fathers and patristic scholars over the next 300 years are a profound contribution to early Christian literature, as they struggled to figure out the issues of their day, but they do not free us from struggling to figure out our own.

The argument from authority must always be to follow Christ. This is not only a passive activity of copying someone else’s life or hopes, and I’d say especially not from 1700 years ago. Following requires moving, and changing our positions. We do this in faithfulness and prayer.

Craig Abernethy

In response to Benedict: If it is not possible to come up with even two verses of scripture or a couple of patristic quotations stating that Christian marriage is other than the union of a man and a woman, then that makes my point: there is no basis from authority for abandoning the BCP definition of marriage.

But, undoubtedly, the majority in the House of Bishops will soon cave in to liberal pressure and embrace same-sex marriage. I would bet a Social Security check on that. It will happen by 2018, at the latest, and that will be a major step in

de-christianizing our Church, cutting it loose from scripture and tradition, making it merely a tasteful variant of largely non-theistic Unitarianism, which has no problem with same-sex unions.

Wouldn’t it be kinder to Christians in the Episcopal Church simply to direct same-sex couples to the nearest Unitarian parish, instead of destroying the connection between Christianity and our Church?

Benedict Varnum

Thank you for the response Craig, and I AM sorry that I misspelled your name; I certainly understand that names are an important part of ourselves, and it’s something I try to be careful about.

I also didn’t mean to compare you to the devil; rather, the point is that scripture uninterpreted can be put to any use — EVEN by the devil.

I want to note that you’re making two appeals to authority: one to “the New Testament and Christian antiquity,” and the other to a theologian in 1979. There’s an interesting interplay between the old and the new there.

What I find to be in common between ancient and modern Christianity is that it is lived out by people in community with God and one another, continuing to interpret their experiences in light of that relationship and their tradition, which includes the scriptures.

But the appeal can’t simply be to “Earl Brill who has been a Christian writer,” because he is human and thus limited and fallen. So we have to deal with the content, and not simply the authority you want to assign him; to put it most precisely, you cannot simply claim that the sources of authority you raise must be taken in the same way by everyone else.

One interesting thought about the New Testament and Christian antiquity is that Christian antiquity was spent in part trying to figure out what would go into the collection that we’ve come to call the New Testament. We forget sometimes that Jesus did not scribe the Bible in a single collection and hand it on to us; rather there were (heated) debates at councils of the church called on to make (human) judgments about how we would be church together. Given your perspective here, Craig, I’d venture to say you disagree with some of the recent General Convention decisions made in council . . . but do you really imagine that the bishops of bygone ages were less human than those today? Will you insist on the authority of the proclamations they made 1650 years later? What will you make of, say, ACNA, which has violated that old principle that two bishops will not compete for primacy in the same geography . . . even though that principle was effected at a time when churches wielded more political and indeed martial authority, in part to prevent political intrigue and bloodshed . . . perhaps that geographical concern reflects the way society was ordered back then, and not today?

It is fine — and indeed, I’d argue necessary — to hold to the traditions of our councils . . . as long as we’re willing to remember that they are human events and subject to mistakes and the need to be received anew.

In sum, Christianity involves thought and work; we cannot simply worship Jesus at a distance and from a single received perspective; we have to follow Jesus within that worship, which will require that we hold our perspective open to change. I feel that the way you’re presenting your principles suggests that they can only be seen in on way, and it is a way you are simply insisting on, rather than trying to explain in love.

Craig Abernethy

Thank you so much, Benedict, for misspelling my name and comparing me to the devil. I appreciate that. If I have made a mistake in interpreting what the New Testament teaches about Christian marriage, then so have the authors of the BCP and the Canons. At least, in agreeing with Paul, Jesus and the Prayer Book, I am in good company.

It is remarkable how nothing in the Bible that would challenge homosexuals, ever seems to apply. Liberals always find a reason why what the Bible clearly, repeatedly says, can be ignored, and this discussion is no exception.

Where does anyone in the New Testament or in Christian antiquity ever state that Christian marriage means two men or two women together? Please cite the reference for that. As far as I know, it never happens, for the simple reason that such an idea is foreign to Christianity; as Earl Brill wrote in the Church’s Teaching Series volume on “The Christian Moral Vision” (1979), “The Church cannot go so far as to sanction homosexual marriage, because marriage is by definition the union of man and woman.”

tobias haller

Thank you, Benedict, for a very good statement. I would also only add that with many moral issues we do not rely solely on Scripture for our understanding. For instance, we would think, I hope, that murder is wrong even if Scripture did not speak against it.

The facts are these: that there are many things that Scripture commands, commends or allows that the church no longer finds morally acceptable or prudent. There are a few things that Scripture condemns or forbids that we now permit or even encourage. And it is necessary for us to use the gifts of reason God gave us, and the permission Jesus granted (“what you allow on earth is allowed in heaven…”) to make such judgments. Jesus gave us a “key” to make moral judgments: the Golden Rule and the Summary of the Law. The question before us is, does same-sex marriage open to that key? I think it does; others clearly do not — but that, it seems to me, is where the discussion ought to be focused.

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