Slavery & Homosexuality

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Christians supported slavery from the Bible. Christians claimed divine authority for their racism and various prejudices, which makes it even more shameful. It remains profoundly tragic that some Christians opposed the rights of racial minorities being recognized in a godless and cruel manner.

But the story is never that simple.

When it comes to the ending of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, or the Civil Rights movement, it remains an undeniable historical fact that it was also Christians, like William Wilberforce, who led the charge in dismantling new world slavery and preachers, like Martin Luther King Jr., who led the march against unjust segregation laws in the States. These conflicting historical realities raise the important hermeneutical question; were these notable Christian leaders acting in an incongruent manner with the scriptures, or were they consistently living out the New Testament teaching on the issues of slavery and civil rights? 1Obviously our concept of civil rights in the modern west is a concept foreign to the ancient word in many regards. What I mean above is, where the underlining principles driving the civil rights movement congruent with the New Testament teachings about the equality of the races? My answer, of course, is ‘yes.’ In this article I will investigate the New Testament’s perspective on slavery and compare it with the recent theological discussion swirling around the legitimacy of same-sex relationships in the church.

A Closer Look

The New Testament contains statements like these ones:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” (Ephesians 6:5,6)

“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1st Peter 2:18)

Don’t these scriptures represent a clear endorsement of slavery as an institution? Once again, the story is never that simple. When we think of slavery our perspectives are often shaped by movies like ‘12 years a Slave.’ These powerful motion pictures clearly portray the horrors of forced servitude in the Americas. Now, slavery in the ancient world could also be terribly cruel. For example, J.A. Harrill has written on the use of the Roman whip (flagellum) in the abuse of slaves and he concludes that the evidence suggests the treatment of ancient slaves was brutal, far harsher than anything we find in the modern world. 2J.A. Harrill, “Slavery,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 1125 It also seems that slaves had no legal rights and could be executed by their masters for any reason whatsoever. There is no doubt about the fact that slavery in the ancient world was a dehumanizing practice.

Still, there are some very notable differences between New World Slavery and the slavery that the Apostle Paul was familiar with. In the Roman Empire slaves comprised approximately 1/3 of the population of important cities like Ephesus, and other significant population centers, and were represented in all spheres of society. In addition, slaves could earn money, own property and even buy their freedom. Moreover, slavery was sometimes ‘chosen’ by those who did not have the means to repay outstanding debts. This lead to the institution of slavery being in a constant stat of flux because, whereas new slaves were constantly inserted into the system, it is also estimated that from the years 81 B.C. to 49 B.C. up to 16,000 slaves per year were released from their servitude. 3Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate, p26

“In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after ten to twenty years of service or by their thirties at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; the natural inferiority was not assumed.” 4Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ, p. 44

All this to say, slavery, as understood by the original hearers of the New Testament was a diverse and complex social phenomenon. 5Slavery in the Roman Empire should not only be distinguish from New World slavery that was of a chattel variety and race based, but also from slavery in the Old Testament which was more akin to indentured servitude. In light of this reality, the apostle Paul doesn’t simply, and simplistically, seek to overthrow a complex, entrenched and, at times, cruelly unjust institution, with one stroke of the pen. As one scholar writes:

“While the New Testament does not condemn slavery, it also seems evident that it does not commend it. The instructions to slaves and to masters, and the other passages that deal with slavery, do not enshrine the institution of slavery as something that is ordained by God. Rather, the New Testament writers assume the reality of slavery and speak to masters and slaves alike in their specific roles.” 6ibid., 46

The above quotation is certainly true as far as it goes, but the New Testament also does more than just regulate the behaviour of the individuals participating in this institution. Paul, and the New Testament as a whole, do something far subtler and with far more potential to produce long-term change, not just in social structures, but in the hearts of people. The New Testament’s approach to slavery is akin to placing a ticking time bomb next to the institution that, over time, will blow it into smithereens. My friend Peter used a clever illustration in a sermon to drive this point home.

The Hogweed

There is a plant called the Giant Hogweed. This plant is not friendly or inconspicuous. A Giant Hogweed can grow anywhere from 2m to 7m tall. This plant can burn you and cause welts to form on your body with minimal contact. The Hogweed is also disastrous for the local ecology.

I am not a gardener so my first instinct would be to go on a rampage and chop the sucker down. But, apparently, that won’t work. An axe is actually inefficient and so is attempting to pull it up by its roots because the roots are too strong and deep and the plant will just grow back with a vengeance. The best way to kill this plant so that it is gone for good is to inject some herbicide into the stalk. The herbicide will poison the entire plant and it will whither and wilt from the inside out.

In a similar manner, the New Testament injects fatal poison into the institution of slavery by reaffirming that all people, regardless of birth, race or socio-economic status are made in the image of God and worthy of dignity, value and respect. Therefore, no person can ever be property, even if we take nice care of our ‘belongings.’ Nowhere is the New Testament’s fatal injection of poison, straight to the heart of this crooked practice, made more clear than when the apostle Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) For more specific examples of this undercurrent in the New Testament I would point the reader to the book of Philemon (verses (15,16) were Paul subtly, yet powerfully, encourages the freeing of a slave named Onesimus 7http://dougwils.com/books/how-koinonia-conquers.html This is a good (and fairly short) article on Philemon , or 1st Timothy 1:8-10 which condemns capturing a human being and selling them into slavery. This alone is enough clear New Testament warrant to condemn the slave trade that we are familiar with in our recent history. And, frankly, any other revolutionary approach would have been counterproductive. To quote theologian Douglas Wilson:

“Slavery was so pervasive in that day that attacking it would be like demanding that all Christians today give up their home mortgages, to use the apt illustration of one commentator. To attack slavery straight up would not do any good, would make the condition of Christian slaves far worse, and would result in the marginalization of the Christian faith. And the end result of that would be that the evils of slavery would be perpetuated, not ended. Slavery was such an evil that it needed to be attacked effectively. 8http://dougwils.com/books/how-koinonia-conquers.html

Paul sets about doing just that through many of the teachings in the New Testament that I mentioned above. So, in spite foolish attempts to prop up slavery from surface level readings of scripture it remains irreversibly incongruent with the biblical teaching about of the image of God and the resulting equality between the sexes and races. A deeper reading of the scriptural narrative brings one to this inevitable conclusion, which makes it all the more tragic that anti-abolitionists in the American south quoted scripture to support their oppressive, dehumanizing, money-making practices.

Church History

There is also a long tradition of the church denouncing slavery in its teaching. Examples include:

  • In the seventh century, Saith Bathilde (wife of King Clovis the Third) campaigned to stop slave trading and free all slaves.
  • In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas argued that slavery was a sin.
  • Many Popes upheld this condemnation of slavery and it is a matter of history that slavery was condemned in papal bulls in 1462, 1537, 1639, 1741, 1815 and 1839.
  • In America a devoted Puritan, Samuel Sewall, published the first abolitionist tract in 1700. 9Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, p. 329-39

In fact, let’s broaden the picture for a moment because it is worth thinking about all the cultural changes that Christianity has brought into human history since, in the present day, we are often made out to be culturally regressive. Historian Alvin Schimdt, in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, includes these significant shifts that resulted from the power of the Gospel being unleashed in our world:

  • Christians were primarily responsible for outlawing infanticide, child abandonment and abortion because they rightly saw these matters as inextricably linked.
  • Prison reform
  • Stopping human sacrifice among the Irish, Prussians, and the Lithuanians
  • Outlawing Pedophilia
  • Banning polygamy
  • Granting of property rights and other protections to women
  • Prohibiting the burning of India widows on the husbands funeral pyre
  • Persuading government officials to begin public education, starting in Germany and extending elsewhere.
  • And, of course, Schmidt notes that two-thirds of the American abolitionists in the mid-1830’s were Christian clergyman including significant leaders like William Wilberforce in England and Elijah Lovejoy, Lyman Beecher, Edward Beecher, Charles Finny, Theodore Weld, and William Lloyd Garrison in America.

To conclude this section of the article, I don’t think we can honestly say the Bible condones slavery. The Bible regulates slavery as a complex social phenomenon, different in many ways then the trans-Atlantic slave trade of recent history. In addition, it puts a ticking time bomb next to the institution by making slave and master brothers and sisters in Christ, equally loved, equally valuable.

Slavery & Homosexuality

Matthew Vines in his book, God and the Gay Christian, writes that:

“In the nineteenth century, experience played a key role in compelling Christians to rethink another traditional – and supposedly biblical – belief. This time, the issue was slavery. Much as you and I might be repelled by the notion, most Christians throughout history understood passages such as Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-25 to sanction at least some forms of slavery. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christians abolitionists persuaded believers to take another look.” 10Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, p. 15

Tony Compolo recently spoke out in favour of accepting same-sex marriages. In his official statement he wrote:

“Not long before…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.” 11www.tonycompolo.org

Equating, in some fashion, slavery with homosexuality is becoming more and more common and this rhetorical move involves an argument from analogy. An argument from analogy attempts to use relevant similarities between two different things to infer or draw attention to similarities that have not yet been observed or accepted. Arguments from analogy are common, but not the strongest form of argumentation, and they can be critiqued and, potentially, overthrown by the use of disanalogy. Disanalogy refers to the amount of relevant differences between the two things compared, which weaken the analogy sometimes rendering it useless for all persuasive purposes. So, when it comes to the analogy drawn between slavery and homosexuality do the dissimilarities outweigh the similarities?

Similarities

Race and same-sex attraction are the same in that: race is not chosen and, in many cases, orientation is not chosen either. In addition, both racial minorities and sexual minorities have been subjected to hate, abuse and discrimination, which is repulsive and terrible (as have Christians in their history as well). Lastly, the church has changed its mind about slavery and some parts of the church are changing their position on the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. In these three instances there is common ground. There are, however, some significant differences of a historical, theological and practical nature; as a result, I don’t believe we can legitimately make the case that race and sexual orientation are analogous. Any similarities we draw are quickly overwhelmed by the enormous differences.

Differences

First, up until the sexual revolution the church has, on the basis of scripture, uniformly spoken against same-sex sexual expression. As mentioned above, the issue of slavery is far different. Many voices within the church have spoken against the issue of slavery throughout history. Allow me to quote Timothy Keller in length:

“The analogy between the church’s view of slavery and its view of homosexuality breaks down. Up until very recently, all Christian churches and theologians unanimously read the Bible as condemning homosexuality. By contrast, there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible. Chappell shows that even within the segregationist South, efforts to support racial separation from the Bible collapsed within a few years. Does anyone really think that within a few years from now there will be no one willing to defend the traditional view of sexuality from biblical texts? The answer is surely no. This negates the claim that the number, strength, and clarity of those biblical texts supposedly supporting slavery and those texts condemning homosexuality are equal, and equally open to changed interpretations.” 12http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-bible-and-same-sex-relationships-a-review-article

Second, the Bible contains the framework for rooting out and abolishing all slavery, rooted in both the creation account, which establishes that all people bear the image of God, and in the fact that all people are equal before the cross of Christ. It is, however, the same biblical teaching found in the creation account which, not only overthrows any basis for racial superiority, but also establishes the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. A definition reaffirmed by Jesus. (Mark 10:6-8) Marriage, like ethnicity, is not a human creation. Marriage is a divinely established institution in which sexual fidelity is normative and blessed by God only within these bounds. It is for this reason that the New Testament is uniformly negative towards same-sex sexual activity (as well as any other sexual activity outside of marriage as defined by Christ), whereas the same New Testament contains statements that would blow up the institution of slavery, particularly as it was practiced in the Americas. To quote same-sex attracted Christian, Sean Doherty:

“Slavery is not analogous to same sex sexual relationships, for two reasons. First, because there are theological reasons given by Scripture as to why sex should only be within marriage and second, because the Bible specifically prohibits same sex relationships, whereas it does not support slavery.” 13See www.livingout.org

Third, I can’t choose whether or not I am Caucasian. But I can choose whether or not I act out sexually in a manner incongruent with God’s word. My race is part of my identity. Sexual expression is part of my activity, which flows out of my identity, but cannot be made synonymous with it. After all, my race is God’s creation but my desires that run contrary to God’s word, which are many, are a part of my sin nature. Whereas the first is to be embraced, the second is to be resisted.

Fourth, race remains static throughout the course of my life and this is normative for all people. Sexuality is far more fluid. I agree with Doug Wilson in his response to Matthew Vines question, “Do you accept that sexual orientation is not a choice?” when he writes, “I do not believe there is one answer that fits for everyone living a homosexual lifestyle. For some it is very much a choice, while for others the inclinations that lead to same sex attraction run very close to the bone. I do not believe there is one Platonic form of “homosexuality.” 14http://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/time-for-a-little-q-a.html 15Or Michael Brown’s response to this same question, “Sexual orientation is a relatively modern construct, but if you mean is it true that, generally speaking, homosexual men and women did not choose to be attracted to the same-sex, the answer would be yes, it is not a conscious choice they made, any more than someone who struggles with angry desires, violent desires, or adulterous desires consciously chose to have those desires.” “40 Answers and 2 Questions for Matthew Vines,” www.Christianpost.com

Jean Lloyd, a woman who, over forty years, journeyed from being a closeted same-sex attracted teenager seeking to reconcile her sexual desires with her Christian faith, to an openly lesbian woman, to practicing celibacy, to eventually being happily married to a man, wrote an article entitled, 10 things I wish my pastor knew about my homosexuality. In the article she expresses this desire to her pastor:

“I wish you knew that you aren’t helping me follow Jesus either by demanding that my attractions change or by not allowing them to change. No one can promise me that my attractions will change. Jesus certainly didn’t. But don’t deny me that possibility either. (Especially If I’m an adolescent!) Both secular science and human experience attest to sexual fluidity and the potential for change.” 16https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/seven-things-i-wish-my-pastor-knew-about-my-homosexuality

Here Jean encourages us to navigate between two different extremes; the churches extreme of demanding that same-sex attractions change and the cultures extreme of denying the possibility or helpfulness of seeking any change. She also testifies to sexual fluidity, especially amongst adolescents. I recently heard a lecture by Lisa Diamond from Cornell University, herself a lesbian and strong advocate for gay rights, on the fluidity of homosexuality and heterosexuality for males and females. 17https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/seven-things-i-wish-my-pastor-knew-about-my-homosexuality Does it even make sense to refer to our race in the same way? Obviously not!

In conclusion, because of the above historical, theological and practical reasons (as well as others not mentioned), though my race and my sexuality are both an important part of me, they are distinct parts of me that cannot be made analogous for the sake of winning a point in this important conversation and debate surrounding the legitimacy of same-sex sexually expression within the church.

Conclusion

It shouldn’t need saying but there are people I love who are gay and I also have friends who embrace a gay-affirming theology. My issue in this article is with a bad argument that I think should be abandoned by gay affirming theologians and everyday Christians who lean in the direction of an all out affirming theology. Comparing slavery to same-sex sexual activity is a disingenuous comparison and the fact that established, learned theologians are drawing the parallels, as well as popularisers, shows just how much this debate surrounding the legitimacy of same-sex relationships in the church is being driven by emotion and cultural pressures. 18Haven’t some evangelicals changed their minds on issues like women in ministry? Is this not an instance where cultural pressures have forced the Christian community to re-examine their sacred text, resulting in new readings of the scripture that promote more freedom for women to use their gifts in ministry? Yes, but I would suggest that there is a great difference between a closer examination of scripture resulting (perhaps) from cultural shifts in opinion that uncovers truth in the text that was already there, but obscured by cultural blinders, and societal pressures causing us to find meanings in the text that were never there in the first place. The significance of Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and the implied equality in Christ was always there for the church to discover and faithfully apply. *

When it comes to the topic of homosexuality, however, we have 6 verses directly pertaining to the issue, as well as scripture overall view of gender and sexuality, and they all express unequivocal disapproval, not of an orientation perhaps, but towards the action of homosexual sex. No cultural shift of opinion can change that for those who believe the Bible is God’s unchanging word when correctly understood by us.

“The declaration of independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.” -G.K. Chesterton


About the Author

Chris Price

Chris Price is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist church and the author of Suffering with God, published by Apologetics Canada. He lives in Port Coquitlam, B.C. with his beautiful wife Diandra and his two children Kaeden and Mila.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Obviously our concept of civil rights in the modern west is a concept foreign to the ancient word in many regards. What I mean above is, where the underlining principles driving the civil rights movement congruent with the New Testament teachings about the equality of the races? My answer, of course, is ‘yes.’
2. J.A. Harrill, “Slavery,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 1125
3. Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate, p26
4. Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ, p. 44
5. Slavery in the Roman Empire should not only be distinguish from New World slavery that was of a chattel variety and race based, but also from slavery in the Old Testament which was more akin to indentured servitude.
6. ibid., 46
7. http://dougwils.com/books/how-koinonia-conquers.html This is a good (and fairly short) article on Philemon
8. http://dougwils.com/books/how-koinonia-conquers.html
9. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, p. 329-39
10. Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, p. 15
11. www.tonycompolo.org
12. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-bible-and-same-sex-relationships-a-review-article
13. See www.livingout.org
14. http://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/time-for-a-little-q-a.html
15. Or Michael Brown’s response to this same question, “Sexual orientation is a relatively modern construct, but if you mean is it true that, generally speaking, homosexual men and women did not choose to be attracted to the same-sex, the answer would be yes, it is not a conscious choice they made, any more than someone who struggles with angry desires, violent desires, or adulterous desires consciously chose to have those desires.” “40 Answers and 2 Questions for Matthew Vines,” www.Christianpost.com
16, 17. https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/seven-things-i-wish-my-pastor-knew-about-my-homosexuality
18. Haven’t some evangelicals changed their minds on issues like women in ministry? Is this not an instance where cultural pressures have forced the Christian community to re-examine their sacred text, resulting in new readings of the scripture that promote more freedom for women to use their gifts in ministry? Yes, but I would suggest that there is a great difference between a closer examination of scripture resulting (perhaps) from cultural shifts in opinion that uncovers truth in the text that was already there, but obscured by cultural blinders, and societal pressures causing us to find meanings in the text that were never there in the first place. The significance of Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and the implied equality in Christ was always there for the church to discover and faithfully apply. *

When it comes to the topic of homosexuality, however, we have 6 verses directly pertaining to the issue, as well as scripture overall view of gender and sexuality, and they all express unequivocal disapproval, not of an orientation perhaps, but towards the action of homosexual sex. No cultural shift of opinion can change that for those who believe the Bible is God’s unchanging word when correctly understood by us.

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