Annually I write the report on “Protestantism” for World Book and other yearbooks. For a dozen or score of years now, the lead story always has to be about churches tearing themselves apart in lose-lose battles over the blessing of gay marriages and ordination of homosexuals, et cetera. One could wish it were otherwise, so that more churches could get back or ahead to more gospel and more mission. There are, or may be, good reasons other than biblical ones to support or oppose issues on this subject. But citing the Bible in church conventions trumps other approaches – we are, after all, talking about Protestants! – and such citing leads to stalemates. On this subject, the five inches of type in my desk Bible (I measured them) get used to oppose any movement on this front. It’s “the Bible says” versus “the Levitical laws, the other 600-plus of which no one pays any attention to, speak to a different culture, with different understandings.”
Is it possible to bring newer understandings forward without a) disdaining, b) relativizing, c) picking-and-choosing texts to one’s taste, or d) ignoring the Scriptures? Has not the church, almost universally, changed its teaching (“grown in understanding”) on subjects? It certainly changed and “grew” when its various bodies for the first time supported religious liberty in civil orders two and three centuries ago. But many believe the best case is on slavery. The South’s preachers and theologians, virtually unanimously, gave biblically-based arguments for the enslavement of humans by humans, and often opposed their release.
Mention that and you get a quick reply: “The Bible nowhere commands slavery, and it does forbid same-sex relations.” One has to stretch to support the “nowhere commands” argument, since its divinely-inspired authors did something worse: They took slavery for granted and, without criticizing it, often appropriated its existence and norms for making other points. A review by Jennifer Knust of two new books in the July Journal of Religion indicates how that was done. Some quickly chosen excerpts: “Ancient Christian writings rarely challenge the abusive, exploitative, and gruesome mechanisms of first-century chattel slavery. ‘Slaves, obey your masters.'” “The Christian Bible has played an important role in legitimating slave systems,” including in North America. Author J. Albert Harrill finds that Christian discourse participated in and promoted an ideology that belittled slaves and naturalized slaveholding. He “highlights the ways in which contemporary moral debates both shape and inform biblical criticism.” On this subject “the New Testament cannot be viewed as a book of morals.”
Everyone, including presumably New Testament authors, knew that domestic slaves, according to author Jennifer A. Glancy, had “the obligation to tend to the master’s physical body and sexual needs.” Even Jesus’ “parabolic slaves are beaten, flogged, cut to pieces, seized, imprisoned, handed over to torturers, and assigned to eternal death in order to teach theological lessons.” All taken for granted. The parables “reinforced the violent power relations that sustained ancient slavery.” Arguments based on analogy, including this one, do not “prove” much of anything. They can, however, be instructive when the history of cultures, from the biblical settings to our own, is neglected, or when simply saying “the Bible says” shows unmindfulness of creative possibilities – and can harm individuals, lead to schisms, and hamper future witness.
Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity (Oxford, 2002).
Harrill, J. Albert. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Fortress, 2005).
Jennifer Knust’s review of these two books appears in The Journal of Religion, 89: 406-409, July 2009.
The Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Dr. Martin E. Marty taught there for 35 years, chiefly in the Divinity School, where the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion was founded and to whose weekly column Sightings he contributed. Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1952, he served from 1956-2013 as a columnist and senior editor at the Christian Century and authored more than 60 books including Righteous Empire, for which he won the National Book Award; the three-volume Modern American Religion; The One and the Many: America’s Search for the Common Good; The Mystery of the Child; Building Cultures of Trust; The Christian World: A Global History; Martin Luther (in the “Penguin Lives” series); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography.