The Bible, Steve Chalke, Wilberforce and ‘The Civil War as a Theological Crisis’

“How has the whole Church found itself believing something about slavery which is so at odds with the Bible?” prominent British evangelical Steve Chalke asks.

Chalke asked that in his essay, “A Matter of Integrity: The Church, sexuality, inclusion and an open conversation.” That’s the essay in which Chalke argues for his fellow Christians to begin recognizing, and celebrating, same-sex marriages. It’s the essay, in other words, that resulted in “prominent British evangelical Steve Chalke” being reclassified by many of his fellow Christians as “controversial post-evangelical Steve Chalke.”

But let’s get back to his question, because it’s an interesting and important one. The whole Christian church has, indeed, come to believe “something about slavery” that is “at odds with the Bible.”

Or, rather, that is “at odds with the Bible” as it is read and cited by most evangelical Christians. Chalke’s whole point in asking this question, and the whole point of his essay, is that this approach to the scripture — treating it as an almanac of clobber texts — inevitably produces a Bible that is at odds with the Bible.

The question of slavery is the key example of this partly because it presents such a stark contrast between what the whole church now believes and teaches — unanimously and unambiguously — and what the text of the Bible manifestly and undeniably says. The question of slavery is also the key example because it was this exact question that created and shaped the approach to reading and interpreting the Bible that evangelical Christians today take for granted.

For a vivid and entertaining consideration of Chalke’s question, see also this fun video from NonStampCollector:

(There’s a transcript at this link for those who cannot watch video.)

The God-as-Karl Pilkington business goes on just a bit too long there (much like the Karl Pilkington-as-Karl Pilkington business tends to go on just a bit too long), but the video hits on the main salient points raised by Chalke’s question:

1. Slavery is morally abhorrent.

2. Slavery is permitted, condoned and/or commanded by multiple passages of the Bible.

3. Yet slavery is also condemned by the Bible’s repeated condemnations of injustice and oppression.

4. The same Bible that says “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner” also permits the lifelong enslavement of foreigners.

5. The laws of Moses prohibited Israelites from enslaving one another in the way that they were permitted to enslave foreigners and outsiders.

That last point is central to Steve Chalke’s argument, what he refers to as “the nature of inclusion,” a point we’ll return to in a later discussion. Here we’ll just note, again, that this message of ever-expanding inclusion is a central theme of the book of Acts and — as I’ve argued repeatedly — the key given to Peter at Pentecost and again in his rooftop vision. From now on, God told Peter, everybody is an insider. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” Peter said. So whatever rules there might have been permitting us to treat profane and unclean people differently no longer matter because that category of people is now an empty set.

The question of slavery is inescapable in Steve Chalke’s argument because none of what he is saying is new. We Christians have been over all of this before, in great detail. Every word of Chalke’s essay echoes an argument from an earlier generation, just as every word from his critics also carries such an echo. This is not new.

Chalke acknowledges the existence of the clobber texts and engages them, resolutely going toe-to-toe in an exegetical debate with any who would say that this handful of biblical passages prohibits his conclusion for inclusion. But the real force of Chalke’s argument is not from such narrow exegesis involving such a narrow set of passages. He’s making a bigger, broader argument — that the overwhelming trajectory of scripture demands a hermeneutic of love and inclusion, and that no single verse or collection of single verses can properly be understood as contradicting or constraining  that larger context.

Again, this is not a new argument. Every step of Chalke’s essay, every idea he promotes, is explicitly parallel to similar arguments from the earlier debate over slavery, in which many white evangelicals argued for precisely the approach to the Bible that Chalke advocates.

And they were right. Everyone says so today — the “whole church” is agreed on this point. There may still be some who privately disagree, but the anti-slavery side of the argument prevailed and the question is now regarded as so firmly settled that today few would dare to suggest otherwise in public.

Go back 150 years, though, and it was a different story. In their day, the white evangelicals who argued that the clobber verses could only be properly understood through the lens of a hermeneutic of love were denounced as enemies of the Bible and deniers of the clear authority of scripture. “Inerrancy” hadn’t been invented yet, but the ancestors of the inerrantists of today decried the faithlessness of anyone who suggested that a face-value reading of the clobber texts did not authoritatively settle the matter in defense of slavery.

The arguments of that side — the losing side, the side that everyone today agrees was deeply, repugnantly wrong — can be heard today in the condemnation directed at Steve Chalke and anyone who dares agree with him.

Hearing those echoes sent me to my bookshelf for Mark Noll’s terrific 2006 history, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. (I wrote about that book last fall in a post called “The clobber verses of slavery & the slavery of clobber verses.” An article by Noll based on his chapter on white evangelicals’ biblical arguments can be found here: “The Battle for the Bible.”)

It’s impossible to read that book without an eerie sense of how familiar all the arguments and debates are to the debates that continue even today among white evangelicals. Take for example this statement by a white Baptist from Kentucky:

All that God teaches us in Scripture is right. Christ and his apostles do not indicate at any point that the Old Testament is immoral, and in fact say the opposite. To say otherwise is to indicate that God is not absolutely right, and his word is not trustable.

Is that from 2013 or from 1863? It could easily be from either. White Christians in the American South have been saying this same thing for centuries. That statement — exactly that statement — was how white Christians in the American South turned their defense of slavery into, as Noll writes, “a defense of Scripture itself.”

Here’s more from Noll about the way the defense of slavery became a defense of the Bible in the American South:

The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization.

And here is Steve Chalke covering the exact same ground in his British context:

William Wilberforce and friends were condemned by huge swathes of the Church as they fought for abolition. They were dismissed as liberal and unbiblical for their ‘deliberate abandonment of the authority of Scripture’. But, on the basis of a straightforward biblical exegesis of the Bible’s text, their critics were right.

… How then did Wilberforce and friends reach their conclusions? It was their view of the proper interpretation of Scripture. They saw that the biblical writers did not take blind dictation from God, instead, their personalities, cultural and social understandings all played a part in the formation of their writing. So, rather than basing their approach on isolated proof texts, the abolitionists built their stance around the deeper resonance of the trajectory of Scripture. Their compass for this re-calibration was Jesus who, through his inclusion of both women and various groups of socially unacceptable groups of his day, challenged social norms and perceived orthodoxy.

The Bible does not always speak with one voice. It is a very diverse collection of books, written in many different times and cultures, containing an array of perspectives, not a few tensions, and even some apparent contradictions. Instead of pretending that this diversity does not exist, our task is to do justice to all these components as well as holding them together with a coherent theological approach.

… Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus. But it is also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalization of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.

And the response to Chalke, today, is exactly the same as the response Noll described to antislavery Christians in the 1860s.


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  • Foelhe

    There’s also appeals to tradition, which does the same thing for Those Who Came Before. Pretty much every argument against homosexuality comes down to someone finding a higher authority and saying we have to trust that more than we trust our own reason.

    That’s not necessarily anti-secular, since you don’t need an authority to be a god before you trust it completely, but religious folks do come with an authority conveniently built in.

  • AnonymousSam

    I theory I read at one time suggested that the church’s stance against polygamy grew out of the laws of inheritance, which stated that if a man had no legal sons to inherit his wealth, it defaulted to the hands of the church. By eliminating polygamy, the author argued, the church made it more likely to receive inheritance by decreasing the likelihood that the man would successfully produce an heir.

  • MaryKaye

    Polygynous marriage coupled with subordination of wife to husband leads to an exceptionally raw deal for women.  In a monogamous subordinate marriage, at least the wife is her husband’s source of heirs and thus has some value to him.  (As long as she *does* produce heirs; many cultures allow divorce/abandonment if the woman appears infertile.)  In a polygamous subordinate marriage there’s less to protect an individual woman as she could be supplanted in her role as heir-producer by one of the others.  As many of Fred’s Bible stories show, this pits wives and half-brothers against each other, and who can blame them?  So it’s unsafe for the woman and detrimental to peace in the house.  I think this is why Mohammad, while not forbidding polygamy, did not encourage it.

    Short form:  polygamy amplifies the dangers of subordinate marriage to the woman (and her children) and it’s reasonable to dislike it on that basis.

    I personally am of the opinion that egalitarian polygamy is a whole different kettle of fish.  It’s probably harder to make work than egalitarian monogamy, but I don’t see anything morally wrong with it.  I would not be surprised or upset to see this as being an upcoming civil rights issue on the same lines as marriage equality:  there are already a decent number of people in egalitarian polygamous (unrecognized) marriages in the US, and the protections of legal marriage would be valuable to them just as they are to gay couples.  If it came to a vote today, while I would wince at the possibility of aiding subordinate polygamous marriages, I would grit my teeth and vote for it anyway.  (But I’d be surprised to see this in less than 20 years.  Pleased, but surprised.)

  • Foelhe

    I disagree. You can accept something as authoritative without assuming it’s intelligent. It’s a pretty stupid thing to do, but authoritarian policies tend to be not the most well thought-out.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ll buy more into Natural Law when the advocates of it are willing to stop making money, writing books, being famous and the other thousands of things they do which are not considered necessary by nature.

    We do plenty of things outside of nature’s strict “eat, sleep, procreative sex, repeat” cycles, purely because doing so pleases us. Why should homosexuality be any different?

  • Carstonio

    While I agree with you about authoritarianism, I’m not sure how that conflicts with the point I was making. Were you disagreeing with my suggestion that teleology is the philosophical version of intelligent design, or the irony of an atheist like Rand arguing from theistic assumptions?

  • Foelhe

    Arguing from theistic assumptions. Though admittedly that’s a little, ah, spurious? I think you can treat nature as inherently good, and therefore authoritative, without assuming there’s an intelligence behind it. Although that’s idiotic, and I’m splitting hairs anyway, and I should probably lighten up a bit.

  • Carstonio


    I think you can treat nature as inherently good, and therefore
    authoritative, without assuming there’s an intelligence behind it.

    True. But that assumption is required to treat nature as having designs and purposes.

  • Foelhe

    True. I’ll concede the point. Rand doesn’t exactly need my defense anyway.

  • That Ayn Rand condemned homosexuality as evil does not mean there are any actual, legitimate secular reasons for condemning homosexuality as evil. Because there are none. Ayn Rand was a horrible person with an utterly stupid worldview; the only thing she was right about that I know of was that she was pro-choice. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but she was wrong about homosexuality (and everything else). It was related to her gender essentialism, part of which was saying no woman would want to be president because no woman would want power over men. While she herself headed a cult mostly populated by men. 

    Ayn Rand is, however, a good example of the fact that atheists can be power-hungry assholes without rationality or empathy as easily as religious people can. Whether people swear to God or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, it doesn’t really matter. People are really good at interpreting stuff through different lenses. And so we get Fred Clark and Fred Phelps, both saying they’re following the same playbook. Atheists are no different — we’re just not part of the power structure in the U.S. the way Christianity is. But the Christianity that’s part of the power structure is not Fred Clark’s.

  • vsm

    I’m not entirely comfortable calling teleology the philosophical version of intelligent design. The former was developed by some of the finest minds in the history of Western thought, while the latter is a cynical attempt to smuggle creationism into schools.

  • I’d think that it was her husband’s idea would make her even less crazy about it. And it was not polygamy; it was polygyny. Men got to have every woman they wanted all to themselves, but a bunch of women had to share one man, without even being allowed boyfriends. (They could probably have had sex with each other if they wanted, but for straight women, that is absolutely meaningless.) It is misogynistic, treats women as property, and is no way to run a society if you want to treat women as anything but property. Joseph Smith obviously didn’t — he just wanted to screw lots of women and claim it was godly, without allowing any of the women he was screwing to screw any other man. 

    This is how polygamy (really polygyny) plays out throughout history. It was not only like that in the society of the Bible. Chinese history is filled with women married to the same man fighting each other for power. Because there is never enough to go around for women when they’re stuck married to one man, but aren’t allowed to marry multiple men themselves. Not to mention the lack of man to go around; and sex toys, while fun, are not a substitute for human beings.

    In our society, we’re at the very beginnings of accepting that men *and women* can have sexual relationships with multiple people at the same time and that can be okay. The only reason we’ve come here is that we outlawed polygamy as it was commonly practiced in both East and West. In another hundred years, maybe it will be legal again because maybe the idea of a man owning any woman, let alone many, will be so alien to us. And people who are naturally polyamorous will be accepted as much as people who are naturally monogamous, and we’ll have killed the bullshit from people with zero knowledge of history and basic human behavior about how men are “naturally” polyamorous but women are “naturally” monogamous. (You can say I’m a dreamer :-P.) For now, though, I think we need to stick with polygamy being illegal, while accepting polyamory so long as it’s not abusive — just like any other relationship.

  • The “natural law” argument has no basis in any kind of fact anyway. It is based on willful ignorance of all of the following things: biology (especially evolution), history, psychology, sociology, statistics, human sexuality, anthropology, animal sexuality (a small percentage of the population of many species forms lifelong monogamous homosexual relationships), and what the neighbors are getting up to. Probably a whole lot more. 

    A lot of straight people don’t have the desire to procreate anyway. Actually, most people have the desire to avoid procreating most of the time, even if they want to do so at some point. From what I’ve seen, the desire to procreate at all is entirely unlinked to sexuality. 

  • Well, I have heard women sometimes make references to having boyfriends who run on batteries, so…

    I know. And whenever anyone does that, I get urge to kill… rising…

    Good sex toys are awesome, but they are *things*, not *people*. I have seen enough people who really and truly believe a thing could substitute for a person sexually that I just can’t handle it any more, even though most people who say it are just making a (stupid) joke.

  • Carstonio

    Yes, the comparison is unfair to those philosophers. While they were much smarter than me in many ways, the assumption they appeared to make is still fair game for questioning. I would take the motives behind intelligent design off the table, and say that the assumption being pushed strongly resembles the one involved in teleology. Perhaps Behe and his colleagues were familiar enough with teleological philosophy to steal parts for their creationist Trojan horse.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Nods* I think it shares a lot with evolutionary psychology, and we’ve seen how that gets twisted to justify some terrible behavior. In fact, I could see the two of them being two sides of the same coin. Evolutionary psychology is used to justify prescriptive behavior, while natural law is used to justify proscriptive behavior.

  • MaryKaye

    Lliira writes: 

    For now, though, I think we need to stick with polygamy being illegal,
    while accepting polyamory so long as it’s not abusive — just like any
    other relationship.

    I’m having trouble unpacking this argument.  Here’s my best guess:

    Historical models of polygyny are highly harmful.
    Therefore, polygamous relationships should not have the protection of the law.
    None the less, we should be “accepting” of non-abusive polygamous relationships.

    I think that that argument is going to look about as good, down the road, as current arguments about why same-sex relationships are denied the protections of law.  What is the need to create a class of “accepted but not legally recognized” marriages?  How is it helpful?  How do you avoid its use as a tool of abuse by the State to harass marriages that someone doesn’t approve of?  Why should some marriages be less than others?

    I’d also say that historical models of monogamous marriage are highly harmful; yet we are improving matters without having to outlaw monogamous marriage.  I think we could improve polygamy without outlawing it, and in fact once we outlaw it we lose valuable tools to improve it (as the FLDS seem to  demonstrate).

    Also, if you instead meant to forbid polygyny and allow other forms of polygamy, in a modern egalitarian context that seems to me to be sex discrimination pure and simple:  A, B and C can marry unless exactly one of them is male.

  • P J Evans

     I figured, given his age, he was having a mid-life crisis and wanted a younger wife, but had no grounds whatsoever for divorce.

  • Nathaniel

     Its worse than you think. Just like Ayn Rand’s excuse for a philosophy, their entire intellectual structure relies on question begging word definitions. So “natural” in their case means what’s good for you, and what’s good for is is good as defined by Catholic doctrine.

  • The real reasons for polygamy’s ban in the US are based in Western societal concepts.

    There is also a practical consideration. When you’ve got massive disparities of wealth (as you did in… pretty much every human society that took to settling down) and no more men than women (as you did in… pretty much every human society that took to settling down), and the treatment of women as an advanced form of chattel (you get the point) polygamy tends toward societies where only the wealthiest men have serious prospects of starting a family, and that requires certain mitigations (like having everyone believe that the guy with all the wives is a god) to maintain a stable society.

  • Looking at the reasons quoted for Rand in the third paragraph,
    her argument was pseudo-religious. She was obviously a gender
    essentialist. Notions about a natural order or “the way things are
    supposed to be” elevate nature to more or less the status of a deity.
    Often the elevating is of procreation.

     That sounds a lot like Bill Maher’s “Stalinism and Maoism were really ‘secular religions’, not atheist ideologies, because atheism can never lead to ideologies that kill lots of people”


    Why is it always men? Why don’t women get to marry toasters? Women have a
    much broader range of equipment that gives them pleasure that they
    could marry, too.

    Obviously, it’s because a toaster has a slot that you put toast into. A woman marrying a toaster would be gay.

  • Rand becomes much easier to understand when you accept that she was a narcissist, and that her narcissism informed everything she said and wrote.

  • Carstonio

    Another reason Maher gets on my nerves. Those ideologies are atheist only in the technical sense, and the same is true of fundamentalism for theism. Both types of ideologies are authoritarian first and foremost, and neither proves anything about either atheism or theism. “Pseudo-religious” may not be the right label for Rand’s notions of nature – perhaps “pseudo-theist” instead?

  • Pretty much every argument against homosexuality comes down to someone finding a higher authority and saying we have to trust that more than we trust our own reason.

    Love this line.

  • As someone who used to sell sex toys:  Thank you.  It’s idiotic how many men (and the occasional woman, I’ve heard) feel threatened by a female partner’s toys.  Jokes about “battery-operated boyfriends” don’t help.

  • smrnda

    Why not just call them ‘secular ideologies’ or cults of personality? ‘Secular religion’ just seems like a silly term. Of course, the level to which cults of personality can go they can turn into worship of (supposed) demi-gods quite quickly. I mean, think of all that’s been said of Kim Il-Sung or his descendants in North Korea.

  • smrnda

     It’s also why her writing is so bad. Only a narcissist could write such shoddy fiction and then demand that it be considered a work of genius, and could be totally indifferent to pretty much every writer of consequence dismissing the book as crap.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why not just call them ‘secular ideologies’ or cults of personality?
    Because that would imply atheists can do bad things, in a way that using the term ‘secular religion’ does not.

  • It has been argued that Communism took on quasireligious aspects to itself, especially during the Stalin and Mao eras when the two men were almost deified beyond belief.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Raises hand* I’ve definitely seen my share of women who seem to think that a sex toy automatically equates to becoming obsolete, or worse, who are incapable of understanding that a man can have an interest in phallic toys without being a closet homosexual who doesn’t actually like her. Sexual intimidation is a thing. Sadly.

    Also, thank you for having been in that industry! (I just wanted to say that. It seems like a thankless job. Or at least genuine thanks and not silly blushy “LOL OMG I JUST TALKED TO SOMEONE LIKE THAT” thanks.)

  • Yep.  Even Rayford Steele doesn’t spend THREE HOURS talking about how awesome Jesus is.

    btw, One of Our Own reviewed the Atlas Shrugged movie…

  • I think because he wanted the point to be “Everything bad is due to religion, and nothing bad ever comes from atheists”

  • Didn’t she leave Smith and start one of the first schismatic Mormon sects?
    Reformed LDS, if I remember correctly. 

  • Thanks!  I tried to post a couple of links to my “porn clerk story” LJ entries, but I think Disqus ate my comment.

  • arcseconds

    I had a friend who maintained “her politics are awful, but she writes so well!”

    de gustibus non disputandum est, I suppose you might say, but (a)obviously she’s no fan of Rand’s ‘so-called philosophy of Objectivism’ (as the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy so charmingly puts it) and in fact is pretty damn left, (b) she has a post-graduate degree in English Literature and, perhaps more importantly, (c) on other matters I’d say she has very good taste.

    I’ve never known what to make of that.

    Me, I’ve tried reading Atlas Shrugged three times now and I can’t do it — the prose is too turgid and awful. And, y’know, I’ve been known to read German philosophy for fun and profit, so it’s not like I can’t cope with things that are dense and difficult.

    (I did read Anthem, which has the merit of being short.  )

    EDIT: oh, yeah! I also watched Fountainhead, the movie, which is hilarious!

  • J-

    I will do whatever I fucking please. I have noticed near universal agreement that whatever atheists do or say is done wrongly. So I have stopped even bothering to listen. So fuck you RIGHT in the eye, with a stick. Your surrenderist Christian-lover failuredom is done and done.

  • The_L1985

    You’re not even trying to listen, are you?

    You are acting like a jerk.  Please stop being a jerk.

    I say this as someone who has been just as badly hurt by Christianity as you have.  You can stand up against abuses of religion without being an asshole.

    You came to a progressive Christian blog for no other reason than to bash Christianity.  You’re not listening to any opinions other than your own, and you’re insisting that you are better than everybody else here by virtue of hating everything that isn’t atheism.  That makes you an asshole.  Please stop being an asshole.

    I really don’t think that “stop being an asshole on somebody else’s blog” is too much to ask of anyone. You can be an asshole on your own blog, if you want to, but other people still have the right to complain about it. Being an asshole on somebody else’s blog just makes other people that much more likely to complain, and I’m honestly surprised you haven’t been flagged yet.

  • arcseconds


     That sounds a lot like Bill Maher’s “Stalinism and Maoism were really
    ‘secular religions’, not atheist ideologies, because atheism can never
    lead to ideologies that kill lots of people”

    Well, technically he’s right.   “There is no God” doesn’t in itself lead to “Thou shalt kill lots of people”.   You kind of need a lot of other premises to get there.

    Same is true of “There is a God”, though.

    The problem is, that people get fixated on the metaphysical proposition, as though that’s where the entire ideology and behaviour flows from.