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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