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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  • Let’s see, I read this article just a few hours ago, and the comments have just gone WILD! I posted it to Facebook as an example of an interesting, forward-thinking idea, and Whooooeee, did I get reamed out! Yes, I should’ve known better, but you know, hope springin’ eternal and all that…

    I definitely got some flack from people who said that the Bible didn’t condone slavery. Hello?!

    I don’t want to even get started on the whole slippery slope argument. As if I’d suggested “cats and dogs, living together” or something. Sigh…

  • To anyone who watches BSG, “men marrying toasters” has a bit of an unintentional double meaning to it.

  • 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.

    (It’s because these people think of men as doing the marrying and women being the passive ones the marriage is being done to.)

  • Why don’t women get to marry toasters? 

    Especially when they look like Callum Keith Rennie…

  • Oh nononononono. Leoben Conoy and “marrying” = erm how about NO.

  • It’s worth pointing out that John Newton took several decades to go from thinking the slave trade was “honorable” to writing this:

  • I was echoing the phrasing used ironically by Gotchaye originally.

    That said, your point is well-taken.

  • I wasn’t being critical of you, just realized I’d never ever seen people talk about women marrying weird stuff in this context. Just men. And I think it’s telling that that’s where their minds immediately go. 

  • Foelhe

    I think there were some black people in there too, what with the Emancipation Proclamation and all. I know that’s not what you meant, but, well.

  • I did say “look like”. For a while my attitude was “this makes no sense but Callum is pretty”, but eventually even that wasn’t enough to keep me around :)

  • Baby_Raptor

    He doesn’t allow any room for that because anyone coming to that conclusion is reading the bible to hear what they want to hear, not what the bible says. 

    Peter said “God had shown me that I should call NO MAN unclean.” He didn’t say “God has shown me that I should call no man unclean except for those filthy homosexuals.” There were no qualifiers. So what the particular “sin” a person commits is does not matter. Peter still says “Don’t call them unclean.” 

  • Baby_Raptor

    I would totally marry the toaster from Old World Blues in Fallout: New Vegas. He’s homicidal and adorable. 

  • 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.

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

  • Hexep

    If it’s never been done before, here is your opportunity to be on the ground floor and pioneer the genre of woman-marrying-machine stories.

    When I was in primary school, I vividly remember one of my classmates saying that she wanted to be the third female president. Not the first, not the second, but the third – because she figured being the first female president would be more difficult and she didn’t want to deal with that. She just wanted to do presidential stuff without necessarily being a hero for it.

    Well, you don’t get that luxury! Destiny bares its neck before you; dare you strike?

  •  Just one thing:

    It always gets better.  It’s a slow process, but it does – if you look at the whole of human history, there’s been a steady, constant, everpresent drive toward a better more thoughtful and inclusive world.

    Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of hurt out there – a lot of people suffering unnecessarily – but look back a thousand years and it’s uglier.  A lot uglier.

    I’m not saying “Today is fine, everything is great.” – far from it;  but as MLK Jr ably put it “The arc of a moral universe bends toward justice.”  It’s a big arc, and our lifespans too short to see justice waiting for us at the end – but that’s where we’re headed just the same – one slow plodding step at a time.

    It’s not easy to see sometimes how much better the world is than what it could be,  what it has in fact already been.  I know that, believe me.  It’s easy to bring up a laundry list of atrocities that have been committed just in the last handful of years, let alone the past century.

    But that’s why we have to keep fighting, even in our very small ways.  Why we have to keep being inclusive people, why we have to keep pushing for justice and fairness wherever we can.  We do it so someday no queer child will grow up thinking “What is wrong with me!?”  We do it so someday no woman will be considered less-than because of her gender.  We do it so someday no one will be without food, shelter, medical care and the other basic necessities of life.

    Every small step we take helps bring that world about.  Every time we are ourselves inclusive when we could have been otherwise, every time we remember that everyone has value, every time we push back against greed and evil just by being unwilling to stoop to those things.

    The good news then is very simple:  In the end, we win.  It’s not a matter of if, but when.

    That always helps me anyway – every time I get dispirited with the world I remember whence we came and how lucky I am to live now, rather than then.

  • That….that is beautiful.

  • I suggest sarcasm:  “Yes, because dogs have legal agency and can sign contracts.”  That kind of thing.

  • I think the statement about slavery being condemned by everybody both is and is not true.  Similarly to the way many men will admit to having committed rape if they don’t use the word “rape” to describe it, many people would be in favour of slavery if it weren’t called slavery.

  • Oh right, sorry. I’m not saying it as in they’re telling me to shut up, just Fred seems to posing that there are two (grossly simplified) options; 1) read bible thoughtfully and accept slavery sin and homosexuality good and 2) read bible unthoughtfully and accept slavery’s fine and homosexuality’s sin. Option 3) Read bible thoughtfully and accept slavery sin and homosexuality sin, doesn’t seem to exist in Fred’s argument. As someone who adopts this position, I was observing this, and saying that I didn’t feel there was room in Fred’s argument for my position. So is he saying “you can’t thoughtfully read the bible and accept homosexuality is sinful”?

  • The_L1985

    I’m not really sure where you think I “want to go,” here.  All I’m saying is that there is no unambiguous condemnation of either premarital or same-sex intercourse.  That’s literally all I was trying to say in that first comment.

    I’m not really sure what you’re trying to do here.

  • The_L1985

     And once again, the reason for the entire sub-thread here was to point out that the Bible does not unambiguously condemn ALL premarital or same-sex intercourse.  I am aware of the gender imbalances in a lot of ancient relationships.

    I am also aware that in the first century, relationships were a fair bit more egalitarian than they were in the centuries before and after.  However, that is not the point I was trying to make, and I’m not sure how it got brought up in the first place.

  • The_L1985

    Actually, the serfs generally had enough to live on unless there was a famine, and they always got Sundays and holidays off.  The damn-near-slavery aspects of the system were of course pretty nasty, and the knights generally considered peasant women to be, er, “common property,” but that goes along with the whole “sort of like slavery” thing.

    But the “worse wages” aspect isn’t quite true.  So really, those people want a system that’s even worse than feudal serfdom.

  •  I don’t know about the US, but at least here in Europe mainline churches and other Christian organisations seem to be at the forefront of the trade justice movement. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t lost faith in my fellow Christians completely.

  • Lunch Meat

    I wasn’t being critical of you, just realized I’d never ever seen people
    talk about women marrying weird stuff in this context. Just men. And I
    think it’s telling that that’s where their minds immediately go.

    I had a thought a while back that might explain part of this. These people don’t actually think that women can consent to marriage. It’s the man and the woman’s father who do the consenting. So if a father can consent on behalf of “his” daughter, why couldn’t a man consent on behalf of his dog or his toaster?

  • Carstonio

    Do you think the defensiveness of the argument mostly about the Bible, or about Southern history as well? It has a No True Scotsman vibe.

  • Let’s start with a simpler example.

    You’ve asserted that the Bible supports a view that sexual relations outside of monogamous marriage is sinful.

    That is, just to pick one example, you assert that Jacob the Patriarch, the father of the children of Israel, was sinning when he married Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin… that at least two of the Twelve Tribes were conceived in sin, according to the Bible.

    And you assert that you came to this conclusion through a thoughtful reading of the Bible rather than by imposing the cultural norms you were raised in onto the Bible.

    Yeah, I suppose I would say that you can’t thoughtfully read the Bible and come to that conclusion. But, hey, it’s possible that I’m wrong, and I’m willing to be educated. Can you clarify how you arrived at that conclusion?

  • Carstonio

    These people don’t actually think that women can consent to marriage.

    Most of our wedding traditions appear be rooted in the old definition of marriage as a property exchange between father and groom. In my experience, the dog and toaster argument is used by far more people than just the Quiverfull types, and while they might not explicitly believe in that marriage definition, on some level they probably do view women as objects or property. There seems to be a widespread assumption that male sexual desire is amorphous, with all men equally capable of being turned on by other men or by animals.

  • Carstonio

    Why would one want homosexuality to be sinful? The secular reasons for condemning slavery as immoral are obvious. There are no such reasons for homosexuality. All the claims of its immorality come down to either scripture, or to pseudo-religious notions about “nature.”

    No one asserts that homosexuality is inherently right and that heterosexuality is inherent wrong. The argument against homosexuality being wrong is really for the principle that one’s sexual orientation isn’t the concern of others or of society. Both homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally neutral in the sense that there’s no moral imperative to be one or the other.

  • Fusina

     I gotta do this again???

    Yeah, actually. That does help. Thanks.

  • Fusina

     Thank you for those awesome words. I have been dealing with a lot of extraneous depression (more grief from losing a lot of friends and pets over the last year) and seeing the same battles we fought when I was a teenager being pulled back out–I’ve been a fan of the ERA and women’s rights since I was eighteen, and I now have an eighteen year old daughter and it seems we are fighting the same damn battles.

    I am a christian, but have found that I apparently behave toward the world more like an atheist–eg, I am not in favor of waiting until heaven to equalize things. To see other christians behaving badly hurts.

  • Tricksterson

    Unless of course the Mormon is running against a secret Muslimatheist.

  • Fusina

     Feudal serfs actually, that is correct. Although from what I have learned regarding coal mining towns in US, that was the case–and based on some miners being required to attend political shindigs (last year, Romney appearance) seems a bit icky too.

  • Tricksterson

    No but given the size and weapons tech differnces between First Nations and 19th century American nation-states I would say that he’s correct on that part if no other.

  • Tricksterson

    Maybe you should take a look at Fred’s Biblical Families series and then get back to us.

  • Tricksterson

    For that matter a man and a woman loving each other as equal partners in a romantic context would have been foreign to Paul and to most people of the time.  Marriage was a property transaction and there was no doubt as to whom was the property.

  • Robyrt

    It’s important to be specific about what you mean by “The Bible supports”. The New Testament revises and reverses a lot of the commands, both implicit and explicit, found in the Old. Jacob is never censured for polygamy, because when he did it, it wasn’t sinful. It’s the same principle as slavery, divorce, etc.

  • Matthias

    I wouldn’t say that there are no secular reasons for viewing homosexuality as evil. Ayn Rand, an outspoken atheist also condemend homosexuality as evil. So believing in some kind of God is clearly not required

  • Carstonio

    Looking at the reasons quoted for Rand in the third paragraph, her argument was naturalistic and thus pseudo-religious. She was obviously a gender essentialist.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Jacob the Patriarch, the father of the children of Israel, was sinning when he married Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin… that at least two of the Twelve Tribes were conceived in sin, according to the Bible.
    Whole bunch of the Twelve Tribes. The other ten sons of Jacob weren’t all Leah’s children; some were Bilhah’s and some Zilpah’s, and Jacob wasn’t even married to them. And ‘Joseph’ isn’t a Tribe, he’s the ancestor of two Tribes, beginning with his sons.

  • Sure, I endorse making specific claims.

    But I can’t be more specific than the source I’m quoting without just making stuff up, and Mark didn’t clarify what he meant by reading the Bible thoughtfully.

    Maybe he meant what you mean here (which, if I understand it correctly, is that Jesus’ arrival made the sorts of marriages the Patriarchs had sinful, though it hadn’t been sinful before that… yes?).
    Maybe he means something else.
    Maybe he hadn’t thought it through carefully enough to have meant anything in particular.

    I didn’t know, so I asked.

  • The_L1985

    Well, yes.  But there is no biblical injunction, in either Testament, saying “polygamy isn’t allowed anymore.”  There is no censure in any part of the Bible of Jacob’s bigamous marriage to both Leah and Rachael.

    The real reasons for polygamy’s ban in the US are based in Western societal concepts.
    1) Western culture has an idea of romantic love being jealous love–that you cannot have those feelings for more than one person at a time, and that it is justified to not want anybody to do so.
    2) Because of the sexist dynamic of marriages in most pre-modern cultures, polygamy as practiced in cultures where daughters are “given away” to husbands is almost exclusively polygynous*, never polyandrous** or any other combination of genders.
    3) Because of 1) and 2), polygamous marriages in Western culture have tended to be oppressive and abusive to the women involved.

    In many sub-Saharan African societies, before Europeans started colonizing Africa and completely wrecking the cultures there, a man’s wives tended to get along with each other well, cooperatively caring for their children and essentially functioning as a mini-village.  You didn’t automatically have the competition between wives that we see in the Jacob/Leah/Rachael story.

    Considering that the argument was that the Bible only allows for sex within the context of a monogamous marriage, I’d say Dave’s counter-argument stands.


    * One man with several wives
    ** One woman with several husbands

  • smrnda

     I’m aware that slaves were often referred to as ‘servants’ in the American South, so they were well aware that simply calling it something else made it easier to do.

  • smrnda

     There’s a difference between ‘no secular reason’ and ‘no *good* secular reason.’ Given Rand’s propensity to basically ‘win’ arguments by controlling the definitions of terms used (if you have to agree to her definitions, you’re stuck with her conclusions) I can’t think of her as someone who could possibly produce a credible argument for or against anything.

    As someone below me said, Rand basically believed in some kind of telos (the same thing used in Natural Law theology) and used that to get her conclusions.

  • The_L1985

    Well, sort of.  Technically, in that society, having sex with your wife’s slaves was considered to essentially be the same thing as having sex with your wife herself.  So Bilhah’s children were considered Leah’s, Zilpah’s children were considered Rachael’s, and Jacob wasn’t guilty of adultery by the standards of the time.

    Abraham’s begetting of Ishmael on Hagar was condemned, not because he’d had sex with someone other than his wife, but because he hadn’t had faith that God would indeed cause Sarah to give birth to a son.  Hagar, as Sarah’s slave, was treated as more or less a non-entity (notice that Genesis doesn’t tell us what happened to her after she was sent away!), and so Abraham wasn’t considered to have committed adultery.

    Different culture, different rules.  Sexist, demeaning rules, but still, different rules.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought the point of this discussion was whatsisface trying to prove that the Bible indicates that sex with anyone but one’s only lawfully wedded spouse is forbidden. Which makes Bilhah and Zilpah’s being people Jacob sexed while neither of them was his lawfully wedded spouse, let alone his only such, a problem for whatsisface.

    That is, I agree with your post, I’m just not sure how it advances the discussion any.

  • Robyrt

     The Christian objection to polygamy is not explicit, you’re right – it’s in much the same position as slavery, being inferred from other bits like the requirement of church officials to be “the husband of one wife.” Jacob is rather the exception; as far as I remember, most of the polygynous marriages in the Bible go off without a hitch. I agree that there’s a big component of Western cultural tradition there, too.

  • Carstonio

    The idea that designs and purposes exist in nature is what I mean by elevating nature to deity, because the idea collapses without the assumption of an intelligence or being to create those designs and purposes. The philosophical version of intelligent design. Ironic that Rand professed atheism but used theistic assumptions for those conclusions.

  • Foelhe

    I don’t think that’s the point Fred’s trying to make.

    When people were trying to abolish slavery, a lot of Christians stood up and said, “No! The bible supports slavery, and you can’t go against that!”

    Nowadays we’ve got people trying to support same-sex relationships, and a lot of Christians are standing up and saying, “No! The bible condemns same-sex relationships, and you can’t go against that!”

    The problem isn’t that these ideas are tied together, it’s that they both go against the core of Christianity. The bible argues that you need to love your neighbor and that means treating them with respect. When other people are trying to win respect they deserve, and your reaction as a Christian is to yank out a couple clobber-verses, tie ’em together and start waving them in protest, you’re doing a poor job of your religion.

    But there have been Christians doing this every time society has advanced for at least a few hundred years. Slavery’s an example, I’m pretty sure women’s sufferage was as well, not to mention several of the scientific advancements we’ve managed. If you’re scraping together a handful of verses across the bible to argue with progress… well, you’re in not-so-good company, historically. That’s the point Fred’s making.

    Coming back to my old argument, I don’t think you can thoughtfully argue that slavery and same-sex relationships are both sinful, based solely on the bible. There are a handful of clobber verses about same-sex relationships, and there are a handful of clobber verses about slavery. You’d have to read those in different contexts to give them unequal weight, and I suspect that context comes more from you than from the verses themselves. Not what I’d call a thoughtful read.

    But, however you feel about that, “Love your neighbor as yourself” should trump quite a bit in Christian theology. It is one of the key components to the religion, and that’s not from obscure text in Leviticus or writings of mere mortals who built the church, that’s from Christ himself.

  • P J Evans

     Reading about Emma Hale Smith, she wasn’t crazy about polygamy, even though it was her husband’s idea. (The people you run across when doing genealogy…)

  • phranckeaufile

    I’d be inclined to ask him how musicians exist at all, since the descendants of Cain all died in the flood. Noah was a descendant of Seth.