Slavery was de facto and normative in the ancient world. Last week, Courtney and I saw the ruins of many colossal structures in Rome, each built by slaves of the Roman Empires. Some of those slaves were captured enemy soldiers, while others were merely born into the wrong caste. Few in the ancient world (or medieval world, for that matter) questioned the institution of slavery. It was the gasoline in the engines of civilization.
Notoriously, the institution of slavery is not questioned in the texts that comprise the Bible, either. While the people of Israel chafe under their own experience as slaves, they don’t call for the end of slavery in general. And Paul famously encouraged the slave Onesimus to return to his master, Philemon, in the eponymous letter. Although Paul elsewhere writes there is “no more slave or free,” he is no more questioning the institution of slavery than he is saying there’s no gender differences between men and women or ethnic differences between Barbarian and Scythian.
Nevertheless, the church fought its way to a different opinion a few generations ago. It involved the shedding of blood in the American Civil War and, yes, it involved schism. The Southern Baptist Convention, currently a major purveyor of misogyny in the American church, was founded as a pro-slavery association of churches. Today, of course, they are intent on distancing themselves from that history, and they have passed resolutions repudiating the institution of slavery.
The Southern Baptists and other pro-slavery Christians changed their minds on slavery, but they didn’t do it without a fight.
Today, some say that misogyny is baked into the cake of Christianity. It’s right there in our founding text, they argue. Women are lesser than men, meant to be man’s helpmate, and ordered to stay silent in public worship.
But, not unlike slavery, misogyny is not a characteristic of the Christian faith. It’s a remnant of the ancient world out of which Christianity was birthed.
If Jesus had been born in AD 1996 instead of 6BC, and if the books of the New Testament were to be written in AD 2049-2095 instead of AD 49-95, similar issues would arise. Two millennia from now, readers would have to distinguish the meanings of the text from the cultural accoutrements of our era. They’d have to peel away the assumptions of capitalism and democracy and nuclear fears and other aspects of the context of the writings.
Parsing the meaning of a text from the context in which it was written is the first and most important step in hermeneutics. We do it when we read about Israel wandering through the wilderness or sacrificing goats, and we do it when we read Jesus’ parables about mustard seeds and Samaritans.
Those today who make hermeneutical judgments about Samaritans — though they’ve never met a Samaritan — yet stand intractably on the misogynistic verses of the New Testament are being willfully incorrigible. These verses, from Paul or those writing later in Paul’s name, are remnants of his ancient context, in which women were systematically oppressed and silenced. The ancient world was — sadly, tragically, yet unavoidably — a misogynistic place. In my opinion, the really shocking thing is that the Bible isn’t more misogynistic.
The reason that I called for schism on these issues last week is this: those who readily contextualize the Bible’s position on slavery yet stand firm on the Bible’s misogyny are, in my opinion, steadfastly ignoring both rudimentary hermeneutics and the current movement of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, schism is a harsh and ugly word. But I’m thankful that our forbears were willing to risk that to end slavery. Now we need to do it to end the oppression of women in the church. Our silence — or our desire to have more dialogue — is not only damaging our witness in the West, it’s also complicit in the overt oppression of women in much of the Global South. Therefore, it’s time to take action.