Do you believe in slavery? Would your church hire a pro-segregation minister? Would you be part of a spiritual community that banned attendees of a different race? Would you attend a church that refused to allow inter-racial marriages? I’m guessing that not only would you answer “no” to these questions, but that most of you have a hard time imagining that there was a time when the Bible was used to justify and support such notions. Thankfully, almost all Bible teaching today comes from a place of deep conviction that the God we stand before today is one who loves all races equally and wants us to love and respect each other as equals. But, knowing that it wasn’t always this way in Christianity, how did we get here? How did the majority’s interpretation of the Bible change so radically on this topic?
Why did Christians in the past believe in – and preach – slavery and segregation from the Bible? Continuing our series The Five Elements of Church Error or How Could We Have Gotten It All Wrong?, let’s turn to one obvious and oft-cited culprit of slavery’s tolerance in Christianity: Scripture. Paul seems to advocate slavery in some of his New Testament teachings, like this one:
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches…Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you…each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.1 Corinthians 7:17, 21, 24
This passage from Paul, and others like it from Paul’s letters (as well as a misinterpretation of Ge 9:25-27), have been used to support the institution of slavery in countries around the world, and in America. However, looking closely at the larger context of this New Testament passage and others of Paul, one recognizes that the key to understanding what Paul is saying here is in his context. And I don’t just mean Paul’s cultural context, which also sheds light on this issue. What I’m talking about is a different element in his reasoning and worldview which can be evidenced in the plentiful imminent time statements that Paul uses throughout his teachings. Paul believed that an imminent end to the age, or world, he was living in was about to come upon him and all of the churches to whom he wrote. Negligence of the imminence and the original context of Paul’s words regarding slavery have caused people to lose sight of their relevance to the original audience to whom they were written. These words have been taken out of that context and used to justify immeasurable pain in countless people’s lives. Here is one example of the imminent time statements that coordinate with the passage above.
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is…What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short… For the present form of this world IS passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:26, 29, 31b, emphasis mine.)
Paul explains his reasoning for his command about slaves remaining in their current position rather than gaining their freedom is that he knew the time was short. He is teaching this because he believed that his world – or, more specifically, the Old Covenant AGE – was passing away very soon. The Old Covenant world, its laws of separation, its authority in their lives and its Temple, were about to pass away, per Jesus’ teaching (Mt 24, Mk 13, Lk 21). Thus, Paul’s reasoning is that until that short period of tribulation and crisis is over, focus more on surviving it than changing the culture.
After the Bible was assembled and began to be taught in Christian communities, people lost sight of the original context and original audience relevance of these passages. What’s more, an interpretation developed that saw Paul as speaking about the end of the material world in this passage (and others like them) instead of the Old Covenant Age. So, the reasoning goes, since we’re all still here in the same material world, we must be in an already-not-yet ongoing phase before the end of the world, and thus we should insert ourselves into these passages and read them like they apply directly to us. But is this the best way to think about this? What other options do we have? What world is Paul talking about? Could people have misunderstood him?
I believe a close examination of Scripture reveals that Paul is talking about the passing of the Old Covenant world or age – not the end of the material world.
When did Paul believe this end of the Old age would happen? Based on Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse (“this generation will not pass away before all these things take place…”) and Peter’s teachings (“these are the Last Days about which they spoke…” and “…the end of all things (pertaining to the Old age) are at hand”) that THEY were in the Last Days – that is, in the 30s AD – Paul also teaches that the Old Covenant age would end before his contemporary generation of believers passed away. This is his consistent message through all of his teaching, and is consistent with every New Testament writer’s teaching. Based upon Jesus’ same teaching, Paul also knew ‘the End’ of the Old age would be preceded by a Great Tribulation – or a political, religious and humanitarian crisis. So, Paul’s advice to his fellow believers was to focus on preparing for this ‘Day of the Lord’ by focusing on God, and not fighting to gain freedom – at least not until that crisis was over and normal life could resume. Paul was encouraging them in ways that would increase their unity and chances to survive the dire circumstances that they were about to go through (where about a million people were killed and a million taken into slavery according to ancient historians).
Paul uses similar apocalyptic reasoning towards the Roman church regarding being submissive to their government’s institutions – at that time and for a specific reason – as well.
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us now than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore…. Romans 13:11-12
Paul’s message was explicitly apocalyptic. He believed ‘the end’ (of the old covenant age) was near. And his teaching was taken to heart by the Romans and Corinthians in light of the soon-coming disaster that was on their horizon since Christian tradition and archaeology reveal that, indeed, just before the destruction of Jerusalem, the Christians who fled to Pella survived the tribulation.
To be clear, Paul was not endorsing slavery as an institution for all people in all times. Nor was he condemning people standing up to their oppressive or corrupt government and creating reform. He was not reversing God’s larger message about a just and merciful use of power, which rules out slavery and oppression of fellow image-bearers. God made a bold statement against slavery as demonstrated in freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in the Exodus. The Exodus is the the great climax of Hebrew history. It is referred to over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures as an act in which God shows his very nature as one who FREES people. God’s very act of setting the Israelites free from bondage is a constant touchpoint in the Hebrew Scriptures as a reason why people should praise him. It is as if God wanted to be identified as the very kind of God who sets slaves free.
Indeed, Jesus continues this spirit when he began his public ministry with a powerful proclamation of the same kind,
And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED…” Luke 4:17-18
Thanks, Jesus, for clearing that up. It’s hard for me to understand how people could have missed the very overarching thrust of God and Jesus’ message for so long, choosing instead to use the Bible as a tool for racial oppression. God and Jesus were decidedly against the oppression of people, misuse of power, and injustice. It serves to demonstrate how people often see what they want to see and choose to use Scripture to justify their oppression.
Now, back to Paul. Through his letters to the Roman and Corinthian churches, Paul expresses that he took Jesus’ teaching about the soon-coming Tribulation as truth – an important message that was really meant for them to heed soon. And two, God confirmed this same warning through Jesus – and the same timing, too. If we believe that what they said was true, that they actually knew what they were talking so emphatically about, then this is a great confirmation of their authenticity. And their accuracy in their prophetic teaching lends credibility to our faith. In the text, Paul says his answer to their question was not just his opinion, but it was from the Lord.
To be fair, many sects of Christians DID recognize the spirit of Christianity as being for the justice and equality of people. This means that many did recognize that God and Jesus are, in Spirit, against slavery, even if they didn’t specifically say it. And so many Christians through history decried have decried slavery, even risking their lives to protect and free slaves. Additionally, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul asks a fellow Christian friend to release his slave. Since his doing so probably wouldn’t incite a distracting riot before the tribulation that was about to come upon them, this probably expresses more of Paul’s actual sentiment about the topic.
Yet, despite the Bible’s teaching about God and Jesus standing for freedom and justice, many other people in places of power, even up to modern times, have used the Bible to justify slavery. “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. (Dunbar Rowland quoting Jefferson Davis, in “Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches. J. J. Little & Ives Company, 1923, Page 286.)
Returning to our American context, even after slavery was abolished in the United States in the 1860s, segregation was preached in American churches until the 1960s. Furthermore, inter-racial marriages were condemned in Bible-based churches where Paul’s time-bound statements were overlooked and his statements seeming to condone slavery in his context were endlessly projected into our context and the end he looked for was pushed into a never-arriving future.
To site a modern day example, Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian college in South Carolina, only repealed their ban on interracial dating in the year 2000 (!!) In an interview with CNN, then college President, Bob Jones III said he could no longer back up the ban on interracial dating with Scripture. Then why did he enforce it? It was because of a kind of imminent doomsday futurism. It was an eschatology that has taken root in many pockets of Christianity, effecting their reasoning on a number of topics, causing people to distort and take them out of their first century context.
Jones said the university first implemented the dating ban more than five decades ago:
Because we were trying…to enforce something, a principle…We stand against the one world government, against the coming world of the antichrist. The principle upon which it was based is very important, but the rule is not. So we did away with it. We realize that an interracial marriage is not going to bring in the world of antichrist. (CNN U.S., March 30th, 2000)
It’s interesting that an institution would base their race-based dating ban on a fear rising out of their eschatology. If only Bob Jones had known that the ‘world’ of the antichrist, Caesar Nero (whose name in Hebrew numerology adds up to 666, and who ruled during the 3 ½ year Great Tribulation, and who church fathers have taught was the anti-christ for 2000 years…) has come and gone. Studying these things anew for me and for many people, has dissolved the power of this fear-invoking system which continues to be used to fuel oppressive ideas like this and others.
For many Christians through the ages and also for the majority of Jesus-followers in the world today, thankfully, we do not accept that God endorses slavery, segregation or racism of any kind. The vast majority do not use Scripture to support it. This widespread agreement did not come without a fight, however. The institutional church was forced to reassess how it viewed the teachings of certain Scriptures in the Bible and how they relate to the overall message of love for neighbor and the imago Dei, God’s image in us.
Unfortunately, without a contextually fulfilled view of Paul’s teaching, it’s hard to reject what he taught as not longer applying to us today without just choosing to dismiss it. This is why there has been such a battle about Paul and Peter’s teachings on slavery in their New Testament letters (Ephesians, Colossians, Titus and 1 Peter).
So if followers of Jesus were wrong to use the above verses to justify slavery, taking those verses out of context, then what else are we taking out of context today?
Stay tuned as we examine other contested-and-discarded beliefs in this series!