One thing I have found especially heartening over the past few weeks has been the way progressive and moderate Christians have stepped up to the plate on marriage equality. And no, they’re not just stepping up to say “not all Christians,” they’re stepping up to do battle on this issue with other Christians.
On July 1, Kevin DeYoung published an article on the Gospel Coalition website titled 40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags. It was, of course, an attempt to discredit LGBT-accepting Christians and portray them as unbiblical and even unChristian. Across the internet, Christian theologians and bloggers stepped forward to answer DeYoung’s questions. One Christian blogger, Matthew Vines, responded with his own post: 40 Questions for Christians Who Oppose Marriage Equality. Anti-gay Christians then stepped up to answer those questions—including Doug Wilson. And here’s where things get iffy.
For those not familiar, Doug Wilson is a conservative Christian theologian based in Idaho who has often found himself in hot water over his views on antebellum slavery. Yes, you read that right—it’s not just that he has troubling beliefs about race, or about the biblical nature of slavery as a concept, it’s that he has gone on record defending antebellum slavery specifically. I’ve written about this at length in the past.
Now yes, there are always going to be some pastors out there who are extremists and who say horrible terrible things. But Wilson isn’t just some random pastor, he has real influence. He is considered a bona fide theologian in conservative Christian circles and is leaned on by such evangelical giants as John Piper. So this isn’t just a matter of some random pastor saying awful things, Wilson is a guy with some serious clout.
And with that, we’ll turn to some of Wilson’s answers to Matthew Vines 40 questions.
16. Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?
Yes, far more serious.
17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?
Yes, that really is what he wrote.
Wilson’s post responding to Matthew Vine’s 40 questions was quickly shared positively by prominent evangelical leaders and thinkers. “Brilliant and fog-clearing,” tweeted Mindy Belz, Editor of World Magazine.
But before I get into Wilson’s views on slavery (there’s a lot to discuss!), let me dispense with some possible criticism. Wilson answered the following question as follows, indicating that he does in fact see slavery as a “sinful institution” that should have been abolished:
18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?
No, because I believe I am in line with what most Christians have thought about this. Slavery as an institution is a sinful institution, and race-based chattel slavery was far worse. But God outlined very specific instructions in the New Testament for abolishing that institution, but doing so without revolutionary means. For more on this crucial subject, you can check this out.
Notice that Wilson suggests that slavery should have been outlined in a specific, Biblical way, and not through “revolutionary” means. Wilson has spent the past two decades arguing that the Civil War was a terrible mistake and that the abolitionists were the bad guys, unbiblical provocateurs who spread propaganda making antebellum slavery out as worse than it really was. He has never backed down from this position, and indeed continues (even here) to restate it.
If you click through the link Wilson offers above, you will find a post he wrote on the book Philemon, in which Paul sends the newly converted escaped slave Onesimus back to his Christian master Philemon. Wilson argues that Paul did not attack the institution of slavery because it was too embedded in the society, so he instead urged Christian slaves to be obedient to their masters and Christian masters to be kind to their slaves. According to Wilson, this was part of Paul’s plan to end slavery gradually. Wilson insists that Philemon surely soon freed Onesimus soon afterwards, even though there is no evidence of the kind and Paul most assuredly did not tell him to do so. One is left wondering what Wilson’s gospel-driven gradual abolition would have looked like.
Now, some readers were upset with Wilson’s insistence that supporting marriage equality is a worse sin than supporting slavery, so Wilson wrote a second, follow-up article in which he doubled down:
1. We know that sodomy is worse than slavery by how God responds to it. In the book of Jude, we are told how the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the surrounding cities, gave themselves over to the celebration of fornication and “going after strange flesh.” In doing this, they were imitating the angels who abandoned their proper habitation, and went after human women in order to marry them. In both these instances, God visited them with divine wrath and judgment, one in the form of the Genesis Flood and the other a visitation of fire. Jude goes on to say that it was done this way to serve as an example to us. When God judges rebel humanity in such a way as to have our ears tingle and burn, we should pay closer heed than we are currently doing.
In other words, sodomy is worse than slavery because in the Old Testament, God destroyed a society for practicing sodomy, but he never destroyed a society for practicing slavery. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that God’s priorities, as manifest in the Old Testament, were out of whack? We could also, you know, mention the fact that many scholars don’t think Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for practicing sodomy, but that may be a bit too deep for Wilson.
In the same article, Wilson argues that abortion is also worse than slavery:
But we are the generation that has murdered about 13 million black Americans. This is more than the number of ALL the slaves shipped in the Middle Passage over the course of three centuries, and we hit that number in just one generation. On top of that, out of those millions of slaves so horribly mistreated in the slave trade, just under 400,000, a small fraction of the total 12.5 million slaves, came to the United States. So that generation had blood on their hands, sure enough, but we are standing in it, up to our knees.
This isn’t the first time he’s made such an argument. In 2013, he wrote that:
Abortion is at least as great an evil for black culture as slavery was.
Okay but here’s the thing: abortion is something black women choose voluntarily. Yes, their decisions may be influenced by their circumstances—poverty and limited access to birth control—but no one is forcing black women to have abortions. Wilson’s argument that abortion is as bad or worse an evil for African Americans allows him to position something individual black women choose because they believe it is best for them as worse than the inhuman horror that was slavery, a thing done to blacks against their wishes and robbing them of freedom and autonomy. It lessons the wrong done to blacks by suggesting that the real evil, for blacks, is something they have done to themselves.
This is in keeping with other statements by Wilson, including his 2013 statement that African Americans need to repent of their bitterness and opportunism:
I speak of those who play the perpetual victim even though they have never experienced anything worse than a two-day delay in their most recent affirmative action promotion. These are blacks who yell at those who judge them for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, like somebody is supposed to have said once. I think it was supposed to have been important, but I am not sure anymore.
Of course, in his followup post Wilson does write critically of slavery.
The institution of slavery in human society is a memorial to the sinfulness of man. I am not saying that the institution of slavery is a good or nice thing. I am not applauding it, and I believe that the gospel of Christ was designed to be the liberty of every man, and therefore the destruction of slavery. Nevertheless, slavery is a kind of messed up institution that Christians can find themselves connected to in the meantime, whether as slaves or masters.
Why, then, did he answer the question about how he concluded that slavery was unbiblical with nothing more than a “heh”? Well, let me again quote from the same followup post:
And when Christians find themselves owning slaves, for example, the Bible’s instruction is explicit. Paul says that masters should treat their slaves with appropriate kindness, knowing that they have a Master in Heaven themselves (Eph. 6:9). In the first century, a man could be excommunicated for being a harsh master, but not for simply being a master. Paul says that if an owner is a believer, this means he should be accorded extra respect (1 Tim. 6:2). Paul says teach and preach these principles, and so my response is yes, sir. I do not accept it as my duty to revile men that an apostle told me to respect.
In other words, Wilson does not in fact think owning slaves is a sin.
Wilson doesn’t just argue that owning slaves is not a sin or that slavery should have ended gradually and over time, through the influence of the gospel (how that was supposed to work when most slaveowners were already Christian and defended their actions from the Bible I do not know). Wilson also argues that antebellum slavery was not the brutal atrocity we think it today. For example, see this paragraph Wilson wrote two decades ago:
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. The credit for this must go to the predominance of Christianity. The gospel enabled men who were distinct in nearly every way, to live and work together, to be friends and often intimates. This happened to such an extent that moderns indoctrinated on “civil rights” propaganda would be thunderstruck to know the half of it.
Wilson has never truly backed away from these earlier statements, as outlined in his 1996 pamphlet, Southern Slavery as It Was, coauthored with a founding member of the racist secession group League of the South. Instead, he has repeatedly reaffirmed that slavery was more benign than we think it, that the abolitionists were the bad guys, and that the Civil War was a great mistake. He seems to believe that if left alone, Southern slaveholders would have gradually eliminated slavery through the influence of the gospel (which, again, ignores that Southern slaveholders overwhelmingly used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery).
In 2013, Wilson engaged in a dialogue with Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition. During that exchange he explicitly refused to walk back what he had said in the past about slavery being more benign than is generally thought. Indeed, his “apology” to Thabiti for being racially insensitive was so fraught with exceptions and qualifications as to invalidate itself as an apology—and indeed, he specified that he was only extending said apology to those who were, like Thabiti, willing to approach him kindly and civilly, as brothers in Christ. Wilson continues to refer to the antebellum South as “the last nation of the first Christendom“ and still says he would have fought for the Confederacy.
It appears that Wilson thinks supporting marriage equality a greater sin than supporting slavery because he does not see supporting slavery as a sin. A mistake, perhaps, as the gospel ought to ultimately lead to the elimination of slavery, but certainly not a sin. Indeed, he argues that when a Christian lives in a slaveholding society, owning slaves is not a sin—and that other Christians should not censure him for it. When owning slaves is not in fact a sin, it’s easy to see why Wilson would come to the conclusion that supporting marriage equality is a worse sin than supporting slavery.
It might be worth reminding readers that Wilson has a long history of referring to LGBT individuals as “things” and even supporting their execution or exile. He has also argued that marital sex should be characterized by dominance and submission, conquering and surrender, and that “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party.” Together with his longtime insistence that antebellum slavery wasn’t as bad as people think it was and his current insistence that supporting marriage equality is more sinful than supporting slavery, he ought to be the sort of controversial character that evangelical leaders avoid like the plague. But he isn’t. Instead, they retweet and praise his posts and writings.
There is something very wrong with American evangelicalism today.