Last week, Jonathan Merritt, a journalist at the Atlantic and holds a Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, stepped in a hornet’s nest when he tweeted the following in response to a tweet that has since been deleted:
Can we all get real honest and admit there is no Xian who follows ALL the Bible. No one is stoning their disrespectful children or sending escaped sex trafficking victims back to their masters. This is a way of framing debates that conservatives use to shame and silence.
With this simple tweet, Merritt unwittingly unleashed a tumult of evangelical Christians defending slavery. It shouldn’t be this difficult for white evangelicals to condemn slavery without adding caveat after caveat. And yet, it is.
Consider this exchange:
I definitely always need more Bible study. Slaves are definitely told to return to their masters and masters are to treat slaves with kindness. Slavery in Biblical times was different than sex traffickers of today.
— Janice Barrett (@lasswell_lass) January 21, 2020
Not impressed, Merritt added the following:
Can someone tell me why Christians equivocate on the NT slavery passages. Say it with me:
*It is NEVER okay for one human to own another human.*
Kinder slavery is still morally wrong. Period. Full stop. Why does this even need to be said?! https://t.co/eTbC6XNNd0
— Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) January 21, 2020
And on and on it when.
So, are you saying
1) Death is superior to slavery (as slavery was often the only place to go to avoid it), and
2) Paul was in error in exhorting slaves and masters to both come to the table in fellowship and brotherhood?
Not asking for a friend.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) January 21, 2020
Had no idea criticizing slavery was a self-righteous move… that’s a first.
— Tyler Lee Conway (@TylerLeeConway) January 22, 2020
And this statement explains why so many Christians don’t have an issue with caged children now. if anyone who doesn’t think that sex trafficking doesn’t have aspects slavery in doesn’t read.
— K. Mari-Cate Charles (@KikiCharles) January 22, 2020
And then, finally, there was this exchange:
No, I don’t believe it because it’s trash history promoted mostly by racist American Christians. https://t.co/u4bqQtZinQ
— Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) January 23, 2020
And on and on and on.
If you have a problem with what scripture says then take it to God. I didnt write it and I need not defend it either. You dont like the statement bc your understanding of slave is skewed by your context.
— Clint Weavil (@ClintWeavil) January 24, 2020
Surely a serious accounting for sin would show clearly why this is an absurd suggestion: We are not righteous, God is; we are humans and no human has the rights over another that God has over us; chattel slavery is inherited and enforced, nothing like what binds us to Christ
— Bailey (@bpickbpick) January 23, 2020
Realizing this morning that there are many texts of inspired Writ that, if you dare express public agreement with, or acceptance thereof, you will be considered a dangerous person to be shunned and excoriated. And that by those who claim to be followers of Scripture.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) January 22, 2020
What to make of all of this?
Last week’s twitter storm is a reminder that white evangelicals still haven’t figured out how to deal with slavery. In the antebellum South, enslavers appealed to scripture to justify the race-based chattel enslavement of millions of Americans. Scripture was all over their arguments. White evangelicals today still haven’t fully grappled with this. This is where you get things like white supremacist Doug Wilson’s ardent defense of antebellum slavery.
The problem, in part, is that white evangelicals insist on a “literal” reading of scripture that renders them unable to accept that some things in the Bible might have been a product of their times. I put “literal” in quotes for a reason, because white evangelicals’ readings are frequently not that at all.
For example, Joshua Docktor wrote as follows in his tweet:
The fundamental reason people like @JonathanMerritt don’t believe “the myth of the benevolent slave owner” is because they cannot conceive of a benevolent Father who graciously gave us a book. A book in which, in Christ, we are all called slaves. Rom. 6:22
So I looked up Romans 6:22.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
On reading this, I was curious about its context. So I read the whole section, Romans 6:15-23. And it did not suggest at all what Docktor claims it does.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is literally impossible to read this passage and come away with the conclusion that “in Christ, we are all called slaves.” It is even more impossible to see this passage as some sort of endorsement of slavery. For god’s sake, Paul writes in this passage that “I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.” He did not at all mean to say that Christians are actual slaves in Christ.
Christians like Docktor also point to the story of Onesimus, who ran away from his enslaver, Philemon, only to be sent back by Paul. Even a quick read of Philemon makes clear that this passage is not in fact a endorsement of slavery. Instead, the book reads as an appeal to Philemon to free Onesimus, couched in careful and respectful language because Philemon was a substantial funder of the church.
See here, for instance:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.
I can’t be the only one to read the above and see: I’d like to just tell you outright to set Onesimus free, but you’re a substantial financial supporter of the church, so I’ll be gentle and hint at it instead.
And then there’s this:
Perhaps the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
No longer as a slave. Does it really sound like Paul is saying “here, have your slave back, he did a bad by running away”? Because it doesn’t to me. Indeed, it is not at all clear to me, from this book, that Paul would have sent Onesimus back to his enslaver had that enslaver been a non-Christian.
Are there other passages where New Testament authors urge enslaved people to obey their masters? Certainly. I’m not saying the New Testament is clear or obvious about everything—it often isn’t, which is exactly my point. White evangelicals have some room to maneuver on this issue, but instead, they want to act as though the New Testament contains a full throated endorsement of slavery.
I prefer the way scholars approach the New Testament. Scholars tend to view individuals in the New Testament as enmeshed within a web of cultural assumptions. Many scholars think slaves and women were overrepresented in the early church. It would be easy, knowing this, to conclude that some of the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters might have been more about ensuring church members were safe and not under suspicion by their owners than about making a blanket pronouncement.
And another thing—the statements throughout the New Testament that all are one in Christ, man or woman, slave or free, would have been considered very radical indeed, for the time.
Why doesn’t the New Testament order masters to free their slaves? This isn’t clear. It’s possible that it had to do with money—it could even have had to do with gender. Many members of the early church were wealthy women who used their money to support the church and those in it. Some of them might not have been able to free their slaves, who would have been owned by their husbands.
To be sure, white evangelicals argue that Paul and the other authors who penned the books that now comprise the New Testament were divinely inspired. White evangelicals don’t tend to like suggestions that some passages may be products of their time, rather than of divine inspiration. (I would note, though, that white evangelicals don’t think twice about braiding their hair or wearing jewelry.)
Still, it wouldn’t be that hard to see Paul’s statements that all are one in Christ as his most important, and his calls for enslaved Christians to obey their masters as the product not of an ideal, but of the realities early Christians faced.
Before I close, I want to address this comment:
Slavery in Biblical times was different than sex traffickers of today.
This is super interesting, for two reasons.
First, is the claim here that the only kind of slavery that is acceptable is the specific type of slavery that was practiced during the Roman Empire? If that is the argument, it should not be difficult to get white evangelicals to categorically condemn antebellum slavery. And yet, it is difficult.
Second, does the author of this tweet honestly think that slavery in the Roman Empire did not involve sex trafficking? Because let me tell you, it did. It’s not just that enslavers could—and did—rape their slaves with no consequences, it’s also that, in the Roman Empire, prostitutes were usually slaves.
If you’re reading this as a white evangelical and suddenly realizing that you never thought to check whether Paul addresses slaves’ sexual submission to their masters, congratulations, you don’t know enough about the context within which Paul was writing—or what he actually said—to say that Christians can’t condemn slavery as a universal moral evil because of the Bible.
The fact that Paul both condemns sexual immorality—including prostitution—and tells slaves to obey their masters should be enough to suggest that maybe—just maybe—he was giving a nod to slavery because that was the world within which early Christians lived, and not because it was a moral good. The fact that Paul both told slaves to obey their masters and Christians not to prostitute suggests that he was perhaps trying more to thread a very fine needle than to make a universal proclamation on slavery.
I also wonder whether white evangelicals realize how much of their ongoing defense of slavery is rooted in the legacy of race-based slavery in the Americas. At one point, it was illegal to enslave a Christian. When black enslaved people converted to Christianity and argued that this rendered them free, legislatures changed the law to declare that Christians could be enslaved. Christian ideas about slavery, even when they weren’t great—I’m not huge on enslaving kidnapped Muslims— were not always what they became in the antebellum U.S. South. Much of the layman’s idea of what slavery looks like—and what it has looked like historically—comes from a very narrow slice of history.
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