Why is a famous evangelical pastor defending slavery?

Why is a famous evangelical pastor defending slavery? April 16, 2013

I was recently made aware of a debate going on in the neo-reformed Gospel Coalition corner of the world that I tend to avoid. Doug Wilson, a megachurch pastor from Idaho, argued in his book Black and Tan that the abolitionist movement was wrong and the Civil War should never happened, because if Southern slave-owners had been allowed to implement the Bible’s teachings on slavery, then a more humane transition would have taken place through “gospel gradualism.” So a Caribbean neo-reformed pastor Thabiti Anyabwile who writes for the Gospel Coalition decided this March to engage him in charitable conversation (summarized by the Wartburg Watch here) about his assertions (which I guess would be the equivalent of a Jewish person sitting down to have a civil discussion with a Holocaust denier).

I’m of course horrified that this conversation is happening at all, but I’m going to try to represent Wilson’s view as accurately as possible so that I can’t be accused of caricature. Basically Wilson seems to be coming at this from several angles which I would summarize in the following three points based on direct quotes taken from his blog and Anyabwile’s blog:

1) If we say that Christians can’t fight a civil war today to stop abortion from happening, then we shouldn’t say that the Civil War were justified as a means of freeing slaves.

“If we could bring an end to abortion in the United States by precipitating a war (or by trying to), should we do that? Abortion is at least as great an evil as slavery was. Abortion is at least as great an evil for black culture as slavery was. If you allow for gospel gradualism now, then why is my urging a gospel gradualism in 1858 a thought crime? And if gospel gradualism was sinful then, why isn’t it sinful now?” [1]

2) “Liberal” Christians have used the Bible’s endorsement of slavery as a means to dislodge their obedience to the Bible’s teachings on female submission to their husbands and homosexuality, so if Christians are going to hold onto the “Biblical” view of marriage, then we have to be pro-slavery as long as it occurs in Biblical terms.

“Christians must live or die by the Scriptures, as they stand. Compromise on what the Bible teaches about slavery is directly related to the current pressures to compromise on abortion and sodomy. Southern slavery was an example of the kind of sinful human situation that called for diligent obedience to St. Paul’s directives, on the part of both masters and slaves. Because this did not happen, and because of the way slavery ended, the federal government acquired the power to impose things on the states that it did not have before. Therefore, for all these reasons, radicalism is to be rejected by Christians.” [2]

3) If Southern whites had been allowed to gradually grow out of slavery on their own through the Christian teaching of their pastors rather than having emancipation forced on them by the federal government, then we would have a better balance of power between state and federal governments today.

“The discipleship of the nations is a process. This means that the South was (along with all other nations) in transition from a state of pagan autonomy to one of full submission to the Lordship of Christ. Christian influence in the South was considerable and extensive, but the laws of the South still fell short of the biblical pattern. In spite of this, the Christian influence on antebellum Southern culture surpassed most other nations in the world of that time.” [3]

Well, at least Wilson concedes that the South “fell short of the Biblical pattern.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen more white privilege and presumptuousness packed into a sentence than that one.

The Real Issue: Is the Bible Culturally Contextual?

So here’s the hard truth. Wilson has made a choice to be consistent in his view of the Bible as a document whose teaching is absent of any cultural context. The Biblical inerrantist position requires holding that what the Bible says to 1st century Jews and Gentiles must be implemented in exactly the same way today and not translated into a different contextual form.

If Paul says for ladies to wear hats in church, then they need to do that today even if uncovered hair had a different, explicitly erotic meaning in Roman culture that it doesn’t have today. If you allow context to be part of your Biblical interpretation, then you’re sliding down the slippery slope into liberalism. As Wilson says: “Compromise on what the Bible teaches about slavery is directly related to the current pressures to compromise on abortion and sodomy.”

I actually commend Wilson for his consistency. Most Biblical fundamentalists pick and choose where to be literalists. I myself read the Bible contextually. The early church had to operate within a 1st century Roman culture shaped by a specific set of assumptions about slavery and gender. They had to decide which battles to fight and which times to choose martyrdom as a means of fighting. It doesn’t matter whether Roman slavery was “more humane” than American slavery. The Roman paterfamilias had absolute life and death power over his household, period.

To me, it is reasonable to look for the spirit behind the teachings that are given in order to translate those teachings into a different cultural context. This requires paying attention to the only verse in the Bible that the inerrantists don’t consider infallible: “The letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). I don’t think that women need to wear hats to church today, but it does seem reasonable to hope that men and women alike would not wear clothing to church that features their assets in a way that is deliberately provocative and distracting.

Likewise, we don’t have to conclude Peter and Paul are teaching us that slavery is right even when they say, “Slaves, obey your masters.” They are calling on slaves to act in such a way that will most likely convert their masters to Christ. It’s the subversive evangelistic goal which is the relevant teaching that can be translated into our context; we should see relationships with our bosses as opportunities for evangelism through the witness of faithful hard work.

Because of my contextual view of scripture, it doesn’t bother me to say that we do not have to operate today with either 1st century presumptions about slavery or the 1st century account of gender as a simple black and white binary. Doug Wilson’s fear is well-founded. I believe that God did in fact use our discovery (eighteen and a half centuries too late) that we must follow the spirit rather than the letter of what the Bible says about slavery as a means of opening up a culturally contextual way of accessing the real truth of His scriptural teachings.

With regard to gender, we’ve discovered that people are not simply male or female. Some people are born with both organs; others are born with a male organ and female hormones and vice-versa; others are born with a combination of hormones that make a lifelong relationship with others who share the same gendered organs the least disruptive arrangement for them to have a fruitful journey of Christian discipleship. The best I can do in capturing the spirit of Biblical teaching on sexuality is to say that Christians should promote a form of chaste sexuality for all people gay and straight, which best resists its dangerous tendency towards idolatry (which is the real issue, not some artificially constructed order of gender that gets superimposed on top of the Bible by those who do not allow cultural context to be part of their interpretation). That means as Paul says, that it is “better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9) even though Paul thinks celibacy is ideal for gay and straight people alike (1 Cor 7:7).

I think that Doug Wilson’s perspective and mine represent the two basic possible choices for how to approach Biblical interpretation if you’re going to do it consistently: with context or without context. Many Christians choose a inconsistent path in between based on whatever ideological identity they’re staking out with their mixture of positions. My fellow Methodists are the most hypocritical group because they want to have female pastors, which are explicitly forbidden in the Bible (if read without context), but oppose homosexuality, when the Biblical opposition to homosexuality stands or falls on the question of whether Paul’s 1st century assumptions about gender are permanently normative and essential to his divinely inspired teaching.

If you’re not willing to consider whether Paul’s take on gender hierarchy and homosexuality might both occur within a set of assumptions about gender that are not permanently part of God’s plan for humanity, then you need to go along with Doug Wilson and say that slavery is okay as long as it occurs in a Biblical way because Paul has to be right about that also. If you want to learn how to own slaves in a Biblical way, then you can check out 19th century Methodist pastor Holland Nimmons McTyeire‘s Duties of Christian Masters.

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  • Though there are those who do not understand the Hebrew people to have literally migrated from Egypt to Canaan under the leadership of Moses, the contextual account has them being freed from slavery and committing to caring for the one who sojourned amongst them. Upon that alone we may say slavery should not have existed in any Jewish, Christian or Muslim-oriented society.

    Not only would not giving up slavery have been wrong for American society in 1865, it was also wrong that one slave was ever brought to the British colonies from Africa. We may not take the meanderings of Doug Wilson seriously.

    • Morgan Guyton

      The only reason I take them seriously is because he’s pretty mainstream within the conservative Calvinist evangelical world. That’s scary!

      • Calvin spins in his grave.

      • I reckon it’s not bad to take them seriously, however I don’t suppose the World Communion of Reformed Churches do.


        These WCRC denominations in United States are not likely to take them seriously:
        Christian Reformed Church in North America
        Cumberland Presbyterian Church
        Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America
        Evangelical Presbyterian Church
        Hungarian Reformed Church in America
        Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad
        Lithuanian Evangelical Reformed Church
        Reformed Church in America
        Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
        United Church of Christ

        No. 5 in their mission statement: Repent for past and present practice that dehumanizes.
        The First Nations Peoples reminded us of our responsibilities as participants in God’s mission (Missio Dei) and the need to repent of any form of mission praxis that disempowers or dehumanizes. Mission, bearing witness to the justice of God and overcoming the wrongdoings of the past, requires intentional and continuous efforts of de-linking the historical and enduring connections between slavery, colonialism and Christian mission. http://www.wcrc.ch/node/524

        • Morgan Guyton

          “Mission, bearing witness to the justice of God and overcoming the wrongdoings of the past, requires intentional and continuous efforts of de-linking the historical and enduring connections between slavery, colonialism and Christian mission.” Absolutely. That’s essential. Reforma reformando semper.

      • I think we have to listen carefully to them. I believe we have to recognise a white-washed tomb when we see one. I’m glad our Carribean friend has opposed Wilson strongly.

      • And quite frankly Christ wouldn’t recognize what folks such as yourself – who deem themselves capable of changing the Word based on their own cultural interpretations – call Christianity. All love with not even an attempt at obedience or Lordship. If Scripture is actually God-breathed then at it’s very core your attempt at contexualization is doomed to radical error and I would say the fruits of said contexualization – most completely realized in European cultures at this point – indicate a completely broken and irrelevant church is what your theology is leading towards. Your message is that which leads towards widespread cultural acceptance and adoration whereas the teachings of Christ lead towards His persecution, torture and death – along with that of pretty much every early disciple – so I would suggest simply based on His teachings on what we should be prepared for when we are faithful to obey the Great Commission and Great Commandments that you are way off track here. Yes, this same teaching has also turned history on it’s head; but not the version that you are espousing here. Of course your trashng of Calvanism – pretty much the core of Protestant/evangelical theology – and the not so subtle use of the term “neo” pretty much indicate exactly the kind of intellectual intolerance that you so graciously go after in this little post. Of course it’s also obvious that the only people following this are of a liberal/progressive/feminist persuasion anyway. The list of “reformed” churches in this thread are all part of this grouping that have long since lost their way in regards to sexual purity and holiness. I’m not sure Christ’s favorite slogan was, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

        • Morgan Guyton

          Jesus only cares about sex. That’s all he ever talked about.

        • taizegoose


          Fingers and toes were not enough to count the logical fallacies in your post.

  • I think you’d get a kick out of the full dialogue between Wilson and Anyabwile. Anyabwile’s framework and response are fascinating and might present a bit of a more transitional view between yours and Wilson’s.

    • Morgan Guyton

      I read some of it. It was a little bit hard to read Wilson’s words directly. I really don’t go out looking for this stuff. It comes to me unfortunately.

  • Consistency in misinterpretation is still misinterpretation. I can give no credit to someone who has obviously constructed his argument to justify the continued subjection of women and an absolutist position on abortion. However, I have taught for a long time that I can build a stronger biblical case for slavery and polygamy than I can against homosexuality.

    • Morgan Guyton


  • pjclutterbuck

    Reblogged this on Dying to Bear Fruit.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks PJ

  • John Wojceichowski

    I think Thabiti handled this like a boss – and has pretty much said all that needs to be said on the subject.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Sounds good. Are you related to Steve Wojo, the former Duke point guard?

    • John,

      You are right, Thabiti handled himself well. Unfortunately, he was alone in his endeavor.

  • Horace

    Here is the conclusion of Pastor Thabiti and Pastor Wilson’s agreements and disagreements: http://www.dougwils.com/The-Bible-Culture-and-Race/a-final-wrap-up-thabiti-anyabwile-and-douglas-wils.html

    • Morgan Guyton


  • “In context” (at least the parts you posted), this pastor is not defending slavery but rather appears to be challenging our inconsistency to be so enraged at slavery as to start a civil war while barely a hundred years later rolling over and allowing an injustice of at least an equal (if not far, far greater) evil to be carried out against the most innocent and defenseless among us. “In context”, I believe this inconsistency is paramount to straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.
    Slavery is not just and should never happen and yet it still does happen even today and sometimes by “choice”.
    But the “choice” to arbitrarily end the life of an innocent is inexcusable at any level unless of course you are compassionate towards extreme fringe satanic rituals which require human life of various ages.
    The context in scripture addressing homosexuality is the same as those addressing gossip, greed, murder and numerous other abominations prohibited in scripture. But the context where the church is to address those things today is within the walls of the church. The un-churched rightly cries foul when we get our “undies in a bunch” over same sex marriage while one of the few things mentioned in scripture that God hates – divorce – is on par with or greater than levels among those in the world.
    Sinful acts are clearly articulated in scripture in numerous places. Not wearing head coverings for women was never mentioned as a sin in those lists giving room for context. Not so with gluttony, homosexuality, greed, envy and the evil in hearts that leads to divorce.
    Culture can be contextualized but the sin that separates us from God can never be relative.

    • Morgan Guyton

      No, he pretty plainly says that the Civil War shouldn’t happen. He’s not just being facetious. He really means that.

      • taizegoose


        Doug Wilson does plainly say that. Paraphrase: given time, justice, with regard to slavery and Southern economics, would have trickled down.

        Sounds different to Amos’ vision of justice:

        But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 5.24

      • Whether the civil war should have happened from a Christian view is a debatable point. The horrible fact of slavery does not in and of itself call for military action by Christians. Slavery was around in Jesus’ day without a call from Him for military action. Christians have made huge mistakes in past history using church led military action. I read the conclusions (also linked by someone else who responded to your blog) and I am not willing to be so quick to simply throw stones at a fellow brother in the Lord just because I cannot understand that the point he is trying to make is a comparison to our response (or rather lack thereof) to abortion. Murder (to include abortion) is actually called out as sin in scripture whereas slavery is not. If what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander” then slavery should have be fought against through intercession in the church (in similar fashion to how apartheid was abolished in South Africa) or (to give babies equal value) we should rise in arms against abortion. His clearly made point (why so hard to understand is beyond me) is that we should treat all value of life issues with equal attention as Christians – and perhaps to consider the scriptural principal that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood”. A flesh and blood enemy would dictate a military response; a spiritual enemy requires a more challenging tact – prayer and intercession.

        • taizegoose

          Let me understand.

          The capture, selling into slavery, transport across an ocean (where many died), the re-purchase, the colonial enslavement, the hundreds year long hardship suffered by untold tens of thousands of African men and women is equal to an embryo or a foetus that is not viable?

      • By the way, I made no comment either way as to his view on whether the civil war should have happened.

  • taizegoose

    Also, are you implying that Jesus favoured or approved of slavery?

    • I think for the most part, Morton writes this blog with a predominantly Christian audience in mind. That being the case, the vast majority of Evangelical Christians believe life starts at conception which is also supported by scripture (see Psalms 139:13). So to answer your 1st question, yes the lives of millions of babies murdered each year is at least on par with the horrible practice of slavery. To answer your 2nd question, In light of the body of scripture, and Jesus’ personal sacrifice for the purpose of liberation from the bondage of sin, I can’t imagine that He would be anything but in strong opposition to slavery. Alas, we do not have His personal comments on this specific point recorded. But the balance of the New Testament is full of exhortations for Christians to free their slaves or at minimum to treat them with all justice.

      • Sorry Morgan for my typo of your name in the previous reply:)

        • Morgan Guyton


      • “life starts at conception… is… supported by scripture (see Psalms 139:13)”

        Scripture, the poetry and songs/hymns of the psalter in this instance, does not address biological science in any way.

        “babies murdered”

        Babies are born. Embryos and foetuses are not. If babies were “murdered” the murderers would be prosecutable. Medical professionals who assist women who ask not to carry a pregnancy to full term are not murderers. To say that any medical professional who assists such women is a “murderer” is to stretch the bounds of logic beyond all reasonableness. Yes, one is able to understand that some people do not like the thought of stopping the progress of a pregnancy, but to do so is not considered “murder” in most Western societies.

        What is more to the point or the case with respect to women deciding to cease being pregnant, is the rebalance of power. Men used to have almost 100% of power over women. Now we understand– even when we look carefully at the ministry of Jesus– that men are not supposed to have ultimate power over women, even when he impregnates her against her will. Men are supposed to care for women, not abuse their power over women. Abortion is, in part, related to the demise of patriarchy.

        Lots of other concerns lie behind the displeasure with regard to abortion. Murder is not one of those. If we want a surrogate class of women, who are willing to be impregnated in order to provide babies– economic material– for the class who demands babies on demand, then we had better come up with some new ethics.

        “on par with the horrible practice of slavery”

        That is a logical fallacy of misplacement. It is an attempt to refer to a bad institution rather than reflect on the humans upon whom the practice was imposed, against their will, against their humanity. 12.5 million Africans were transported to the New World. 10.7 million survived the journey. Nearly 2 million African humans died, under horrific circumstances, and were thrown over board or discarded as rubbish upon arrival, a picture not unlike that of the mass graves of the Holocaust.

        “the balance of the New Testament is full of exhortations for Christians to free their slaves or at minimum to treat them with all justice”

        Do you know how many atheists will laugh in your face at that unsubstantiated assertion? It is that sort of statement which prompts some to note that those who say such things– or print them in blogs or in response to blogs– bring the faith into disrepute.

  • As I mentioned in my last reply, this audience would largely view life as starting at conception. We simply come from different beliefs on that subject so there is little room for debate in this venue. My view of scripture as being as being valuable and applicable for today again limits that debate as you seem to dismiss it totally. We are not in any disagreement on the subject of slavery yet you repeatedly continue to argue that point as if I still need convincing. I don’t understand your feeling the need to continue down this path. The New Testament does in fact address slavery in numerous places. There is clear instruction as it regards primarily slaves but also slave owners to view each other as brothers in the Lord. Not my opinion but substantiated in scripture. By the way, atheists already laugh at Christianity, is there some news flash here?

    • Morgan Guyton

      I would say that it’s best not to make any quantified comparison between slavery and abortion or anything else. One of the fallacies of modernity is the idea that everything can be put into quantifiable terms and compared. They’re just apples and oranges, period. I agree with you that both are horrible.

      • Apples definitely aren’t oranges.

        I think and believe if American society was less sexually oppressive, and sex and sexuality was more openly discussed in the home and in places of worship, not only would young people be less sexually active, but also they would more readily protect against both infection with STDs/STIs and pregnancy.

    • “life as starting at conception”

      What does that mean? What kind of “life”? What does “conception” mean in that phrase?

      ” from different beliefs ”

      “Beliefs” have nothing to do with cellular biology. One sperm cell reaches an ovum fertilisation happens. Given the right conditions this may happen several times (or more) during a woman’s life. Or it may never happen. And even if it happens, about 25% of the time that fertilised egg goes through spontaneous abortion, euphemistically called ‘miscarriage’. That’s a very high percentage. 25% of “conceived” “lives” come to an end at some stage of gestation according to your stated understanding, jmobeox6.

      “my view of scripture as being as being valuable and applicable”

      Holy Scripture is authoritave in matters of faith. No more. No less. The Bible is not an authortitative with regard to biological science. It can’t be.

      “you seem to dismiss it totally”

      I dismiss the assertions you have posted. I affirm Holy Scripture.

      Compare: “The New Testament does in fact address slavery in numerous places”
      Contrast: “the New Testament is full of exhortations for Christians to free their slaves or…” Both of those statements are yours.

      “atheists already laugh at Christianity”

      The assertion you posted is laughable. Not Christianity. Christianity is not the sum of the bits and pieces you assert here. The cultural limits of the Bible, with regard to slavery and servitude throughout, never assume an end to either. Ethical monotheism as understood today cannot allow any form of slavery or servitude as acceptable under God’s heaven as shown to us and affirmed by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Word of God; the Bible witnesses to the Word of God; so does the Church.

      I know many agnostics and atheists who respect me as a person of faith and the faith I profess and represent, Christian faith. I think those who I know would see your posts as a sort of veiled conspiracy theory.