Opinions on faith and life

Sound Familiar?


“[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, Confederate States of America, quoted by Dunbar Rowland in “Jefferson Davis,” Volume 1, Page 286; also, “Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy,” Montgomery, AL, 1861-FEB-18, Confederate States of America, Congressional Journal, 1:64-66. Available at this link

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

-- Rev. R. Furman, D.D., a Baptist pastor from South Carolina, “Exposition of the views of the Baptists relative to the coloured population in the United States in communication to the Governor of South-Carolina,” (1838), available at this link

As circumcision profits not, and uncircumcision does no harm, so neither doth slavery, nor yet liberty. And that he might point out this with surpassing clearness, he says, “But even (All eikai dunasai) if thou canst become free, use it rather:” that is, rather continue a slave. Now upon what possible ground does he tell the person who might be set free to remain a slave? He means to point out that slavery is no harm but rather an advantage.

Now we are not ignorant that some say the words, “use it rather,” are spoken with regard to liberty: interpreting it, “if thou canst become free, become free.” But the expression would be very contrary to Paul’s manner if he intended this. For he would not, when consoling the slave and signifying that he was in no respect injured, have told him to get free. Since perhaps someone might say, “What then, if I am not able? I am an injured and degraded person.” This then is not what he says: but as I said, meaning to point out that a man gets nothing by being made free, he says, “Though thou hast it in thy power to be made free, remain rather in slavery.”

-- Chrysostom, Homily XIX on 1 Corinthians. English translation from Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. American edition. Series I, Vol. XII (New York, 1889); also held by C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 170f.

So also did Henry Ward Beecher reason in his climactic public statement on the eve of conflict. Maybe, he conceded, a defense of slavery could be teased out of obscure, individual texts of scripture, but surely the defining message of the Bible was something else entirely. In his fast day sermon of January 4, 1861, Beeeher strenuously appealed to the general meaning of the Bible as opposed to the pedantic literalism that undergirded the proslavery view: “‘I came to open the prison-doors,’ said Christ; and that is the text on which men justify shutting them and locking them. ‘I came to loose those that are bound’; and that is the text out of which men spin cords to bind men, women, and children. ‘I came to carry light to them that are in darkness and deliverance to the oppressed’; and that is the Book from out of which they argue, with amazing ingenuity, all the infernal meshes and snares by which to keep men in bondage. It is pitiful.”

-- (source)

“...the campaign to end slavery in the United States was for many years largely the work of a small number of Christians who opposed slavery on explicitly religious grounds and who at the time were regularly condemned as fanatical zealots, bent (as indeed they were) on imposing their religiously based views regarding this particular issue on all those who disagreed.”

-- Paul Campos, “Opinions: PAUL CAMPOS: Abortion and the rule of law ,” Scripps Howard News Service, 2002-JAN, at this link

“On the other front, nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text. In short, this was an argument of elites requiring that the populace defer to its intellectual betters. As such, it contradicted democratic and republican intellectual instincts. In the culture of the U.S., as that culture had been constructed by three generations of evangelical Bible believers, the nuanced biblical argument was doomed.”

-- (source)

A careful reading of those quotes and their contexts could easily spawn many applications to issues facing the Christian community today, from how political we should be to how we use (or abuse) scripture to suit a preconceived conclusion. But I want to focus on two things right now: how these very arguments for slavery in the US could be lifted almost without alteration to support the resurgance of patriarchy / male supremacy in the Christian community at large, and also the charge that it is elitist to insist that accurate interpretation of scripture does require the expertise of scholars at some point.

Try reading through the quotes again, this time substituting “women” or “the subordination of women” for terms about slavery. You will be struck with the familiarity of the arguments, because the modern male supremacist movement has adopted practically all of them and merely changed the names. I will repeat here a list I made in comments on an earlier post, and challenge anyone to say how these items apply to slaves but not women:

Whether we look at this from the perspective of proof-texts or an appeal to the whole teaching of scripture, there is no logically consistent way to make one set of arguments valid or invalid solely on the basis of the name of the group under examination. In other words, it would require a double standard or the fallacy of “special pleading” to make these arguments valid for the subordination of women but invalid for slavery.

Regarding the alleged elitism of arguing for some expertise in order to have an accurate understanding of scripture, we see first of all that if one rejects this argument on the topic of women, one must also reject it on the topic of slavery. Is the “plain reading” hermeneutic consistent? Can it be applied across the board, regardless of topic? Can we honestly believe that it only works for some topics but not others? Or, instead, must we face the fact that it is context, not ideology, which should carry the most weight for determining meaning? If one must use “nuanced” interpretation in order to argue against slavery, then one cannot deny such interpretation in order to argue against the subordination of women.

And if we are to appeal to context, surely we know from personal experience in today’s message boards, blog comments, and emails, how easy it is to misunderstand, and how vital it is to know the circumstances in which something was written. People write with shared but unspoken knowledge, from the perspective of a language and culture and worldview. Likewise, the NT writers, inspired though they were by the Holy Spirit, wrote to people who shared a culture, a language, a history, and personal or national experiences. Is every person alive today able to get all that information from the Bible text alone? I hope no one is under any such delusion!

We could well argue that the people of the first-century Greek-speaking world would need little help from historians, archaeologists, linguists, or other experts, but there is also the original Jewishness of the writings that needed some explanation, as we see even in the scriptures themselves in such phrases as “which, being interpreted, means…”. So unless the reader lived in the first century, understood koine Greek, knew Hebrew history and scriptures, and had some familiarity with the events of Jesus’ life, someone has always had to provide context external to the scriptures themselves. How much more today’s believers of every nation and background!

The important point I’m making about the need for scholars, however, is that their expertise is needed for context, NOT necessarily for interpretation. The scope of the expert’s contribution should be limited to the aforementioned specialties such as history and archaeology. Their job is to provide all the raw material needed for today’s believer to make an informed and intelligent decision on interpreting teachings and applications. A person may have a convction that the people of Jesus’ time never touched alcoholic beverages, for example, but if an expert of the time and culture provides evidence to the contrary, are they to be dismissed with “we don’t need no stinking experts to read the Bible!”?

We do need scholars to tell us about the culture, the language, and the history of the scriptures; to say otherwise is to show alarming conceit because we claim to be infallible in our thinking and perfect in our walk with God. The truly humble reader of scripture is not afraid of scholarly opinion and will be wise to consider their evidence and arguments. But we must also make sure we know which are actual experts, and that we are aware of any counter-arguments from other such experts. We can learn much from reading debates among them, and then prayerfully making an informed decision, or recognizing an unresolved issue and postponing a decision until more is understood.

Personal convictions, whether political or religious, should never be held lightly, buried in the sand, or worshiped as divine. Truth fears no examination.



Extremely good article, Paula. Henry Beecher sums it up so poignantly and well. I am going to reread this later this evening. ’Truth fears no examination’ is on the mark.

Your comment about the need for scholars in the second to last paragraph is also critically true and one that is often hotly disputed by strict ’plain reading’ patriarchalists. For some reason, they really don’t think we need enlightenment unless it happens to shore up their own claims.

Paula Fether

Tanx TS! :-)

Greg Anderson

Excellent post Paula.

I had long surmised even prior to my journey out of contemporary fundamentalism and churchianity, that just because "it says so in the Bible", does not mean that it (slavery for example) MUST be practiced.

Good point about selective "plain reading" to accommodate a particular ideology whether it be the subordination of women, or America as God’s chosen instrument of dominion and global righteousness.

We can only hope that more people will do their own homework on what the Bible says and does not say, rather that relying on a preacher whose chief skill is whipping the rabble into a frenzy.

Paula Fether

Tanx Greg! :-)

You also might be interested in a good article on inerrancy which I think is very even-handed and sensible.


Your quotes are excellent. I can remember reading a treatise on slavery from some 19th century preacher that went into a lengthy ’descendents of Ham’ defense for slavery and thinking how similar his scriptural gymnastics sounded to CBMW in this day and time when it comes to the defense of women as subordinate to men! He even mentioned their equality in essence for salvation but their need to be led. Wish I could remember his name.

I agree about the scholarship for context. I can remember reading the Household codes for ancient Rome and Greece and thinking how much it helped me understand certain passages. I do prefer the Holy Spirit for content, though. I have found that HE is the best teacher. :o)

Paula Fether

Absolutely, Lin. It still goes back to balance, to having both the letter and the Spirit.

Someone said recently that God will use whatever material we give Him to work with, and I believe that is one application of Jesus’ statement about losing our life in order to find it. By hungering and thirsting for the Word and anything that will help us understand it mentally, the Spirit will have something to work with in speaking to our hearts as well as our minds.

The Bible Justifies Slavery (0-1865) | The Church of Jesus Christ

[...] with whom I don’t always agree, and might not agree fully here, has an excellent point that I believe we should take to heart. The bible has been used for a [...]


Paula, this has to be one of the best posts on the blogosphere right now.

Paula Fether

Tanx Joel! :-) That really means something coming from you... especially considering our last conversation. ;-)


Paula, I can disagree with you, fight with you, and still see your brilliance here. It’s that whole iron and iron thing, I reckon.

Paula Fether

Yeah, that iron thing... sometimes I smash my own thumb with it. Thanks again.

Chris Ryan

Well, Paula, if you had been a good woman and paid tuition to take homemaking classes at an SBC seminary, then you would know how to avoid smashing your thumb with an iron. :)

Great post. I have often wondered at the similarities between arguments for slavery and subordination of women. You certainly put two and two together here.

And I appreciate your comments on the necessity of good scholarship. Personally, I do appreciate it when these scholars do offer their interpretations in addition to the context. It helps to see how they have worked the details into a coherent message. But I agree with you that we should never read them as definitive answers. I think there are very few true scholars who would want us to read them that way.

Greg Anderson

Thanks for the link Paula.

Pursiful’s essay and reference points to the Chicago statement of inerrancy are well reasoned and they are a good critique to the statement itself.

I was particularly struck with Pursifal’s point about being able to drive a truck through the Chicago statement’s self contradiction about trying to apply a standard of rigor to scripture that is alien to the Bible itself (Article XIII).

Paula Fether


I freely admit to being domestically challenged. ;-) Tanx.


I think the biggest obstacle to reasoned discussion on this, like a lot of other topics, is fear of having one’s foundation examined. Not toppled or attacked, just examined. But for those of us who make a habit of re-examining everything, our faith is stronger for it, because no matter how hard people try to destroy God’s Word, it still stands complete and unharmed. As someone once said, it is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.

Another problem is that for many scholars, they only do this examination once; they don’t wait for any cross-examination or rebuttal but throw the Bible away on the basis of the first authoritative critic’s testimony. This is why, I think, so many seminary grads tend to deny basics like the virgin birth. And like the question of evolution, only the officially-sanctioned view is allowed, so no cross-examinations see the light of day.

Words of a Fether » Blog Archive » Boys Will Be Boys

[...] men in first place are identical to those that had been used to justify slavery in the US (see this article). So the real question is not who is being Biblical, but who is trying to make their interpretation [...]


I found this through your link on Commandments of Men. :) What a great post! You really drew a frightening parallel. Thank you for giving me more food for thought! :)

Paula Fether

Thanks Rachel, and welcome! :-)

Make It Stop! | Words of a Fether

[...] in the Christian community. In America, the slavery issue was once bitterly debated among us (see Sound Familiar?) but finally we came to grips with the fact that such a thing was antithetical to the very heart of [...]

Words of a Fether » Deaf And Blind: An Analysis of Flesh-based Theology

[...] up MS are identical to those used to prop up slavery, as I’ve already explained in my post Sound Familiar?. It was pro-slavery that bowed to culture then, and it is MS which bows to culture now. They deny [...]

Words of a Fether » Moore Of The Same

[...] As a lifelong evangelical myself, I can speak with some authority on “what evangelicals really think and how they live”. But I find a statement by Moore in this paragraph very revealing: “It is not akin to discovering that nineteenth-century slaveholders had less racist attitudes than northern abolitionists.” Think about that: is it even possible for any slaveholder not to be racist (keeping in mind we’re talking American slavery of blacks)? While some northerners may have had supremacist attitudes, it is only the south that institutionalized it into something “good” and God’s divine order. That is, while some individuals in the north believed whites to be superior to blacks, the south’s consensus, by law, was that this was how God created people and ordered society; see Sound Familiar. [...]

Race and Gender Discrimination in the Church

[...] Further Reading: 2009/11/02/sound-familiar/ [...]

Words of a Fether » When ‘Biblical’ Means ‘Shut Up’

[...] to US blacks for condoning slavery in the past, while refusing to apologize to women when the arguments for both sins are identical? Or are they deliberately choosing to keep a tight grip on the last refuge for men who love to be [...]

Women in Pulpit- Any Denomination - Page 18 - Christian Forums

[...] intended order. Have we learned nothing? (For further examination of such argumentation, please see this article.) I meant Eph 5:23-24. I don’t know how you can interpret that any differently. It looks pretty [...]

Calling God female? - Page 3 - Christian Forums

[...] bogus Biblical proof-texting against women and those against blacks in pre-Civil War US; see this article. Worldly culture indeed. So, will you continue to “capitulate to social pressures” and [...]

Male Headship - Page 5 - Christian Forums

[...] escaping this fact. It doesn’t matter how nice “massah” is, slavery is wrong. Please see this article for more. In his own little unbeliever way, You are unequally yoked then? Not even the most [...]