“[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.”
“...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.”
“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.”
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:
- the patriarchs practiced it
- God gave instructions to Moses on how to regulate it
- Jesus never expressly condemned it
- None of the people in this group were chosen by Jesus for His inner circle of disciples
- there are no examples of individuals in this group being named “pastors” or elders
- Paul gave instructions on how Christians in this group are to behave and submit
- God never refers to Himself in terms of this group
- The people in this group are fully human but must stay in divinely-ordained “roles” to keep the proper order in society
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.