Let me start with a shocking statement: the Bible actually does support slavery! Or maybe I should qualify that with this: the Bible can be used, and has been used, to support slavery!
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) worked tirelessly to abolish the slave trade, driven by his own Christian convictions. In April 1791, he gave a four-hour speech to parliament where he had served as MP for Kingston-upon-Hull since 1780, before delivering his first abolition bill. After the vote was cast, church bells rang out in victory across the country: he had been defeated 163 votes to 88! It was only three days before his death in July 1833 that he received news that the groundswell of opinion he raised had changed public opinion, church theology and parliament and he had finally succeeded. We 21st century Christians shake our heads in disbelief that the majority of believers in that day could be so pro-slavery, but there you are; they were! Wilberforce has become so revered now, that both liberals and conservatives are scrabbling to claim him for their own, yet he was an independent! He was certainly not alone in his quest for abolition, but he was part of a new way of looking at the world and he certainly was challenging the ‘accepted norm’ within Christian viewpoints; a minority viewpoint at first, most definitely. Modern theologians who try to draw differences between slavery in the Bible and the slavery that Wilberforce was against, miss this whole point (as well as fumbling over semantics on just parts of scripture, not the whole topic!); slavery was taken for granted to simply be something that was allowed and sanctioned by scripture!
Here’s a brief account of his campaign and work, and his faith.
So we’ve moved on from that and no longer see it as an issue to be debated. I have never come across anyone in my lifetime who has made any argument for slavery from the Bible. What has this got to do with us now?
Well, I blogged recently on the irony (which I found quite humorous!) that a known Creationist who argues for a literal understanding of the six days’ creation is languishing in jail for actually disobeying one of our Lord Jesus Christ’s clearest commands!
So often I have heard it said from pulpits, from the day I first entered church right to maybe just a month ago that “unlike many churches that have gone before us, we keep to the truths of scripture, and keep it all, every word!” Investigation and a small bit of analysis left me long ago realising the abject irony in these statements since I came to the conclusion that absolutely nobody does this, and indeed, nobody truly can!
I laughed (inwardly) at men who told me that tattoos were forbidden in scripture yet the vast majority of them shaved all their facial hair off every day! – Lev. 19:27. I would also hazard a guess that their shirts are of mixed cloth! – Lev. 19:19. Both these laws come right before the one about tattoos!
I argued with those who ‘kept 1 Corinthians 11’ about making women put on hats in church that Paul was talking about Middle Eastern veils, like many Muslim women wear, and not fancy Ascot-style hats or little headscarves, but never got any recognition that women should then actually go and get some ‘proper’ veils! Their cultural understanding had excluded them from seeing any further than the hats they were used to seeing for years, and somehow my words literally fell on ‘deaf ears’. The standard response was truly silence, changing the subject, or “I have to go now. Nice talking with you.”
Don’t worry, I won’t even mention what sleeping arrangements are prescribed for married couples once every month!
You see, Christians don’t like being told that their reading or interpretation of scripture is shaped by the culture they occupy; whether that is allowing the greater culture of ‘the world’ to reshape their thinking, or tacitly accepting that the micro culture of their denominational bent dictates just what they can and cannot question, the simple truth is that we all do it!
These examples may be dismissed by anyone as of minor importance, which is very true, but the original issue I raised here about slavery, an extremely important issue, falls into the same category of ‘your interpretation, not mine!’ Secondly, I am talking of experiences of those who make such boastful claims that they do keep every word of scripture, yet there they are ignoring little bits.
Okay then, so you decide that you are really gonna do it! You’ll make sure you stick to it all. Go ahead – good luck! Unfortunately there are actually some laws that seem to just contradict each other; one example being that monthly womanly thing (that I said I wouldn’t mention, yes!) – does a man who is ‘with’ his wife at that time just accept that he’s ‘unclean’ for seven days (Lev. 15:24), or has he done a heinous thing and deserve to be cut off from his people (Lev. 20:18)? That’s not important? Well, slavery is, yeah? So can fellow Israelites be enslaved (Ex. 21:2-11) or not (Lev. 25:39-43)?
Such difficulties are what led to the rabbinical tradition, where scholars debated these seeming contradictions and tried to find practical ways through it. This is why various people came to Jesus and asked him probing questions: did he side with this school, or that dogma, or the teachings of that old rabbi? The fact that often Jesus would not answer them as they wished to hear, and left them maybe even more confused, leads me to a place where my own confusion is just something I embrace as a fascinating facet of my faith. I’m actually allowed to be unsure about some things. If they remain unresolved until that day, so be it!
You see, if you do decide to go the whole hog and start obeying every jot and tittle, you’ll end up like the Amish. Or then again, you won’t, actually, since they haven’t moored themselves in the culture of the first century, they’ve stuck themselves clearly in the way of life of 18th century colonial North America! You’d need to give up your car and iPhone just for starters! The Amish are so far removed from our century that they will burn a barn to the ground if it has woodworm, in accordance with Mosaic law, rather than get a handy treatment that any of us would buy from the shop.
And right away, their law keeping has set them on a wrong path. How many of you realised this all along, I wonder? If we choose to obey the whole law as laid down in the Torah, then we incur the wrath, yes, the abject anger, of Paul the Apostle. Galatians alone would make that clear to you, but here’s just one easy example: the fourth commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath holy, yet Paul lays out his view to the Romans:
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.
And to the Colossians:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
So by choosing to return to law keeping, you actually contradict what is laid down in the Pauline epistles! Confused? I actually believe you should be! For this drives you to ‘work out’ your own faith ‘with fear and trembling‘. Just don’t keep pursuing the way of the literalist, for it’s not doable, not possible, nor do I believe it is healthy at all to allow any pulpit preacher (even the very good ones!!) to dictate your life for you. Find your own path with Christ, who should be your Lord, Saviour, Foundation, Truth, Way. And your very life.
Grace be with you.