Support for slavery and support for traditional marriage: 2 sides of the same coin?

As pressure mounts on the Church to change its convictions about the sanctity of marriage, and the sacredness of celibacy outside of marriage, one of the arguments often deployed by revisionists is the analogy with slavery.

Just a few days ago a clergyman explained to me how, in the past, the Bible had been used to support slavery and regrettably the same was happening today with same-sex marriage. The idea seemed to be that, ‘as everybody knows’, the Bible is a self-contradictory pandoras box of culture-bound prejudices, and so when a particular reading of the Bible falls out of fashion the offending texts need to be re-examined and ‘proclaimed afresh’  in line with the zeitgeist.

It’s a frequently heard argument but does it stand up to scrutiny? It is certainly the case that, in the past, Churches and Christian leaders used the Bible to support slavery in the European colonies and in particular North America. As their work demonstrates, Bible verses can be decontextualised and re-cast in support of almost any injustice you care to mention. The response of mainstream Churches to the rise of Hitler in Germany is another (more recent) case illustration of how the message of the Bible can be re-cast to ‘get with the programme’ of popular culture and political expediency.

Interestingly, it has often been the mainstream Churches, those closest to the establishment, that have felt most under pressure to update their convictions to reflect contemporary culture. Thus, one of the strongest supporters of the ‘biblical’ case for slavery in the 19th Century was the American Episcopal Church (TEC). After all, Jesus didn’t say anything about slavery, did he?

And so, in common with others, my clergy friend was arguing that these historic abuses of scripture provide an analogy with the situation today. Once again an outmoded, culture-bound, and ultimately indefensible reading of the Bible is  being used to oppress the weak and vulnerable, in this case people who identify as LGBTQIAetc.

But if you think about it, the case of Churches’ support for slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries may be used to make  the opposite case too. These abuses of the reading of scripture may also be viewed as a historical equivalent of the readiness of some Churches today (such as TEC)  to compromise traditional moral convictions (about marriage and celibacy) to accommodate cultural pressure for change. There are a number of reasons to suppose this may be the better analogy.

First, when slavery was introduced into the Colonies, it had already largely died out in Christian Europe. Of course, the history of slavery in Christendom is complex, not least its definition, and  for centuries various forms of involuntary servitude functioned alongside other problematic labour structures, such as bonded labour and serfdom. And in their attitudes toward the social institution of slavery, early Church Fathers took various positions ranging between different forms of accommodation to outright condemnation.

But among Christian believers, within the community of the Church itself, slavery quickly fell into disuse. As Christians read the ethical trajectory of scripture, ending with Paul’s letter to Philemon and his unequivocal condemnation of slave-trading, they began to responded radically in this, as other areas (e.g. their high view of marriage), in the way they organised their community life together.

As a result, the practice of slavery crumbled within Christian communities and, by the time of the Christianisation of Europe in the middle ages, traditional slavery had largely died out. Thus, in 1102 trade in slaves and serfdom was condemned by the church in London (Council of London), and then later, after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, Clause 30,  Habeas Corpus, created the basis of a law against slavery in English common law. In 1435, a Papal Encyclical – Sicut Dudum – of Pope Eugene IV banned enslavement on pain of excommunication. There are many other examples of the gradual withering of institutionalised slavery in the economic and social structures of Western Europe.

And so it can be argued that the the introduction of slavery to the Colonies under pressure of economic expediencies represented a push-back, a kind of revisionism, against what had become the mainstream of practice in Europe.

Second, not all Churches supported slavery in the Colonies. Some evangelicals such as Wesley and later Wilberforce, were firmly and resolutely opposed. It was they who stood in the central tradition of Christian teaching and practice on this issue in Europe and who fought the revisionists of the time.

Of course, let’s be clear this certainly isn’t a simple Evangelical versus the rest thing : George Whitfield’s views (and other New England Puritans) on slavery were famously ambiguous and open to question. My point is simply that marriage revisionists who raise the example of the Church’s accommodation to slavery may be highlighting a precedent for what they themselves are doing today, namely playing fast and loose with the ethical teachings of the scripture to conform to cultural pressures for change.  The brave and prophetic stance of such as Wesley and Wilberforce is an inspiring reminder that others, too, have swum against the cultural tide.

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4 Responses to Support for slavery and support for traditional marriage: 2 sides of the same coin?

  1. Glynn – absolutely fascinating, so thanks for raising the subject. There is a lot in there, so I’ll just make two points:

    1. I don’t agree with your history – there is virtually no Christian objection raised to slavery until around 1,800 years after Christ. The idea that support for slavery is a later distortion of scripture, which churches fell prey to is not historical at all. Almost every Christian scholar down the ages accepted slavery as just how things were – explicitly so in the cases of Aquinas and Augustine – although most reluctantly accepted it, rather than positively advocated it (as Augustine did). When the Quakers (not sure you’d call them evangelicals?) co-opted Wilberforce into the campaign, we should be under no illusion that it was the abolitionists who were being revisionist in their interpretation of scripture. It was not a position previously advocated by any serious number of Christians. This is why the idea that revising an understanding of scripture is not frightening to some – it has happened before, on pretty significant issues.

    2. Your title is about hermeneutics – but you seem to have forgotten that bit in the post. The biblical case in support of slavery seems to to be very strong – the Old Testament law set out a clear set of rules for the just treatment of slaves, so it would seem that the moral law of the Old Testament accepted slavery. Paul in the New Testament was very clear that slaves should accept their position, respect their masters and obey them. In the case of Philemon, whilst he absolutely instructed his owners to treat him as a brother, he rather obviously omitted the instruction to set him free. He also notably took the action to send him back to his owners, rather than grant him sanctuary. So, I’d like to see how you deal with the clear Biblical support for slavery – in detail. The comparison with the debate on sexuality is fascinating – in this case you dismiss clear and explicit instructions from both old and new testaments on the acceptability of slavery, merely citing the “trajectory” of scripture. On the other hand, the traditionalist conservative case on sexuality is to demand a response to a very small number of Bible verses, and dismiss what liberals consider the “trajectory” of scripture towards fidelity, love and inclusiveness.

    • Many thanks for this mouse, or is it Jonathan? Really grateful for you interacting here. I can reply only briefly because I’m travelling next couple of days, but I disagree with your very bold statement that virtually no Christian objection was raised to slavery until about 1800. Look up St Patrick to get started and then travel through the implications of the Magna Carta in terms of English common law, and the Papal encyclical of 1485 ‘Sicut Dudum’ banning slavery. I agree that this is hugely complex, as I recognise in the post, but I’m not happy with the narrative, that you repeat here, that everybody supported slavery until the 1800. It’s just not true. Can’t engage with your hermeneutics point here although I do subscribe to Webbs ethical trajectory argument (with reservations). More later. Thanks again.

      • Glynn

        I look forward to the next installment, but a quick point of order. You’re quite right that St Patrick opposed slavery, but he was very much the revisionist of his day on the issue. Gregory of Nyssa was another abolitionist, so there were a few, but they were swimming against the tide. The 1435 Sicut Dudum only banned slavery for the newly baptised Christians of the Canary Islands, so hard to take as a general principle! It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church was totally unequivocal on the subject. If you go back a little, in 340 the Synod of Gangra in Armenia critisized the Manicheans for letting their slaves go free, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 upheld the Synod of Gangra as ecumenical – i.e. conclusive and universal. We could argue the history all day, but I think it is impossible to argue that the historical position was anti-slavery and it was only 18th century revisionists who abused scripture ended up supporting slavery. Perhaps the revisionist strand on this issue has its threads going back to the middle ages, but nevertheless, the abolitionist position is without doubt a revisionist one.

      • Jonathan, thanks for this. I take your point and I think we agree that the Church fathers held a range of views on slavery. I completely agree that, in the early centuries AD, those such as Patrick and Gregory were ‘swimming against the tide’, as you put it. My point however is that, underpinned by the broad ethical stance of the New Testament, the tide began to turn much sooner than your timeline. Slavery quickly began to die out in Christian communities and, by the middle ages, was being increasingly prohibited in countries across Western Europe. Thus, in addition to my other examples, the promulgation of the Liber Paradisum in Bolognia in 1256, abolition in Norway in the mid-13th century, Louis X’s proclamation of 1315 freeing slaves setting foot on ‘French soil’, Pope Paul 111’s forbidding slavery of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in 1537. Of course there are all kinds of qualifications to be made for all of these developments. But I’m sticking to my central point, namely that after the middle ages, anti-slavery thought had sufficiently taken root in Western Europe for its resurgence in the Colonies, in the face of economic contingencies,to be considered a reversal. And I believe some of the overly-creative re-reading of scripture going on to justify the redefinition of marriage bears comparison with the recasting of the ethical thrust of scripture in support of the slavery that went on in the 18th and 19th centuries too. I’ve just come across this from Steve Holmes who makes a somewhat similar argument, although probably better expressed. Thanks again for challenging me on this, I’ll leave you to have the last word, but I think we shall have to agree to differ on this one.

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