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.