One of the things that really irritates me is how some conservative Christians wield the word “truth” around when referencing liberal churches and our experience of the Bible. They mock us, ridicule us, for using some kind of filter when it comes to the interpretation of scripture. Mind you they do the same, they just don’t admit to it. Who among them puts their child to death for swearing or would commend Psalm 137 and its command to put one’s enemies to death after a military victory? Moreover I know conservative pastors who rage against gays and lesbians but never say a word about divorce, even though Jesus said nothing about the former and something about the latter. Could it be that some pastors like getting married again after a divorce but have no experience of any sexual orientation than their own? Maybe.
When these Christians say they take every word of scripture as holy and perfect and good for instruction I often ask them about slavery. Paul has at least two separate words of advice on slavery.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.
In the social climate in which Paul wrote these words, slavery existed as a formal, legal institution. Slaves were property. Masters expected them to fully comply with whatever commands they were given without question or argument, and with no legal recourse, since a slave had none of the rights that would be considered basic today solely by virtue of being a human being. And in contrast to this, Paul emphasized in his preaching (Galatians 3:28) that, in Christianity, such distinctions as slave and free, male and female, or Jew and Gentile, no longer applied in terms of rights before God or access to Him. All people were sinners equally in need of the redemption that God made possible in Christ, and, once individuals had availed themselves of that salvation, they became in God's eyes as brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as brothers and sisters of Christ. The same line of argument goes, Christianity was not a political movement aimed at overthrowing existing governments or worldly institutions by force. (As Jesus had told Pilate during his trial, the Kingdom he believed in was not of this world, John 18:33-38.)
But none of that changes this central fact, Paul thought it was OK to tell a slave to obey her/his master. You can assert that Paul did this knowing that the slave was free in a spiritual sense, that being saved such earthly status was not important. But I would take issue with that assertion. The central story of the Old Testament is the Exodus. To suggest otherwise is to miss the big picture. Moses came to liberate his peoples from the oppressor. Likewise Jesus came to liberate us from whatever and whoever enslaves us. To turn around and suggest that earthly arrangements like slavery are unimportant is a betrayal of the truth of our faith.
And who exactly is talking here. For middle class white conservative Christians to tip toe around these texts and “spiritualize” them is a very easy thing to do. They are not in danger of enslavement. Good heavens, they have no idea what such status can mean to the human condition. Just take away Christmas Carols from their public schools and they act like they are the oppressed, being persecuted. Really? That’s a mighty strange way to define persecution and the early church whom were killed as political criminals on a cross would find such claims absurd.
I love the Bible, its stories are my stories and its witness is one of liberation, wisdom, forgiveness, beauty, humility, transformation and sacrificial love. But to pretend that every word, every story, every utterance of a Bible that was constructed by human hands, is perfect, is not only untrue and dangerous, it is hypocritical for those who claim this to be so and have no intention of actually living it.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”