A Pro-Slavery Bible

I just finished a summer class on the theology of the Stone-Campbell movement. I had low expectations for the course, but it ended up being one of the best I’ve ever taken (5 Stars—would recommend). It led me to sympathize with a tradition I otherwise feel distanced from and to better understand the different influences still affecting us today.

Part of the class’s practice in sympathy was four hours spent discussing the early movement’s perspective on slavery. We saw that in the early Churches and Disciples of Christ, there were three perspectives on the issue of slavery leading up to the Civil War.

There were, of course, those who defended slavery, specifically on the grounds that the Bible sanctioned the institution. Church of Christ minister James Shannon was a prominent example of this position.

In the middle, there were those we would call “Gradualists” who thought that the Bible did not condemn slavery but rather regulated it. While they advocated for the ending of slavery for moral or practical reasons, they did not see it as a biblical imperative and were thus prepared to only slowly dissolve the institution. Both Alexander and Thomas Campbell fell into this group as well as Tolbert Fanning.

At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who fought for the abolition of slavery and thought the Bible supported them in such a fight. Among early Restorationists, Barton Stone was an abolitionist as well as Ovid Butler and Jane Campbell McKever (Alexander’s sister).

While it is comforting to know that Alexander Campbell was on the “right side of history,” ultimately against the owning of slaves, it is also problematic that he did not definitively condemn the practice of slavery as reprehensible but only faulted it on practical grounds. For him, slavery is something we are best off avoiding, not something against the very nature of God.

Campbell’s perspective is demonstrative of a way of reading the Bible very much present in his time as well as our own. It’s this way of reading the Bible that we spent so much time discussing in my class—it’s a static reading of the text rather than a dynamic one.

Now here’s where the discussion can get confusing because there are two ways of applying the descriptors “static” and “dynamic” to a person’s method of interpretation. In this first way, we are only concerned with the Bible, with Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21. With this scope—the contents of the Bible—a static reading implies that we only see one truth regarding every topic in Scripture; the Bible is monolithic and says the same thing on every topic throughout. On the other hand, a dynamic reading within the scope of the Bible allows for movement and progression on God’s part, a continued revealing of truth.

Take for example the topics of food, ethics, and women’s roles. We see a clear difference in the last books of the Bible compared to the initial in regards to all these subjects. God’s people were forbidden from eating pig, then they weren’t. God’s people were given explicit commandments regarding who they couldn’t have sex with, and then they were told to not even lust. Women were very rarely given any sort of central or commanding role, and later we find them in Jesus’s inner circle and prophesying before the church. There is a clear progression for God’s people.

Bible S:D

Under this paradigm, most people reject a static reading of the Bible—which is good, because the word “dynamic” implies that it is the correct means of interpretation. And it’s really easy to make the conclusion, that dynamic is better than static, in light of the progression from the Old Testament to the New—a dynamic reading is sort of built into the text. But this way of reading runs into problems when it comes to slavery.

Our ability to condemn slavery only goes so far with that sort of dynamic reading—an internal dynamic reading. If we are only using the scope of Scripture, then slavery is never totally rejected by the final pages of the Bible. There is some talk about “neither slave nor free” but that same passage negates the difference in genders; there’s the book of Philemon but that short letter is hardly about the evils of slavery and more about Paul’s plea for a specific individual. The books of Ephesians and 1 Peter seem to expect and accept the institution of slavery. So by the time you read Revelation’s final verse, slavery seems to very much be a part of the biblical vision.

For this reason, a different form of dynamic reading is necessary. We need a dynamic reading external to the Bible.

When we broaden our scope beyond the pages of Scripture and take in the entire history of God’s people and the Church, then a dynamic reading allows for endless growth. A static reading is confined to the moral discoveries and truths presented in the pages, but a dynamic reading sees God’s word as a vector, aiming us beyond its own pages to the ever-opening pages of history. And in those pages, we—working off of biblical principles of human value and equality—come to the conclusion that slavery is not a part of God’s Kingdom plan for his people.

Timeline S:D

The Bible surely gives us timeless truths, but it also can only say so much; it necessarily is limited to its front and back covers, to 66 books. As such, it demands that we use its themes but look beyond its confines. To do this is the mission of the Church.

4 Comments

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  1. How is slavery against the very nature of God when there are Biblical examples of God imposing slavery as punishment? For me, it comes down to the dehumanization/mistreatment of slaves and the origin of their slavery,
    When someone is arrested they become slaves to the state and they lose their rights as a free citizen. Are you implying that this is not how mankind should function in regards to rules?

    You say that a dynamic reading allows God to progress as if God needs to change, which he does not. If new truths are being revealed then the Bible was incomplete to readers of certain eras.

    You also said that a static reading reveals only one truth. It is also possible for a dynamic reading to reveal only one truth. This would then line up Ephesians 4 and the claims of Christ. If there are other topics that are open to multiple interpretations, how can they have more than one truth? I agree a dynamic interpretation of scripture should be used, but if the scripture does not change itself (because it can’t) then why are we seeking to change the meaning. I understand that a better understanding should always be sought. And if there is a clear misinterpretation we should seek to edify. However, we are long past that point and are now to the point where we analysis scripture on the basis of context, relation to other scripture, and conformity to the overall message. The message being one’s personal interpretation that is subject to error.

    The topics you identify as changing seem to stay constant in my reading. I do not see any change in the standard God gives his people. God gave restrictions regarding health and then lifted them. Jesus telling us not to lust changed nothing, but gave a more radical approach to follow the commandments that were already in place.

    To play devil’s advocate your methodology requires that the trend always stay onward and upward. This assumes the Bible ends on a high note and the church did not backslide in its teaching/message/ethics/interpretation of Christ’s ministry/etc. (However, I do not feel this is the case)

    You lost me at broadening our scope. Do you believe that God left out tools needed for mankind to make moral decisions? Is the law written on one’s heart not enough? There is plenty in scripture to reject the acts of slavery in its evil form. Mistreatment of our fellow man is clearly wrong. Are you suggesting we take it a step further? Do you disagree with punishments given by authorities which take away someone’s rights? History’s interpretation of being on the right side or wrong side still depends on how it is seen in someone’s worldview. Thus, it does us no good to use it as a standard on its own.

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  2. Great article! I found it super interesting.

    I’m not surprised that you enjoyed that class on the Restoration Movement. Restoration Churches have strayed very far from what was first preached in the Movement. There certainly was A LOT of great things done in those early years.

    At the end, it says, “…come to the conclusion that slavery is not a part of God’s Kingdom plan for his people.” I would argue against this on Kingdom-grounds. After all, Paul was never a slave in an earthly sense, but he made himself a slave in a Kingdom sense. In other words, the slave-Master relationship is a core tenant of God’s Kingdom design.

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  3. The argument rests on the premise that owning people is inherently wrong. If you don’t agree with that assumption then yes, you can ignore most of what I said.

    A few things beyond that worth contesting:
    I don’t think a dynamic reading allows God to progress; it allows his revelation to humans to progress. That is the intrinsic claim of two testaments. (And no, I would not say that the Bible is incomplete; I would say our knowledge of God’s nature and will is incomplete in as much as no one has known the mind of Christ and God, yet we continually strive to better know God.)

    Regarding your statement that you don’t see a change in the various topics I listed, see the above paragraph. Again, I’m not claiming that God changed, I’m claiming that his revelation to us (his revelation of his nature and will) very clearly changed.

    I don’t think it demands we progress, it only allows for progression. In fact, if you want to be technical, we are simply trying to recapture a level we had already reached in Christ.

    To your last paragraph: Yes, while I think that Christian Scripture is sufficient for salvation—what all Christians have claimed—I do not think it is identical with a full knowledge of God (and thus Christian ethics). We are continually pursuing that end. That is a much longer discussion, however, and will need be put off until a later time.
    (And no, the “law written on the heart” is not enough—that’s the whole point of Romans.)

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