S. Donald Fortson, IIII, Professor of Church History, Reformed Theological Seminary
One approach of gay-affirming scholarship has been to claim the church has modified its interpretations over the centuries. This includes not only change in views and practice from the Old Testament to the New Testament but also modifications in Biblical interpretation during the Christian centuries. Presbyterian theologian Jack Rogers asserts, “Christian people for centuries assumed that their Bibles condoned slavery and the subordination of women to men. Yet, over time and often reluctantly, people came to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading to accept people of African origin and women as full and equal members of the church … the Holy Spirit is once again working to change our church – making us restless, challenging us to give up culturally conditioned prejudices against people of homosexual orientation.” (1)
This supposed parallel between Christians in the past using the Bible to justify slavery and the contemporary Church using Scripture to condemn homosexuality is both misleading and confused in its account of church history. Historically, there is no connection between Christian attitudes towards slavery and homosexuality. But, there does appear to be a historical resemblance between present-day attempts to re-interpret the Bible to support homosexuality and past misuse of the Bible in order to prop up race-based slavery. In both cases Biblical teaching has been co-opted to support a politically-popular position enabling Christians to comfortably fit into the cultural values of their times.
Slavery was a reality of life in the ancient Mediterranean world including the Greco-Roman period when Christianity emerged. It was regulated in Old Testament Israel and within the New Testament community. In ancient cultures persons were forced into lifelong servitude as spoils of war or became slaves due to debts that had to be repaid. Ancient slavery was not limited to one’s racial identity nor did it always involve kidnapping to force people into servitude. Slaves were bought and sold in the ancient world.
Christ’s apostles attempted to regulate slavery among believers according to ethical principles consistent with Christian faith. The apostles gave no explicit directives for all Christians to immediately free slaves, however, the implications of the Christian message pointed to the equality of all men and women before God. The book of Philemon bears witness to the continuing reality of slavery among converts to Christianity. Paul exhorted believing slave owner Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus, who was also a convert, as a Christian brother (Philemon:1:16). To the church at Colossae, Paul wrote, “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Col. 4:1). These were radical ideas for the first-century Roman world. One observes these same themes in the writings of the Church Fathers who continued to challenge the slave-holding Christian empire to live out the gospel implications of equality of all human beings. (2)
The New Testament unmistakably affirms the essential equality of all men and women, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith” (Gal. 3:26). Due to this new reality, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). Part of the apostolic ministry was to break down old existing relational barriers among Christians and one such barrier was master/slave relations which now must reflect the new reality of oneness in Christ. The New Testament also reaffirmed the Old Testament prohibition of man-stealing and selling (Ex.21:16). In the list of those who live “contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” one finds these sinners: “murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers.” (1 Tim. 1:10). It is ironic that some want to support homosexuality with appeals to Biblical support for slavery when this text in fact places them side by side as sinful.
Slavery in the New World was of a different nature than much of slavery as practiced in the ancient world; not so much in terms of its cruelty, slavery in ancient times could be brutal. The primary difference had to do with the way slaves were brought to the Americas and the exclusive racial identity of the slaves themselves. Anyone in the ancient world could be a slave; one’s racial identity was not the key factor in ancient times. By contrast, only black slaves from Africa were sold by fellow Africans or kidnapped by slave traders and brought across the Atlantic to make a profit.
In the colonial era Christians spoke out against the slave trade, and it was outlawed in the United States by 1808 which was an implicit acknowledgement that American slavery was inherently wicked. The long journey to the final abolition of slavery in American is a well-known story; it is also well known that many leaders of the 19th-century abolitionist movement were Christians. Understanding that racial slavery as it was practiced in United States violated basic Biblical standards of conduct, Christians were consistently outspoken opponents of the evil institution of slavery.
The Christian influence in America was so strong in the early 19th century that even in the South the majority of the population and Southern legislatures were moving toward the amelioration and final abolition of slavery. (3) Beginning in the 1830s things changed – anti-Southern rhetoric escalated, abolitionist violence and burgeoning threats to the slave economy pushed some southern Christians to change their tunes. Where previously there had been more unanimity among Christians North and South that American slavery was inconsistent with the principles of the Gospel, some in the South began to push for maintaining the slave system by interpreting the Bible as supportive of American racial slavery.(4) Multitudes of Christians found this reversal of views deplorable and continued their support for emancipation.
One cause for this variation of interpretation on the slavery question had to do with understanding the Biblical material. While the New Testament appears on the surface to support all forms of slavery, in fact, the apostles were only concerned with regulating this social relation among Christians as it existed in the Roman world. They certainly were not offering an apology for the legitimacy of perpetual slavery. A careful understanding of the differences between the first century and the America context makes it clear that the Bible cannot legitimately be utilized to support race-based slavery of those kidnapped or sold into bondage against their wills; the Bible firmly denounces slave-trading and treating others as inferiors based upon race.
The story of Christianity and American slavery is an entirely different situation from the unequivocal Christian condemnation of homosexuality for two millennia. Where some in the past manipulated Biblical teaching on slavery to fit the American context, many Christians rejected this innovation. Homosexuality has never had any historic advocates in the Church. Homosexuality, like slavery, was common in the ancient world, but the apostles never countenanced trying to regulate homosexual practice but comprehensively repudiated homosexuality at every turn. There is not a shred of Biblical material that can be garnered to support any form of homosexual practice.
(1) Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. 2nd edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), 58. Methodist New Testament scholar Richard Hays rejects this theory of coupling homosexuality, subordination of women and slavery. Hays observes: “Though only a few Biblical texts speak of homoerotic activity, all of them express unqualified disapproval. In this respect, the issue of homosexuality differs significantly from matters such as slavery or the subordination of women, concerning which the Bible contains internal tensions and counterposed witnesses.” Richard B. Hays, “Awaiting the Redemption of our Bodies” in Homosexuality in the Church, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 9,10. See also chapter 16 “Homosexuality” in Hays’ book: The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (NY: Harper Collins, 1996).
(2) For a brief survey of the Church Fathers on slavery, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011); her discussion of St. Basil’s opposition to Christian slave holding is particularly noteworthy. See also Glancy’s New Testament study, Slavery and Early Christianity (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002).
(3) See Alice Dana Adams, The Neglected Period of Anti-Slavery in America, 1801-1831 (Williamston, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1973). Adams documents from the primary sources the prevalence of anti-slavery attitudes in the South prior to the 1830s.
(4) See Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Noll demonstrates from historical texts how nineteenth-century Southern Christians became tangled in the web of race-based slavery and then re-interpreted Scripture to support their racial prejudice.