Homosexuality and Slavery: Not the same biblical issue

If there is one issue on which it is extremely difficult to have a civil, intelligent discussion these days, it is homosexuality.  The topic is extraordinarily sensitive, with labels of “bigot” and “homophobe” thrown around freely to anyone who dares question the morality of such a lifestyle.  Since internet commenters typically take dialogue to all-time lows, it gets even worse when it comes to tackling the subject via the web.  The discussion features straw-man arguments all over the place, and unfortunately, it’s not always much better when the issue is talked about among Christians.

I have no desire to address the political topic of gay marriage at the moment.  I’ve never been overly concerned with politics, and I also think there are deeper issues at play.  What I do want to address, in light of Obama’s recent (but not really new) comments on gay marriage, is the notion that somehow, black Christians are being hypocritical if they believe homosexuality is a sin.  This blog article on CNN clearly purports such an idea, and the article is so slanted, so poorly researched, and so poorly argued that I think some correction will be helpful.  Basically, any argument that tries to equate 19th century arguments from the Bible in favor of the African slave trade to current biblical views on homosexuality show an exceptional lack of knowledge of history as well as of the Bible itself.

The “Literalist” Straw-Man

James Cone, an African American theologian, claims:

The literal approach to scripture was used to enslave black people.  I’ve said many times in black churches that the black church is on the wrong side of history on this. It’s so sad because they were on the right side of history in their own struggle.

Absurd.  Scripture had nothing to do with actually enslaving anyone; it is true that many slaveholders attempted to use the Bible to justify or rationaliaze their participation in African slavery, but in no way did the Bible create such a thing (or else Cone can kindly explain to all of us why the African slave trade was prevalent in the largely non-Christian Arab world).  This argument is so silly that it is hard to understand why someone would even say that other than to create caricatures.

The article goes on to say:

Call it historical irony: Black church leaders arguing against same-sex marriage are making some of the same arguments that supporters of slavery made in the 18th and 19th centuries, some historians say. Both groups adopted a literal reading of the Bible to justify withholding basic rights from a particular group.

Except they aren’t really the same at all.   Those who call homosexuality a sin point to clear biblical passages on the issue that point to the behavior and lifestyle itself or otherwise affirm God’s ideal of a marriage between a man and a woman.  Those who tried to justify the African  slave trade could do no such thing; at best, they could point to instances of slavery in Scripture and use historically fallacious arguments to apply it to their own dehumanizing treatment of the African slaves.  The abolitionists, who treated Scripture as God’s Word, repeatedly pointed out their hermeneutical errors.  The article quotes Edward Blum, a history professor, saying that the abolitionists had difficulty mounting a counter-argument against slaveholders, but this is simply untrue.  If anything, slaveholding Christians were backed into a corner so much so that some resorted to arguments that slavery was a “necessary evil.”  There is not space here to go in-depth into the entire issue of slavery in the Bible, but it is enough to point out that New World slavery was substantially different than slavery in the Ancient Near East and in the Romand world.  This is not to romanticize slavery by any means and claim that it was all sugar and roses but to only point out that the slavery mentioned in the Bible is of a different sort, with different characteristics and different motivations.  Even there, where slaves typically enjoyed much higher social status than African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Bible speaks repeatedly against mistreating slaves and warns masters that justice will be done to them.

Therefore, the abolitionists took the Bible no less “literally” as God’s Word (side note:  no responsible Christian takes every part of Scripture “literally” because the Bible clearly utilizes many different genres where  a “literal” reading is obviously not the intended one).  Thus, Blum is horribly mistaken to claim that, “The abolitionists turned to the ethics and spirit of the Bible.  They were theological modernists before modernism.”  Baloney.  They were simply concerned about reading the totality of  Scripture in its grammatical and historical context.  Does Ephesians 6 state that slaves should be obedient to their masters?  Sure.  It also tells masters to treat their slaves as the Lord treats them and to never mistreat them.  This part is completely glossed over in the article, making it seem like the slaveholders had an easy argument from the Bible when they did not.

The entire article makes it seem like that the correct approach, like the abolitionists (so they claim), is to ignore certain parts of Scripture and to uphold the “spirit” of it, because clearly some things in Scripture are wrong.  This is just bad history and bad argument with no real interaction with another viewpoint.  The abolitionists did not ignore parts of the Bible; they looked at the entire thing, caught the interpretative errors of those in favor of the slave trade, and were moved to end slavery, both in Britain and in America.  Even Southerners like James Pendleton, who staunchly held that the Bible was God’s infallible Word, realized the mistakes of his fellow Southerners and spoke out against slavery, eventually being forced to move North.  These men absolutely did not pretend that certain parts of the Bible did not exist.

Why Does the Bible Not Just Condemn Slavery Outright, then?

It is important to see that Scripture, while concerned about social works such as caring for the poor, widows, and orphans, is NOT primarily concerned about social revolutions in the political sphere.  Instead, Scripture is far more concerned about changing individual people’s hearts and fostering a community of believers who will be counter-cultural and different than their surrounding environment.  Thus, you never see the New Testament tell Christians to revolt against the Roman government and all of its evils; instead, it tells believers to pray for government authorities and to submit to them (Romans 13), although Paul understood that Christians could only do so much to try to  leave at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).  This, of course, does not mean that the Bible condones everything going on in Roman society:  After all, it speaks against temple prostitution, easy divorce and adultery, violence, worshiping their gods, boasting of social status, etc.  It also does not mean that in our current form of government, where there is much more freedom than in the Roman Empire, Christians cannot participate in politics.  What it does mean is that the Gospel is about saving souls and turning individuals to Christ, not about trying to create an ideal society in a sinful world through force.

Of course, if the Bible changes enough people, then it will, be extension, begin to change society (and this is the only change that will truly last).  Although the New Testament writers were careful to not encourage rebellion, they taught things that were radical for their time, such as commanding husbands to love their wives as themselves (Eph 5) and, of course, telling masters to treat their slaves as their equals (Philemon).  When Paul said in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he was not abolishing these cultural, gender, or economic distinctions in society but encouraging a new way of thinking among Christians, contrary to the Judaizers.  Instead of trying to one-up one another based upon culture, gender, or economic status, Christians were to view their fellow believers as brothers and sisters in Christ.  This loving viewpoint, of course, is not just limited to within the church but to even those who oppose Christians.  True change does not come from forcing people to think and live exactly as you want (and both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this).  It comes from people changing from within.  THIS is how the Bible affects society and how it ultimately ended the African slave trade.  It was NOT new at the time of the 18th-19th centuries either, as we have evidence that Christians as early as the 3rd and 4th centuries going to slave auctions, buying slaves, and immediately setting them free.  Christians could see that while the Bible did not encourage rebellion, it also did not portray slavery as a realization of God’s ideal, so they moved away from it.

Not the same, at all

Thus, as we can see, there is little similarity between these two issues of homosexuality and slavery except in an extremely superficial sense, claimed only by those who want to caricature the opposing side as being equivalent to African slaveholders.  It may be an effective way to incite emotions, but it is intellectually irresponsible and exceptionally lazy.

When it comes to homosexuality, it is clear in Scripture:  It is not God’s prescription for sexual relationships (Romans 1, and also see Matthew 19 for a rebuttal to those who think Jesus had no teachings on sexuality and marraige).  I try to be tolerant of a wide range of theological viewpoints, but those who try to argue that Scripture is okay with homosexual relationships commit an astonishing amount of exegetical errors.  I don’t know how else to say it; it’s just not there.  Does that mean Christians should hate homosexuals?  Of course not.  Nor does it mean that Christians should treat homosexuality as a special case of sin that is different than other sexual sins of adultery and fornication.  But we do no favors to anyone by pretending something is not a sin when it in fact is.

Christians can disagree on how this applies to the society at large:  Many Christians who understand that homosexual relationships should not be condoned at church nonetheless argue that in society at large, we should allow homosexual unions.  Others disagree.  Whatever a Christian thinks in the political sphere, he cannot in good conscience say that homosexual is not a sin in the personal sphere if he truly claims the Bible as his authority (if he doesn’t, we have greater problems to address).  Many Christians could definitely do a better job showing love to active homosexuals, but showing love does not mean we lie to them and tell them that their Creator is okay with the lifestyle they have chosen to live.  It means that we are honest about sin but also fervent in our wish that they hear and receive Jesus as their Savior, as we should be for anyone else.  It is important to clarify that they do NOT have to stop being a homosexual before their receive Christ, but we should be clear that if they do accept Jesus as their Lord, the Holy Spirit will begin to work on the sin in their lives and homosexuality is going to be one of them.

The issue is difficult enough as it is to have honest, civil discussion.  It annoys me greatly when lazy articles like this one are written to make it even worse.  Of course, I expect no better from most media outlets.

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