Script Out Passages: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters."
Hespeler, 20 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Ephesians 6:1-9, Philemon 8-21, Exodus 6:1-8 (responsive)
n the mid-1800’s, Dr. Moses Stuart, a professor at Andover Seminary near Boston, Massachusetts, was universally recognized as the most important Biblical Scholar in the United States of America. He is still considered to be the father of American Biblical interpretation and was hugely influential in his time. He represented the standard of Biblical studies.
So, in 1850, Dr. Stuart chose to address the entire issue from a Biblical point of view by publishing a pamphlet called “Conscience and the Constitution.” Now, Moses Stuart didn’t like slavery at all. He particularly thought that slavery as practiced in the Southern States was cruel and
It is rather shocking today to think that a mainline biblical scholar could have come to such a conclusion. But the fact of the matter is that many people felt, at the time, that the Bible was absolutely clear on the matter of slavery. People who believed and were committed to the biblical text could easily find many passages – like the one that we read this morning from Ephesians – that’s simply told people that slavery was an institution ordained by God and that those who found themselves in the position of being slaves had no choice but to merely obey and to be the best slaves possible. The Bible was clear.
And, since the Western world has, since the late 1800’s, come to the consensus that slavery is just plain wrong, those verses have become among the most notorious Script Outâ verses of the Bible. They are kind of embarrassing and so we’d really just rather pretend that they weren’t there at all. We don’t read them. We don’t dwell on them. They might as well have been removed from our Bibles using our favorite Bible study tool. But, as I hope you’ve been picking up, I don’t think that’s good enough. The whole of scripture, including these verses, have been given to us and we have to struggle with all of it whether we like the passages or not – just like Dr. Moses Stuart felt that he had to struggle with these passages too – but that doesn’t mean that we need to come to the same conclusions that he did.
It is true that for nearly 1800 years, Christians did regularly use the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. And it was not hard for them to do so. There were a number of passages, like Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” that were pretty darn clear and not open to much interpretation.
What’s more, and even worse, they were passages that primarily addressed slaves and told them that they should take any abuse directed at them without complaint, that they should not do anything to change their status apart from being obedient and submissive. Yes, the Bible does also address slave owners and masters, encouraging them to be kind and not to be cruel towards their property, but it never, in these passages, gets around to suggesting that there is anything wrong with the fact that these slaves are considered property.
This kind of passage is what is often called a proof text – a simple, straightforward verse that, without any need for context, sets down a policy in a few words. So the proof texts in favour of slavery were clear and were numerous. That is why many Christian slaveholders felt perfectly justified to state that the Bible was clearly on their side and so God was also clearly on their side. And there were even many Christians, like Dr. Moses Stuart, who actually hated the institution of slavery and yet nevertheless felt that they had to agree with it.
So, yes, these slavery passages of the Bible are definitely what I consider to be Script Out® passages. We behave today as if these passages weren’t there at all. I’ve never heard them read in church. I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on them. No Christian that I know has them underlined or highlighted in their Bible. For all intents and purposes they might as well not be there at all in our Bibles.
But, as I have been saying, I don’t think that that is something that we should be doing as Christians because the Bible is not a smorgasbord for us where we can come and pick and choose what passages we want. We have to take all of it seriously and we particularly have to struggle with those parts that we disagree with.
So, the big question is how do we deal with these kinds of proslavery proof texts that are undeniably present in our Bibles? Well, the first thing I would note is another aspect of that whole mid-nineteenth century abolition debate. While it is true that those who fought in favour of slavery at that time regularly appealed to the Bible in defense of their position, it is also true that their opponents were doing exactly the same thing.
The vast majority of people who at that time were fighting for and arguing for the abolition of slavery we’re doing it because of their Christian faith and because they felt very strongly that that was what the Bible was teaching them to do. They believed that, what’s more, while being fully aware of the proof texts that their opponents used. How is that possible? Well, they obviously weren’t appealing to the pro-slavery proof texts.
What they appealed to instead was something much broader and general. They spoke about the overall narrative of the Bible. They noted, for example, that, even though there were laws in the Books of Moses that regulated the practice of slavery (and so affirmed it), that when you looked at the story told in those same books, you saw a God who was so appalled at the way in which the Egyptians enslaved a people (the Hebrews) that he chose them as his own, defeated the Egyptians and led them out to freedom and life in a new Promised Land.
And the Exodus from Egypt is really just the most dramatic example. Again and again throughout the Bible, we see God intervening to free his people from tyranny and from literal slavery. The prophets proclaim it. The kings are called upon to implement it. Laws are established to keep people from falling into slavery and to get them out of it as soon as possible.
And then we get to the New Testament. In the Gospels and the Letters of the New Testament, yes, there is a basic understanding that slavery exists. Jesus’ parables are populated by slaves and servants. And, as we have seen, slaves are even encouraged to be peaceful and obedient because to do otherwise was to be seen as dangerous to society and to invite reprisal. But, alongside that, we also have another story being told. It is a story of the kingdom of God and this new thing called the church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul made it clear that the church meant that, despite what happened in the world around them, the people of the church were to live in a different reality. He told them, “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.” He was saying that, though the church was made up of all sorts of people including slaves and women – both of whom were effectively considered to be somewhat less than human according to society – those differences simply didn’t matter inside the church.
People also pointed at a short letter that Paul had written to a man named Philemon. Philemon was a slave owner (and someone that Paul had converted to Christianity) whose slave named Onesimus ran away from his master. Onesimus ended up in prison with Paul and Paul led him to the Christian faith as a fellow prisoner. When he learned Onesimus’ story, Paul sent the slave back to his master but he sent him carrying the letter that is preserved and is now found in our New Testaments.
The abolitionists appealed to that letter because, although Paul does not directly question the institution of slavery in it, he makes it clear that slavery is really not compatible with the message of the gospel. Basically, while Paul stops short of actually obliging Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, he pretty much explains to him that that is his only option if he wants to live according to the gospel.
So, basically, you had people on both sides of the argument appealing to Scripture to defend their positions. The pro-slavery people appealed to certain proof texts that were, admittedly, crystal clear in their meaning. The abolitionists were more inclined to appeal to the general overview of the Bible story – the themes of liberty and release, the development of big ideas like the church or the kingdom of God. They looked at the big story that was being told rather than the particular things that people said at certain points in that story.
So what do you do when you have that kind of situation – when you have a few proof texts that are very clear but that stand in contrast to what seems to be the big picture of the Bible story? It is actually a situation that has arisen in a number of situations and not just in the discussions around slavery. The easy solution is to go with the proof texts because they are clear and simple to understand. But that does not mean that that is the right answer. In fact, I think everyone today would agree that the abolitionists were right and were being faithful to scripture.
I remember when I was a teenager and I thought that I knew everything. Remember those wonderful days? It was so wonderful to be so sure. These days it sometimes seems that all I know is that I don’t know anything at all. But I remember thinking back in those days that having the complete and full truth about anything was easy. All you had to do was find a simple Bible passage that stated something clearly – a proof text – and you were done. You didn’t have to think any further.
Well, with age and wisdom, I have learned how dangerous proof texts and the absolute certainly that you have the truth can be. I don’t think that God ever intended for us to turn our minds off and just take our moral truths from proof texts. You must never take your eyes off of the overall narrative because our job is to see where God has been working in history and to try and perceive where God is working today.
It is a lesson that doesn’t just apply to discussion of slavery. All kinds of other disagreements have hinged on the same difference between a few clear proof texts and the broad sweep of the Biblical story: the place of women in the church and society, the differences between race, sexuality issues are just a few examples.
If a few proof texts about the benefits of slavery can remind me of the caution that we need in reading proof texts in general, I think that can help me a lot. So, personally, I feel that it is important that they are there in the Bible and it is important that we struggle with those verses. I’m putting my bottle of Script Outâ away. They are staying in my Bible.