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Slavery and same-sex marriage: how not to read the Bible

Last week, when we heard Prime Minister Kevin Rudd providing on the run lessons in biblical interpretation, we felt the need to say something. Rudd’s performance on ABC’s Q&A represented a stunning portrait of how not to read the Bible from someone who ought to, and probably does, know better.

The moment came when a Christian pastor questioned Rudd’s changed position on same sex marriage. The Prime Minister’s response: if we were to use the bible to uphold the traditional definition of marriage we might as well endorse slavery since the Apostle Paul instructed slaves to “obey their masters”. On that basis, said Rudd, “we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.” This was met by cheers all round, as the ailing PM slam dunked that silly Christian who still places some stake in an ancient and irrelevant document.

Yet Rudd’s statement is on a par with the worst kind of literalistic fundamentalism that would usually attract peals of laughter from learned people.

Where to begin?

Perhaps with an aphorism of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington who says, “a text without a context is just a pretext to have it say whatever you want it to.” In other words, you can’t simply ‘prove’ the bible’s support of, in this case, slavery by isolating a verse exhorting slaves to “obey their masters”.

It’s crucial to consider the context of slavery in the ancient world, the grand sweep of the biblical narrative as a whole, and the spiritual revolution heralded by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that had the potential to transform even the most fractious relationships between slaves and masters.

The Bible is a collection of material, much of which tells the story of a people in real history. As far as the Old Testament goes especially, this is a harsh, violent environment into which, according to the writers, the drama of God’s involvement in the world plays out. The description of this world, which features slavery, polygamy and other practices certainly jar with contemporary sensibilities, but depiction doesn’t mean endorsement. This is a mistake many make today.

First, any consideration of context has to take our own into account—specifically the way that our understanding of something like slavery can easily, if incorrectly, be imported into the Bible’s discussion of it. Today when we think of slavery, we think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade where race-based and permanent servitude was the norm. Slaves were considered subhuman and were subjected to cruel and degrading treatment. No one doubts the misery of such an existence, or is sorry to see its end. Without diminishing the awful nature of slavery in that era, it is completely disingenuous for Rudd to, in his mention of the Confederacy and the US Civil War, collapse into the same category both the slavery of the Southern plantations and the slavery of the Ancient Near East.

To say that is not to applaud the enlightened practice of slave ownership in the period documented by the Old Testament. By all accounts life could be bleak for people who fell on hard times (easy to do in a subsistence economy) who could sell themselves or their family into slavery or, in more unfortunate cases, be enslaved themselves if their city was sacked. But their experience was not the slavery of the trans-Atlantic era. Slaves in Old Testament times were closer to bonded labour: their service was time-bound and was not race-based. They could even acquire a measure of status (remember Joseph of the technicolour dream coat, who was sold by his brothers into slavery but rose to become the vizier of Egypt) and, for a lucky few, freedom.

None of this is a defense of slavery; this was simply the context of the time. And it’s in such a context that God, according to the biblical writers, worked to reform his people. Israel was given laws that, incredibly for the time, provided for the welfare of slaves. True, there was no complete and instant overhaul of existing practices but recent experience of rushed attempts to install democracies into social/tribal structures that don’t easily accommodate such ideas should remind us of the folly of expecting immediate change. Instead we see what Paul Copan describes as “incremental humanising steps” that, far from applauding the brutality of the era, seek to limit exploitation and take steps that offer the possibility of mercy and freedom.

We also must consider slavery in light of the Bible as a whole. It’s the fashion of many, not simply Rudd-style biblical interpreters, to cherry pick isolated references to slavery (or any other topic) and use those to summarise the Bible’s position. As biblical scholar NT Wright says of such a strategy: “you read the bits that resonate for you, you give them the spin that suits you, and you use them to subvert the bits you don’t like.” But that’s just lazy.

A more thorough investigation of what the Bible has to say about anything would involve considering all mentions of the subject, seeking to understand what such mention means in the context of the immediate passage and for its original audience, seeing how each mention helps to interpret the others and how they make sense within the sweep of the biblical story. If, as many believe, that story as a whole concerns liberation from slavery to sin and is concerned with not only personal freedom but life to the full of each and every individual, it’s nonsensical to claim that the Bible is at peace with anyone being bound and shackled. If that were the case, it would be hard to imagine why William Wilberforce campaigned for decades to abolish slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and why many Christians today bother to fight modern slavery.

people’s identity in Christ transcended any social labels used to limit their opportunities

There’s another problem with isolating text from context when it comes to the Apostle Paul’s call for slaves to ‘obey their masters’: saying that this amounts to an endorsement of slavery completely ignores Paul’s larger point. He’s saying that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything—not least the unequal social categories and hierarchies that are often used to define and divide people. Why else would Paul claim, as he does in Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”? That is, people’s identity in Christ transcended any social labels used to limit their opportunities. That slaves and other minorities relished their newfound freedom in the good news of the gospel is apparent in the dismissive words of Celsus, a 2nd century Greek writer, who wrote off the faith as a ‘religion of women and slaves’.

But all of this so far only deals with half of what Rudd said on Q&A. He also said that getting hung up on a particular form of sexuality distracted from the central message of the gospel: love. This was a point picked up by the Rev’d Professor Gary Bouma, a priest in the Anglican Church in Melbourne who wrote an article for ABC’s Religion and Ethics. In it he wrote that it was unbiblical to oppose same sex marriage because of the bible’s acceptance of gay people “just as they are” and the unconditional grace and love of God. Bouma is right to talk about the love of God and his grace. It’s also good to see him point to the Kingdom of God and its radical welcome of the outsider, which involves the injunction to love and include those who find themselves on the fringes of society. This means the love and acceptance of gay people should be a given for the Christian community. However, such friendship is a long way from offering unqualified support to practices that elsewhere the Bible clearly marks out as outside of God’s intentions. As hard as it is to accept, the Bible seems to speak with one voice on this issue.

When Bouma links Rudd’s change of mind on this complex issue to an interpretation of Jeremiah 1:4-5 and Psalm 139:13, he draws some extraordinarily long bows in order to make his point. Sincere believers may seek biblical support for same sex relations but this is not it. Both those passages speak of God knowing someone in their mother’s womb, connoting a profound and special knowledge, in which, bizarrely, Bouma uses to affirm homosexuality as part of the created order, even though neither verse refers to sexuality in any form. Using Bouma’s logic you would have to assume that it’s just a given that the Bible affirms everything about each of us in every way and never challenges us to change at all. Clearly that is not the case. Those who accept biblical teaching will find that it simultaneously affirms them as people and profoundly challenges them in virtually every area of their lives.

We might recall Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery famously recorded in John’s gospel. He offered her love, acceptance and no condemnation, but also called her towards a different life to the one she was currently engaged in. His teaching is simultaneously challenging and yet powerful in its love.

It must flummox people today why Christians care so deeply what an ancient document like the Bible has to say. For classical Christians, the Bible is, as scholar Iain Provan puts it, “a book in which and through which God speaks to us, yet also with the understanding that God speaks in words written by people of old”. Such a reverence for the authority of the written word seems strange today in a world where it’s assumed of any text that ‘the author is dead’ and that any text can readily admit multiple interpretations.

Support for the redefinition of marriage seems to be growing, and if polls are to be believed the majority of people, especially the young, are in favour of it. Ours is, after all, a secular society and perhaps we will decide that the Bible has nothing to say to us on this issue. But let’s be clear: by using the Bible the way Rudd did on Q&A we will ensure that it won’t.

Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX).

Simon Smart is a Director of CPX.