Last night, on a serious Australian current affairs program, Q&A, our current serving Prime Minister, a self-professed Christian, grossly caricatured the Bible.
A pastor questioned the PM’s change of mind on same-sex marriage, pointing out that Jesus says, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be married”—summarising Matthew 19:4-6—and asked why someone calling himself a Christian does not believe the words of Jesus in the Bible.
The PM replied,
“Well if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.”
This received the most enormous applause of the night, which incidentally seems to indicate both the depth of biblical illiteracy and the hostility to Christian morality.
As justification, the PM went on to refer to Paul’s instructions—delivered in both Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22—for slaves to be obedient to their masters. And he suggested on this basis, “we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War”.
I am appalled at how this national leader, publicly claiming “an informed conscience and a Christian conscience”, misrepresented the Holy Book of the faith he confesses, on its teaching on one matter (slavery) to avoid its teaching on another matter (of marriage), in order to justify his abandonment of that biblical teaching.
The Bible’s teaching on slavery is extensive and diverse and was spoken into various cultures: Ancient Near Eastern society, largely agrarian, as well as Graceo-Roman culture, where practices of slavery varied considerably. And some of these versions of slavery were themselves quite different at points from the race-based slavery that blighted North America and other parts of the world, against which the Christian MP, William Wilberforce, and others fought from the late 1700s into the 1800s. However, none of it was part of the original created order.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible also honestly records, and sometimes regulates, the practice of slavery. It is naïve in the extreme—just a poor reading strategy—to assume an endorsement of an institution or activity, simply because it is recorded without particular narrative assessment at one point, or because it is regulated—for what might be called harm-minimisation, or an ethic of retrieval—at another point.
Let’s be clear. Even a cursory reading of the Bible would tell you it never says slavery is a “natural condition”. Never. Not once.
Any material regulating the practice of slavery needs to be read alongside the extensive material which shows the Bible ultimately opposes slavery.
One of the paradigmatic episodes of the Old Testament is the Exodus. It involves God’s rescue of his people out of slavery! Slavery is presented as unequivocally unpleasant and cruel. Refer Exodus 2:23-25:
During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (NIV84)
Under God’s direction in the Law of Israel, the Exodus became a driving shaper of ethics. For example, Deuteronomy 24:17-18:
Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
In the New Testament, as in the Old, the slave trade is condemned out of hand with various other grievous sins. 1 Timothy 1:8-11 says,
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (NIV11)
How is any of that teaching that slavery is a natural condition?
But more than that, freedom is always a key goal of the Christian gospel. This is ultimately a spiritual freedom from slavery to sin and its consequences. But it has implications for earthly human freedom or enslavement. Yes, spiritual freedom before God—in relationship with Christ, who purchased you by his blood—enables one to accept a lack of temporal, earthly freedom, indeed to work hard for your master.
So here is the full context of the only words of the Bible on slavery the MP referred to. I am using the version in Ephesians 6:5-9:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (NIV84)
Your true master is Christ, a truly good master. And understanding that frees you to work hard for your boss, yes, even if he is your earthly slave master. Even, it is noted elsewhere, if they mistreat you.
But that it not all this passage says about slavery. It counter-culturally warns masters never to mistreat their slaves. It reminds owners that far from having a totally superior status or being a class apart, rather, before God, they are equal to their slaves.
In that connection, we note the much quoted verse, Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Your ethnicity and gender, your social, educational and economic status or class, are far less important than the fact that all humans are created in the image of God. And here, far less important to a Christian, than that you are all united, equally, in Christ.
But the New Testament goes further. Paul encourages the emancipation of a runaway slave, Onesimus, in his letter to the wronged-master, Philemon. And in addition, Paul writes these words in 1 Corinthians 7:21-22:
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.
Slavery is never once taught in Scripture as the natural condition. Rather, if you can gain your freedom, do so.
I am deeply sorry to say it—and all the more in an election week—but our Prime Minister convicted the Bible on a trumped up charge. How sad for someone in high office, publicly professing the Christian faith.
Update: Friends, I have tried to engage with critics on slavery and Bible interpretation in a later post here.
Given the length of comments here, if your issues are with the slavery and interpretation matters, it might be better to read the new post and comment there. Thanks.
There’s also an intervening update on whether I had simply misconstrued what the PM said.