Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder , Senior Minister




“Recovering From Painful Scripture”

Sunday, August 29, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Recovering from Painful Scripture
Was Slavery ever OK?

One of the great ethical victories of Christianity in modern times is end of legal slavery. This is not to say that slavery doesn’t exist. The humanitarian group Anti-Slavery International reports that millions of people are de facto slaves still today…bonded laborers who are enslaved as a result of debt, forced laborers who work under the threat of violence or death, human trafficking, including the sex trade, and forced child labor.

But Anti-slavery International also says that in almost all the countries where these kinds of slavery occur, slavery is officially and legally banned. Slavery is also outlawed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

At the forefront and heart of the movement to abolish legalized slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries were Christians – Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and other nonconformists in England; and Quakers, some Methodists, New Light Presbyterians, and some Baptists in the United States. Pope Gregory XVI condemned slave trading in 1839. People who weren’t Christians participated in the movement to end legalized slavery but the movement was substantially driven by Christians acting on their understanding of Scripture and the ethical implications of the Christian faith.

But for most of the years of the struggle to end slavery, the majority of Christians in England and the United States either supported slavery, or they thought the church should not be getting involved in these kinds of political issues, or they just wanted to avoid the upset that the movement to end slavery caused in families and congregations.

Let me repeat this because it ought to give us pause. For most of the years of the struggle to end slavery, the majority of Christians in England and the United States either supported slavery, or they thought the church should not be getting involved in these kinds of issues, or they just wanted to avoid the upset that the movement to end slavery caused in families and congregations.

The number one argument within Christianity against the abolition of slavery was the Bible – passages like Colossians 3:22-4:1.

Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians 3:22-4:1. If you are using a pew Bible it is page 202 in the second half of the Bible.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

I’ve had a book in my library for 30 years. It is entitled Slavery Defended.  It is a collection of essays and articles supporting slavery. I take it down and read portions of it from time to time as a spiritual exercise in how easy it is to be wrong. There are articles defending slavery in the book based on sociology, anthropology, jurisprudence, even literature. Many of them are well-written and coherent arguments, given certain assumptions.

The most cogent and coherent of all the essays is one written by Rev. Dr. Thornton Stringfellow of Culpepper County, Virginia. It is entitled “A Scriptural View of Slavery.”

Dr. Stringfellow substantiates with many, many biblical quotes three theses points – God sanctioned slavery during the age of the Patriarchs in the Old Testament; slavery was authorized in the laws of Israel given by God; and slavery was recognized as lawful by Jesus and the early church. He quotes dozens of scriptures in making his argument.

By comparison, the Christians opposing Scripture pretty much only had only three Scriptures on their side…the story of the Israelites deliverance from slavery in the Exodus; the statement by Paul in Galatians that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Gal. 3:28); and Paul’s very brief letter to Philemon instructing him to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother rather than as a slave (Philemon 1: 16).

What does this teach us?

Here is the one lesson I want to take from this today. The Bible is the beginning, not the end of the story. If we treat the Bible as the beginning of the story, the Bible will liberate us. If we make it the end of the story, the Bible may well become an instrument of oppression.  

The full implications of the biblical revelation are not within the Bible.

The Colossians passage that says slaves should be obedient was not actually written by the Apostle Paul. Paul did not write Colossians. Colossians is a Deutero-Pauline epistle. It was written after Paul’s death in his name but not actually by him.

The Colossians passage is part of what scholars call the household codes which appear in the Deutero-Pauline epistles – Colossians, Ephesians, II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, and Titus. The household codes tell women to be submissive to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. They tell children to obey their parents and parents not to provoke their children to anger. They tell slaves to obey their master and masters to treat their slaves fairly and justly.

The household codes are attempts to make the authoritarian structures of the day in which they were written more humane, but they do not challenge the structures themselves.

What did Paul himself think of slavery?

Paul knew that Christ transcended and destroyed human categories of division. Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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. 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.”

Paul knew that Christ changed the relationship between Christians…that this relationship was no longer defined by earthly categories.

This is why when he writes Philemon concerning Onesimus who was a slave to Philemon that he should no longer treat him like a slave but a “beloved brother” (Philemon 1:15-16).

Paul knew that Christ changed the relationship between masters and slaves but he himself was not sure of the full implications. Please turn to I Corinthians 7:20-24.

Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,there remain with God.

Paul knew something was going on but he couldn’t quite figure it out. The implications of the biblical revelation were too far-reaching for the biblical writers themselves to fully get it. The fulfillment of the biblical vision within the Bible itself is limited and partial. The Bible is the beginning, not the end of the story.

Slavery illustrates this exactly. Slavery was an age-old institution. Slavery was as old as civilization. Slavery was universal. We don’t know of any civilization that did not practice slavery. Slavery was very complicated. In biblical times, at least, most people did not consider slavery the worst option. It was not unusual for people to voluntarily become slaves because it was better than starving to death. In urban areas most slaves earned their freedom by the age of 30. Slavery was sometimes humane. In biblical times many doctors and lawyers were slaves. For the writers of scripture, a world without slavery was beyond their imaginations.

The Apostle Paul understood that Christ made masters and slaves, brothers and sisters and he had a vision that Christ changed something about slavery but he could not see that this essential vision would ultimately mean the end of slavery because he could not imagine a world without the institution of slavery.

What if there will someday be a world without prisons? Prisons are part of our assumed reality. It is almost impossible for us to imagine a world without prisons. But maybe someday there will be a world with hospitals, schools, and rehab centers instead of prisons. Most of what Christians say today about prisoners and prisons will look reactionary and oppressive because we all pretty much assume the necessity of prisons and most of our talk about prisons is how to make them more humane. Someday most of what Christians today say about prisons may look oppressive.

The Bible is the beginning, not the end of the story.

This means we need to know what our hermeneutical principles are. What are the principles we use to read and interpret the Bible?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline has four hermeneutical principles: Read the Bible in the spirit of Christ. Read it in light of the overarching story. Use good solid modern scholarship to understand it in its context. And use your reason experience and tradition to understand Scripture’s meaning.     

I want to suggest one more hermeneutical principle.

Howard Thurman was Dean of the Chapel at Howard University and then became the first African-American Dean of the Chapel at Boston University in the 1950s and 60s. When he was growing up he would read to his grandmother who had been a slave and who had never had the opportunity to learn to read. He regularly read to her from the Bible. She’d let him read to her from the book of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Gospels. She loved the Gospels. But she’d never let him read to her from the Pauline epistles, except very occasionally I Corinthians 13.

When Howard Thurman was a college student visiting home and reading one day to her from the Bible, he finally worked up the nerve to ask his grandmother why she would not let him read to her from the epistles. She told him that when she was a slave, the master had his white preacher preach to the slaves. They had preachers among the slaves but the master wouldn’t let them preach. She said the master’s preacher always used a lesson form the Apostle Paul as his text. Three of four times a year, he would preach on the text, “Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters … as unto Christ.”

“Then,” she said, “he would go on to show how it was God’s will we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.”

“I promised my Maker,” she said, “that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”

Howard Thurman’s grandmother had a hermeneutical principle.

You and I need to make some decisions about the Bible. I believe God is always on the side inclusion. It is one of my fundamental hermeneutical principles. God invented justice and inclusion. God is the author of justice and inclusion. I refuse to believe in a Gospel that allows room for oppression and exclusion.

I’ve come to this conclusion from studying the Bible.

Please turn to Galatians 1:3-9, page 187 in the pew Bibles.

Paul had taught the Gentiles at Galatia that the grace of God included them. He taught them that in Christ there were neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28).

Then others came and taught them they had to become Jews – be circumcised and attend synagogue and keep Jewish law – to be included. They taught a Gospel of exclusion. This is how Paul responded to that:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! We have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Gal. 1:3-9).

Paul had a hermeneutical principle.

He says even if I were to come to you preaching another Gospel than Gospel of inclusion, don’t listen to me…even if it is me. Even if an angel were to appear from the sky, and preach another Gospel, don’t listen to them. Even if an angel stood on your shoulder and whispered another Gospel into your ear, do not listen to her or him. Even if somebody applauded the name of Jesus, if they do not teach a Gospel of inclusion, do not believe them.

It is a sobering truth that for most of the years of the struggle to end slavery, the majority of Christians in England and the United States either supported slavery, or they thought the church should not be getting involved in these kinds of issues, or they just wanted to avoid the upset and division that the movement to end slavery caused in families and congregations.

I am very grateful that I am getting to see the fulfillment of some of the implications of the Gospel in my lifetime. I don’t know what we will know in heaven. I don’t know what we’ll be aware of. I’m hoping I’ll be able to watch CNN in heaven. I am greedy to know what God is going to do next 50 years from now, 100 years from now, 200 years from now. I think 2000 years after Jesus, we have just seen the tip of the iceberg.

The key is to understand that the Bible, the biblical revelation, is not the end, it is just the beginning.

Thornton Stringfellow, “A Scriptural View of Christianity,” Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South, edited by Eric L. McKitrick (Prentice-Hall, 1963), 86-98.

Howard Thurman, A Strange Freedom (Beacon Press), 144.