We miss the radical teaching of the Bible when we impose the wrong thought categories

I think fundamentalists and liberals tend to make the same mistake about the Bible. They read it through the same modernist lens.  They miss what the Bible is saying and so they miss its applicability to contemporary life. Let me give two examples to help with our thinking.

First of all, let me return to the example of David’s sin against Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite.  There has been much debate recently about whether the sin is adultery or rape.  The problem  is that modern laws focus primarily on consent. Now, it is not that the Old Testament isn’t interested in the free consent of those involved, it’s just that it sees violation against God, the community and the victim as much more than absence of consent so that if Bathsheba had consented, then that would have not made David’s sin any less, he had still taken what was not his, he had still violated and defiled her.

Actually, that point is one that I think postmodernists and feminists find it a little easier to grasp at one level than modern liberals. They are alert to the fact that there were power dynamics at work which mean that whether or not David used force to compel Bathsheba to have sex with him that she wasn’t really in a position to withhold consent in the face of the king’s demands.

The second example is slavery.  The assumption among some of a more fundamentalist persuasion is that the Bible is okay with slavery, that it is not abolished in scripture and therefore, those who persisted in holding slaves in the deep south were justified.  No-one today will come out and say “we should still have slaves” obviously but there are other ways of indicating your tacit approval. Meanwhile liberals, and indeed quite a few progressive evangelicals have also accepted that slavery was okay in the Bible. There solution is to argue that Scripture does not have the final say on ethics and so, we must allow for progression in our thinking. This hermeneutic sets up the possibility of changes to our approach on a number of issues including female elders, gender fluidity and same sex relationships.

The problem here I think is that we consider the slavery question through the paradigm of liberal human rights ethics. So, its about individual liberty and autonomy. Whereas the Bible does deal in terms of freedom but it sees freedom being from something bad but for something good. I am free from the bondage of sin and death but this means I am free to serve Christ. The Israelites were set free from slavery in Egypt so that they were free to worship the Lord and live under his rule in the land he brought them into.

So, when we come to slavery in the New Testament the point is more about a change of relationship and about a person’s place within the household.  Paul does not say “let your slaves go.” That of course would have simply meant to throw vulnerable people out onto the street without means of support. They would be set free from the Christian owner but only to be someone else’s slave unless their identity and status changed.

So, look at what Paul does with slavery. First of all he condemns the trade in people (man stealers) as serious sin. Secondly, he insists that masters should treat their slaves in the same way that they expect their slaves to treat them creating an equal relationship and also introducing the concept of reward (pay). Thirdly, in a specific example where a slave comes to him, whilst he sends the slave back, he insists that the believing owner takes the slave back but with a changed relationship and status. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus has become like a son to him and further that he wants Philemon to receive and treat Onesimus in the same way as he would treat Paul. This means

15 .. this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant[c] but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[1]

Paul has no legal authority to compel this and no democratic means to change the law in Rome. He only has a pastor’s authority to call Philemon to godly behaviour in line with God’s word. There is an element od risk and trust then in sending Onesimus back. However, that does not take away from the radical nature of Paul’s position on slavery. He uses every power and means at his disposal not merely to regulate and care for the wellbeing of slaves but to remove the stigma and status of slavery so that slaves become sons and brothers in the household of God.

At this point we realise that Scripture challenges the worst injustices and sins of our contemporary world without us needing to do any exegetical and hermeneutical gymnastics to get there. Scripture clearly speaks against injustice based on class, race or gender.

[1] Philemon 1:15-16.

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