Slaves ‘n’ Gays


In my last post I put forth the following suggestion:

Perhaps the New Testament is not a frozen-in-time snapshot of what perfect morality should forever resemble, but instead just reveals a step in an ongoing trajectory that is moving increasingly toward the ideal of love of the other?

I have been exploring the idea that progressive Christianity and agnosticism make good postmodern bedfellows because they have little patience both for those who know God exists and those who know he doesn’t. As I’ve said, epistemology is the new metaphysics, and how we hold our beliefs seems to be a more unifying factor that what those beliefs are.

A loose-grip approach to spiritual matters provides the freedom to question established narratives, which is what led to the suggestion posed above. Let’s run this ball a bit downfield.

The way most conservative evangelicals (and Catholics, for that matter) approach the ethical teachings of the New Testament goes something like this: “The New Testament says x is OK but y is wrong, so we are free to do x but forbidden to do y.”

The underlying assumption that does the heavy lifting here is this: The New Testament presents a fully-formed and final vision for how we are to live, and our role is to obey its timeless commands.

Piggybacking on Derek Flood’s Disarming Scripture, I would challenge that assumption by appealing to one of the issues he raises: slavery. If we take the position that the New Testament gives us a frozen-in-time, absolute ethic, then the conclusion follows that our attitude about slavery should be such that we treat our slaves well and that slaves should obey their masters, but not that owning persons is wrong in principle (Eph. 6:5, 9). Now some conservative folks try to get out of this pickle by either (1) arguing that biblical slavery is different from American chattel slavery for this or that reason, or (2) denying that it is a pickle at all and advocating slavery like the antebellum Christian slaveholders did in the American South (using the Bible as their justification, by the way).

But I’m not buying what’s being sold by either party.

If we reject the view that the NT’s teachings are an absolute set of ethical principles frozen in time for us to follow forever and instead adopt what Flood calls a “trajectory approach” to the Bible’s teachings, it allows us the freedom to do a couple things.

For example, we can recognize that, relative to its time, the New Testament is miles ahead of its contemporaries when it comes to the issue of slavery. At the same time, however, we also have the ability to admit that for all its progressiveness on the issue it nonetheless stopped far short of the ideal (which wasn’t realized until centuries later).

In other words, the New Testament provides us with a sort of snapshot that captures believers’ views on slavery at a specific moment in time. Those views are both ahead of their own time as well as hopelessly behind ours. And that is OK if (and only if) the Bible was never intended to be a collection of timeless moral principles in the first place.

In short, Jesus’ ethic of love and liberty was leading somewhere, namely, to the abolition of slavery. It just took a little while to get there.

Some questions for consideration: The New Testament also is quite progressive (for its time) about women’s equal standing with men — might we apply this “trajectory approach” to the issues women face today? What about LGBTQ issues? Is it possible that the New Testament’s teachings about gender equality and love for all people were leading somewhere, and that those teachings had not yet reached their fruition at the time of the NT’s writing?

Discuss. . . .