Reading Scripture with Jesus

1 Timothy 6:1-2

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. 2 Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. These are the things you are to teach and insist on.

Last week a number of you came up to me and told me that I had not been entirely forthright. I had only presented you with part of the story. You said this because I shared with you my level of excitement on account of the fact that the baseball team from Cleveland would be playing in their first World Series game since I was in high school. What many of you called me out on was failing to mention that just hours earlier, my Ohio State Buckeyes had lost an ugly game in the rain to the Penn State Nittany Lions. Why would I mention one of my favorite teams and totally neglect the other?

You see, I’m an optimist. I like to focus on the good, and ignore the bad…with every hope that the bad will simply disappear or go away. But you wouldn’t let it go away, would you. You held me accountable for everything.

I share this story this morning because there are some passages in the Bible that we would just like to go away. A little over a month ago, I preached on 1 Timothy 6, and I preached a challenging sermon. But does anyone remember what I said about verses 1-2? Does anyone remember what I said last week? In all seriousness, nobody remembers what I said about verses 1-2 because I skipped over them. It was a lot easier to simply not address these verses than to deal with a passage that has historically been used by Christians to justify owning another person.

This Tuesday is a holiday on our Christian calendar, it is All Saints’ Day. But rather than celebrating the saints, today we are going to reflect on some of the shortcomings of the Christian tradition, because those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it. But the most important thing that I want to remind us all of today is that when we read scripture, we must submit our reading of the text to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We can make a text say what we want it to say, and we can make a case for the things we already believe if we lift verses and events out of context. And historically, the church has done some pretty awful things by not reading everything through the lens of Jesus.

I think that this text is really important to talk about, even though it is uncomfortable, because we will come up against people who call the history of Christianity into question, including Christians who tried to justify owning slaves. And while we should never try to defend such actions, I think it is good for us to know why those who use the Bible to support slavery were perverting the text for their own gain.

I want to start this morning with a quick survey. By show of hands, how many people here think that slavery is okay, or even a God-given right? If anyone raises their hand I will consider myself a failure as a pastor. Of course it isn’t okay to own a slave. Regardless of the color of a person’s skin, it is not okay to have slaves. But here is the tricky part, can you tell me where in the Bible it says so directly? Where can you find passages that say, “Thou shall not own slaves.”? You can’t find that passage, because it doesn’t exist.

Now if you are a quick thinker, you are probably thinking of events and sayings that can be understood as a prohibition of slavery. God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. God created all people in his own image. There is that whole Golden Rule thing, where we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And the second most important law, according to Jesus, is to love your neighbor as yourself. That’s kind of hard to do, you know, if you own them.

Let’s look, for the sake of argument, at a few pro-slavery passages from the Bible. Again, I am not endorsing slavery. I’m going to be drawing some from the book Slavery, Sabbath, Women, and War by NT scholar Willard Swartley. In this book, Swartley lays out a number of historical arguments and explains why we as Christians have arrived at the positions we currently hold.

Let’s start with the first Hebrew, the man to whom God made a promise to bless him and make his offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. We know him as Abraham. As the song goes, Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. Do you know what else Father Abraham had a lot of? Slaves. According to Swartley, “Abraham was a great slaveowner; he brought slaves from Haran (Gen. 12:5), armed 318 slaves born in his own house (Gen. 14:14), included them in his property list (Gen. 12:16; 24:35-36), received slaves as a gift from Abimelech (Gen. 20:14), and willed them as a part of his estate to his son Isaac (Gen. 26:13-14).”

Abraham, the father of the Judeo-Christian religion was a slave owner. So if such a pillar of the faith could own slaves and be lifted up throughout scripture as a model, why can’t we? Don’t worry, we will come back to this and refute it. But let’s continue with a pro-slavery argument.

This one can stand on its own: Leviticus 25:44-46, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

This is straight from the Torah. God granted the Israelites the right to own slaves from their surrounding neighbors. Also in this chapter, God allows for the Israelites to own one another.

But that’s all Old Testament stuff. We also don’t sacrifice animals and many other things taught in these ancient texts. So what does the New Testament say? No fewer than seven times do we read things like “Slaves obey your masters,” which were some of the favorite passages among slave owners before the Civil War (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-19). In fact, most references to slavery in the New Testament involve instructing slave owners to treat their slaves well, but the epistles never say that slavery is wrong.

Okay, but we are not Paulians, we are Christians. What does Jesus say on the matter? Quoting John Henry Hopkins, a pro-slavery bishop from New England, “While Jesus rebukes the sins of all around him, and speaks with divine authority, he lived in the midst of slavery, and uttered not one word against it!”

Or to quote another pro-slavery leader, Thornton Stringfellow, “Polygamy, divorce and slavery, were sanctioned by the law of Moses. But under the gospel, slavery has been sanctioned in the church, while polygamy and divorce have been excluded from the church.” The argument is that if the church as to exclude the practice of slavery, they had the chance and chose not to. While Jesus and his disciples did overturn certain teachings found in the Old Testament, they never spoke out against slavery. And therefore, according to the pro-slavery side of the debate, slavery is to be sanctioned in the church.

Okay, my skin is absolutely crawling at this time from even attempting to restate the pro-slavery position. But I wanted to show you all that if you take these texts alone, people can make a strong case for slavery. But what are the responses?

First, let’s go back to Father Abraham. There are many reasons why Abraham is lifted up as an example to be followed by subsequent generations, in particular we are to emulate Abraham’s faith. Our New Testament even teaches us that Abraham was faithful and it was credited to him as righteousness. But there are activities that Abraham engaged in that we aren’t supposed to adopt as normal for Christians. Abraham lied about his relationship to his wife Sarah, claiming that she was his sister, offering her to powerful leaders, to save his own skin. And he did this not once, but twice. Abraham had multiple spouses and concubines. He even had at least one child, Ishmael, with a concubine named Hagar. And when his wife Sarah got jealous of Hagar and her son, Abraham sent them away, attempting to desert them…attempting to desert his own son.

We need to remember that Abraham, as great as he might have been, was only a human. And as a human, he made mistakes, he was a sinner. So when the Bible tells us that a certain quality about Abraham was good, like his faithfulness, in that way we should be like Abraham. But that can’t be seen as a blanket statement covering all aspects of Abraham’s life. The same can be said about great leaders like David, Solomon, Peter, and Paul. We can only look to them as examples for moral behavior when the Bible specifically notes that they are being moral. Let’s let that be our first guiding principle.

Second, when we consider slavery in the Old Testament, we must concede that it was allowed by the Mosaic Law. Israelites were allowed to own members of other nations, and Israelites were allowed to own other Israelites. But what we can miss is that within Israel, a position of servitude was entered voluntarily, and often because it was better for a person financially. If you lost everything in a fire, you could offer yourself to your neighbor as a slave, working for room and board.

But remember that passage that I quoted earlier from Leviticus 25? That chapter is not just about owning slaves, it is also about releasing them. Slaves were to be released in the Year of Jubilee. Drawing again from Swartley, “Hebrew servitude was voluntary, [temporary], and altogether different from American slavery.” To compare the slavery in the Old Testament to what was witnessed in the pre-Civil War times is similar to comparing the proverbial apple to an orange. Yes, both the slavery advocates and the Bible use the term slavery. But we cannot assume that they meant the same thing when they used this term.

This doesn’t mean that all moral teaching is no longer applicable. Anger is still anger, lust is still lust, adultery is still adultery. But things change, cultures change, and how we use words change. Our second guiding principle is that historical context matters!

Finally, what do we do about the fact that Jesus did not say anything about slavery? He could have said that he was against slavery and put all of this discussion to rest. But he didn’t, so he must have approved…right?

This is what is called an argument from silence. And an argument from silence is rhetorically weak. Think about it like this, what else didn’t Jesus speak about? Jesus didn’t speak about shampoo. Does that mean that Jesus was against shampoo? Or does it mean that Jesus was in favor of shampoo because he never spoke out directly against it. You have heard that it was said, “You shall lather, rinse, and repeat, but I say unto you…”

Do you know what the fact that Jesus didn’t say anything about shampoo shows us? It shows us that Jesus didn’t say anything about shampoo!

Some argue that Jesus didn’t speak against slavery because his ministry was to the Jewish people in and around Jerusalem, and because of the Roman occupation, Jewish people were not even permitted to have slaves. It might not have been an issue that even came up in his teaching opportunities. But when the writers of the epistles were penning their documents, they were writing to churches far and near, to Greeks, Gentiles, rich, poor, and everywhere in between. So they did address slavery, but they also believed that Jesus was coming back soon

So our third and final principle for this morning is that we can form our theological and ethical beliefs on what Jesus said and did, but not necessarily on what he does not say or do.

These are our three guiding principles for reading not only today’s challenging text, but all challenging texts. 1. Biblical characters should only be elevated as our theological/ethical example when the Bible specifically says to do so. Otherwise, be like Jesus, not like Abraham or Solomon! 2. Historical context matters, so we can’t assume that an event from 2,000-4,000 years ago is analogous with a contemporary issue without considering what else has changed. And 3. We must base our theology/ethics on what Jesus actually says and does as an argument from silence can be understood in multiple ways.

So what does any of this mean to us today? I think that these principles are very helpful, especially if you really like to win arguments about theology and ethicsJ. No, the point should never be to beat someone in an argument, but to always strive to be faithful.

But I had a person that I looked up to once make an argument for being a sarcastic jerk by referring to the action of the prophet Elijah. Because Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal, this person thought that sarcasm was a good, appropriate, and godly characteristic. My thought was, “Hey, a few chapters later, his disciple sends some she bears out to kill some children for calling him bald. Maybe these people aren’t perfect.” We look to Jesus as our perfect example, not the other people in the Bible, no matter how good they are at other times.

Remember that historical context matters! As you may know, there are a number of churches and colleges named “Bethel,” which means “house of God.” Some of you may even know people who graduated from Bethel College, a Mennonite school in Kansas (Go Threshers!) One of the favorite Bible passages among Bethel students is Amos 4:4, which says, “Go to Bethel and sin.”

What a great slogan for a school! No, read that in context, it means something different.

And finally, remember that we must base our theology and ethics on what Jesus actually says and does, as an argument from silence is weak. It simply means that Jesus did not speak on a subject and we should not, we cannot, assume that meant that he agreed or disagreed with a subject. I’m not sure that Jesus had an opinion on that thing that is so important to you. But please don’t take his silence to be a blank check for you to make Jesus agree with you.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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