Christianity and Slavery
To accept the Bible as the Word of God is to accept a highly authoritarian structure for the church and society and the required "slave-mind" which such authority implies. To discard that structure is to "pick and choose" among the teachings of the Bible and thus have no authority at all.
By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
One of the most disturbing aspects of religious life in nineteenth-century America is the attitude churches and many churchmen took concerning slavery. Not only did most denominations, in an attempt to preserve church unity, accede to the demands of the Southern slave owners by softening or removing any references to the subject from denominational statements; several theological seminaries refused to allow abolitionist speakers on their campuses and prohibited their students from taking part in abolitionist activities.
Although every denomination and sect contained some abolitionists, the most outspoken religious leaders of Abolitionism were Quakers, Unitarians and representatives of other so-called “fringe” groups. Moreover, some of the prominent theologians of the time, for example Charles Hodge of Princeton, actually offered extensive theological justification for the institution of slavery. How is it that believers in the God of love who taught the Golden Rule could fail to see the tremendous evils involved in the owning and selling of people? How could so many Christians, north and south, fail to take action to end such a horrible and demeaning practice?
Hodge, in an article entitled “The Bible Argument on Slavery,”1 says in summing up his argument:
As it appears to us too clear to admit of either denial or doubt, that the Scriptures do sanction slaveholding; that under the old dispensation it was expressly permitted by divine command, and under the New Testament is nowhere forbidden or denounced, but on the contrary, acknowledged to be consistent with the Christian character and profession (that is, consistent with justice, mercy, holiness, love to God and love to man), to declare it to be a heinous crime, is a direct impeachment of the word of God. We, therefore, felt it incumbent upon us to prove, that the sacred Scriptures are not in conflict with the first principles of morals; what they sanction is not the blackest and basest of all offenses in the sight of God.2
Was he correct? When one reads the Bible from which he drew his inspiration the answer is not long in coming, for it is obvious that the Bible, from beginning to end, accepts and justifies slavery as an institution. Colossians 3:22-24 provides a basic proof text:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourself 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 serve3 the Lord Christ.4
Clearly, in this passage, the author goes far beyond yielding reluctantly to the ethos of the Greco-Roman world in which slavery was a given fact. Slavery is not grudgingly but enthusiastically accepted, Slaves (douloi) are urged to accept their master’s will as the will of Christ himself! To love Jesus is to obey the earthly master (kurios) implicitly. It is true that the text goes on to urge the masters to treat their slaves justly and fairly, but there is no mention of manumission, a practice that was also common in the Greco-Roman world. Nor does the author make any distinction between obeying a Christian master and obeying a pagan one. For the author of Colossians, the ideal life is not one of freedom but one of obedience. The whole point of the slave’s life is to obey.
What is most shocking about this is that everyone, including the author, must have known that female slaves were frequently used by their masters for both sexual pleasure and breeding purposes. Female slaves were regularly forced to produce more slaves for the master’s household as well as to fulfill the desires of both the master and the mistress.5 The doule had no recourse, no defense. Thus while Christianity held up high standards of chastity and purity for the free person, it urged the female slave to accept sexual degradation as “from the Lord.” Indeed, there is elsewhere the implication that the more the abasement, the greater the reward will be in the world to come (See, for instance, Matt. 5:11).
Lest one think that the passage from Colossians is unique in the demands placed on the slave, one should note that the little book of Philemon is entirely devoted to the issue of slavery. In it, Paul sends Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his Master. Paul pleads for understanding but there is no mention at all of manumission or of the evils of the institution. This attitude is underlined in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he writes:
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 . . . In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters there remain with God. I Cor. 7:20-22,24
Ephesians 6: 5-6 also makes many of the same points that Colossians does:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves to Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
Neither Colossians nor Ephesians sets any limits to this obedience. The author(s) could have urged slaves to be obedient as long as that obedience does not involve any immorality or other form of unfaithfulness to God, but he does not. There are no qualifications placed upon the obedience to the master, for the master (the kurios) is Christ to the slave.
I Peter 2:18-21 goes even farther:
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
This emphasis upon obedience is paralleled in Romans 13:1-3 where Paul addresses all Christians and not just slaves:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
The attitude prescribed for slaves in other epistles, then, is urged upon all Christians in regard to civil authority. The governing powers are there only by the will of God; therefore, they must be obeyed both implicitly and explicitly. Unlike some of the Hebrew prophets who call down God’s judgment upon sinful rulers, and the Book of Revelation that pictures the Roman Empire as the whore of Babylon, Paul clearly believes that governing authorities are beyond human criticism. It is difficult to imagine how anyone living under the Caesars could have thought this. Jews, in particular, had long sought for political freedom from Rome and had revolted several times. Paul, however, is a radical anti-revolutionary. Everything happens according to God’s will; the Christian must accept that will and obey. One can very well understand why such a faith appealed to Constantine and his successors and why he, in fact if not in name. established Christianity as the religion of his empire. There is nothing an Emperor likes better than unrestrained obedience to his will.
This attitude of complete obedience characterizes the whole Christian economy. Again, I quote from Colossians:
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and never treat them harshly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. Col. 3:18-21
So, therefore, everyone’s life must be characterized by obedience. Slaves obey their masters; children obey their parents; wives obey their husbands; husbands obey the political authorities; the lower political authorities obey the higher ones; the highest authority, the Emperor, must obey God. Since God wills all things, all such obedience is obedience to him. In that sense, everyone is a slave to both God and the system he creates.
This use of the metaphor of slavery was by no means new. The Hebrew Scriptures, following the lead of Near Eastern religions in general, are full of the phrase “slaves (often translated as servants) of the Lord.” The Patriarchs, Moses, David, and many others are described this way. Israel knew herself as God’s ebed. Nevertheless, the New Testament transforms this emphasis, basing the whole idea upon the central events in the life of Jesus as they are related in the Gospels. Most significant is John’s retelling of the story of the Last Supper in which he describes Jesus washing the disciples feet.
And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciple’s feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. John 13:2-5 (RSV)
Foot washing was a task reserved for the douloi, even for the non-Jewish slaves. It was considered a very demeaning task that a free person would not willingly perform. Dressed with only a towel tied around his waist, and hence quite naked, Jesus performs the duties of a slave and, hence, reveals himself as a doulos. When Peter objects, Jesus tells him that unless he allows him to do this, Peter has no part in him. In other words, as the ideal human being, Jesus is a slave and therefore must serve others.
further reveals his obedience to both God and human authority later
that night. He knows that Judas is to betray him; he has plenty of
time to make his escape, but he does not do so. He allows himself to
be captured, submits to the religious and civil authorities, and does
nothing to defend himself during his trial. He is like a lamb led to
slaughter. He goes willingly, without protest, to die a demeaning
death, naked, upon a cross.
The book of Philippians interprets Jesus’ action:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios), to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11.
In a way, this short passage sums up the whole of Christian theology. What is this “mind” which Christians are to have in them? Presumably, to follow Jesus believers must be characterized by the mind of a slave. They must learn to be obedient, even “unto death” because the “human likeness” is found in servitude. The ideal Christian life is that of a slave who obeys without question. Just as Jesus does not claim equality with God so humans should not claim to be equal to their “betters.”
Perhaps that is the reason why Jesus teaches his disciples to give away their money (Matt, 19:16-24), to forsake, even hate, their kinsfolk, and to follow only him. (Luke 14:25ff). Although many slaves in the Greco-Roman world did own property, the implication is that true slaves have no family, no property, no money. They have only their obedience. Christians are called to be like that, attentive entirely to the will of Jesus, their lord (kurios).
This, of course, is the central paradox that the ideal slave, Jesus, has now become Master. Indeed, it would appear that the way to inherit the kingdom is to have his slave-mind. Then from a position of absolute weakness one can rise to a position of absolute power, for a master is, above all things, powerful. So the poor, the meek, the sorrowful are the blessed, (Matt. 5:3-5) for in the next world all values will be reversed. The hungry will receive good things while the rich will be sent away empty. (Luke 1:53) One can see therefore why this tradition was popular not only with rulers but with the oppressed lower classes and slaves. Indeed, the message is that the worst off you are today: the better off you will be tomorrow. One should rejoice in being poor, in being a slave, even in being abused because that assures a place of joy when the kingdom comes,
In a temporal sense, such obedience is relatively easy to understand. Slaves, like children, are to obey in all things. Wives must obey their husbands but can also be mistresses of their children and their slaves. They are both slaves and masters. The same is true of husbands who must obey the temporal lords but in turn can lord it over their wives and children and slaves. So, free people who have come of age are all images of Christ in that they are both douloi and kurioi. Even the Emperor who is the great Kurios of the age is also meant to be the doulos of God. Since children eventually grow into adulthood, only the actual slaves are only slaves, for they are lords of nothing. In the next world, however, the kingdom will be theirs. Perhaps that is why Paul urges them to stay as they are.
In the spiritual realm, the situation is trickier, for while the Emperor is a human being, exists in this world, and offers edicts to be obeyed, God himself is not in the world and does not usually speak to humans directly. How does one obey God when God does not show himself? The answer, of course, is that God has revealed himself in Jesus and it is to Jesus that one owes obedience. The problem, however, is that Jesus is apparently no more readily available today than God is. Therefore, one needs testimony about him from the earliest disciples to know what he commands. That criterion, however, soon began to become blurred as more and more gospels and epistles appeared that claimed to be by disciples but that did not agree with one another. The result was that the church had to put together a canon of works that it regarded as genuine and authoritative. This, obviously, became the New Testament of the Bible.
Even the Bible, however, was not sufficient, for neither the Old Testament nor the New is entirely self-consistent or clear about important matters. This lack of clarity soon became evident in the many theological squabbles that consumed the early church. So the church wrote creeds to make evident what the Scriptures “really” teach. These, in turn, demanded and demand interpretation by living authorities within the church: Priests, Bishops, Archbishops, and Popes.
Although Paul depended almost exclusively upon his own private visions of Jesus for his message, the church soon came to realize that obedience to “inner voices” or “feelings in the heart,” or “mystical visions” could be quite dangerous for the authoritarian structure that the church very soon became. Thus obedience came to entail obedience to the spiritual lords of the Church. Christians are to heed the teachings of ecclesiastical authorities in the same way that they are to heed the civil laws promulgated by the civil magistrate. In both realms they are to act as a slave acts, with perfect, if uncritical, obedience
A strong hint of this attitude is to be found in the first letter of Paul to Timothy. While describing the marks of a bishop the author says this:
He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way---for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? 1 Tim. 3:4-5
In other words, a bishop must know how to make people submit to him. Church members, like his children, must learn from him complete obedience.
Matthew 16:18-19 is a passage essential for this whole structure:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Thus it is the head of the Church as God’s earthly authority who not only ultimately interprets Scripture but has the power to bind and to loose both on earth and in heaven. Obedience to the church hierarchy is equivalent to obedience to Christ. It is the church that serves as a mediator of Christ to the obedient. Christ is known through the preaching of the Word and the partaking of the sacraments, that is, through activities controlled by the church hierarchy, for only the ordained clergy can preach and administer baptism and the eucharist. To be in Christ is to be in the Church and to be in the Church is to be obedient to the teachings and the demands of that Church. Thus one cannot separate the teachings of the Church from the institution of the Church; they are inseparable.
Parenthetically, this development is quite ironic for Jesus himself was very critical of ecclesiastical authorities, attacking repeatedly the scribes and Pharisees. Moreover, he says in Matthew 23:8-10.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--- the one in heaven. Neither be called instructors , for you have one instructor, the Messiah.
Still, Jesus reverts to the image of slavery when he adds,
The greatest among you will be your slave; all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matt. 23:11-12.
From the beginning, Christians like Paul identified themselves as douloi Christou Iesou, “slaves of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1). Christians are regularly so understood throughout the New Testament. Translators of the New Testament, however, perhaps aware that readers might find the word “slave” offensive, have regularly rendered doulos as servant, even though the primary, most accurate translation is “slave.” For instance, in the King James Version, the word slave, in the singular, does not occur in the New Testament even though doulos is used frequently in the Greek text.6 In the Revised Standard Version “slave” occurs thirty-two times, but even so, key passages still utilize “servant.” Softening the language, however, does not change the reality. Christianity is a form of slavery, not just to God in Christ, but to the civil and ecclesiastical institutions that it is believed God ordains.
There are, of course, some critical problems with the system of slave obedience outlined above. Indeed, it is strange that a tradition that has placed so much emphasis upon the sinful nature of humans would ever have considered any human a lord who legitimately requires obeisance. Clearly, there is tremendous danger that sinful temporal and spiritual lords will take advantage of Christian obedience and literally get away with murder---or at least child abuse. Blind obedience hardly provides a proper check to lordly misdoing in either the secular or the sacred realm. It is true that the threat of divine punishment may sometimes offer a modest deterrent to those in charge, but usually sinful inclinations have a way of overcoming the force of such future threats.
Another problem is that the lords temporal and the lords spiritual, who are supposed to complement each other, may not always agree. One thinks of the struggle between Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII in the 11th Century over the investiture of the clergy. Political and military power is great, but so is the papal power of excommunication, especially in a society imbued with the virtue of obedience. In any event, there have been times when the question of “Obedience to whom?” has become central and that question has the power to undermine the whole system.
Another problem with this system is that the Bible is a vast document containing many points of view and so it is relatively easy to point out disparities between what the church teaches and what the Bible, in certain places, says. That is the reason why, during much of Christian history, lay people were not encouraged to read the Bible at all but were strongly encouraged to leave such study to clerics. For the most part this strategy worked, but eventually monks like Martin Luther and then a whole host of others began reading the Bible and discovering vast discrepancies between what Scripture says and what the Church taught. These discoveries, of course, led to the Protestant Reformation.
In general the Protestant Reformers tried to preserve the old order of authority and obedience, though now with an attempt to “get the authority right.” Protestants regarded the Bible as the keystone in the arch of theology, as the Word of God, but they kept the various classical creeds as symbols of orthodox interpretation and added to them new Confessions that provided a Protestant reading of the ancient texts. It is not surprising, then, that the old external set of obediences as provided by Scripture was adhered to. For instance, the Scots Confession includes the following:
Therefore we confess and avow that those who resist the supreme powers, so long as they are acting in their own spheres, are resisting God’s ordinance and cannot be held guiltless.7
So likewise, the Second Helvetic Confession says:
Therefore let them (the subjects) honor and reverence the magistrate as the minister of God; let them love him, favor him, pray for him as their father; and let them obey all his just and fair commands.8
It is noteworthy that now the obedience required is qualified somewhat for by implication unjust and unfair commands may not merit obedience. Gradually, one can see a shifting in attitude. Still, it was under the Protestants that the doctrine of the divine right of kings became popular. Indeed, freedom from Rome entailed a growing nationalistic spirit and with it the exaltation of the secular authority. Moreover, the secular hierarchy remained more-or-less intact. In England, the King still ruled, serving even as the head of the Church. Lords and ladies, the elite “betters,” dominated society, but every free male of age came to be called Mister (e.g. master). This nomenclature is paralleled by the German Herr, the French Monsieur (my lord), and the Spanish Señor (lord). Women were considered subordinate to men, though they were also mistresses (Miss, Mrs.) in so far as they ruled the children (who should be seen but not heard) and the servants and slaves.
The spiritual hierarchy was truncated, for the Pope no longer ruled, but among Anglicans and many Lutherans bishops retained much of their authority. Calvinists did away with the office of bishop but presbyteries were “but bishops writ large” and the preacher was regarded as having divine authority, actually communicating God’s Word directly to the Christian community.
The Second Helvetic Confession says this about preaching:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven; and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister who preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good. 9
What this means is that once a minister is ordained and thus represents the Church, what he says from the pulpit is the direct communication from God even if he is desperately evil! His authority rests in the ordination; the believer must accept what he says simply because he has said it. Intellectual slavery to the ecclesia certainly did not die with the Protestant Reformation.
Among Protestants, “faith” tended to replace “obedience” as the normative word, but, in fact, faith, as it was understood, entailed primarily intellectual obedience. In general, the “burgher mentality” of Protestantism would not have taken kindly to the notion of becoming “slaves,” but the churches still demanded careful acquiescence to the teachings of the church. In fact, because the Protestant Reformation was based upon a theological protest, the intellectual obedience demanded was quite exacting.
Eventually, as a new vision of humanity, born out of the Enlightenment, dawned, the whole structure of obedience began to collapse. The Bible by itself proved to be of dubious authority for its many voices spawned a variety of sects that the national established churches tried valiantly to suppress but could not. Biblical criticism gradually began to undercut the authority of Scripture as more and more questions were raised about authenticity of authorship and text, original meaning, and canonical formation. Moreover, the discovery of the New World meant that a growing number of settlers experienced life without the venerable, well-established hierarchies of the Old World. A new sort of democracy without the authorities of king, lord, and archbishop began to develop. The structures of obedience were in jeopardy as churches began to become more democratic.
The struggle against slavery was all a part of that crumbling, for, in a sense, the old slave order was an important ingredient in Christian culture. Lordship logically demands the obedience of the slave. The ideal form of human life, said the old tradition, is to be a slave. To be fully obedient, as only a slave can be, is the key to the kingdom. Protestantism did not overtly teach this any more and certainly did not idealize to the life of servitude, but there was a strong sense that old values were crumbling and somehow the old social order, as revised by Protestants, had to be preserved.10
Democratic egalitarianism, with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, however, was too much for the old order and slavery finally collapsed, though the oppression of the freed blacks and other ethnic minorities continued unabated. Curiously, it took several more decades for the repression of women to be even partially overcome. It is shocking to imagine that women could not vote in America until 1920.i In any event, the whole culture of Lord and Slave, of radical, servile obedience now appears curiously bizarre, like some barbaric practice from a far off savage land. It is sobering to remember, however, that it was not just some minor and dispensable feature of the old faith but quite central to the whole Christian message as it is found in the Bible and as it was developed in the early church.
This, in fact, is the main point to be made. Authoritarianism with its hierarchy of lords spiritual and temporal is not some later medieval addition to Christianity but is clearly articulated in the New Testament itself. To accept the Bible as the Word of God is to accept a highly authoritarian structure for the church and society and the required “slave-mind” which such authority implies. To discard that structure is to “pick and choose” among the teachings of the Bible and thus have no authority at all.
The Roman Catholic Church saw the dangers to the faith that the new democratic spirit entailed and therefore issued in 1864 the Syllabus of Errors that condemns all forms of modernism and liberalism. In 1870 there followed the proclamation of papal infallibility. Many Protestant Churches, however, believed that one could combine Biblical authority and the new spirit of democracy. Thus many features of the Biblical hierarchy were demolished. In particular, the equality of men and women was acknowledged and the ordination of women eventually approved.
The question remains as to whether Christianity can (or should) genuinely survive without the authoritarian structure prescribed by the Bible. The real problem for belief in Christianity today is not the miracles; there are many examples from modern times of people who have experienced dramatic cures or who have heard voices or seen visions. There have been attested examples of people who have seemingly died and then come back to life again. Given what scientists are discovering about the nature of the universe, nothing seems particularly surprising any more.
The real question is whether the old metaphor of Lord and Slave works or should work any more. Certainly it does not seem at all appropriate to think of a President or a CEO or a husband as kurios, as a representative of God on earth. Nor is it seem appropriate to think of a citizen or a wife or the neighborhood handyman as doulos. One of the major roles of the bishop is as pastor, a word that comes from the Greek word for shepherd. Therefore bishops carry a crook to symbolize their pastoral role in the church. Is it, however, really appropriate any longer to think of Christians as just tractable and obedient sheep whose task in life is to obey the shepherd? Are we really to believe that the bishop or the pastor is so much wiser and spiritual than the rest of his “flock”? Since we are, by and large, trying to rid ourselves of earthly kurioi, is it even appropriate to think of God as Lord?
Christianity has long promised freedom from the dark lords of the world through an act of radical commitment and obedience to God as known in Jesus Christ. That promise still attracts millions today. Indeed, the power of Christianity seems to lie in its claims to absolute authority. That is doubtless why the churches that exert that authority (one thinks not only of Roman Catholicism but the various forms of Protestant fundamentalism) are the ones that seem to be prospering. Those churches that have tried to combine a democratic form of government and Biblical authority are the ones that are declining most rapidly. There is some truth to the old adage that one cannot put new wine in old wineskins. Either one retains the old authoritarian structure or adopts the new democratic vision in which equality and a commitment to truth wherever it may be found predominate. It is difficult to see how one can have both.
My question is this: Is it not better to think of spiritual commitment as a commitment to a search for truth and enlightenment rather than to some exacting Lord who in times past laid down a variety of contradictory rules and regulations that are sometimes quite impossible to obey? Is not it wiser to emphasize rather than deplore the intelligence and independence of the human spirit? I do not mean to imply by this that humans, through reason and experience, can arrive at sure and certain spiritual truths. The riddle of life is not so easy to answer. In the face of the human enigma, however, should anyone, to circumvent the difficulty, seek to develop the mind of a slave?
The Christian response, I am sure, would be that, by definition, God is the Lord of the Universe and thus it is absolutely appropriate to obey him in all things. To fail to do so is to be severed from the very source of existence. My question in response is: must one obey the church and civil authorities to obey God? And if not, how is it possible to know what it is God wills? The usual answer is that the truth is in the Bible, but clearly that book takes so many different positions on key issues that it is surely not an undebatable authority. Moreover, why is it so obvious that one should listen to the Bible rather than the Gita, the Dao De Jing, or the Koran? Was not Frederick Nieztsche correct when he argued that Christianity represents a slave mentality that modern humans must throw off in their search for a higher form of spiritual life?
It is true that the obedience of a slave may undercut individual egotism, that, to be sure, can be a source of all sorts of anti-social behavior, but what is suppressed in the individual returns greatly magnified in the corporate egotism manifest in both church and state. Nazism probably never would have arisen had the German people not been taught that civil authorities are ordained by God and, therefore, should be obeyed. The sexual abuse of children in Christian churches also probably would not have occurred so often had priests not been thought to have such absolute authority over their “flocks.” To grant ultimate authority to anything human, and that includes both the Bible and the church hierarchy, seems to me to be a form of idolatry. Such idolatry has led to inquisitions and pogroms, wars and humiliations, sexism, racial suppression, and indeed to many of the woes that haunt humanity.
These, I believe, are serious questions that contemporary Christians (and indeed Jews and Muslims as well) must face head-on. In this post-modern, egalitarian, multi-cultural world in which Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews live side-by-side with other believers and non-believers and in which all humans are accepted, or at least should be accepted, as having equal rights and value, is it possible any longer to maintain the views of authority and lordship that have dominated Christianity as well as the other Abrahamic religions up to the present?
1 This work is largely an attack upon the famous anti-slavery essay written by William Ellery Channing.
2 E.N. Elliott, Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments with an Essay on Slavery in the light of International Law by the Editor (Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis: 1860), p. 870.
3 Or “are slaves of”
4 Except when otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
5 I owe this insight to Professor Bernadette Brooten. See Thomas Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (Baltinmre, Md.:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) pp.45ff, 179., 225ff. See also William L. Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1955) pp.118-120.
6 The word “slaves” is used once in Revelation 18:13.
7 The Book of Confessions, Part I of the Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Office of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America: 1967), 3.24.
8 Ibid. 5.256.
9 Ibid. 5.004
10 It is interesting that Hodge, a primary spokesman for American Protestantism, not only did not attack the suppression of women but also accepted the notion that a wife is her husband’s property. Elliott, op.cit. p.866, He wrote, apparently without regret “In this country we believe that the general good requires us to deprive the whole female sex of the right of self-government. They have no voice in the formulation of laws which dispose of their persons and property. When married we despoil them almost entirely of a legal existence, and deny them some of the most essential rights of property.” Ibid. p. 863.