Friday, September 25, 2009

I thought I would post another blog in this random series before the weekend! It promises to be a busy weekend with a large wedding on top of various other activities.

I am also preaching on Sunday. The Gospel reading this week picks up on last week's reading about Jesus' using a child as an example of discipleship. The point of what Jesus is saying is not so much that we should welcome children (which, of course, we should), but that we should be more like them as his followers. The immediate occasion in Mark's Gospel of this teaching was the disciples argument over who was the greatest amongst them. becoming a child then means rejecting the search for power, position, and prestige that is all too common in our Churches.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope you have a very good weekend!

2. Using the Bible in Ethics: Whence the Themes?

It is over 200 years since the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Many in the Church have rejoiced that the heroes in getting it abolished were people like John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who became an Anglican priest, and the so-called Clapham sect, a group of evangelical Christians including Wilberforce. Newton also wrote, of course, the hymn, Amazing Grace, after which the 2006 film about the abolition of the slave trade is named.

It is important to remember that the abolitionists didn't just campaign for slaves to be treated more humanely. They campaigned for an end to the slave trade and of slavery itself. They are often portrayed as people who on the basis of their study of the Bible campaigned against something that the Bible taught them was wrong. As Dr Richard Burridge points out, however, the Bible teaches no such thing. Certainly the Bible would not encourage cruelty and the sort of conditions slaves were kept in, but, if anything, it can be said to support the institution of slavery itself.

One of the first things that happened after the flood was for Noah to make his grandson a slave (Genesis 9:25-27). Abraham, the father of all who believe, is blessed by God with slaves. Exodus and Leviticus provide for slaves and how they should be treated (Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25) and the New Testament makes no effort to challenge the social and economic system of slavery upon which the Roman Empire was based.

I have heard Tom Wright argue that Paul in his letter to Philemon placed a time bomb under the institution of slavery. All I can say is that if he did, then it took a long time for it to go off: 18 centuries to be precise, during which time the Church and prominent Christians in it had slaves themselves. It perhaps needs to be remembered that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon and in 1 Corinthians 7 urges Christians to stay in the state in which they were called.

It is true that Paul tells masters to treat their slaves fairly, but he orders slaves to obey their masters 'as they obey Christ' (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25). In Titus, slaves are told that they are to be submissive so that they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour (Titus 2:9-10). The attitude to slaves in Paul is repeated in Peter who goes even further telling them to obey their masters not only when they are kind and gentle, but also when they are harsh. Furthermore, they are to accept pain, seeing it as being to their credit, if they suffer it unjustly (1 Peter 2:18-19).

The abolitionists were undoubtedly good, honest men who acted from the best of motives, but the way they use their Bibles to justify their beliefs is a long way from the way it is often used by many of those who see them as their spiritual heroes. Quite simply, the text of the Bible seems to offer support to slave owners not to abolitionists. As with women's ordination, it can, of course, be argued that the thrust of the Bible's teaching is against slavery: it's just that no-one in the Bible seems to think that it is.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that with slavery as with women's ordination beliefs reached on other grounds are being used as the basis for subtracting themes from the Bible that otherwise wouldn't have been seen. And that the themes so reached are then being used in a way that appears to contradict the actual text of the Bible itself.

I am not arguing that it is necessarily wrong to reach conclusions about what is right and wrong on the basis of convictions arrived at from sources other than the Bible, just that we need to be honest that this is what we are doing.

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