Below is the fourth post from Pastor Bob in an ongoing blog series designed to help Christians think through the issue of homosexuality in a careful and Biblical way. For more on the reason for this series, click here.
Question 4: If you are going to condemn homosexuality as a sin, shouldn’t you follow the Bible and also approve slavery?
Very frequently in the discussion about same-sex marriage, people will draw a comparison between homosexuality and slavery. The idea is that even though the Bible allegedly presents slavery as morally acceptable, Christians have nonetheless revised their position on the issue to keep up with a more enlightened modern culture. So, even though the Bible presents homosexuality as morally unacceptable, shouldn’t Christians get in line with progress and revise their position on this issue too? Given the changes in our culture, it’s just as ludicrous for a Christian to condemn homosexuality as it is to condone slavery. That’s how the argument goes.
There are four responses to the attempt to draw such a tight connection between the two:
1) The Biblical response. There is a huge difference in the Bible between the way slavery is regarded and the way homosexuality is regarded. The Bible presents heterosexuality, not homosexuality, as the ideal and preferred state of affairs in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world. There is no slavery in the Garden, however. It enters the picture later, after sin has entered into the world, and always as something undesirable. Heterosexuality is part of God’s design for human flourishing – slavery is not.
Various passages continue this basic idea. In Jer. 34:8-16, God gives specific instructions to set the Hebrew slaves free, “so that they would be not enslaved again.” The people followed the instructions to begin with, but then changed their mind and took back the slaves they had set free. In response, God issues a rebuke for this action because it had “profaned my name.” In Rev. 18:10-13, the wicked city of Babylon is condemned for its many sins, one of which was to treat human beings as cargo. In Luke 4:18, Jesus cites Is. 61:1 as a way of describing his mission to “proclaim release to the captives” and to “set free those who are oppressed.”
In all of these passages, slavery is being pictured as something negative, something from which people should be released, and not something to be endorsed or celebrated.
And then consider the exodus, one of the major historical events in the entire Old Testament. What was it about? A gracious and powerful act of God by which he freed his people from slavery. This key event is a type of the Gospel itself, which is often described in terms of freedom: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). “Live as people who are free” (1 Peter 2:16). Most astonishing of all is that this freedom was made possible because God in the person of Jesus took the form of a slave for us (Phil. 2:5-11).
Granted, the Bible acknowledges slavery as a common cultural practice of the time, and sometimes gives instruction for how a believer should live in light of that cultural reality, without calling for its eradication, but that is very different from condoning or recommending slavery.
So, the Bible consistently and clearly presents slavery in a negative light. Christians have interpreted the Bible wrongly on this issue (see #2), but the passages just cited have always been in the Bible. They were not added later to keep up with modern times. When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, however, the Bible simply has nothing positive to say. To revise one’s opinion in favor of homosexuality is to go against what the Bible says; to revise one’s opinion in opposition to slavery is to get one’s views in line with what the Bible has always said.
2) The historical response. As I just mentioned, it is indeed true that some, even many, Christians have sadly endorsed slavery throughout history. With great lament and regret Christians should frankly acknowledge this as the truth.
However, it has never been the unanimous position of the church that slavery should be acceptable. In fact, many Christians have fought against slavery, most notably William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade in England in the early 1800s. Kevin DeYoung lists Saith Bathilde, Saint Anskar, Thomas Aquinas, Pope Eugene IV and the Puritan Samuel Sewall as other notable Christians who also waged battles against slavery in their particular times and places.
In stark contrast, it has always been the unanimous position of the church that homosexual practice is wrong, and previous to our current time, there are exactly zero examples of anyone like a William Wilberforce fighting for the normalization of homosexuality in the church or in any society. (see this article for more information on the practice of slavery in church history).
3) The cultural response. It should be noted that the kind of slavery practiced in the Greco-Roman culture during New Testament times was different than the slavery that has been practiced in American history. By no means does this excuse the slavery that was practiced in either period, but it is a caution against making a one-to-one correlation between the two.
According to Paul Copan in his highly recommended book, Is God a Moral Monster? about 85 percent of Rome’s population consisted of slaves. By no means were the lives of those slaves ideal, but they did enjoy certain freedoms, such as the ability to start businesses, to earn their own money and to own private property (p. 151). The kind of slavery in view in the Bible is culturally different than the kind of slavery that was practiced in our nation’s history.
So it should be acknowledged that the Bible does not endorse the kind of injustice suffered by African-Americans in this country. Furthermore, it is simply inappropriate to link the fight waged by homosexuals for same-sex marriage in this country with the fight waged by African-Americans for freedom and justice in this country.
4) The theological response. One of the most egregious aspects of slavery is the underlying assumption that some people are of less worth than others, which is totally antithetical to Christian teaching. The cherished notion that “all men are created equal” is a Christian idea. Luc Ferry, a non-Christian philosopher at the University of Paris, wrote this: “The Greek city-state was founded on slavery. In direct contradiction, Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”
Every human being has been created in God’s image, and among Christians, “there is neither slave nor free man,” according to Gal. 3:28. Certainly one of the reasons why Christianity was so appealing to slaves in America is not because they thought the Bible was pro-slavery, but because in the Bible they found the liberating doctrine that people of all skin colors have been crowned with glory by their Creator, and that Jesus’ blood was shed for people from “every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9).
The Bible’s teaching on the equality and inherent dignity of all the races is clear and unambiguous. And the Bible’s teaching on the equality and inherent dignity of heterosexual and homosexual persons is clear and unambiguous. But there is nothing in the Bible that suggests the equality of heterosexual activity with homosexual activity. The latter is contrary to God’s will and design; the former is the path to wholeness and human flourishing.
Bottom line: the Bible teaches, and has always taught, that homosexuality is wrong, just as the Bible teaches, and has always taught, that slavery is wrong as well.