By Taylor Carr | 3 May 2015
The Godless Skeptic
An author at Cracked has recently written up a nice list of 5 Stories Everyone Assumes Are In The Bible (But Aren’t). There are quite a few such lists circulating on the web, but part of what I like about this Cracked article is that it features more prominent and believable myths about the Bible, whereas other articles may tend to focus on sayings or colloquialisms that, in my experience, few people actually do confidently take to be found in scripture. In addition, some of the material that makes it onto certain lists is only missing from the Bible verbatim, though it is expressed in other ways. For example, a CNN blog post by John Blake claims that “God works in mysterious ways” is a phrase not found in the Bible, but comes from a 19th century hymn. While this is technically true, it’s not hard to see how a passage like Romans 11:33 can be the inspiration behind such a phrase, where it says of god, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (NRSV) Inscrutable ways sounds pretty darn close enough to mysterious ways, I would say.
I think the real point in explaining what misconceptions we have about the Bible (or about anything, for that matter) should be in giving us pause for thought and causing us to re-examine our beliefs. This probably won’t be accomplished by calling attention to things that are indirectly, and not explicitly, mentioned in scripture. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t want to mislead others in what we say, no matter where we fall in accepting or rejecting claims to biblical authority. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to present a list of my own, one with the opposite focus of the Cracked article, on some of the things people say are not in the Bible, but which actually are. For each of these, I will try to source the initial statement (what’s allegedly not in the Bible) and justify why it is.
5. The Bible Doesn’t Say Divorce is Wrong
Divorce is often an unpleasant outcome of unpleasant circumstances in a relationship, and on top of this is the further exasperating question confronting many Bible-believing Christians: is divorce a sin? They may hear it affirmed by their fellow church-goers, by friends, and even by family. On the other hand, there are also those who insist that divorce is not a sin, like Lorraine Day, author of an article, What Does Jesus Say About Divorce and Remarriage? Why is divorce not sinful? “The best example is that of God Himself,” writes Day. “God admits that He is a divorcee” (see Jeremiah 3:8). If it was not sinful for god to divorce Israel, how can divorce be sinful for us?
Curiously absent from Day’s article is any reference to Malachi 2:16, where god says unequivocally, “I hate divorce.” In addition to hating fags, figs, shellfish, and a lot of other things, god apparently also hates divorce. But if he hates it so much, why did he divorce Israel? Some explanation can be found in the surrounding context. Verse 14 reveals that god was witness to Israel’s unfaithfulness. Jeremiah 3:8 makes this same suggestion, noting that even after god divorced Israel, Judah was not afraid, but still went and “played the whore.” Thus, marital infidelity seems to have been god’s reason for leaving Israel – a metaphorical way of saying that the Israelites strayed from Yahweh and worshiped other gods.
In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus makes one exception for divorce. “I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Here we find a possible distinguishing factor that explains why god’s divorce of Israel was not sinful. Israel was knockin’ boots with other nation’s gods. Yet in Mark 10:2-9 divorce seems to be ruled out altogether:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus claims that because god created husband and wife to be joined as one, they are not to be separated. Previous provisions for divorce were only given because of the people’s insistence (which is kind of a funny capitulation for the creator of the universe, if you think about it; whiny children getting their way from old dad). How does this fit with Matthew 5:31-32, cited above? One answer may be that even while Jesus says that divorcing someone for unchastity is not adultery, the real point is not that divorce is acceptable in that instance, but that such an unchaste person is already guilty of adultery! This is perhaps made more plausible by the fact that the passage comes on the heels of the teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:27-30.
Of course, this still faces the problem of contextualizing god’s divorce. But the situation may be different for god for a couple reasons. First of all, god can drown hundreds of people in a flood, firebomb Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet we’re commanded not to murder. What’s right for god isn’t necessarily right for us, the argument could go (or else there’d be a lot more discarded foreskins in the world). Second, it seems pretty clear we’re not talking about divorce in the same sense for both cases. One involves two people supposedly preordained to be together, while the other involves god’s covenant with a nation. It might be sensible to say that we shouldn’t destroy what god has brought about, but I’m doubtful most Christians would say that god is eternally obligated to honor a covenant even when others are unfaithful. Doesn’t being the creator of a contract entitle one to a bit of leeway? The difference is that, according to scripture, god creates the contracts for married couples in advance, so if he says they stick together, then that’s that.
Nonetheless, god does say he hates divorce, and Jeremiah 3:8 makes it seem like he wasn’t especially happy about divorcing Israel. Passages like Malachi 2:16 and Mark 10:2-9 strongly suggest that divorce is against god’s wishes, and that it should not be seen as a “conditional contract” as Day describes it in her article. Even though 1 Corinthians 7 is often referenced as supporting divorce in some circumstances, it also says in verses 10-11 that “the wife should not separate from her husband” and “the husband should not divorce his wife.” It’s difficult to imagine how something which god hates, and Jesus teaches against, could be interpreted as ‘not really wrong’ on any worldview that prides itself on taking the Bible as authoritative.
Then again, there are a lot of ministers who don’t seem to have read the warning against offending little ones in Matthew 18:6.
4. The Bible Doesn’t Say to Obey the Government
In an article provocatively titled, Should Christians Obey Criminal Government?, David J. Stewart attempts to defend civil disobedience from a biblical perspective. Amidst a sea of paranoid conspiratorial remarks about the New World Order and Communism, Stewart states that “when a government is run amuck with crime, tyranny and injustice, we are not Biblically obligated to submit anymore.” Railing against abortion, pornography, alcohol, fornication, and gambling, he subtly affirms that American Christians are not prohibited by their beliefs from rising up against the US government.
However, the passage quoted at the beginning of Stewart’s rant poses a significant problem for his position. Romans 13:1 says (in the KJV here, since Stewart is a KJV fetishist), “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Note the last sentence. There is no power but of god, and the powers that be are ordained by god. It won’t do to act like this only applied in Paul’s time when Stewart treats all scripture as applicable to modern times. Even so, David tries to weasel out of things by referring to verse 3 of the chapter: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” This, he argues, means that Christians only need to obey good governments. And, of course, good governments just so happen to include only those governments that receive the David Stewart Seal of Holy Hysterical Approval.
Consider what the government of Paul’s time was like when he wrote Romans 13. The Epistle to the Romans has been dated to the late 50s, when Nero was emperor of Rome. Though there are reports of Nero torturing and executing Christians during his reign, these seem to come later, after the Great Fire of Rome around 64 CE. Still, there is reason to believe Paul was aware of the corruption of the Roman government when he wrote Romans 13. The Acts of the Apostles tells of a number of objectionable aspects of Rome in the eyes of early Christians, including Herod Agrippa I’s claim to divinity (12:21-23), Drusilla ditching her husband for Antonius Felix (24:24-26), and it hints at Agrippa II’s rumored incestuous affair with Berenice (25:13,23). Many of the things in Stewart’s moral tirade against the US were going on in ancient Rome too, yet Paul was able to advise his fellow Christians to submit to the Roman authorities. It doesn’t look as if Paul considered them too evil to be obeyed.
It’s also worth noting that Paul is not the only New Testament author to encourage obedience. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, we read the following:
For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Scholars typically place 1 Peter around the end of the 1st century, during the reign of Domitian, who was regarded as a tyrant by ancient historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, and was alleged to have persecuted both Christians and Jews. So how could the writer of 1 Peter urge his readers to “Honor the emperor”? The logic of this follows from the example of Christ, according to verses 21-23:
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. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
Did the Roman government do wrong in executing Jesus, an innocent man? Part of what makes Jesus’ silence before his accusers so admirable is that he was not guilty. We wouldn’t find it particularly commendable for a guilty man to refuse to speak, especially if his word might incriminate him. 1 Peter 2 drives this point home, that despite the intentions of Rome, Jesus trusted god and did not resist. Paul says something like this in another way, observing that since all things are from, through, and for god (Romans 11:36), the logical consequence of this is that all governing authorities are instituted by god. This would have to include corrupt and evil governments. Otherwise, the implication is that god either had no ability to stop their rise to power, or he had no desire to do so, in which case it’s hard to see how god was not willfully allowing a corrupt/evil government into a place of authority. And come on, god just let Canada exist even though they gave us Celine Dion. He is not a good god.
Stewart says in his article that to teach that Christians cannot rebel against any government is to “condemn America’s founding father’s [sic], who if they hadn’t revolted, there would be no America today.” In fact, this raises an important point, because even the biblical passages that appear to sanction civil disobedience only do so under very specific circumstances. Moses led the exodus after receiving a direct order from god. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to an idol and were sent to a furnace where an angel delivered them. Herod asked the three magi to tell him where the infant Jesus was, and they did not do so. Two of these involve peaceful protest and at least one involves a face-to-face divine revelation. It’s questionable how comparable these are to any situations today or 300 years ago, but note that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not said to resist being led to the furnace. There is nothing in scripture that is even remotely analogous to an armed rebellion against England on the grounds of unfair taxation, quartering of soldiers, and so forth. Fortunately for us in America, some of our most active founders, like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, were not Christians, and even held a well-known disdain for Christianity in their day (see Paine’s The Age of Reason and the Jefferson Bible).
So why do some passages seem to make it okay for Christians to disobey their rulers? One explanation is that these passages come from different people living at different times who held different views on the issue. It’s still true that Paul and the author of 1 Peter both instruct obedience to governing authorities, even if other texts do not. The question at this point becomes about what gets more weight in the Bible, which is too massive a subject to cover here. Another explanation might have to do with the nature of the different documents. Romans and 1 Peter are clearly written with the intent of advising other Christians on how to live. The stories in Exodus, Daniel, and the birth narrative of Matthew, however, are not written as instructional, their focus is on events and persons and places. Sometimes there may be moral lessons in the stories, but not every passage has them and the ones that do can involve careful exegesis. In the cases mentioned, there is no suggestion that these should serve as across-the-board examples of how everyone everywhere should behave. If these stories are not meant to give guidance on how to interact with government rulers, then they have been misinterpreted.
In sum, it may be true that the Bible as a whole doesn’t say to just give up, give in, and accept whatever asshole is in charge, being grateful, like Hobbes, that you’re no longer burdened by all that awful freedom you used to have before tyranny came to town. There are instances in scripture of people asserting their right to their faith in spite of government prohibitions. On the other hand, Romans 13:1 offers a tough problem on all this. If god is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he has set some sort of plan in motion, why doesn’t this include the worldly powers that come to be? And if it does, then isn’t it fighting against god’s plan to disobey the rulers he has chosen?
3. The Bible Doesn’t Support Redistribution of Wealth
This one is a favorite point of argument between politically liberal and conservative Christians. Many argue that the concern for social justice that is found in much of the Bible should be taken as support for governmental policies intended to help the poor and disadvantaged. Others, like Baptist seminary professor Craig Mitchell, claim that free markets are “far more compatible with biblical Christianity,” whereas the redistribution of wealth is theft born out of the sin of covetousness.
As seen above, though, the Bible contains commands to honor and obey governing authorities, and it’s not at all clear that such commands are meant to be ‘suspended’ whenever one’s political opposition comes into power with a different take on economics. There is indeed a lot of teaching on social justice in the Bible, too, which seems like it should be regarded as more than just an optional, personal decision for Christians. The author of the Epistle of James writes:
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:5-7)
Ask a good number of conservative American Christians about the poor and you’re likely to get an answer more in line with 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Contrary to James, the poor are not “chosen” by god, but are where they are in life because of their own bad decisions. However, the 2 Thessalonians passage is referring to the treatment of church members who had become “busybodies” in the author’s day, being idle rather than working for the good of the community. In fact, rather than conflicting with the admonition in James 2, this seems to fit well with what the writer of that letter says elsewhere, that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) Those in the church who are more interested in looking out for number one than in caring for others and living the faith they’ve been taught have a “worthless” religion, says James.
The real kicker comes in Acts 4, where we learn about how the early Christian community saw wealth and possessions. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” reads verse 32, “and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” You can see this going over well with Americans who fear Obama taking their guns. Of course, when a church is stockpiling guns, you tend to call it a cult. “There was not a needy person among them,” verse 34 continues, “for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Wait just a minute. The early Christians had a communal fund where goods were given to each according to their need??! That kind of thinking is straight out of Marx! Yet Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, claims that Acts 4 describes a communal giving that was entirely voluntary. “These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily,” he says. Weeeeeell, there’s just one problem with that.
Immediately following the verses in Acts 4 already mentioned, we get the cheery tale of Ananias and Sapphira. The couple sells some of their property, but “kept back some of the proceeds,” only giving the disciples a portion of what they made. Do the disciples, being good free market capitalists, just stand for this? Do they wag the finger at Ananias and Sapphira, but otherwise let them be? Not quite.
“Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. (Acts 5:3-5)
Ouch. Shortly after this, Sapphira is brought in, also lies about what the two contributed, and falls down dead just like her husband. Somehow this is all voluntary, according to Lindsley, probably in the same way that accepting Jesus at the threat of eternal damnation is a “voluntary” decision.
Now, there’s something to be said for the passages thus far cited only having to do with Christians and Christian communities. There isn’t any direct encouragement that these ideas be adopted into government policies. But part of the problem with using this detail to dismiss any pro-redistribution argument based on scripture is that a large number of these same conservative American Christians believe the United States was founded on Christian principles. While I disagree with this view, it still implies that there’s nothing really wrong with establishing a nation on biblical teachings, which in turn would mean that there’s hardly a good reason to see Acts 4-5 as inappropriate for national policy. Modern American Christians may have a tough time swallowing this because they’ve grown up accustomed to capitalism, but other American Christians of the past were not so sold, including Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a well known Christian Socialist.
A lot of Christians like to point out that the Bible never says money is the root of all evil, it only says “the love of money” is (1 Timothy 6:10). Though this is true, it kinda misses the point. Earning money may not be an evil in itself, but there is something fundamentally askew about professing a firm belief in a religious figure who said the way to eternal life is to sell all you have and give to the poor (Luke 18:18-25), and insisting that social programs are wrong in asking that we give some of what we have to help others. It seems very much like there is a whole lot of money-loving going on there, one might even call it coveting.
But just wait for the next edition of the NIV, where translators will suddenly remember that what Jesus actually said was, “sell some of what you have and give to the poor, but don’t forget that you earned that money yourself and you’re damn well entitled to it!” They can call it the Bootstraps Edition.
2. The Bible Doesn’t Condemn Homosexuality
Frankly, this opinion is one that surprises me by the ground it keeps gaining these days. As already seen, we know that the god of the Bible hates a lot of things, including competition (Exodus 20:3), divorce, and withholding money from his communal fund. We also know that this guy isn’t exactly tolerant of certain groups, such as wizards (Leviticus 19:31 – God hates Gandalf!), cross-dressers (Deuteronomy 22:5), or even people of other religious views (Deuteronomy 13:6-8). Christians today tend to be a bit more accepting, by and large, and it’s widely recognized that although the Bible has much to say about the inferiority of women (1 Corinthians 11:3-9, 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Peter 3:1, etc.), we have since moved on in our views about sex and gender. It would make plenty of sense that the Bible also has an antiquated outlook on homosexuality, yet some liberal Christians, like John Shore of the Not All Like That project, maintain that there is no scriptural condemnation for it. “Reconciling the Bible with unqualified acceptance and equality for LGBT people,” writes Shore, “does not necessitate discounting, recasting, deconstructing or reinterpreting the Bible.”
This reconciliation may prove somewhat challenging, though, when the Bible includes such loving teachings as Leviticus 20:13:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Or how about Romans 1:26-28:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
In verse 32, Paul affirms the Old Testament instruction in Leviticus, saying “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” This makes it a bit hard to picture Paul as one of those “I have gay friends” types of homophobes.
To be fair, there’s a lot that can be said about these two passages. Neither specifically commands Christians to hate or marginalize gay people anymore than passages denouncing adultery command Christians to hate or marginalize adulterers. In fact, just three verses before the verse on homosexuality in Leviticus, the Bible orders that adulterers be put to death. Yet for some reason (maybe having to do with the fear of difference) there is far more attention given to how the church and society should treat homosexuals than there is with respect to the treatment of those engaged in adultery. Of course, adultery is still a harsh contrast. Remember that this god guy also isn’t a fan of wizards, cross-dressers, or pretty much anyone who doesn’t accept his narrow standards of behavior. It’s kind of like worrying over pleasing the dictatorial principal at your high school. No kissing in the halls!
On the other hand, it seems fairly obvious that if the Bible calls something “an abomination,” and declares that those who participate in it are worthy of death, then it’s kinda, sorta, maybe, actually condemning it. We aren’t talking about the fun abominations here, either, like cleverly swapping out a president’s last name for the first five letters of the word, we’re talking about the kind that apparently anger the biblical god. And if you’ve ever read about the biblical god, you know he’s no one you want to piss off. Get him all riled up and he’s bound to delight in some pretty nasty ways of exacting his vengeance, like dashing your infant children against rocks (Psalm 137:9).
Some argue over what the Bible means by its depiction of same-sex relations, claiming that it only forbids non-consensual gay sex or something like the pederasty of the ancient Greeks. Others draw attention to the fact that Jesus never really says a word on homosexuality in any book of the New Testament. However, even if technically true, these constitute arguments from silence rather than serving to vindicate a biblical position that’s positive towards homosexuality. For example, it’s a tricky matter to suggest that because many biblical passages imply an antiquated view of women as property, we can dispense with all the verses on female inferiority; for if the authors had only had our view of women, they never would have said what they said. The problem is that the ancient writers didn’t have our view of women, and we are not really in any good position to estimate what they would have believed under (radically) different circumstances.
Hard as it may be to swallow (hey now, get your mind out of the gutter), the Bible is quite rabidly homophobic. Christians who oppose gay marriage may insist that it’s not, but calling same-sex tomfoolery abominable is about as homophobic as it is when you see those friendly people waving their oddly colorful signs preaching bigoted intolerance. In Romans 1:26-32, Paul not only says that gay attraction is a “degrading” passion, but he proceeds to associate homosexuals with every conceivable sort of evil from envy and folly to murder and hatred of god. Ironically, chapter 2 turns around to warn: “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (v. 1). And, of course, this eventually leads to the words in Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
So even while the Bible is pretty explicitly against homosexuality, it is also pretty explicitly against the kind of self-righteousness that leads sinful people to pass judgment on the sins of others (see Matthew 7:1-5 especially). And as already noted, the Bible seems to regard almost anything and everything as a sin. There’s probably even something in there that can be taken to show how awful a sin it is to engage in the witchery of reading script off lit diodes. We all fall short indeed of the glory of god’s holographic Heads Up Display. Perhaps the lesson in all this is to have a little humility, an appreciation for historical context, and a recognition that the times they are a-changin’.
1. The Bible is Not Pro-Slavery
It seems like a religion which teaches that we are all children of god, and tells us that god’s son came down to earth and paid the ultimate sacrifice to free us from sin, should be rather unambiguous in its opposition to inequality. Shouldn’t it? It seems like a religion that places a lot of value on caring for the poor and downtrodden should be blameless in its denunciation of oppression. It seems like a religion that has the exodus from Egypt as one of its most famous stories should be leading the march to end the subjugation and ownership of others. And this is how many Christians see the Bible when it comes to the uncomfortable issue of slavery. “The Bible condemns race-based slavery,” says an article at GotQuestions.org, “in that it teaches that all men are created by God and made in His image.”
Nonetheless, this bit of doctrine didn’t prevent the authors of the Torah from making several provisions for the buying and selling of slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46 encouraged the ancient Israelites to purchase slaves from other nations, or from among the foreigners in their own land, and to treat them as property that could even be part of the family inheritance. However, Israelites could also still be enslaved, though they were to be released after seven years (Exodus 21:1). Well, the males could be released. Females weren’t so lucky. Exodus 21:7-11 stipulates:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
Why such strict rules about when female slaves are freed? Surely, it has nothing to do with sex, right? We’ve all been assured that the Bible is the word of god, uncorrupted by those sorts of worldly interests. We make its stories into children’s books because we find them morally praiseworthy. And yet here we find it talking about how important it is that a slave pleases her master, how a daughter can be rightly sold into slavery by her own father (family values!). It seems like someone in the Holy Editing Room really should have caught that part.
But don’t worry! It’s all okay, because you see, slavery in biblical times wasn’t like slavery in the 19th century American South. “The key issue,” explains the GotQuestions article linked to above, “is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries.” This, of course, means it was A-OK for ancient Israelite dads to sell their daughters into slavery, where they would have had to toil and serve as the property of some other man for an inestimable amount of time. Because the worst thing about slavery is not the violation of human rights that comes in possessing another human being, it’s just the racial aspect to it that happens to have existed for a fraction of the time slavery has existed throughout the world.
The aforementioned article goes on to claim that a Christian acting like a Christian just will be against slavery, because they’ll recognize, like Paul, that even a slave is “a brother in the Lord.” Of course, in his letter to Philemon, Paul never instructs that Philemon’s slave Onesimus be set free. This is critical for interpreting what Paul means in a passage like Galatians 3:28, where it is said that, “there is no longer slave or free… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The focus is not on abolition, it’s on the idea that social status has nothing to do with how Christlike a person is. The New Testament also contains instruction for slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Timothy 6:1-2), even “those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18-21), which causes no small amount of problems for the notion that someone who is truly saved will be against slavery. Were the authors of these New Testament passages not saved? They certainly didn’t seem to see any conflict between professing faith in Jesus and accepting slavery.
In fact, this is exactly what is echoed in the pro-slavery arguments of many 19th century American Christians. In his 1857 writing, Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh defended American slavery by emphasizing the general need for slavery, even a form not based on race: “if white slavery be morally wrong, be a violation of natural rights, the Bible cannot be true.” If the authors of scripture saw no disconnect between owning slaves and believing in Yahweh, then why should Christians a couple centuries ago, or even today, feel any differently?
The Last Word?
Perhaps the problem lies in the kind of authority that’s often attributed to the Bible. Just the fact that articles like these exist tells us that we attach a lot of importance to what the Bible says, more so than with most ancient texts. Yet even the biggest literalists fail to observe some of what’s been covered in this article. And sure, there are usually excuses, like the new covenant somehow removing the need to follow Old Testament laws, but the point is that there is always a willful act of interpretation going on. The Bible is not self-interpreting, as practically any biblical scholar or theologian will agree, regardless of how in tune with the Holy Spirit someone thinks they are. We have turned away from a lot of what the Bible says, and with good reason, I would argue. Our time is not the time of ancient Israel, or of the early Christian community. Does it really mean someone is not a good Christian if they acknowledge this and allow it to factor into their view of scripture?
The truth of the matter seems to be that, whether or not we pretend to accept the Bible as the last word, it’s long beyond the ability of any of us to actually do so. History moves on, and it takes us with it; some are brought kicking and screaming, but they’re brought along nonetheless. It isn’t only that we stop seeing divorce as sin, or that we start seeing homosexuals as people instead of monsters, it’s that we forget even what the original words and concepts mean, and so we bluster our way to acting as if all is well. We are displaced, lost in the wilderness, so to speak, but deathly afraid of opening our eyes. The Bible can no longer be the last word for any of us, despite how desperately some may want it to be. At this stage, it’s rather our word on the Bible that will be the last for each of us.
Maybe, then, we ought to stop worrying so much about what it says and start to be more aware of what our own minds have to say.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Taylor Carr is an atheist, skeptic, naturalist, guitarist, writer, bibliophile, and founder of GodlessHaven.com. Armchair Atheism is the official podcast of GodlessHaven.com, exploring subjects related to religion and non-belief through interview discussions with a variety of scholarly and thoughtful voices.
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