A Frustrated Reader’s Report

I’ve been reading a few recent essays on sexual ethics written for a popular audience. A couple of them have focused specifically on homosexuality, and each one draws a strikingly similar contrast. On the one hand, these essays describe a kind of Christian faith that is focused on “certainty,” on “black and white answers,” on “knowing what’s right,” and the arrogant rigidity and coldness that goes along with that. On the other hand, these essays talk about a different sort of Christian faith, one that is more interested in “exploration,” in “questions,” in “living with tension,” in “loving real people where they’re at,” in being willing to brave the “messiness” of “life in the trenches.” (All the quotes here are paraphrases because I’m not trying to single out one author or essay or book for critique. I’m more interested in observing a trend in the reading I’ve been doing.)

In response, I find myself wanting to ask, over and over again:

  • Is it possible that the “certainty” that pre-marital sex is a bad idea is itself the result of profound “exploration,” of “living in tension,” or “loving real people”?
  • Is it possible that the “black and white answer” of marriage being a covenant between one man and one woman is an answer that’s been forged as Christians have “wrestled” with the “messiness” of “real life”?
  • Is it possible that the “rigid, arrogant knowledge” that divorce is something Christians ought to work hard to prevent is the result of a profound “struggle” to “meet people where they’re at”?
  • Can we at least entertain the idea, for the sake of argument, that the Christian tradition’s “answers” on sexual ethics aren’t just the product of unexamined patriarchal assumptions and power moves on the part of greedy bishops and priests?
  • Can we at least consider the idea that the tradition might have been crafted, in part, from a hard-won, long-sought-after, humane wisdom that knew things about humanity and sexuality that we, in our time, may have forgotten?

I don’t feel angry that Christian authors are asking us all to seek deep, intimate, relational knowledge of the complexity and profundity of LGBTQ Christians’ lives. On the contrary, as a gay Christian myself, I am immensely heartened by this! But I feel sad, or wistful, as I imagine what our discussions might look like if we considered the Christian tradition worthy of at least as much patient listening as we offer each other today.

Every time someone talks about “rigid orthodoxy” or the tyranny of “black and white answers,” I feel like grabbing my copy of Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility or St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Luther’s The Estate of Marriage or St. John Chrysostom’s On Virginity and reminding myself that these texts don’t all sound like fundamentalist homophobes. Often they’re as mysterious, elusive, and profound as some of my most treasured conversations with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And they’re worth more than their labels—“certain,” “black and white,” “arrogant,” “bigoted”—would often lead you to believe.

Wesley HillWesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter:@WesleyHill.

61 thoughts on “A Frustrated Reader’s Report

  1. I’m not entirely certain I see what your complaint is about. That people are questioning authority, and wondering if it can really apply to these complicated concepts of sexuality? Or is your ‘issue’ with these discussions that they reject the validity that these viewpoints are not harmful?

    From where I sit, it seems like you are, more or less, complaining that people are looking beyond what they’ve been told.

  2. So, all age old authority should be given some sort of higher, non-negotiable status, because it is older and precedes us? That seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that, even your religious tradition, by all accounts ‘got certain things unequivocally wrong'(slavery, being the greatest example).

    Tell me this- how do you think I should fairly interpret the traditional christian sexual ethic? By how long it’s been around, by it’s logic, or by the consequences of its actions upon my people?

  3. What I was asking for in this post, specifically, was for a *certain kind of critique* of the traditional Christian ethic, one that demonstrates that it’s grappled with the *best* statements of that ethic. I’m really eager to engage with, say, Gene Rogers’ critiques because he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the tradition; he’s invested a lot of time and effort in getting to know them. On the other hand, I’m much less eager to engage with someone who wants to label an entire complex tradition as simply “black and white certainty.”

    This post wasn’t trying to offer a defense of the traditional Christian ethic. To do that, I would’ve had to have written something entirely different, obviously.

  4. I don’t really think of it as black and white, Wesley.

    I see it more as the majority persons attempt at understanding the world, and not really taking us and our particular human experience into its consideration. The ‘side B’ status, to me, reads as more of a default position that persons like you have had to figure out absent any direct Christian doctrine that explicitly engages in and addresses our sexuality.

  5. Your complaint is a little unclear. It sounds to me like it’s directed to those that want to reject traditional Christian sexual ethic on the basis that’s it’s just authoritarian and somehow not thought out. If that’s the case then I agree with you. It’s a way to dismiss an argument without having to engage its merits. At the same time, many gay men and women have suffered because of the zealous defense of these truths by the part of people who care little for individuals but care a lot about form and uniformity.

    • I’d add that this suffering is also perpetrated by persons who gleefully pretend that all of Christendom has universal eternal truths that have never, not once, been completely changed or modified by the continuity of our human experience, and the lessons we’ve learned through history (i.e., women’s rights and slavery being the greatest monkey wrench for traditionalists)

      • I think the problem is precisely that Jose and Wesley see it as a black and white that of course is not wrong. When you point to things like slavery and women’s right they go well yeah they were wrong on that but on sexuality they weren’t wrong. There is no way we are wrong on it. To even consider they are wrong throws open the door to say I may have wasted my life believing something that isn’t true. They want those gay people who embrace celibacy to be in lock step with them. Doubt is not allowed.

      • Those issues are not at the same level as sexuality. Although slavery was tolerated it was never taught by the church as an article of faith that slaves are not people. In fact it was the Church’s policy that Christians baptize their slaves and provide proper catechesis.Can’t people just admit that they don’t like the teaching so they’ll ignore it? Sorry but you cannot defend homosexual activity if you have a Christian understanding of sex and marriage. I suspect you have a very modern understanding of marriage as a covenant between two people that love each other.That’s nice but it’s only a small part of what Christian marriage is.

      • Jose,
        The church instructed how to treat a slave. It does not ever condemn the practice of owning another one. Not one place does God or Jesus say owning someone is wrong. Why is that? Because they condoned it.

      • I’m not sure where in the Bible you’ll find slavery defined as “owning.” The nature of the socio-economic order and labor-relationship was assumed, and certainly “being the master of slaves” was not condemned, but it was never defined as “owning.” Besides, that’s a tricky concept. In the American South…slavery was abolished, and then many of the former slaves stayed on the plantations, working the same land they had as before, for the same people, as tenement farmers who instead of doing labor for their keep…did labor for wages which they used to buy their keep! Practical difference? Very little, except theoretical mobility (that debt often stopped them from having anyway).

      • Mark,

        I think you’re underestimating the injustice of plantation slavery in the South. That system allowed for zero social mobility among slaves, and treated them as racially inferior. Sure, there were exceptional cases. But, as a general rule, plantation slavery was terrible — and you don’t have to be looking at it through a biased modern lens to see the terror.

      • I think you missed my point, David.

        My point here was twofold:

        1) that not all slavery in history was racially-based American Southern plantation slavery


        2) even when that generally horrible system (generally, though there were plenty of cases of kind and just masters in specific cases too) was officially “abolished”…it was not DE FACTO abolished in terms of the practical situation of many tenement farmers. Getting rid of the official institution of slavery doesn’t necessarily do anything to ameliorate any given individual’s situation, and it is not unimaginable that in some individual cases it may have even left them worse off.

        My point is that it’s stupid to congratulate ourselves on eliminating “slavery” when basically all the actual practical problems/abuses that went along with it are all still present in later models (including our current one) even if not necessarily “bundled together” in the same way. Abolishing slavery didn’t end violence, exploitation of labor, practical subjugation, class hierarchy, practical immobility or being stuck, material destitution, broken families, etc etc, just their particular institutional form

  6. Wes, I think you are spot on here. But can I make an observation? The first generation to develop a clear answer to a messy question does both engagement and certainty. I think then the problem arises when the next generation takes these answers and deploys them without having done a similar engagement with questions. This is the moment when the answers become rigid and apparently arrogant. In other words, you cannot deploy the answers of the previous generation without going through a mimetic process of wrestling and thinking which produced the answers themselves.

  7. Yes, Ian, absolutely. (Nice to see you here, by the way!) I think, for instance, of some recent work in Trinitarian theology, such as Lewis Ayres’, with its emphasis that we can’t repeat the early Church’s conclusions if we can’t also explain how they arrived at those conclusions exegetically, theologically, spiritually, etc. I’d say the same thing with regard to sexual ethics.

    • Can you be more specific? What about their conclusions regarding sexual ethics, as applied to a concept of sexuality that was alien in antiquity, can we not recreate?

      Break it down for the layman. 😉

  8. I see the contrast you’re talking about, Wesley, and too yearn that there could be more of a reconciliation. The “black and white” versus “life is messy” debate (if we can call it that) is basically the age old tension between Law and Grace.

    People do struggle with extremes here, between legalism and a sort of revolutionary attitude that thinks the solution is in simply changing the Law (a paradigm which, ironically, just winds up reaffirming the presumption that “following the Law” is the ultimate moral end, assuming we get a good and right law).

    When I see a question like, “Is it possible that the ‘certainty’ that pre-marital sex is a bad idea is itself the result of profound ‘exploration,’ of ‘living in tension,’ or ‘loving real people’?” I’d tend to answer that while one might interpret things this way collectively, the objection to legalistic morality remains that collective wisdom does not necessarily translate into individual wisdom. I think the grace-focused “messiness” vision is at its best about helping people learn their own lessons and internalize their own hard-won wisdom.

    Any good teacher will tell you the value in an approach to education that is about facilitating students in asking the rights questions and groping towards their own answers, learning to navigate and appropriate pre-made knowledge from others into their own experience, rather than simply “dispensing answers.” I don’t think this approach is at all contradictory with the idea that there are, in fact, also right answers which are the goal of the process (but in which, often, the process is just as, if not more, valuable than the outcome).

    As for any objections to Christian teaching based on some naive “we know better now” progressivism (by what standard exactly? How do we know?) Certainly as mankind has materially progressed we have been able to maximize freedom and certain other values socially and politically, and no doubt this has also corresponded to an evolution in human moral consciousness in some very real senses. But I find it hard to seriously engage the “you were wrong about slavery!” arguments when that seems almost as presentist a projection of our current socio-economic realities back onto past structures. To me it’s almost like condemning the past for not successfully enabling everyone’s right to healthcare or Internet access, or like saying an infant is “wrong” for being so helpless and dependent. That system was one stage of an inevitable evolution, and there is no real way we could have “skipped over” it to avoid its more abusable aspects. I mean, someday when wage-slavery is abolished, will people be justified in looking back with contempt on our society or the Church today for…what? For not condemning every bank teller or manager who has to work within the current system? For not attempting to stage an immediate revolution to restructure everything instantly? Puh-leeze.

    • And Mark you could make the same argument about same sex couples that we have evolved and have a better understanding just like we do with slavery and women’s right. It is simply the next step.

      • Don’t you think it’s a little self-serving to decide that the Church is wrong about homosexuality? Is same sex marriage the ‘ next step’ because faith and truth demand it or because I feel it’s right since I’m gay and want the church to recognize my marriage. Faith is tough, it makes demands of us that no normal person would want. yet we do it for love of God and belief in eternal life. I sometimes wish I could be a cafeteria Catholic. But what’s the meaning of truth if I can twist it to meet by own desires?

      • So was it self-serving for blacks to oppose slavery when many were arguing that The Bible supported it. It is self-serving for women to speak it when The Bible says they should be subservient to men. Or is it right to speak up when it is obvious that The Bible got something wrong?

    • I have to say that I think your objection falls into the ‘rejecting the argument without engaging it on it’s merits’ trope. The bible does not support, through scripture and historical practice, the type of commercialism and capitalist practices you are addressing and our society is dealing with in the current economic market.

      The selling of people as property, foreigners and daughters, however, we can point to very specific biblical text, which unfortunately for the traditionalists sits flatly there for all to see. This is where my critique of the ‘erasable bible’ would get turned squarely on you. 😉

      To take your viewpoint, on the issue of slavery, we have to imagine that there is a great overreaching context to your religious scripture that we only discovered 1800+ years after it’s authorship.

      What’s more likely? That the civilization that authored it got a great moral question wrong, however consistent with where they were in their time, place, and circumstance? Or that we only figured out what they were really going on about long, long after they passed and were doing what we now flatly condemn?

      • I’m saying I don’t flatly condemn them for their class structure. It was what it was at the time, as open to abuse and excess as much as any until the eschaton. History is complicated.

      • I don’t really have that issue, I’m Catholic. I’ll only say this. Abolitionists had a leg to stand on. Some of it Scriptural and some of it natural law. The Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life have developed greatly but the foundation is scriptural. Man is created in the image of God. That has certain demands that through history we come to understand better. On the issue of sexuality we have the natural law in addition to Scripture and Tradition to guide us through. The modern understanding of marriage as the sanctioning of romantic love between two people does not fully explain the Christian concept of marriage. If marriage is just a covenant of two people who love each other then the argument to extend it to same-sex couples is great. If, however marriage is about the transmission of life and the cornerstone of civilization then we need to take it more seriously. Furthermore, there’s the faith angle. Our faith has clearly taught that the union of a man and a woman is a privileged one. In fact, St. Paul compares it to the relationship between Christ and the Church. That is a huge deal. Marriage is only partly about love. Anyways, I’ll leave it at that.

        “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”-2 Timothy 4:4-5

      • I love how people like you believe that marriage belongs to Christianity. Marriage ceremonies have happened in all civilizations through out the world but Christians are arrogant and claim it as their own.

    • Mark,
      Also the church has already evolved on this. Ten years ago the prevailing belief was if gay people just prayed hard enough they would be turned straight. Forward to just two years ago where Alan Chambers admitted it very very rarely works. Now except for a radical fringe most no longer believe in reparative therapy.
      Fast forward to today. We have the Alan Chambers of today. People like Wesley and Julie with a new milder packaging. Fast forward another 10 years we will see this movement do the same thing. Some like John Paulk, Michael Bussee, John Smid did will see the light. Some like Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas will temper their message. And you will have the fringe like Anne Paulk who will insist they are still right.

  9. Thank you for this, Wesley. It is folly to throw away thousands of years of wisdom because I feel Christian moral teaching can often cause me pain and is emotionally expensive. But in the midst of the suffering, I am being transformed. This is what I signed up for and through God’s relentless grace, this is where I will stay.

  10. Quick historical note, pertaining to slavery: the Roman practice of slavery was vicious, but it was not in any way comparable to American slavery in the South. Roman slaves could earn property and buy their freedom — indeed, this was the norm, not the exception. And Roman slaves had pretty much endless upward mobility. Slaves were often children salvaged from being exposed to die by their parents.

    In fact, the best comparison for Roman slaves might be the American foster system — since Roman slaves customarily became free around 20 or 25. The difference is that Roman slaves were subject to beatings and violence. But the Bible condemns this violence toward slavery, and instructs us to treat slaves with the same dignity with which we treat anyone else.

    It’s true that slave owners in the South used Scripture to defend slavery, but they definitely weren’t informed about the ancient world, nor about the context of the Scriptures.

    • Daniel,
      So what you are saying is slavery is ok as long as there was a chance to come out of it? And again not once is it condemned by Christians. So is it OK or is it wrong? And if it is wrong why wasn’t it condemned? Why is it wrong now?

      • I’m not sure I would make any absolute judgment against slavery as a hypothetical actually. My opinion is that of Catholic Encyclopedia in 1917:


        And that of Avery Cardinal Dulles in 2005:


        Though I don’t think I’d compare slavery to fostering! More like our modern prison system, maybe: systemically problematic and rife with abuse, but hard to condemn “absolutely.”

      • Mark,
        You first article made my point. Even when Christian obtained power they refused to push for slavery to end. The fact that they tried to make it easier does not negate the fact that Christians continued to “own” other people. So yes The Bible and Christians did condone and perpetuate slavery. So should we be allowed to own people as slaves because The Bible condones it?

      • The New Testament is not concerned with political revolutions or social change. If Paul had said, “Tell slaves to resist their masters”, what would have come of it? The deaths of a lot of slaves. Should Paul have imported a modern conception of liberal autonomy, and inspired the Roman leaders to become good Clintonian democrats? Is that what you think?

        Or suppose Paul had told masters to free their slaves. Since these slaves may not have been of age, they would not have been considered “freedmen”. They would have no social standing whatsoever. This would have been an awful fate.

        Was it intrinsically evil to own Roman slaves? I don’t think so, no. It was more merciful than other options, in many cases. Was the system of Roman slavery intrinsically evil? Sure. But can you tell me any place in the New Testament where an author makes a broad socio-political condemnation of the Roman empire? New Testament authors weren’t generally concerned with politics.

      • So again instead of correcting a great injustice by speaking out and saying this is wrong you turn a blind eye. Wow and you encourage people to follow this religion. Let’s just ignore this and not teach that slavery is wrong and evil. And you wonder why non-Christians can’t take you seriously.

      • Socio-political revolution is not the only way to confront evil structures. Christian love is, however. Rather than revolutions to overturn structures, Christians turn them on their heads from the inside-out. Jesus said “turn the other cheek” and “if a soldier forces you to carry his pack for one mile, carry it for two!” He did not say “Rise up against oppressors!” Rather, His attitude towards the civil authorities when facing Crucifixion as an innocent was, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” and yet He overthrew the Roman Empire in the end.

        All structures of power are evil in some sense. All political orders outside the eschaton are corrupt; “Christian democracy” and liberal individualism included. The World is the enemy of Christians generally (along with the devil and the flesh). I don’t think Christ or Paul could have been any more clear about this. If that’s not enough for you, it is you who are not radical enough, not Christianity.

        If you want to try to make self-righteous historical-hindsight distinctions between which exercises of coercive power are legitimate and which are not, I’d suggest the true nature of Christianity’s subversion is lost on you.

      • Tim, I’d really rather you study the history of the Roman empire and then tell me what you think. The Romans would have squashed a Christian slave uprising with complete thoroughness, and such an action would have led to the more or less complete destruction of Judaism in the empire. Jews and their customs were tolerated because they did not involve such political focuses. But I’m quite sure if a Jewish sect, like Christianity, got political, that would have been the end of such toleration for ALL Jews.

      • No one is talking about a Jewish uprising. Instead you would think the religious leader of the time instead of telling a person he considered a Christian that slavery was wrong instead of telling him how to treat a slave. It means that he condoned the practice as does The Bible.

    • Yes, I’m sure the article does make your point; that’s partly my point, that some of us have no problem with it in the long view of history.

      Although the article makes clear: slavery is not supposed to be owning a person like a chair. It’s having the rights to direct their labor (in exchange for the duty to provide their keep) in a sort of paternalistic reciprocity. The main difference between that socioeconomic order and ours is that our workers sell themselves in a vicious market rather than the class system being more stable and hierarchically organized.

      Objections to slavery absolutely usually struggle to actually define the term in an internally consistent manner that is also historically realistic (and which excludes the institutions today that people are not wont to include).

      Usually, the “moral opposition” is not actually born of a dispassionate theoretical analysis of clearly defined terms, but is more like a “Boo slavery!” (which might give the logical positivists fodder re: the meaning of “ought” statements), a mere visceral aversion to a WORD due to its being attached to a variety of violent but ideologically selective images (mainly from late 20th century film and television, but maybe you throw some scenes from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in there if you’re well-read) and combined with a triumphalist progressive narrative about the march of history and, voila, there’s the substance of your “moral objection” (usually conveniently ignoring the fact that when the institution was finally abolished, it was for reasons of economic expediency and the triumph of a bourgeois industrial capitalism needing a mobile labor-force over-and-against any more aristocratic/agrarian models).

      But if we actually define the terms and analyze them simply as hypotheticals? Well, if the word is too tainted by history than I could always play the semantic game of switching the labels and proposing to talk about “serfdom,” “indentured servitude,” or “fixed class” but there’d really be almost entire overlap throughout history except perhaps the more abusive aspects of the trans-Atlantic manifestation of ~1500-1865 (which is hardly representative of all of human history).

      • Wow now I have heard it all. A justification for slavery and comparing to today. Were slaves allowed to just leave if not happy. If a slave was killed was his death treated like another person being killed. The fact that can even try to argue for it being moral shows how morally bankrupt both you and The Bible truly are.

      • Tim don’t be too concerned with what is said here it is not indicative of how every Christian thinks. It is only a historical perspective which I don’t subscribe to. Yes, slavery was and is a socio-economic construct. I don’t take the position God was responsible for it. It existed to as a vehicle to make people pay off debts, to have available a cheap labor force etc… By definition it is an exploitative practice which I find repugnant. Yet economists and some historians see other aspects to it which made society function and where masters were seen as benefactors rather than oppressors. Yet I truly believe God to have intended all men and women to be equal and free before him.

        The slave system which existed in the Roman Empire wasn’t about to be abolished. Paul himself appeared to be trying to give good advice about how to get along with each other under the laws of the time. I doubt Paul was condoning slavery neither was he advocating open rebellion. In fact Paul does reveal his sympathies in the book Philemon – that the Christian slave owner consider looking at his slave with different eyes, Paul shows tenderness and concern for the relationship between Onesimus and his master and he writes” that you might have him back forever. no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…”

        I take heart in the ethic of nonviolence, which I think is the example of Jesus, and the idea of separation of church and state- ‘giving Caesar what is due to Caesar’ and looking to civil disobedience as a means of change when the opportunity arises. For example in the case of US history even after the civil war; oppression for African Americans did not end for almost 100 years because of Jim Crow and other forms of bigotry and racist customs. For example even though blacks had the right to vote at the Federal level they were overtly prevented from exercising their right at the state level. So we can have good laws that are in place but are not followed. That would obviously be unjust and would give opportunity to inspire change through opposition and political action. I am fascinated by a law in Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 in which it instructs the people of Israel to ‘not’ return a slave who has escaped from his master. So I don’t think God was cool with slavery.

        Anyways that’s my quick overview opinion on the matter 🙂

      • Kathy let Paul did not instruct the Christian slave owner to let his slave be free. To me that seems the simplest answer if you do not condone it. God is not ok with you keeping another human being as a slave and you shouldn’t do it. Yet no instruction was given. This goes back to my original point about The Bible. It says nothing about slavery being evil. It is silent at best condoning it at worst. And it got it wrong.
        So to say that the belief that 2 men or 2 women loving each other romantically is black and white ignores the fact The Bible has gotten other things wrong. The problem is it is viewed through the eyes of people 2000 years ago who brought their prejudice to things.

      • Tim, obviously a slave wasn’t allowed to “just leave,” as I pointed out, that’s the only really “essential” difference I can identify between slavery and our system which is not merely a difference of degree: the mobility of labor. But since when is liberal individualism and atomist autonomy in the labor market a dogma? For much of history castes were fixed, people were born into a socially expected and enforced role or function. Your statement essentially amounts to saying “all collectivist societies are bad, only individualist societies are good” even though the individualist model of the labor market (where the individual alienates his own labor in a purely voluntaristic and disembedded way) has plenty of problems and avenues for abuse too; some arguably worse for their subtlety, intractability, and pervasiveness.

        As for whether slaves killed were treated the same as others, I think this shows your own historical myopia, as the answer is manifestly: it depends! A variety of institutions, a variety of class/labor systems throughout history were called “slavery.” They were not all the transatlantic horrors. Certainly the Bible had no knowledge of that model.

        But in specific answer to your question I will point out the following: if we’re talking about the Roman model we must remember what patriapotestas entailed in some phases. A master could kill a slave, yes, but a father could also kill his own son! Every household was a little kingdom in that sense, and slaves were a part of the household.

        But if were talking about the slavery the Hebrews practiced in the Bible, remember this: the punishment for killing your slave…was death. And if you struck one and they lost an eye or tooth, you had to set them free.

        Britannica’s article on the master-slave relationship shows the diversity of practice you are trying to reduce to one caricature:

        “The Hebrews, the Athenians, and the Romans under the principate restricted the right of slave owners to kill their human chattel. The Code of Justinian changed the definition of the slave from a thing to a person and prescribed the death penalty for an owner who killed his slave by torture, poison, or fire. Spanish law of the 1260s and 1270s denied owners the right to kill their slaves. Lithuanian and Muscovite law forbade the killing, maiming, or starving of a returned fugitive slave. Qing Chinese law punished a master who killed his slave, and that punishment was more severe if the slave had done no wrong. The Aztecs under some circumstances put to death a slave owner who killed his slave. No society, on the other hand, had the slightest sympathy for the slave who killed his owner. Roman law even prescribed that all other slaves living under the same roof were to be put to death along with the slave who had committed the homicide.

        Assault and general brutality were other concerns of the law of slavery. In antiquity slaves often had the right to take refuge in a temple to escape cruel owners, but that sometimes afforded little protection. The ancient Franks and the Germans warned owners against cruelty. The Code of Justinian and the Spanish Siete Partidas deprived cruel owners of their slaves, and that tradition went into the Louisiana Black Code of 1806, which made cruel punishment of slaves a crime. In modern societies brutality and sadistic murder of slaves by their owners were rarely condoned on the grounds that such episodes demoralized other slaves and made them rebellious, but few slave owners were actually punished for maltreating their slaves. In the American South 10 codes prescribed forced sale to another owner or emancipation for maltreated slaves.” (http://www.britannica.com/blackhistory/article-24164)

        And even in cases where there was some punishment for killing a slave, but less severe than for a freeman, I’d point out that not all manslaughter today is treated legally equal either (see: abortion), in the very name of liberation and autonomy!

        This article is rather informative on the Bible and slavery too:

        It strictly defines “chattel slavery” as “A [chattel] slave was property. The slaveowner’s rights over his slave-property were total, covering the person as well as the labor of the slave. The slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied to capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance. These are the three basic components of [chattel] slavery.”

        This totalitarian model of slavery has rarely existed throughout history, and certainly is detestable. It was not, however, the model that the Bible had in mind, nor did the Church ever approve of this. The article tries to say “only this should really be called ‘slavery,’ everything else was just ‘servants'” but as I said above that is a semantic cop-out, as historically the same term was applied to the whole panoply of models.

        I remain in agreement with Cardinal Dulles:

        “Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less moderate forms of subjection and servitude will always accompany the human condition. The elimination of slavery, possible in our time, corresponds to a natural dynamism of the human spirit toward freedom and personal responsibility. The goal of full and uninhibited freedom, however, is an eschatological ideal never fully attainable within history.”

      • In laymen’s terms Tim, we are all victim of our current place in history. I marvel at Paul and how he signaled a desire for a redefinition of the slave/master relationship in his letter to Philemon. I prefer to think that this meant a desire for freedom and equality born out of a heart for Jesus, just like the abolitionists and people such as John Newton and many more whose hearts were transformed at just the right time in history

      • I don’t think it even needs to involve any such political dream. Christians of Paul’s generation imagined the imminent return of Christ. Reforming the social order was low on their list of priorities. Promoting love among all people, regardless of social class, was rather higher. Christianity’s subversion is deeper than any socio-economic restructuring.

      • Mark while I agree and understand what you mean, it is all part of it; the kingdom of God is pictured as a place where swords are beaten into ploughshares that is a hope and a dream for all Christians. Christ’s imminent return to set up a government to free the oppressed, to bring back the lost. And what shall we do while waiting? We don’t withhold good when it is within our power to to do good. So as far as history goes we are doing or not doing good unto others whether face to face or as a community or as a nation.

  11. I hear what you are saying Wes. Good points. It might be worth writing a bit about some of these older texts and exploring the wisdom and questions and logic and pastoral concerns of them. Most people simply don’t know what Christian thinkers and worshippers of the past have wrestled with and offered to us. Its buried. Perhaps we can unearth some of them here.

  12. Hey Wes, I agree with you and have thought along those lines because Christian tradition is something which gives us continuity. However, it crossed my mind that your literature sources did not have to deal with the reality of a culture that has is no longer primarily church based; which has pretty much fully embraced LGBT rights and privileges; which has gay and gay affirming churches; which has allowed same sex marriage; which is educating children from first entrance in school about two daddies and two mommies. Not to say that these realities mean we must change God’s word- but LGBT is now an interwoven part of mainstream culture. And it does make a difference in how people are raised and influenced and develop their sexual identity. It is not unusual for young teens to be identifying as gay or trans now. How does traditional teachings address that? Does it? Can it? This is where I think the complexities of our society contrasts sharply against traditional teachings. Very few people assume being gay is wrong any more; unless they are in a limited religious minority. The conflict so far has been all about reconsidering what is written in the text or what is traditionally held as true about marriage, yet I wonder if all of this is actually driving us into a corner and asking us to reconsider how we love one another as family, friend and neighbour?

    • I have to object to the notion that ‘its not unusual for teens to identify as gay or trans now’. They always were, now we just have social labels and paradigms that acknowledge what they are, and a label for how they fit in the world. There were sexual minority people before Stonewall, it’s not as if it’s a 21st century invention.

      • Yes Jeremy they always were ‘in the closet’ or marginalized for the majority if not ‘all’ of history. What we are grappling with is the face to face recognition of sexual minorities in law and culture in the Western world- which is now mostly approving.

        I am suggesting this is not something our traditional Christian teachers and thinkers have had to wrestle with or ponder.

      • It’s not a 21st-century invention, but it may well be a 19th-century invention, and I say that as a proud gay man.

        There have been a variety of manifestations of homosexualities throughout history. However, the “orientation” construct is relatively recent. Gay consciousness was only raised in the past century or so.

        Before that, it is unclear what is even meant by “gay people existed.” To me that’s like asking if “Black people” existed back in Roman times. Of course there were Africans with dark skin, but the whole construct of Race based on that, with all it’s baggage, hadn’t been born yet, so I don’t think we can discuss racial consciousness or subjectivity back then.

        Likewise with queerness. There were clearly people in the past engaging sometimes, sometimes even predominantly, in same-sex sexual activity. But how they constructed their identity or self-image, what paradigm (if any) they used to interpret their experiences (and that’s just the thing: something like “sexual attraction” is incredibly subjective) is much less clear.

        What’s certain is that the Church’s teaching on chastity were not formulated with a view to targeting a specific group of persons qua class, because the idea of a minority class defined by minority sexual attractions hadn’t even been formulated yet, hadn’t had its consciousness raised.

  13. I learned more about what this article is “trying” to say in the comments. I support your effort, I would suggest taking a little more time to lay out the arguments, especially on such a sensitive topic

  14. Pingback: Wenesday, 1/15/14 | Tipsy Teetotaler

  15. Did I miss something? I don’t recall Mr. Hill mentioning slavery in his article. It seems the topic of slavery has overtaken the original subject of the article.

    • The topic of his article is, basically, the role that History and historical experience has (or doesn’t have) in interpreting doctrine and doctrinal development.

      Slavery (you’ll also see the Crusades, the Inquisition and the question of religious liberty, monarchy, charging interest on loans, Galileo, and antisemitism bandied around) seems to be, in such conversations about the role of historical socio-political evolution in doctrine, one of the major flashpoints.

      This makes perfect sense if one really wants a deep grappling with the underlying question, albeit we would hopefully, in an intellectually honest conversation, get to a point where that specific case was used to elucidate broader principles about the place of historical experience in the development of moral doctrine.

      • The shorter answer for me Felicity is Wes is sure The Bible is clear and right about loving same sex relationships are sinful. If he truly believes that The Bible is infallible then he must also believe that slavery is justified as is the trampling of women’s rights.

      • Tim – I think you might have jumped ahead in your reasoning. There are plenty of things written in the Bible which simply state current practises of that time. Jesus Himself turns this system on its head when He eats with collaborators of the Roman Empire (tax collectors), openly praises a woman’s generosity even though she has a sordid past (Mary Magdalene) and He is unafraid of being tainted by mysterious, life threatening diseases (the woman who had bleeding issues for 12 years). Jesus Himself stands up for the dignity of women by having them as His followers. It was a woman who was the first one to testify of the resurrection – Mary Magdalene. The fellas didn’t believe her. I think history illustrates that unjust systems don’t change overnight. They need an impetus. I believe Jesus is the impetus to change things. Hence, slavery is now officially unacceptable in most countries.

    • Yes. If I understood the original article, it was an expression of frustration about diving into a ditch. There are basically two ditches; on the one side, the rules are the rules and must be obeyed without question, examination or complaint. Life is black and white and any questioning of that is rebellion to be squashed. (Honestly, I find that ditch more comfortable.) Reacting to that ditch, people dive headlong into the ditch on the other side of the road: Question and reject things that are or have been held dogmatically. No need to give those things a real hearing, they must be wrong; question everything as this is the only way to find truth. Basically, either everything fits in a box or boxes are automatically wrong. I think that Wes was frustrated by the residents of the second ditch, who would not even give traditional Christian teaching a hearing because they defined it as only “black and white” (so it must be from the other ditch).

      If I understood the slavery tangent, it was put forward as an argument in favor of rejecting the Bible/Christianity as a reliable source of truth and authority. If it isn’t a reliable authority, teachings can be rejected or ignored.

      So here’s the real question, how do we stay on the road?

      • We don’t give them a hearing because they are insulting. When a contributor on here calls being gay a disability. No wonder many have thrown away those beliefs as archaic. Today my husband celebrate 26 years as a couple. Luckily the Christians in our lives see things differently and don’t believe our loving relation is sin or we are disabled.

  16. Wonderful, convicting. For me, this happens mostly because of pride. What starts out as an earnest attempt to pursue truth and lovingly live in relationship with my brothers and sister can quickly turn into mental arm wrestling, and feeling the need to convince others that my approach is the right one. Landing on truth and loving people becomes less important than convincing those who disagree with me that I am right. As is usually the case with such situations, my efforts turn to backing what I want to believe, ignoring what the answers may actually be and being more concerned with discussions about approaches rather than actual, real life, relationship building with people (while still pursuing truth.)

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