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OMG! St. Paul Endorsed Slavery! (Or, Why Hasty Political Exegesis Shouldn’t Alarm Us)

Recently, many highly public Christians have endorsed gay marriage by citing the concept of the ‘development’ of Christian theology since the time of Scripture’s authorship. Kevin Rudd, an Australian politician, gave the most recent example when asked by a pastor why he didn’t believe the words of Scripture on this topic; “Well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition…because St. Paul said in the New Testament, slaves should be obedient to (their) masters. And therefore we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.” (BBC News, Sept 3, 2013). I cannot in so small a place do justice to so wide a topic as the Christian theology on human sexuality. However, since there is some precedence for blogs being used for Bible Study, I can quickly address the strange ignorance of Scriptural theology that the above statement represents.

To do justice to Mr. Rudd’s position (a position he shares with our very own Barack Obama and Chris Christie), the logic seems to follow this path: St. Paul, as a man of his day, presented Christianity in a world where both slavery and homosexuality fell into certain social categories, the former acceptable and the latter unacceptable. In order to present the Gospel in such a way so as to be palatable to the people of his time (and perhaps to be presentable to his own conscience), St. Paul merely presumed upon the necessity of these social mores and neglected to fully challenge their legitimacy in the light of the gospel. Therefore, it has taken millennia for the Christian people to ‘progress’ beyond the original inhibitions of St. Paul and the Apostles in order to fully realize their gospel of love. With the aid of contemporary psychological science and liberal democracy, we are now able to overcome these prejudices of the first Christians.

First off, this bland version of ‘progressive theology’ hardly does justice to the story of Scripture itself. Did St. Paul, as a devout Jew, look approvingly on the social institution of slavery? Most certainly not! The whole story of the Jewish faith is of a God who saves the Children of Israel from the “cruel slavery” of Egypt.(Ex 1:13, 6:5, 20:2; Dt 6:12, 7:8) The Jewish law, whom Paul was an expert in, is composed in light of a mercy toward slaves “for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” (See Lv 25:39-42, Dt 5:15; 15:15, 23:16, 24:18-22) And while it is true that the Old Testament fails to challenge slavery as a social institution, it would be incorrect to assume that it thusly taught to embrace slavery as such. St Paul knew that the the Old Testament theology, speaking “in partial and varied ways,” (Hb 1:1) could not in-and-of-itself end all injustices. Remember: it is not until the New Testament that God’s people are ordered to spread the morality of Monotheism beyond the borders of Israel. Until the coming of Christ, the assumption was the Polytheists experience “conflicting thoughts in their hearts” yet failed to repent were to be judged accordingly. (See Rm 14-16) Therefore, if St. Paul did indeed endorse a “theology of slavery,” then, Scripturally speaking, it indicated that a retrogression and NOT a progression had occurred from Old to New Testament!

Yet, St. Paul (and St. Peter, for that matter) happily and repeatedly called himself a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Rm 1:1, Gal 1:10, Phil 1:7; Titus 1:1) This would be a radical thing for a Jew to say, and not the least because 1st century Pharisees were fond of pointing out that they had “never been enslaved to anyone.”(See John 8:33). Even a cursory glance at St. Paul’s writing reveals his strange affinity for the state of slavery. Beyond begging slaves to be “subject to their masters” (Eph 6:5; the phrase ‘subject to’ is difficult to translate from the Greek. It seems to indicate “a loving acceptance of” or a “filial obedience to”), St. Paul also asks for children and wives to act the same way towards the head of the family (Eph 5:22, 6:1; Col 3:20), for Christians to be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Eph 5:21) while always remaining respectful of the presbyters, bishops and leaders. (See Rm 13:7; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:19 Heb 13:17[not written by St. Paul, but in his tradition]) In fact, it seems that, according to this reading, St. Paul wanted everybody to be slaves to everybody else!

One could argue, however, that the above examples simply represent St. Paul’s pastoral zeal. Accordingly, he didn’t envision the Church entering into an official state of mutual slavery so much as a Christian love that takes the form of interdependent servitude. Such a pastoral exhortation only reveals that Paul, like Christ, was willing to use profane metaphors to make spiritual points. (See Matt 12:29, Luke 14:31) That line of thought may be true. However, the most glaring exception to that rule would be the short but terribly important letter to Philemon, in which Paul explicitly sends Onesimus, an escaped slave, back to his master. Both Onesimus and Philemon are Christians, and therefore equal in the eyes of the Church. Nonetheless, St. Paul orders Onesimus to return to his master rather than asking for his release. This must be taken as, in the very least, a passive acceptance of the social institution of slavery itself. However, when we look beyond the action itself and read the words of St. Paul, something strange appears. St. Paul begs for mercy from Philemon, seeming to place the blame on himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” (Phm 1:8-10) Next, he states that his ‘usefulness’ is now characterized by the relationship of love in Christ (v 11) and that Onesimus is Paul’s very heart (v. 12). Finally in verse 17, St. Paul entirely self-identifies with Onesimus, asking Philemon to accept him not as a slave but as a ‘partner’ in Christ. One could call this the first example of a theology of ‘solidarity,’ a very progressive stance indeed!

So is St. Paul’s theology ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’ Was it open to further development? And as it regards ‘social ethics,’ does it represent the final word of Christian theology?

Such questions, though popular, hardly seem as important in the light of the questions we could now raise: What is mutual subjection? What is ‘slavery in Christ?’ How am I to live so as to be ‘the heart’ of my fellow Christians? Such speculation represents a very brief look at St. Paul’s theological perspective on slavery. It is by no mean exhaustive, but it should at least be unsettling. I leave you with no direct answers, but only with a warning: it is a terrible mistake to assume that the ancient Christian Saints knew less about love than we do. To try to read Scripture in light of contemporary morals and cultural change is to become guilty of the very thing you accuse the Scriptural author of being: namely, a close-minded child of the current age. In contrast, wouldn’t it be better for a Christian to assent to the truth our teaching on human rights has remained solidly on the side of charity since the time of St. Paul? From that perspective, we take his words and actions as an example. We are called to ‘self-identify’ with all people without ever using political or social powers as a means to override the Gospel.

One final word on St. Paul’s theology. Far from being a personal reflection of a learned Christian, it is an essential part of the Deposit of Faith and, along with the words of Peter, John, James and Jude, represents an inexhaustible treasure of Christian truth. To dismiss or defend it with mere soundbites is to do an injustice to Divine Revelation, and to Jesus Christ himself. If this blog represents the briefest of reflections that can occur in good conscience, we should neither be inspired or upset about the off hand comments of an upset politician. Their ‘theology’ is as nothing compared to the vast Revelation that is offered us in the Gospel of Christ. It would be wise to look to Him before looking anywhere else.

About Daniel Lacourrege

Daniel Lacourrege is a 20-something year old theologian living in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It is the best place in the world to be a 20-something. It is the third best place in the world to be a Catholic (Rome & Jerusalem claiming first & second).
His life has become one adventure right after another. Most of them start in a classroom or library, but very few of them finish there. He likes most things, but usually must be in the mood for them. The only thing he is never in the mood for is traffic.
If you feel so moved, you may email him at lacourrege4@archbishopshaw.us.

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