Please note that some of the information in this blog, explicitly or implicitly, comes from;
Garland, D.E. (2009). New International Version Application Commentary on Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishers.
Right at the beginning of the year with a new group of Master of Education students, I pose the task: think of something you believe, maybe from you faith, professional or personal life, and be explicit as you can as to why you believe it. To get discussion started I use my own example: as a car driver I believe that I must slow down before turning corners. Now, why should I believe that?
Quite a large number of answers tend to come forward. A physicist may argue the point from a theoretical point of view in terms of forces. Somebody else has been in a car, either as driver or passenger, when a corner has been taken rather too fast and knows from their own experience how horrible that feels. Another person argues it from a sight line point of view, you don't know until you've turned the corner what there is immediately coming up so you need to be going slowly for that reason. And yet another person will say that you do this because that is what we were taught when we were living to drive.
One of the reasons I do this is because we work with Masters students who are already experienced professionals, and disentangling what they believe professionally, through experience etc. with what they believe academically through an understanding of research etc. is crucial as part of the discipline of study at that level. Just one other point to make at this stage: how do we view the 'That's what my instructor taught me', or higher authority, argument? Here, I think, is one of the differences between African and Western thought. A western view will say, that's fine in the short term, but why is my instructor telling me to do this? If you can't give me an answer to that question, then I really don't see why I should do this just because it's received wisdom. Experience teaches me to believe that an African viewpoint is comfortable with higher authority as a reason without the need for further explanation.
So, why do we as Christians believe what we believe? One way - can't remember where it comes from but it does seem to make sense - is to say that, depending on tradition, varying weights are given to the following 4 reasons:
- because that's what the Bible says;
- because that's a view formed through church history;
- through a process of reasoning;
- through direct revelation from God.
For the purposes of this blog I'm most interested in the first reason, the Bible, and a 5th reason which is not given above but actually needs thinking through, I suggest: we believe things as Christians because that is what believed in the world around us.
Garland (2009) cites three German theologians working in the Nazi era who, in effect, provided a theological justification for the oppression of Jews. Now, it's very easy, 80 years on, to say, "Guys, what on earth do you think you are doing? This is arguing that black is white, day is night, yes is no. Surely you can see that?" But all too easy to get caught up in the spirit of the age, much easier to see things clearly with the benefit of hindsight and historical perspective. To take another example: can I be absolutely sure that, had I been a white South African Christian in the apartheid era, I would have been an activist for equal rights? Or would I have been quite happy with the status quo? The only honest answer to this question is: I don't know, I very much like to think that it would have been the former, but I don't know.
Let me give 2 brief examples of where I think what we believe as Christians comes more from the world around us rather than the Bible, and then one more in a bit more detail. The first is marriage and singleness. Speaking as a single Christian, my experience is that, in Christian circles, marriage is regarded as a norm and singleness, particularly for a man, is regarded as an aberration, even as a reason for derision. Where, I ask, does an understanding of 1 Corinthians 7 come in? Has it been excised from our Bibles? What we think of as the Christian view, I suggest, actually comes from the world around us and only a partial reading of the Bible.
(Parenthetical thought: I have an embryonic idea for a future blog post imagining what it would be like for a married Christian to come into a church fellowship where singleness is the norm. 'Oh, so you're MARRIED, are you? How extraordinary! I suppose the Bible does allow for marriage in some situations, but this is most unusual and certainly not what we do here. How do you find the time to pray and read the Bible? Do please come to the picnic after church next week, but please note that your children won't be invited and you and your wife will have to sit separately." You get the idea. Let me know if you like the premise and I'll develop it further. End of parenthetical thought.)
Another related issue is polygamy, it's curious to note what the Bible actually says here. In Genesis the marriage principle of one man and one woman is clearly established between Adam and Eve, it's some generations later before polygamy is reported, against a background of increased sinfulness - although no connection between the two things is explicitly made. 1 Timothy 3: 2 says that leaders should have one wife - cross-referenced with other parts of the Bible, not least Paul's other writings, one can reasonably interpret this as at most one wife. But this is referring to leaders, not church members generally. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is polygamy condemned. What might we conclude from this? It's been suggested to me, and this seems to make sense, that there were situations in the ancient world which may well still have resonance today, If the choice for a woman is between destitution on the one hand and being part of a multiple marriage, then the latter may be the least worst option.
(Parenthetical thought: I was somewhat bemused to come across this news story about polygamy in Africa which states that, "Social researchers estimate that among Kenya's 29 million people, more than 50% of the men are polygamous and 30% of the women are part of a plural marriage." But hold on a moment, that can't be right, can it? Whilst there are situations - particularly warfare - whereby there are more women in a population than men, it is reasonable to assume that in Kenya the number of men and women of marriageable age is more or less equal. Which means that, once 50% of men have two wives, that is all the women spoken for. Where the 30% figure comes from goodness only knows. Coming back to the opening point, this is one of those occasions when we can prioritise what we can learn from reasoning over what we learn from other sources. More generally, in polygamous societies, either you need more women than men (eg. warfare), or the proportion of men involved is very small (eg. just the village chiefs) or there are large numbers of single men. End of parenthetical thought.)
The final example, which has been in my thoughts recently as my Bible reading has taken me to Colossians and Philemon, is slavery. On the face of it, this is straightforward. If we're made in the image of God, if Jesus came to bring us freedom, how can it possibly be appropriate for one person to own another, to have power of life and death over them, to be able to subject them to hard labour? We may well consider that William Wilberforce was acting entirely within the spirit and letter of the Christian faith in campaigning for the abolition of trans Atlantic slavery in the nineteenth century.
So, from this starting point, what do we learn about slavery from the Bible? In Genesis Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery as part of the sequence of events that culminates in him becoming Pharoah's number two in planning for the 7 year famine. Whilst we may consider that the act of selling him and the institution of slavery itself is wrong, this is not explicitly stated. In Genesis 45:5, as Joseph reveals himself to his terrified brothers, he tells them, "do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me here. It was really god who sent me ahead of you to save people's lives." Of course, one may well consider that this no more vindicates slavery than Jesus's resurrection and ascension vindicates Judas's betrayal.
In the laws set down in the Pentateuch reference is made to slavery, with rules around what can and can't be done. So Deuteronomy 15:12-18 sets out the idea that a slave from within the Israeli community should be released after 6 years unless the slave chooses to stay. Again, there is no condemnation of slavery as such.
In the New Testament there is fleeting mention of slave owners in 1 Timothy 1:10 in a list of evil doers. There is more substantive - but still brief - mention of slaves in Colossians 3:22-4:1 as part of a section on what Christian living means for different groups of people In brief, slaves need to work hard as for our Lord, and masters should be fair and just to their slaves. Again, we find no condemnation of the practice. I would just mention that Jesus would have been aware of slavery all around Him but He is not reported as saying anything about it.
The short book of Philemon is from Paul to the owner of the slave Onesimus. Making it very clear that he is asking not telling, Paul requests that the runaway slave be treated kindly on being re-established into the household. Again, there is no condemnation of the practice.
So how do we understand this? One crucial thing to note is that I think it is fair to say that our mental picture of slavery largely comes from the trans Atlantic slave trade - totally one sided as to race, once in the US and Caribbean largely segregated from the rest of the population, little possibility of release from slavery in their lifetimes. The Roman version certainly had its barbaric side, again giving slave owners power over life and death. But it was a much larger operation - in the first century AD it is estimated that something like 1/3 to 1/4 of the entire Southern Italy population were slaves, with no particular racial patterns and a large variety of jobs, release from slavery at age 30 was quite normal, with accounts of people selling themselves and their children into slavery as an alternative to destitution.
Whilst Paul did not condemn slavery, we may well consider that his exhortations particularly to slave owners was against the spirit of the day, asking that they be well treated. Was this enough? To a modern reader the answer is no, as an early Christian leader we may well feel he should have taken a stronger stand. One may counter argue that Paul's mission first and foremost was to establish the early church and to set clear teaching and patterns of behaviour within that, leaving behind principles which were later used to inspire others to take up this particular battle when Christianity was a greater power within society more generally than it was in his day. No one person can expect to do everything.
We are all, I suggest, creatures of our time and our immediate cultures, to a much greater extent than we normally realise. We may be blind to cultural traits which to us are normal and unproblematised, which from a different perspective will seem totally against the spirit and letter of the faith we practise. We may recognise that things are wrong around us, but consider before God that there are more effective ways of maintaining a Christian witness than to campaign against them. Let us pray for God's wisdom and understanding as we look to ensure that our views come firmly from within our Christian faith, to know when to speak out and when to keep quiet.