Slaves, Women, and the State: How Inerrancy Perpetuates Systemic Oppression of Minorities

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Last time, discussing Romans 13 and state violence, I stated that Romans 13 is not a model for what Christian political influence should look like. Proposing some sort of Christian model of government was not even on Paul’s radar at the time. It would have been inconceivable for Paul to imagine that his little band of Jesus-followers would be able to tell the Roman Empire how to run things.

The fact is, the NT does not tell us at all what it would look like to run a society based on the values of Jesus. It was just not something that was on their radar. That does not necessarily mean we should not pursue this in our time some 2000 years later, finding ourselves in a very different political situation. I think we should. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is crucial that we are engaged in working for justice in our world.

The answers, however, will not be found by flipping open the Bible to a verse or chapter that tells us the formula for how a Jesus-shaped society should look. There is no blueprint or proof-text. That’s because the New Testament writers did not even begin to think about this.

We see in the NT the first steps in a new direction, the direction of Jesus. These are ground-breaking, earth-shattering first steps, but they can’t be the last steps. We need to keep moving forward. That entails deeply understanding the values of Jesus so that we can work to creatively apply these values in our world.

The key here is creative freedom. Jesus shows a tremendous amount of creative freedom in how he approaches Scripture. We need to learn to do that, too. That means moving away from reading the Bible in the unquestioning way that is so characteristic of conservative Evangelicalism—blindly following it without any thought or moral reflection. But it means more than this. It also means being able to question the NT authors—or to state it differently, to be able to engage with them in a moral dialog.

For example, let's focus on a subject that the NT does address, which is how a suffering and mistreated minority should respond to unjust treatment by those in power. In a passage very similar to Romans 13, Peter writes,
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Note that, as in Romans 13, we have here the same description of state violence having the God-given purpose of “punishing those who do wrong.”

Peter then moves from state violence to slavery, again calling for submission. Note how he goes from speaking of state violence in one sentence (which we still believe in today) to speaking of slavery in the next (which we no longer believe in),
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2:17-18)
It does not work to maintain that one thing (state violence) is a God-given order, and another (slavery) is a bad thing. The fact is, both of these were equally part of the unquestioned reality at the time. Just as we today likely cannot imagine a world without state violence, they could not imagine a world without slavery.

Many have made the assertion that the form of slavery that the Bible condones was not as inhumane as the sort of slavery that was practiced in the American South. That is profoundly wrong, not to mention naive. Slavery, as it was practiced in Rome, was inhumane and brutal. Note that Peter speaks of slave masters “who are harsh” here. Just in case there was any doubt as to what Peter means, he clarifies this in the next sentence,
“For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” (1 Peter 2:19-20)
This was a time where beating slaves was considered par for the course, and Peter does not question it as wrong. He does not question the institution of slavery, nor does he demand that one cannot hold slaves as a follower of Jesus (can you imagine a pastor saying today that it was okay for someone in their congregation to be involved in human trafficking?), nor does Peter say that it is immoral to beat someone if they have “done wrong.” In fact he says the opposite, reflecting the moral assumptions of his day. Slaves were beaten for disobedience. If you want to know how slaves were beaten in Rome, the Gospel accounts of how Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers can give you a pretty good idea. It was brutal and bloody and ugly. Let's not kid ourselves about that.

Peter then goes on to speak of women submitting to their husbands,
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1)
Note the phrase “in the same way” here. That is, in the same way as slaves should submit to their masters beating them, wives should submit to their husbands. This is not an unfair parallel. It was common for husbands to beat their wives at the time. After all, wives were considered property just as slaves were (as a side note, if you want to uphold the idea of "biblical marriage" you might want to reconsider that one). We might forget that this was the reality, living in the West some 2000 years later where domestic violence is considered a crime, but that was the reality in biblical times.

Now, in all of this Peter is speaking to oppressed minorities. He is himself part of that group. He sees them as a people who are suffering and mistreated. He does not think this situation is good or okay or right, but he counsels them nevertheless to endure suffering for the sake of Christ, and to return good for evil,
“All of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Note that, in addition to using words throughout like “mistreat” and “suffer,” Peter calls what they are enduring here “evil”. The violence of the state they endured was evil. Slavery is evil. Domestic abuse is evil. It would be a profound misreading to think that Peter is here saying that state violence, or beating slaves, or submission of women, was God’s will for all time that we should regard as good and right.

However, I think we can legitimately question whether Peter’s advice here is even good advice for those in a situation of oppression. Should those who are oppressed and mistreated simply passively submit? Is that really the best expression of what being faithful to Jesus means? Is our only choice between either violent action or passive inaction? Does this mean that women should remain in abusive marriages “for Christ”? Does this mean that people of color should not protest police brutality and abuse, and instead just keep quiet?

If we want to apply what Peter is saying, then the answer to all of the above questions would be yes. I would instead maintain that following the way of Jesus must involve actively working towards an end to suffering and injustice. However, we will only find seeds of that in the New Testament. We need to learn how to take those seeds and make them grow, and to do that we need to look to people like Gandhi and MLK who have taken the way of Jesus further than the New Testament was able to.

It’s important to recognize that they are going further than the NT goes. Often progressive Christians will act as if this is not happening, as if one should be able to just pick up the NT and arrive at what Martin Luther King did straight out of the box. But this does both him and us a disservice, because it acts as if moral creativity and innovation in our reading of Scripture is not necessary, and an on-the-page reading of the Bible is all we need. That simply isn’t true. We need to be able to take the ideas of Jesus and really make them fly. This approach to Scripture is captured quite well in this quote by Jürgen Moltmann,

“I noticed how critical and free I have become towards [the biblical writings]. Of course I want to know what they intend to say, but I do not feel bound to take only want they say, and repeat it, and interpret it.... In other words, I take Scripture as a stimulus to my own theological thinking, not as an authoritative blueprint and confining boundary...
[God’s Word] is not bound to a patriarchal culture and the disparagement of women, or to a slave-owning society... even though all this is the context in which the biblical writings were framed. Only what goes beyond the times in which the texts were written and points into our future is relevant—God’s history of promise, and the history of [God’s] future.
This ‘matter of Scripture’ gives us creative liberty towards the utterances of Scripture which are subject to their time. It is along these lines, I believe, that I developed my use of the Bible”  Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, p. xxii.

Moltmann is able to do such groundbreaking theology because he allows the Bible to give wings to his creative thinking, rather than having it become a tether to keep us earth-bound. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, I see Jesus as an example of exactly this kind of morally innovative approach to Scripture. If we want to read Scripture like Jesus, then we need to exercise that same kind of freedom.

That involves learning to not be afraid to think and question in the name of compassion, even if we need to question the NT to do that. So, yes, I am saying that Peter was wrong about this. It’s okay to say this. Paul told Peter he was wrong, too (Galatians 2:11), so I even have biblical precedent here! But kidding aside, I would think that Peter would actually rejoice to see how the way of Jesus could be applied in a way that leads to an end to suffering and the furthering of love.

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At 1:49 PM, OpenID spiritualdrift said...

Good article, Derek. Thank you.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger dadof7 said...

Although I strongly agree with your ideas, with creative freedom comes a great deal of responsibility. Jesus gives many a warning against leading people astray. What and who keeps us accountable other than our own conscience?

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Loved the article (Derek?) (Are you a Professor or a Doctor Flood? How would you like to be addressed? Just curious). I loved the analogy of our contemporary, slavery-complex in the sex-trafficking. That was truly original. My question in my own heart has to deal with Anabaptism. I've learned a great deal from Dr. Gregory Boyd, and his conservative-Anabaptist approach to discipleship is that government isn't that great of a deal compared to to bringing the kingdom of God in through our community efforts and in our daily life. I'm sure you've heard his critic of Christians getting into government. How would you respond to the classical, Anabaptist-approach to government involvement? Were the Anabaptists wrong for their emphasis away from changing governmental structures? Was Gandhi/MLK the ultimate critic for doing kingdom?

As always, love your stuff.

At 7:38 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, it's a huge responsibility that we need to take with the utmost certainty. I assume from your username that you have kids. That's a huge responsibility too. As a parent you basically have their lives, their development, their well-being in your hand. That's huge. But that's what all of us parents need to take on.

So too with this, we need to move into spiritual maturity, taking responsibility. It's a big responsibility, but hey that's what it means to be a grownup, right?

In that it is certainly good to learn from those who have more experience than we do--a mentor, and elder, a teacher. It's also ideal to be part of practicing community so we can learn from our shared experiences together. The key word here is "practicing" as in we learn by doing, and so we can identify those who have more praxis than we, and benefit from their wisdom.

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Just call me Derek. I'm not big on formalities :)

I recognize that politics is often corrupted by money, and appreciate that lots of Christians can get really blinded by the powerful pretending that they care about the things Jesus does when really they just want to use us to get votes. That has basically been the plot line of conservative Evangelicalism and the GOP since 1980. There's a whole lot of B.S. in D.C. for sure.

At the same time, I'm glad we have laws that protect people's civil rights, human rights, and so on. Laws are important. I don't think we should remove ourselves from that process. How we can influence things is a complex question. But I do think it's important to do what we can to work towards making our society more humane.

One example I really love is how Mennonites (who are famous for excluding themselves from these sort of things) worked to reform prisons to use programs of restorative justice. If you're not familiar with it, Google it sometime. Really inspiring.

Also I've been impressed with Elizabeth Warren. Everyone keeps telling her to run for President and she keeps refusing. No one can understand why, but I think I know. I think just maybe she wants to focus on change and doing good, rather than on money and elections. That's what politicians are supposed to be like. But like JC said "the love of money is the at the root of all sorts of evil."

At 4:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Acts 5:29 it’s Peter who says, in answer to the Jewish authorities, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” The Jewish authorities were just as God-ordained as the state. There is no reason to suppose that Peter would’ve submitted to state authorities forbidding preaching the gospel.

I say this because I think it is pretty clear what Peter means when he talks about submitting to human authorities in 1 Peter 2:13. He obviously does not mean that they should be obeyed in every instance, or he wouldn’t have said what he said in Acts, and wouldn’t have fearlessly preached the gospel in spite of state persecution. In the immediate context he’s talking about the testimony Christ-followers provide by the lives they lead, specifically by their honesty and self-control. He is letting Christians know that they’re not to go around thinking that because they answer to a higher authority or because they are governed by love, they are therefore above the law and can disregard it. They are declaring the lordship of Jesus over Caesar, but they aren’t carrying out a political revolt against Caesar’s government.

Neither are we, for that matter. However, unlike our early predecessors, we (at least here in the West) do have the opportunity to influence public policy, directly or indirectly, and can call our governments to account or voice our disagreement and expect to be listened to (although a radical Anabaptist might say that is not our business). Doing so is a privilege we are accorded under the state, and is therefore not a throwing off of the yoke of government, even though we exercise that privilege in a way that recognizes the superior lordship of Jesus (and a biblical or Christian anthropology). We should use whatever means we are given as generally law-abiding citizens to help people live justly; and there could be some instances where we cannot actually obey Jesus and love our neighbour without disobeying the authorities, like Peter did in Acts 5.

I think the above is a perfectly reasonable and natural understanding of the texts involved and arrives at an ethic of love and respect (one already well beyond most of us), without having to disagree with Peter; in fact it does more justice to what Peter says than an unnatural absolutism. As such it is just an example; but I think there are probably more such examples.

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for your comment, I think you make a valid point. Peter is writing to people in a context that is vastly different from our own. In that particular situation it very well could be that the only thing they could do was make the best of where they were at with no real possibility of changing it. Where Peter's letter becomes problematic is when we see it as a general principle that should be applied today, and thus take it to mean that we should not seek to change hurtful structures even we might be able to.

I do think we should aim to derive general principles that we can apply to our lives from Scripture so we an apply the way of Jesus in our own lives today. However, the NT epistles is not comprised of general principles, but a collection of personal letters written to particular people addressing particular situations in a particular context. So if we wish to derive any sort of general truth from that, it involves deeply understanding what lies beneath the particulars. This involves getting the cultural/historical/political context to be sure--and that is the sort of thing you learn in a seminary class on exegesis. What it also involves (and this I would say is more important and cannot be taught in a class) is living this out in our lives so that we get it because we have walked it. When exegesis is defined only in terms of academia, this gets lost. You really can only know what you live.

p.s. next time, please tell us your name. No need to be anonymous.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Derek Flood!!! Where you at?


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