In an Australian political forum, a question directed to former Australian PM Kevin Rudd by Matt Prater, Pastor at the New Hope Pentecostal Church in Brisbane, claimed that Rudd switched his positions for political gain, especially regarding same-sex marriage. This lead to a salvo by Rudd claiming that the Bible also accepted slavery as a “natural condition,” and that no one thought this correct any longer. This, apparently, lead to an Twitter storm, both here and Down Under, in which numerous players weighed in on the propriety and truth of Rudd’s claim. Does the Bible support slavery? As a result, ABC in Australia attempted "to get to the bottom of this, and find out what the Bible really condones." The radio discussion involved Pastor Matt Prater, the man who first asked the question of Rudd, Sandy Grant, the senior minister at St Michael's Anglican Cathedral in Wollongong, and Andrew McGowan, the Warden of Trinity College in Melbourne. Both Prater and Grant deny that the Bible approves of or condones slavery; Andrew McGowan presents the truer face of the issue, that the Bible on occasion must be seen to approve of slavery, even if it subverts it in other ways. You can listen to their discussion here (it is about 46 minutes) as it is available on podcast.
The discussion sheds some light on the issue, but there are superb books available on the topic which will give an in-depth look at the practice of slavery in the ancient world and the Christian participation in ancient and late antique slavery. Here are a few of the books:
1) Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity;
2) Jennifer Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem: In the Early Church and Today;
3) J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions;
4) Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425;
5) Cornelia Horn and John W. Martens, Let the Little Children Come to Me: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity.
I can vouch for all of these excellent books (especially the one I co-wrote) and would especially encourage people to read Glancy’s groundbreaking work Slavery in Early Christianity and the equally pioneering book by Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425. Harper’s work undercuts the notion that the rise of Christianity in late antiquity lead to the end of slavery. The reality must be faced: slavery was common in ancient Israel and in early Christianity.
How do we deal with these texts today that approve of slavery? How we understand their historical contexts? How we interpret them and make sense of them today? These are significant questions, but the broader issue for me is how these texts fit in the context of a living tradition and the manner in which change in religion, the Church in particular, takes place. On the issue of slavery the tension is obvious: biblical texts condone slavery, and the Church accepted it for a long period of time, but Christians today understand it to be wrong and an evil practice. This is the dilemma: what in the course of a living tradition is able to/bound to change and what must remain the same throughout all time?
John W. Martens
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