In a recent town hall conference, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was asked by a pastor about why he now supports gay marriage.
Rudd began his response: “I concluded through my conscience, an informed conscience, and a Christian conscience, that it was the right thing to do. Let me tell you why.”
He then gave cliched answers about how people are “born gay,” and how the Bible’s message is about “universal love.”
But then, Rudd made this comment, which yielded thunderous applause: “If I’m going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because Paul said in the New Testament that slaves should obey masters, then we should all have fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.
See the full exchange here.
Does he have a point?
To borrow from PM Rudd, let me tell you why.
To begin, the Bible never recognizes slavery as part of the created order; that is to say, it only came into being after the Fall of mankind into sin.
Certainly, slavery was allowed in various parts of the Bible. For instance, the Old Testament Law permitted some forms of it, including captured warriors in enemy armies. Also, the Jews could voluntarily subject themselves to slavery to pay off a debt. For instance, Jacob agreed to work for Laban for seven years to obtain the privilege of marrying his daughter.
But it is also true that slaves were accorded certain rights. For instance, slaves had to be set free in the seventh year (Ex. 21:2). Also, they were protected from abuse, and kidnapping a slave was punishable by death.
When we arrive in the New testament, we are no longer a part of the theocracy of Old Testament Israel. We are now “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:12) in a foreign land. The only “nation” that is spoken of is the church (1 Peter 2:8), and it is scattered throughout the nations of the world. In fact, our situation is very much like that of the OT saints like Daniel who were in captivity. The Lord gave them instructions on how to conduct themselves in a foreign land:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7).
Notice that God does not call His people to re-create the theocracy; He merely calls on them to be good citizens. Certainly this could imply lobbying for some societal changes; after all, they (and we) are charged to “seek the welfare of the city” where they (and we) are right now. William Wilberforce certainly did this when he led the charge to abolish slavery in the British Empire.
That said, there may not always be the opportunity to do bring about social change via political action. This was so in the first century, where the Roman Empire was at the height of her powers. In this culture, slavery was a way of life. In fact, nearly one-third of the people were slaves of some sort.
In short, this was the context in which the Apostle Paul told his readers who were slaves to “submit to [their] masters.”
Does this amount to an endorsement of slavery on Paul’s part? Not so fast. Christianity was still in its very early years, and so its adherents were in no position to effect change on this or any other issue. In many cases, they were fighting for their very survival.
Additionally, when Rudd and others like him seek to place first century words into a twenty-first century context, they are forgetting something else as well: the same Paul who told slaves to obey their masters also condemned slave trading as a sin. In 1 Timothy 1:9, the Apostle writes, “understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers…”
It seems that whatever books of the Bible Mr. Rudd has read, 1 Timothy was not among them. For the purpose of this essay, isn’t it interesting that right after he condemns homosexuality, he then declares slave trading to be a sin, as the word for “enslavers” specifically refers to those involved in the slave trade.
Therefore, the Bible does not condone the type of slavery which was found in antebellum America. Even if one wants to argue that it does, they have to admit that the situation in 19th century America was far different from 1st century Rome, and thus does not give credence to Rudd’s faulty logic (i.e., the Bible endorses slavery; modern society and Christians both condemn slavery; the Bible condemns homosexual relationships; therefore, just as modern society and Christians condemn slavery, so too should they embrace homosexual relationships).
Thus, PM Rudd got off easy with his simplistic answer; let alone for acting on his “informed” and “Christian” conscience.
Then again, these are the times in which we live, and we are going to be seeing more, not less, instances of this type of confrontation. Christians need to be prepared to answer their critics even more, as our worldview is holding much less sway than it did even a decade ago. They should not just stand by when someone offers such a shallow answer as the one offered by Rudd.
And just for the record, this is not to condemn the pastor for asking the question. When Rudd responded, the clergyman looked like a deer staring into headlights. Indeed, I wonder how I would have done if I were in his shoes. But this goes to show the things that are needed: courage coupled with knowledge that is undergirded by love. May we strive to have each of these without sacrificing any of them.