In the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement that he supports redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, many news outlets featured stories that compared the desire of gay couples for marriage to the plight of the American slaves. In fact, it became a common theme that black churches who opposed gay marriage were guilty of cultural and biblical hypocrisy.
Many of these articles even expressly stated that the use of the Bible to limit marriage to heterosexual unions is tantamount to supporting the kidnapping, sale, and perpetual ownership of Africans as slaves. After all, some slave owners used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery, and some Americans are using the Bible to define marriage, so the similarities should be obvious.
Here is an excerpt from one example, titled “Is the black church guilty of spiritual hypocrisy in same-sex marriage debate?” from CNN’s religion blog:
Why would the black church cite scripture to exclude gays when a similar approach to the Bible was used to enslave their ancestors?
“It’s so unfortunate,” says James Cone, one the nation’s most influential black theologians and author of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”
“The literal approach to scripture was used to enslave black people,” he says. “I’ve said many times in black churches that the black church is on the wrong side of history on this. It’s so sad because they were on the right side of history in their own struggle.”
Call it historical irony: Black church leaders arguing against same-sex marriage are making some of the same arguments that supporters of slavery made in the 18th and 19th centuries, some historians say. Both groups adopted a literal reading of the Bible to justify withholding basic rights from a particular group.
These articles (which appeared in dozens of major news publications over the last few weeks) are by necessity short on actual scripture references. But they generally followed this argument:
1. A literal reading of Scripture defines marriage as heterosexual
2. A literal reading of Scripture was also used to validate American slavery
3. American slavery was morally wrong
4. Therefore the Bible should not be used by anyone, but especially black churches, to define marriage
It is precisely the second point—that a literal reading of the Bible validates American slavery—where this argument errs. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Here are four reasons why a literal reading of the Bible actually condemns the institution of American slavery:
1) Kidnapping someone for any purpose—but especially for the purpose of slavery—is a capital crime in the Bible. Exodus 21:16 reads, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” This passage, if treated literally, would have ended the American institution of slavery.
2) Slavery in Old Testament times was fundamentally different than American slavery. It was an institution of mercy, which people entered voluntarily, for the purpose of providing for their families. It was not based on the kidnapping, sale, and ownership of individuals. Slaves were released very six years (Exodus 21:2). There is no concept of perpetual slavery in the Bible.
3) The Bible prohibits returning run-away slaves to their masters. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 forbids fugitive slave laws. If a slave runs away, he is given his freedom and is allowed to dwell “wherever it suits him.”
4) In the Roman world, where kidnapping for slavery was more common, the New Testament says that a person who sinned in such a way was not welcome in the church. In 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul writes that “enslavers” have no place in the kingdom of God. The Greek word used for “enslavers” refers to those who took people into slavery against their will.
Much could be said about the horrors of American slavery. But any assessment of the Bible’s teaching leads to the realization that Scripture actually stands in opposition to the American slave trade. Yes, the Bible does say, “slaves, obey your masters” (Eph 6:5). But the kind of slavery described in the Bible is fundamentally different than the kind of slavery that was practiced in the Americas, and any honest historian should know that.
There is a real irony to the accusation that deriving a heterosexual definition of marriage from the Bible is analogous to using Scripture to justify of American slavery. In fact, in the list of practices that have no place in the church (found in 1 Timothy 1:9-10), right before “enslavers” is this word: “homosexuals.” The exact same passage that condemns the forcible trade of humans as property also condemns the act of homosexuality.
You can believe that passage, or you can reject it. But what you can’t do is say that those who twisted Scripture to defend slavery are using the same arguments as those that define marriage in heterosexual terms. The comparison actually goes in the opposite direction:
1. The Bible condemns both the act of kidnapping and the ownership of a person against his or her will
2. The Bible also describes homosexual acts as being sinful
In the gay marriage debate, the ones using slave era hermeneutics are those that ignore the clear teaching of Scripture on marriage.