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A Slave to a Hermeneutic

Currier & Ives Lithography Company, The Death of Charles Sumner (1874), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Kiplinger Family.

The Adult Bible Study Guide continues its examination of Ephesians, this week dealing with troubling texts again. Last week it was the gendered language around marital submission. A similar focus on power relationships continues this week as the lesson parses the problematic language in Ephesians 6:1-9. The verses move from reminding children to obey their parents to telling slaves not only to obey their masters, but to do it for Christ. It raises many questions, including how one can believe in biblical literalism while critically engaging the historical use of such texts to theologically justify the horrors of slavery.

As Spectrum’s commentary for this quarter has done before, it’s important to recognize that many scholars consider Paul the author of Ephesians, and many scholars—including Adventists—believe that some of the New Testament epistles were written later by someone else. One reason is that, in the letters Paul clearly wrote, there is an apocalyptic sense that since Christ’s risen presence proved the nowness of the eschaton (end of history/beginning kingdom of God), the normal order and rules of society were not very important. Ephesians feels different. With a community organizing focus on order and hierarchy, perhaps it was written for a later generation of the Jesus movement. 

An earlier commentary in July by New Testament scholar Herold Weiss elegantly contrasts the message of Paul with the themes in Ephesians. “Even though Paul and the anonymous author of Ephesians have different visions of what is the eternal plan of God, they agree that it is to give God’s creation a full harmonious and fruitful existence.” Weiss concludes the essay, “imitating the author of Ephesians, quoting Paul: ‘I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say’ (1 Cor. 10:15). It is also to point out that investigations of the authorship of a biblical book have nothing to say about the book’s inspiration or canonicity. Authorship and status are totally different matters. They are, however, very useful if the book is to be read intelligently.” This critical lens can be helpful when studying Ephesians 5 and 6, as this style and theme awareness helps to square Paul’s grand egalitarian vision for the Jesus movement (Gal. 3:28, Romans 16) with these social orders to the Ephesians reinforcing Roman rules around wifely submission and slave obedience. Simply put, employing historical-critical tools allows us to see the tensions in the text. As a result, interpretations are less likely to force sentences to be literally relevant to the detriment of ethical considerations and social reform. 

On Tuesday, the Adult Bible Study Guide addresses slavery in the first century context, but it fails to address the hermeneutical legacy of the text itself. It makes distinctions about the practice of slavery at various times and in various cultures, stating, “Slavery in the Greco-Roman world could differ from the later version in the New World in significant ways. It was not focused on a single ethnic group.” It calls all slavery an inexcusable evil. What’s missing is awareness of how its own hermeneutic is fed by the literalist roots that sustained the evil of slavery within the Christian theological tradition.  

Moving beyond the historical record, the lesson returns to the text. Using the tools of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation—the General Conference endorsed “Adventist hermeneutic”—it tries to reduce the slavery endorsement horror. 

Slavery was an ever-present evil in Paul’s world. He addresses it, not as a social reformer but as a pastor who advises believers how to deal with current realities and to cast a new vision centered on the transformation of the individual believer, which later could have wider implications for society at large. 

There is more than one model of pastoring. There are lots of pastors, particularly in the African-American tradition, who do just fine helping believers deal with “current realities” while also calling for change. Ever-present, systemic evil existed in the first century and it exists today. Pastors can be social reformers too. Additionally, the focus on the “individual” and the inclusion of “could” in this passage is telling. This is a moral failing by the contributors to the Adult Bible Study Guide. They try to save the text by retreating to an individualistic focus of change and a modal ambivalence about Christianity having any ethical applications outside the home and the church. 

This ethical model had real world consequences. So does this biblical text. The book, Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments: Comprising the Writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, On This Important Subject, by E. N. Elliott, was written by theologians and other leading men in 1860. The University of Houston’s Digital History site summarizes the almost 900-page book, stating that its purpose was to argue “that slavery was a humane and truly Christian institution, economically productive and justified by Scripture.” It contains several separate sections focused on the inspired word of God, including one titled “The Bible Argument: or, Slavery in the Light of Divine Revelation,” which includes “a full investigation of the Scripture texts on the subject.” 

Another section of the book attacks the unbiblical advocacy by abolitionists who called for slaves to “fly” or run away from bondage and thus disobey their masters. The anti-slavery Mr. Sumner mentioned below is the senator from Massachusetts whose head was beaten for more than a minute by pro-slavery South Carolina representative Preston Brooks wielding a gold topped cane. It was premeditated. Sumner’s head injuries, PTSD, and chronic pain were so bad that he couldn’t return to the Senate for three years. Florida, Virginia, and Georgia all have towns named in honor of Brooks.

The pro-slavery book roots its arguments in an assembly of proof-texts buttressed by a plain reading of scripture, stating: 

The precept in question is not an isolated injunction of the New Testament. It does not stand alone. It is surrounded by other injunctions, equally authoritative, equally explicit, equally unequivocal. Thus, in Eph. vi. 5: "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh." Precisely the same doctrine was preached to the Colossians: (iii. 22:) "Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing God." Again, in St. Paul's Epistle to Timothy, he writes: "Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed." Likewise, in Tit. ii. 9, 10, we read: "Exhort servants to be obedient to their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; not purloining, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things." And in 1 Pet. ii. 18, it is written: "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward." Yet, in the face of these passages, Mr. Sumner declares that it is the duty of slaves to fly from bondage, and thereby place themselves among "the heroes of the age." He does not attempt to interpret or explain these precepts; he merely sets them aside, or passes them by with silent contempt, as "imperfect." Indeed, if his doctrines be true, they are not only imperfect—they are radically wrong and infamously vicious. Thus, the issue which Mr. Sumner has made up is not with the slaveholders of the South; it is with the word of God itself. The contradiction is direct, plain, palpable, and without even the decency of a pretended disguise. We shall leave Mr. Sumner to settle this issue and controversy with the Divine Author of revelation.

Parrotted by anti-women’s ordination apologists and denominational homophobes, proof-texts provide literalists the go-to argument that the social reformer’s fight is with scripture itself. The assembly of proof-texts interpreted through the historical-grammatical model works now just like it did against the abolitionists. Maybe it’s time to listen to senator Charles Sumner and move beyond this “imperfect” method.


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Currier & Ives Lithography Company, The Death of Charles Sumner (1874), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Kiplinger Family

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