(RNS) – The Bible says the truth will set you free, but according to popular pastor John MacArthur, the Bible also leaves plenty of room to enslave people.
Last month, the Baptist News Global news site published a catalog of past comments on race and slavery made by MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. His views sounded like something out of the pre-war South. “It’s kind of strange that we have such a dislike for slavery because historically there has been abuse…” he said in a 2012 video accompanying the article. “Slavery is not wrong if you have the right master. It’s the perfect scenario.
Once named one of the “25 most influential preachers of the past 50 years” by Christianity Today, MacArthur claimed that Jesus and the apostles “did not upset the social order” and that “Christianity does not give equal social rights”. He promoted “The Curse of Ham”, a debunked idea derived from the biblical story of Noah which asserts that the descendants of certain races “are doomed to perpetual slavery”. It has historically been used by Christian slave owners as a moral justification for their actions.
Disgusting as they are, MacArthur’s comments are not surprising. A self-proclaimed biblical literalist, he believes that every part of the Bible should be understood literally and obeyed completely, no matter how outdated, offensive or harmful. His thoughts on slavery offer a warning about the dangers of reading a religious text written thousands of years ago with naïve absolutism.
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The Bible itself says relatively little about how it should be read and applied. St. Paul’s letter to Timothy refers to Scripture as “God-inspired,” a nice word picture but a far cry from the literalist slogan, “God said so, I believe so, that settles the problem.” Biblical literalism began to take hold during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther and others undermined a corrupt church hierarchy by asserting that the Bible was the sole and superior authority on all matters of faith.
Today, it persists especially among conservative and fundamentalist Protestants. When Gallup last polled Americans on this topic, only 24% said the Bible “must be taken literally, word for word.” In contrast, 47% said the Bible was “inspired by God, and should not be taken literally.”
But taking the scriptures literally is not a clear question, even for devout believers. Most literalists are inconsistent at best. Some verses – like the command to “love your neighbour” – are faithfully adopted and literally applied. Others are driven by reason. Few Christians follow the commandments regarding foot washing, Sabbath observance, or the giving up of physical possessions. Women rarely cover their heads when praying. Many Christian bankers ignore the Bible’s repeated prohibitions against lending money at interest.
In my four years as a pastor in a conservative Southern Baptist church in my twenties, I encountered many “literalists” who quoted the Bible according to their own values. A young couple once chastised me for allowing a woman to teach a co-ed Bible study class, claiming it violated the second letter of Timothy of the New Testament: “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man”. it is said in chapter 2.
But they fell silent when I asked why he ignored the commandment in the same chapter requiring men to raise their hands during prayer, or why she ignored verse 9, which forbids women to have fancy hairstyles or to wear gold jewelry and expensive clothes.
The couple left our church soon after, still stubbornly convinced that they were Bible literalists.
When the eminent New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, studied Christians who claimed to follow the Bible exactly, he observed that everyone “adopts and adapts” the teachings of the Bible. Most so-called literalists, McKnight also discovered, can’t tell you Why they pick and choose what they do.
The desire to take the Bible at face value no doubt stems from noble intentions. Those who are deeply attached to their faith strive to receive their sacred texts with seriousness. But the insistence on biblical literalism is more than rigid; It can be dangerous.
Texas pastor Dillon Awes recently said gay people should be tried for their crimes and put to death, citing a law in the Book of Leviticus that prescribes the death penalty “if a man has sex with a man.” As Awes said in his sermon, “That’s what the Bible says. You don’t like it? You don’t like the Word of God, because that’s what God says.
As the Washington Post recently reported, evangelist Franklin Graham advised a victim of domestic abuse to return to her husband. The Bible allows for divorce in cases of infidelity and abandonment, but makes no similar provision for those who experience violence or other forms of abuse at the hands of their spouse. One can only assume that Graham’s advice was based on the silence of the Bible.
Similarly, MacArthur derives his view of slavery from a literal reading of the Bible, which addresses slavery hundreds of times. Many verses endorse slavery, with reading as a user manual for how to regulate it. Exactly no verse explicitly condemns it. As MacArthur said, “the Bible is very clear” on the subject, and he’s not wrong, if you read the text as he does.
The apostle Paul commands slaves “to obey your masters with fear and trembling”, an order echoed by Peter, who added that slaves should submit “not only to (masters) who are good and considerate, but also to those who are hard.” .” In Paul’s letter to Philemon, the apostle even commands a runaway slave to return to his master. This is why true biblical literalists have a hard time defending Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.
Fortunately, there are many faithful and nonliteralistic ways to read the Bible. Discerning readers can appreciate the humanity of the scriptural writers who, though inspired, were not without bias and blind spots. Some Christians take a “Jesus-centered” approach, centering the red-lettered words of the Gospels when making interpretative decisions about the rest of the text. Others deal with sensitive issues such as slavery and women’s equality by charting the trajectory of the Bible as it evolves into positions of greater freedom and mutuality. What a single verse says is therefore less important than where the Bible takes us in time.
At the end of the 19e century, Christian abolitionists countered white supremacist literalism by appealing to the Bible as a whole. According to historian Mark Noll: “This (abolitionist) position could not simply be read from a single biblical text; it could not be removed directly from the page. Rather, it required patient reflection on the entirety of Scripture. In the hands of abolitionists and the civil rights leaders who followed them, the text was transformed from a tool of subjugation into a force of liberation.
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Wilda Gafney, a teacher at Brite Divinity School, taught her students to stop asking themselves, “Is the Bible true?” to “How is the Bible true?” Having determined what the text said to its original readers, modern Christians can then determine how its values and themes apply today. This treats the Bible as the beginning of a conversation about matters of faith, not the end.
“If this all sounds like hard work, it is,” Gafney writes. “Not all readers are prepared to delve into questions about genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text. Many prefer simplistic formulas.
However, those who opt for simplistic formulas and flat literalism are not content to choose the easy route. They open the door to moral justifications for a range of social ills – trapping women in abusive relationships, executing gay people, even slavery. At a time when the stakes are so high, Christians must accept that the only way to take the Bible seriously is to stop taking every word literally.