Joshua Harris: Slave owners in the Bible = “employers” today

The Joshua Harris sermon I introduced an earlier post is the second in a pair of sermons on gender roles in marriage, and also part of a longer series on the book of 1 Peter.  The first sermon is, if anything, worse than the second.  I was particularly horrified by how Harris deals with the problematic fact that the passage he’s citing as evidence that women should obey (his words) their husbands also states that slaves should submit to their masters.  Actually, it says a hell of a lot more than that:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.  For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps . . . When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:13-18, ESV translation)

Right.  Obviously a pretty problematic passage for people who claim the Bible is an error-free, literally true moral and spiritual guide.  If you apply this passage literally, then not only is it totally fine to own slaves, but slaves should also endure beatings “with all respect” because it makes them more like Jesus.* Um.  And yet, it’s the consensus among most complementarians today** is that owning a slave is, in fact, a sin.

Seems like kind of contradiction, doesn’t it?  Complementarian pastors like Harris claim they have to teach, and women have to follow, doctrines of submission because they are “under the authority of the Word of God” and “called to obey that” without exceptions.  Harris even goes so far as to warn the women in his church that “You are not going to [make your husband be the kind of husband you want] if you try to go around the word of God and his call on you . . . it will backfire on you.”  Heavy words.

So if that’s the case, why not also teach that slavery is A-ok and that abolitionism was an evil rejection of God plan?  Or if Christians can reconsider what this passage and others say about slaves’ obligations to their masters, why can’t Christians also reconsider what the Bible says about submission in marriage?  There’s clearly a selective application of the passage here.

Harris admits that 1 Peter’s passage on submission in marriage is meant to be read in the context of the passage above.  So you’d think he would make some attempt to address this obvious inconsistency and explain why the Bible’s clear statement about slaves’ submission to masters and gracious enduring of beating is somehow different from its statements that wives should submit to husbands.  You’d think wrong.  Harris makes no effort at all to justify why the passages on slavery are an exception to an otherwise literalist biblical hermeneutic.  Worse, he engages in a disgusting bit of hand-waving and equivocation in which the slave owners suddenly become the equivalent of “employers” today (bold is my emphasis):

Peter lists three examples: government leaders, he talks about governors, and the emperors, who are set in place by God to determine and enforce laws; Masters, or employers in the workforce, and then husbands in the home, who are called to be the head of the family.  Now, now what this tells us, is that authority is God’s idea . . . Authority is, is a good thing.  Authority is all around us.

If you go to the workplace, uh, you want there to be leadership.  You know?  The, this idea that you know what, we should just all be equal, let’s just all show up and do what we think is right, and – Have you ever worked in a place like that?  that’s not a good place to work!  You know what you’re saying if youre in a place like that?  “I wish someone would bring leadership and set direction and help us to move forward as a company.”

Authority is a good thing, and the same is true when it comes to the home.  Someone has to lead.  And God has set authority and roles of leadership in these different contexts, and this is not a bad thing, it’s an expression of his care for his creation to establish authority in human institutions.

Soooo . . . That’s what this passage about slaves respecting their masters’ rights to own them is really all about.  Slave ownership – I’m sorry, being an “employer” to involuntary employees, I guess  – is an example of God’s kindness and care for us by blessing us with human institutions that bring leadership.    God didn’t want people getting any crazy ideas about equality and autonomy.   God was worried that some folks would just be lazing about or getting nothing done without, y’know, authoritative direction.  So God put some thought to it, and decided, fuck it, slavery sounds like a super good human institution for providing people with the leadership they so desperately need.  Someone has to lead.  And, uh, Roman oppressors, white slave owners, and your asshole boss are totally the same, all ordained by God to keep society from going to shit.  But don’t get us wrong – slavery isn’t cool today, even though God was cool with it in the 1st century.  And in the 19th century.  But not today.

And I’ve not even gotten to the part where he teaches married women that they are supposed to submit to their husbands in a similar way that slaves – beaten slaves – submit to masters.  More on that later.

For Harris and other complementarians, the Bible is completely inerrant and must be followed in its entirety, except on points they decide it doesn’t have to be followed anymore – points that suspiciously coincide with beliefs that the overwhelming majority of western society now considers to be either absurd or just plain evil. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that pastors like them have been on the wrong side of virtually every major civil rights issue for the past 150 years.  THIS time, when they say the Bible means women have to submit or homosexuality is evil, they are completely right, even though they were completely wrong about all that other stuff.  Well, that was a long time ago, and people were mistaken, and probably lots of them weren’t real Christians anyway.  Hmm.

This is what passes for “orthodox,” intellectually rigorous, morally upstanding teaching among complementarians, and this is far from the worst of it.  It’s so incredibly, blatantly dishonest, and so morally repugnant, that it completely boggles my mind to think that I ever listened to this stuff without immediately seeing it for the obvious bullshit that it is.  It’s amazing that it even has to be SAID that there is no moral or spiritual equivalence between an employer and a slave owner, or that a husband shouldn’t be like either.  It’s amazing that a pastor can spew such false and offensive bullshit at a church with thousands of members and not get called out on it.


* It probably won’t come as a shock to hear that this and other passages were used by Christian pro-slavery apologists in the US to defend the enslavement of African Americans.  An inerrantist or literal reading of the Bible doesn’t support the idea that slavery is wrong.  Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is a good overview of how Christians on the pro-slavery side of the debate actually had a much stronger biblical case for their stance than Christian abolitionists, who also attempted to use the Bible to defend their views.

** There are a few complementarians who believe Christians can own slaves – more on this in a future post.

6 Comments

  1. I think it’s a fascinating idea that come maybe 50 or 100 years down the line (maybe more, idk) that the idea that homosexuality is wrong will probably be so eradciated, and pastors will have found ways to justify those scriptures as not being relevant today. Because even though those who believe the Bible literally like to believe that those beliefs come from God and have never changed and never been wrong…most of our thoughts and beliefs and values are products of our time and the people who influence us. It’s always an interesting thought of what kinds of right and wrong ideals will exist as time progresses.

    I told my mother that I had no plans of submitting to my husband, and when she got over the shock of “Oh my God, my daughter’s going down the path of sin!” she asked me how was that possible? She could not conceive of how a marriage could work without submission. She wanted to know how decisions could even be made that way, and when I suggested the possibility of compromise, or that sometimes I would defer to him and sometimes he would defer to me, she could not wrap her mind around the concept.

    Those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible are so certain of the rightness of their interpretation, that it doesn’t matter when they contradict themselves, or how much the have to twist scripture. Their beliefs come first and the Bible is molded to fit those beliefs.

    • She could not conceive of how a marriage could work without submission. She wanted to know how decisions could even be made that way, and when I suggested the possibility of compromise, or that sometimes I would defer to him and sometimes he would defer to me, she could not wrap her mind around the concept.

      Ugh, yes, I’ve encountered this too. I don’t really get the whole “someone has to lead” mentality. Why? No one has to “lead” in a relationship between two friends. Are they saying that a friendship should have more companionship, compromise, mutual respect, and equality than a marriage? That’s messed up.

      Those who believe in the infallibility of the Bible are so certain of the rightness of their interpretation, that it doesn’t matter when they contradict themselves, or how much the have to twist scripture. Their beliefs come first and the Bible is molded to fit those beliefs.

      So true. They pick and choose and read into the Bible whatever they want to see. But it’s so difficult to get the literalists to see their hypocrisy, even though it’s completely obvious to everyone else.

      • I’ve heard the slippery slope argument – that somehow by rejecting the Bible as literal and inerrant, it’ll then devolve into only picking and choosing the scriptures that you want to believe, and throwing out the rest. The interesting thing is is that literalists *already* do this. I find it to be a worse slippery slope to decide that we don’t know if there are parts of the Bible that should be interpreted differently or parts that are not accurate and decide it’s better to take everything then at face value.

  2. Pingback: “For your good”: Joshua Harris’s “Word to Wives”, pt. 3) « Are Women Human?

  3. I don’t think the passage in 1peter was saying its ok to own slaves, it. was saying if u are a slave to take the unjust beatings…and so on. Right? (And besides, that was a different age and different culture, we can hardly understand it by comparing it to our modern lifestyle.)

    • It’s interesting to me that what the New Testament says in various places on slavery is waved away by evangelicals as the mindset of “a different age” because we disagree with it and it makes them uncomfortable (particularly uncomfortable with the fact that not 200 years ago white evangelical Christians were using the same passages to defend the enslavement of black people). Meanwhile, what the New Testament has to say on female submission in marriage, and female leadership in the church, is presented as timeless and universal. Odd contradiction there.

      You can choose to read the NT as not supporting slavery, though I think that’s quite a stretch given that slavery is never condemned anywhere in the Bible. Even so interpreting the passage to mean slaves should take unjust beatings doesn’t exactly make the passage sound better. Just sayin’.