Be Not Conformed to this World

It was my original intention to carefully and methodically go through the classical apologetic arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. While I hope to write more frequently and post more on the blog than I have lately, the direction of the blog may not work out exactly as planned. So be it.

What sparked this particular post, resurrecting Think On These Things like a Phoenix from the ashes, was a link I saw on Twitter.

The theology of the revivalists who led the Great Awakening was shaped by toxic lies that rationalized injustice: http://t.co/yaLROjGrCv

Intrigued, I clicked on the link led to a Patheos blog post entitled Our job is to unlearn the lies we learned from the theologians of slavery (part 1). I am by no means an expert on The Great Awakening, but nearly everything I had read previously depicted it in a positive light, thus the intrigue. I am guessing this is the sort of thing that Fred Clark, the writer of the blog, was banking on in order to grab the readers’ attention.

He dropped a bombshell on folks like me who have heard or read a few glowing accounts of The Great Awakening and other revivals: George Whitefield was a SLAVE OWNER! The post itself is a response to historian Thomas Kidd, whom Clark feels did not express enough righteous indignation against Whitefield for being a slaveowner.

I am sure that better read folks and historical experts already knew this. I did not, and I am certain many others did not know either. I fully agree with the author that chattel slavery in America was a thoroughly heinous practice that was justly abolished. I also agree that owning a slave was a serious black mark against Whitefield’s integrity as a minister of the gospel. However, Clark’s thinking on the matter apart from this goes awry.

Whitefield’s slave-owning and his lobbying for the legalization of slavery in Georgia were, in fact, an integral part of his identity. They were an integral part of his theology — his piety, his revivalism, his hermeneutic, his doctrine.

And thus they have become an integral part of our theology, piety, revivalism, hermeneutic and doctrine. Whitefield’s theology shaped the American church. Whitefield’s theology was grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery.

American theology and the American church are grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery.

American theology and the American church are (present tense!) essentially misshapen by slavery. Did you know this? That must be why so many American Christian ministries are promoting slavery today.

Clark similarly slanders Jonathan Edwards (and all Calvinists):

The focus here is entirely on reputation. Kidd is concerned with how we ought to assess the reputation of theologians like Whitefield and Edwards, and thus also with how to maintain our own reputation in properly remembering them.

And thus Kidd winds up distracting himself from what began as a hard look at a crucially important question, ultimately settling on a flaccidly platitudinous moral to the story: “God uses deeply flawed people.”

Well, first of all, no duh. “Deeply flawed people” is redundant. (As Edwards himself taught. Thus, Calvinism.)

Jonathan Edwards believed some deadly lies. And he taught us to believe those lies too. That’s a big problem.

Which are?

Unfortunately for the reader, Clark failed to mention what these teachings might be. Although it turns out that Edwards was a slave owner as well, from what I understand he never actually taught, preached, or published on the subject. Perhaps it is that “God uses deeply flawed people”? I suppose this is a jab at the doctrine of total depravity. What it actually reveals is that Clark sees himself as actually morally superior to Whitefield and Edwards, and by extension American Evangelical Christians–especially Calvinists.

For all of Clark’s apparent moral outrage at early American ministers who own slaves, his real target seems to be present-day American conservative Evangelicals. Evangelicals are (at least) wrong to uphold the slave owning preachers of The Great Awakening as heroes of the faith. In fact, he continually makes statements in his post suggesting that because Edwards and Whitefield owned slaves at all, none of their teaching can be trusted. According to Clark, slavery was actually somehow essential to their worldview. He never actually says anything to support this assertion.

It is a little difficult to decipher what exactly Clark is getting at. His reasoning is muddled at best. Perhaps even Clark doesn’t know what his point is. If he means that we can’t trust the theology of Whitefield and Edwards because they owned slaves, that’s just a classic example of the genetic fallacy. If he means that “American theology and the American church are grossly and essentially misshapen by slavery” in that 21st Century American Evangelicals believe that chattel slavery is biblically justified and morally permissible, that’s just absurd. It’s hard to be certain given his muddy arguments, I don’t think his view is either of these options.

I could be wrong, but I think I’ve figured out his real agenda. First of all, Clark is classified by Patheos as a “Progressive Christian Blogger.” That’s a rather nebulous term, but typically that indicates a politically leftist and theologically liberal Christian. Think Rachel Held Evans, Robb Bell, or Brian MacLaren. Second of all, his previous posts confirm this. On June 18th, he posted his interview with the eminent Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright. While N.T. Wright is not really all that liberal theologically, he does have some political views that are to the left of many American Evangelicals. Clark was clearly hoping that Wright would jump on the same-sex marriage bandwagon. This might have offered credibility to Clark’s view on the subject, since N.T. Wright is respected by many American Evangelicals. Unfortunately for Clark, N.T. Wright actually takes the Bible seriously (imagine a Christian doing that, in this day and age!).

FC: Steve Chalke created a stir in the UK last year with his forceful argument in favor of same-sex marriage. That was a big deal not just because Chalke is a prominent leader in the evangelical Christian community in your country, but because his argument was so substantive and so thoroughly biblical. Given that Chalke’s theological argument reflects the influence of your own writing, I’m interested in hearing more about your response to it.

WRIGHT: When anybody — pressure groups, governments, civilizations — suddenly change the meaning of key words, you really should watch out. If you go to a German dictionary and just open at random, you may well see several German words which have a little square bracket saying “N.S.,” meaning National Socialist or Nazi. The Nazis gave those words a certain meaning. In post-1917 Russia, there were whole categories of people who were called “former persons,” because by the Communist diktat they had ceased to be relevant for the state, and once you call them former persons it was extremely easy to ship them off somewhere and have them killed.

“Did this clown just invoke the NAZIS in his argument AGAINST civil rights for gays? WTF? I can’t even …”

You read that right. He just called N.T. Wright a clown. I don’t agree with everything Bishop Wright says, but anyone willing to call him a clown is, well… a clown. As is typical of his Progressive Christian heroes, he simply emotes rather than offering any substantive rebuttal to the biblical position on homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.

So to return to my point-what Clark is really implying is that Whitefield and Edwards got slavery wrong, and in the same way modern American Evangelicals have homosexuality wrong. Unfortunately, his intellectually vacuous posts fails to demonstrate anything of the sort. Also unfortunately, Whitefield and Edwards apparently thought that chattel slavery was morally acceptable and most likely justified this via their interpretation of the biblical texts on slavery. Can we show that these learned expositors of God’s Word got slavery wrong? I think we can. As Paul Copan points out in this article, and in his wonderful book Is God a Moral Monster?, slavery in the Bible is not anything like the chattel slavery of early American history. In the Old Testament law of Moses, “slaves” were more like what we would call “indentured servants.” If someone in ancient Israel owed a debt they were unable to pay, they were employed as a servant by their creditor for seven years. After that, if anything further was owed the debt was forgiven and the servant was free to go. There were also strict laws against mistreating these “slaves” and it was actually against the law to track down and return runaway “slaves.” It was a system intended to get rid of debt rather than chattel slavery where a person is considered the property of another person. In this article, Dr. Copan clears up more misconceptions concerning Old Testament “slavery.” Slaves were not considered property and beating a slave to death was considered murder. The “slave” was considered an inherently valuable fellow human being, created in God’s image, just like his “master.” This form of “slavery” was voluntary. As stated earlier, it was more comparable to a modern-day employment opportunity with contractual obligations for both the creditor and the debtor. Also misunderstood is the matter of foreign “slaves.” Once again, this “slavery” is more comparable to an employment opportunity. Foreigners were not able to own land under the Mosaic law. This seems harsh unless one considers that Israelite families were allotted land as an inheritance. Even if land was sold to pay debts, it would return to the original family in the year of Jubilee every 50 years. They could go to work for an Israelite and enjoyed protection under the law. In a third article by Dr. Copan, he addresses the popular misconception that the New Testament authors, and even Jesus Himself, turned a blind eye to slavery in the Roman Empire, which was more similar to American chattel slavery.

Some critics claim, “Jesus never said anything about the wrongness of slavery.” Not so. He explicitly opposed every form of oppression in His mission “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1). While Jesus did not press for some economic reform plan in Israel, He did address attitudes such as greed, materialism, contentment, and generosity.

Christian Slaves and masters were to be considered equals spiritually, and were to refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Slaves were not to be mistreated in any way. While they did not encourage slaves to rebel, or call for sweeping political reforms, they undermined the institution of slavery by teaching Christian principles.

Critics wonder why Paul or New Testament writers (cp. 1 Peter 2:18–20) did not condemn slavery and tell masters to release their slaves. We need to first separate this question from other considerations. New Testament writers’ position on the negative status of slavery was clear on various points: (a) they repudiated slave trading; (b) they affirmed the full human dignity and equal spiritual status of slaves; (c) they encouraged slaves to acquire their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20–22); (d) their revolutionary Christian affirmations, if taken seriously, would help tear apart the fabric of the institution of slavery, which is what took full effect several centuries later — in the eventual eradication of slavery in Europe; and (e) in Revelation 18:11–13, doomed Babylon (the world of God-opposers) stands condemned because she had treated humans as “cargo,” having trafficked in “slaves [literally ‘bodies’] and human lives” (verse 13, NASB). This repudiation of treating humans as cargo assumes the doctrine of the image of God in all human beings.

Those who used the Bible to justify American slavery of Africans clearly got it wrong. But does it follow that present-day American Evangelicals–spiritual descendants of Whitefield and Edwards got the biblical view of homosexual behavior wrong? Not even close. In fact, those who justify homosexual sex and same-sex marriage are actually much more similar to those who justified chattel slavery. In those former days, it was a popular notion was that slavery was morally acceptable, just as it is becoming popular nowadays to consider homosexual behavior morally acceptable and justified by the Bible (1) (2). The slave owning Christians of that time were conformed to this world rather than transformed by the renewing of their minds. The case is exactly the same today for Christians who affirm homosexual behavior. While it would be a little silly to claim that the acceptance of homosexual behavior is currently as entrenched in the fabric of our society as slavery was entrenched in antebellum American society, it would also be silly to deny we are heading in that direction. In our time, homosexual athletes receive praise and attention from the President while opponents of same-sex marriage are called clowns (or worse). Riding the wave of popular sentiment, I suppose the “Bible affirms homosexuality” crowd apparently do not feel any need to formulate sound logical arguments in support of their view. Name-calling, fallacious reasoning, and half-truths will do in this anti-Christian and anti-intellectual era.

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3 thoughts on “ Be Not Conformed to this World

  1. You do release that the Bible prescribes slavery in both old and new testaments? There is nothing morally wrong with slavery. You must also note there are different types of slavery. I’m sure George probably treated his slave similar to how one treats a butler. You have allowed this heathen humanistic culture to dictate your worldview instead of Scripture alone. I firmly believe society would be better if we brought back slavery. Think of welfare people and such who refuse to work, they would be better off as slaves.

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