The first line of the Nicene Creed is, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” This claim has, as I have previously argued, practical implications. For example, if God made the earth, we had best not deface it. If God designed human sexuality, we should try to understand and conform to the design specs.
To articulate this claim in contemporary culture is to cause consternation among well-intentioned people and invite invective from others. A reader I believe to be well-intentioned recently commented, “And the Bible says slavery is acceptable and that women are property … are you following all the same laws…?”
I’ve encountered this kind of reasoning before. People mistakenly hold the Bible and, more specifically, Christianity, responsible for past injustices, like slavery and the unjust treatment of women. They then go on to argue that, since the Bible was wrong about past issues, anything it has to say about current issues, like gender and sexuality, must also be wrong.
This kind of reasoning overlooks both the theology of biblical revelation and the realities of ancient history. Contrary to the reader’s claim, the Bible never says, “slavery is acceptable.” To make Christians responsible for the institution of slavery when it did not originate within their tradition evidences bias. Have we forgotten that the first biblical writers had been slaves themselves? They knew the injustice of slavery from the inside.
The Bible, according to theologians, is a progressive revelation of the character and purpose of God. It speaks to people in their own historical context, not where twenty-first century people might wish them to be. It’s true that the Bible does not, as Abraham Lincoln later did, bring an end to slavery by fiat. But slavery in the ancient world was unlike slavery in the post-enlightenment West. Many people chose to enter slavery for economic reasons, and almost all slaves were dependent upon their masters for survival. To end slavery immediately by fiat would have proved catastrophic.
While the Bible doesn’t prohibit slavery, it does insist on the just treatment of slaves. The biblical writers remind slave owners that God “owns” them, so they had better treat their slaves well. St. Paul goes further, and encourages slaves to buy their freedom, if they can. In many ways, the biggest blow to slavery did not come from Wilberforce or Mansfield in England or from Lincoln in the America, but from the ancient church. Slaves often held the highest positions in the early church, sometimes exercising spiritual authority over their own masters. It was in this setting that Paul wrote these revolutionary words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The unjust treatment of women is another case in point: Don’t hold the Judeo-Christian tradition responsible for it. Women were counted as property long before Abraham, the father of the Jewish and Christian faiths, was born. Yet within the Judaic tradition, laws were enacted to protect women from unjust divorce practices. Jesus shocked contemporaries, even his own followers, by the respect he showed women and, on more than one occasion, stood up for women when they were being mistreated.
St. Paul is often labeled a misogynist today. It is an outrageous claim, one that would have angered his friends and coworkers, many of whom were women. He commended them to the church, and generously praised their hard work, even though he came from a culture where rabbis would not speak to women in public!
I suspect the rejection of the doctrine of creation has more to do with today’s issues than yesterday’s injustices. To claim there is a divinely-given design for human sexuality is deemed unjust and even capricious. Frankly, anything that limits our “freedoms” is deemed unjust these days. But if those limits are rooted in our design, they are anything but capricious.
The claim that there is a divine design is not intended to limit freedom, still less to pass judgment on people – “Who am I to judge?” as Pope Francis famously said. Rather it is to encourage people to reconsider, without bias, the Bible’s claims, and the benefits it promises.