Saturday, June 4, 2011

Imagine That

Imagine that you are the young daughter of a female slave who lives in Colossae in the year 450. Unlike some other religious traditions that do not allow slaves to be members, the Christian churches accept slaves into their fellowship. You worship Jesus, in part, because he "had taken the form of a slave" and was beaten and crucified, as so many rebellious slaves had also been. You resonate with him and he is your Lord. Your mother is a Christian who serves in the household of a Christian slave-owner who is a man. Legally, you have no father. Your earliest memory is of your mother telling you that you, too, are a slave and that to be a Christian slave means that you are to "obey your earthly master with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ" (Ephesians 6:5). Why "with fear and trembling?" "Because if you disobey your master, you will suffer the consequences of your actions, he will punish you harshly, he will beat you, and he could even kill you. Legally, your master may kill you, since you are his property." Thus you must "obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourself into it, as done for the Lord and not for your master, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ" (Colossians 3:22-24).  "You who are slaves, with respect and reverence you shall be subject to your masters as replicas of God" (Didache 4:11). Your earthly master is a type of the heavenly master.

And then the day comes when your master takes you from your mother and sells you to another master who is not a Christian. Now you can no longer obey your mother, since your master has authority over her as an order of God's creation. And now, in keeping with the apostolic command "to obey your earthly masters in everything," you must obey your new master who wants you to earn money for him through prostitution. While you know that your mother taught you that fornication and adultery are sinful, you know that legally your master may prostitute you. The dominion of your master is cruel, but you have no choice, no freedom. You are bound to obey your master "in everything." In the civil law, you have no recourse. You know that the social custom is for your master to treat you however he wishes. On occasion, he has sex with you as well. He would like you to give birth to additional slaves so as to enlarge his property. Your slave-master owns your sexual labor. As a Christian woman, you wrestle with how you are to obey Christ in this situation. How can you live a chaste life in this situation and still obey your earthly master in all things?

Imagine that you are the young daughter of a female slave who lives in Mississippi in the year 1830. Your mother is a Christian who serves in the household of a Christian master. Your earliest memory is of your mother telling you that you, too, are a slave and that to be a Christian slave means that you are to obey the apostolic commands that are given in Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22ff., Titus 2:9-10; First Peter 2:18-25; and Philemon. Your faith in God and your obedience to the institution of slavery are deeply woven together. If the Bible is right and the divine word of the eternal God, then slavery must be right, too, and in accordance with the will of the eternal God. This God demands that every Christian household have submissive, subordinate wives, children, and enslaved persons, and husbands/masters who are to love and not be overly harsh with the subordinate members of the household. And yet, you too are put in the position of having to obey your earthly master in all things, even when he makes sexual advances toward you (and blames you for being inherently lascivious), even when he encourages you to have sex with another slave so as to breed for your master additional slaves, even when he beats you for nothing at all. Then again, maybe by making yourself as attractive to your master as possible, you might be able to become his concubine and thus improve your lot in life.

Imagine that you are a Roman Catholic priest who lives in Georgia in the year 1866. How do you respond to the pope's statement that year after the end of the war: "Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons… It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged, or given"? You know that many, many Christians owned slaves in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. You know that at least one monk owned slaves. You know that church officials, priests, and bishops, owned slaves.

Imagine that you are a young adult, the Lutheran daughter of a former slave owner who lives in South Carolina in the year 1868. You have experienced from not-too-far-away the war between the states. You have joined your family in cursing the name of Abraham Lincoln. Your faith in the revelation of the Bible and your faith in the institution of slavery have been deeply woven together. You know that the Bible nowhere condemns slaveholding as a sin. It doesn't even enter your mind to think that slaveholding is contrary to the will of God. You believe as you have been told, that God's order of creation includes slaves and masters. Such an institution goes back to the ancient Jews (think of the biblical laws on slavery in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy!), that it was prevalent among the ancient Greeks and Romans, that even Christians owned slaves in the New Testament world, and that later Christians also owned slaves. You have heard your pastor preach on Genesis 9:25 to defend that the Negroes are the descendants of Canaan and that enslaving Africans is in keeping with God's order for creation. Your Lutheran pastor has said that all abolitionists are Bible-deniers, since the Bible nowhere supports the abolition of slavery. "Abolitionists utterly reject what the Bible clearly teaches." While you had witnessed some of the sinful excesses within the institution of slavery, you knew in your heart that slavery was right and God-pleasing since the Bible is right, and the New Testament commands that it contains about slavery are good, right, and true. But now that slavery has been done away with politically and militarily (but not theologically), your faith in the Bible is terribly shaken. For a time you doubt God, since every passage in the Bible that addresses slavery and that gives commands to slaves and masters mocks you and your faith, a faith that is intimately bound up with the orders of God's creation, an order that includes slaves and masters. The biblical teachings that you hold so dear have now been undone. If the institution of slavery is now gone, what other biblical institutions will also fall by the wayside? You don't have to wait too long for feminists to begin challenging the biblical subordination of women to men, just as abolitionists had been agitating against the institution of slavery. You now see that those who questioned the Bible's teaching about slavery have now begun to question its authority upon other social orderings. On what grounds can one reject one set of Bible verses as no longer relevant to society while insisting that other nearby verses still remain valid?

Imagine that you are the high-school-aged daughter of an LCMS pastor in 2011 and you think that God may be calling you to become a pastor...


  1. Imagine Dr. Becker joins our ELCA fellowship!

    And soon!! PTL!

  2. Dr Becker,
    Your essay was very thought provoking. My father is not an LCMS pastor, and I am way beyond highschool age, but you are speaking directly to me. What is a woman to do in the LCMS when God directly calls her into "the" ministry? It is a heavy cross to bear staying in the LCMS. Thank you for your post and refreshing perspective.

  3. Wonderful blog, and as above "refreshing perspective". Please continue sharing your thoughts with us. (Immanuel Lutheran Church member, LCMS)

  4. I don't think that Christians in the Roman empire required slaves to submit to their masters' desires for fornication or to require them to prostitute themselves. Do you have any evidence of that?

    Otherwise, what is this except a statement of the obvious? Yes, the bible clearly permits slavery, commands slaves to be obedient, wives to submit to their husbands, and women to be silent in the church. Is your point that since Christians have rejected the authority of Scripture regarding slavery we should be consistent and reject its teaching regarding the pastoral office and the submission of wives to their husbands?

    Christians have always found that God is near to the abused and oppressed. The kingdom of God makes a person free spiritually while his body still--as long as this world stands--is in bondage of one form or another. Jesus didn't soften the cruelty of the Romans by arguments or politics, but by the Holy Spirit and the witness of those who were abused like He was. And the martyrs didn't die complaining about the injustice, but rejoicing, because the Kingdom was theirs.

    "Love seeketh not itself to please,
    Nor for itself hath any care,
    But for another gives its ease,
    And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

  5. Pr. Hess,

    Colossians 3:22: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything."

    If the master treated the Christian slave wrongly, the Christian was to suffer the injustice (including fornication, which was legal under Roman law), and believe that "the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done."

    Yes, you understand my point. At least some of the commands of the apostles are temporary, time-bound, and can be set aside in consequence of the gospel and the dictates of Christian love. This is not about "rejecting the authority of Scripture," but of properly interpreting and applying the apostolic witness to Christ and the consequences of Christian love and justice that flow from that witness. The legal material in the New Testament is subject to legitimate criticism, especially from the gospel itself, but also from the law of Christ and Christian love, which is the higher law.

    And yes, the Holy Spirit has a way of leading Christians to set aside useless laws and rules that reflect an old order and not the new creation in Christ. She's especially good at overturning legalistic canon laws in church bodies...

    I don't believe my statement is obvious to you because you seem not to be able to imagine yourself in the shoes of a female Christian slave in the old south or a "Negro" in the Jim Crow era. According to your testimony you would tell them about the joys of heaven and expect them to accept their lot in life as a low subordinate in the social hierarchy that is "the order of creation."

    In case you haven't noticed, we are living in a different world from first-century Rome, nineteenth-century America, and twentieth-century Jim Crow. What you call an "order of creation" is nothing but a politically-conservative ideological construct.

  6. My daughter also thinks God should give her a pony!
    (get my point???)
    You haven't listened to prior arguments against your tried-and-denied " gospel" criticizes "legal material in the New Testament." You don't see the difference between "Legal material" and an institution of the Lord for the propagation of the Gospel (Office of Holy Ministry). Try changing the element (water) of Baptism or substituting a different Name. Try grape juice or saltines for the Lord's Supper if you dare, with the simplistic "It's legalistic to deny me my other elements." Oh? You say gender is not of the essence of the Office? Your beef is not with the LCMS, brother. It's with the Lord. Make all the rationalizations you want. Your theology runs the wrong direction.

  7. Dear Anonymous,

    No, your theology is running in the wrong direction, that of the Donatists.

    The word and sacraments of the Lord are not dependent upon the person and character of the individual. The validity of the word and sacraments does not does depend on a penis. To proclaim the gospel and administer the Lord's sacraments the one called needs only a mind, a heart, a mouth, and hands. These are sufficient.

    Your view, which equates maleness with the water of Baptism or the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, is Donatistic. The pastoral office is filled with a human being. Last time I checked, women are human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, just as men are. In the pastoral office, men and women are interchangeable. Both are baptized, both are called, both have minds, both have hearts, both have mouths, both have hands. All these creaturely gifts can be used by the Lord, with both sexes, for the sake of proclaiming his word and administering the sacraments for the good that Christ intended, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

    A perfectly good illustration of these facts is my friend, Kit Kleinhans, an ordained Lutheran pastor and theologian. Even Norman Nagel, who is otherwise quite critical of those, like I, who argue for the ordination of women pastors, can't help but sing Kit's praises. (Then, too, she is his God-daughter.) Sorry to "name-drop" again but I've always been struck by this inconsistency in my former teacher's practice...