By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from a longer, as-yet unpublished essay.
If we want to know what the Bible has to say about American chattel slavery, we’ll need to do more than type “slave” into the Bible Gateway search bar. Perhaps that is the lesson we should learn from Al Mohler’s recently surfaced denunciation of runaway slaves on Larry King Live in 1998.
Mohler contended that Harriet Tubman — and others who ran from slave owners or abetted runaways — disobeyed St. Paul’s declaration in Ephesians that slaves should obey their earthly masters. It just so happens that I’ve been teaching a high school course this semester titled “Biblical Slavery in Ancient and American Contexts.” After spending the first two-thirds of the semester examining passages about slavery in the Old and New Testaments, we have for the past month considered how antebellum Southern clergy, slave owners, and slaves interpreted and used those texts. We recently read excerpts from Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South describing how slaves defied slave owners in order to read Scripture and worship God. Would Mohler have had them dutifully obey instead? And does this mean that Christians facing persecution ought also cease worshipping when commanded to do so by governing authorities? Biblically faithful answers require a more historically conscious hermeneutic than Mohler displayed in 1998.
Mohler’s comments are now over twenty years old. Much has changed. Two years ago Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) — the institution of which Mohler has long been president — released a report on “Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” That report, the result of a historical investigation which Mohler had initiated a year earlier, was praised for its forthright and unvarnished depiction of the seminary’s history of support for the slave system in the antebellum and Civil War years and defense of white supremacy thereafter. Today Mohler is as likely to be lambasted by conservative critics for being overly sympathetic to Critical Race Theory as he is to be attacked by others for being insufficiently responsive to the Southern Baptist legacy of slavery and racism.
Mohler has now repudiated his 1998 views, but in doing so he does not explain how a Christian ought to understand St. Paul’s injunctions to slaves. Absent any theological rationale, Mohler’s recent words sound more like the capitulation to “popular culture” he so evidently feared in 1998 and less like what he really needs — which is a fuller, deeper, and more profound biblical fidelity.
Like Mohler, my students tend to assume a straightforward application of the Pauline and Petrine injunctions to American slaves. Yet modern American chattel slavery was a profoundly different institution than Roman slavery. We rightly use one word to describe both, because all slave systems across time and culture have core similarities that justify a common descriptor. Nevertheless, they are not the same system. And as we are not members of first-century house churches in Ephesus, all applications of Pauline imperatives operate by analogy — even when applying the advice to other slaves, whether in ancient Rome or in Athens, Georgia. Instead of blindly applying the Pauline injunctions in Ephesians to Harriet Tubman, we must ask ourselves what St. Paul’s pastoral advice then means for us now — or for those slaves then. This analogical application is rarely as straightforward and simplistic as Mohler’s condemnation of runaway slaves.
Like Jesus’ instructions to the persecuted, the epistolary commands to slaves flow from the biblical injunction to love, no matter the circumstances. In 1998 Mohler saw the instructions to obey masters as absolute and without exception: “I really don’t see any loophole there… as much as popular culture might otherwise want to see one.” Yet the only instance we have of St. Paul addressing a specific slave owner and slave — Philemon and Onesimus — presents a far more complicated picture than simple submission and obedience. Moreover, the specific commands to slaves are part and parcel of a broader biblical theology, which teaches us that submitting our will to others in love and service — particularly to those with rightful authority over us — prepares us to submit to God. St. Paul offers no caveat to his command that all “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1), yet Scripture is filled with exceptions to the rule.
Contrary to popular perception, the Church fathers who eventually formulated just war theory — St. Augustine foremost among them — did so not by carving out exemptions in which the divine mandate to love could be suspended. Rather, they taught that, even if we must kill, we can only do so as an act of love. This is not as impossible as one might assume, though surely quite a bit rarer in practice than the invocations of just war might suggest. This theological development occurred in light of a new, post-Constantinian reality, but it was not a capitulation to “popular culture.” Rather, it was a reconsideration of the demands of love in a new context. And if it is possible for there to be circumstances in which killing can be an act of love, surely it is easy to recognize that the demands of love might compel a slave to flee from her enslavers.
Reading the Bible faithfully is not always easy, and we should rid ourselves of any notions to the contrary. As with so many other errors, humility would go a long way in resolving mistakes like Mohler’s — more humility about our personal capabilities as interpreters of God’s Word, and more humility in our judgment of others. Mohler’s lack of historical consciousness not only undermined his ability to read Scripture well. It also led him to apply that misreading to the lives of slaves with an astonishing degree of presumption. An indifference to context, a hubristic dismissal of the precise details of a given life — these do not make for faithfulness to the Word of God and the Word made flesh.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Curate at All Saints Charlottesville, Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar, and a full-time history teacher.