Paul, same-sex marriage and the slavery argument

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(Photo: Unsplash / Kelly Sikkema)

English Booker Prize-nominated Anglican author Francis Spufford says he has changed his mind about same-sex marriage and is now in favor of it.

Writing for the Chicago-based magazine, The Christian Century, he says, “One major thing that I have changed my mind about over the past decade is same-sex marriage. This is true for a lot of people. In fact, this is true for the majority of those who are now in favor of it.

“I must say, for the sake of clarity, that I am Anglican English. This means that I am a member of a church (the Church of England) which still does not recognize marriage between two men or two women and has is subject to an exception in English law to allow it to continue to take this position.

“But I’m also a citizen of a country where a Conservative government made it clear to make change almost a decade ago and where same-sex marriage quickly established itself as a new normal. that is, same-sex marriage is still contentious in my church, but not a lot in my society. “

Spufford is honest enough to admit that his change of mind on this issue is a major shift in historical Christian understanding of the issue, and is also honest enough to admit that those who advocate for the Church to bless same-sex marriage as that institution are effectively claiming that the apostle Paul was wrong to condemn the practice of homosexuality in Romans 1.

“I appreciate the work that has been done to qualify and contextualize the Pauline condemnations in Romans. I see that there is a specific force in Paul condemning” men who sleep with men “in the context of a culture of rape slave owner where high status men felt entitled to use human flesh of all kinds, ”he wrote.

He agrees that Paul “would not have had in mind any model of relations between men, or between women, marked by reciprocity”.

But he goes on to say that he is not convinced “that the rule against gay sex was therefore never really intended to apply to sexual relations between equal lovers”.

“I don’t think we are really saying Paul has been misunderstood for two millennia. I think we are saying Paul was wrong,” he wrote.

Why does Spufford think it’s fair for Christians to say Paul was wrong about gay sex? Basically, because he believes Christians must have said Paul was wrong about slavery.

“The abolitionist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries could not indicate an unambiguous and established rule against slavery as such. Instead, they had to fabricate, from material that was also scriptural but not legal, a new moral consensus, ”he argues.

“They must have discovered a fundamental incompatibility between the prophetic push of Scripture towards justice and mercy and the idea that humans have of humans, between the fundamental image of the personality of the Bible and the idea of ​​humans. as a commodity. And on the basis of that, they had to learn to set aside Paul sending Onesimus back to his master in Philemon.

“None of us now doubts that the Holy Spirit was guiding this particular work of realization. This innovation, we are all sure, represents a necessary development of what has been latent in our scripture and doctrine from the beginning. The scandal here is not the change. but that he didn’t come sooner. “

So that’s it. Those of us who believe that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual institution should see the light and come on board. Otherwise, we risk being on an equal footing with the “Christian” slave traders of the 18th or 19th century.

But not so fast, Mr. Spufford. Unfortunately, you have misunderstood Pauline theology.

Paul never said slavery was a good thing. In his eyes, it was an institution that belonged to a fallen world, a kingdom in the grip of evil, a slave to decay and awaiting its eternal redemption through the return of Christ from the Lord God Almighty.

In this fallen temporal world, the most important aspect of a Christian’s identity is his eternal union with the Savior of mankind, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our social status is secondary but not negligible. If a Christian person can be free from slavery, he must do so because slavery, unlike marriage, is linked with the fall of mankind.

It is within this doctrinal framework that Paul’s advice to Christian slaves in 1 Corinthians must be understood:

“Were you a slave when you were called (to eternal salvation through the gospel of Christ)? the Lord is freed from the Lord; likewise, he who was a free man when he was called is the Lord’s slave.

Unlike the slavery which attaches to the Fall, marriage attaches to the good Creation of God and therefore Christians should not break their marriage even if they are married to unbelievers, as Paul also teaches. in 1 Corinthians:

“If a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is ready to live with him, he should not divorce. And if a wife has a husband who is not a believer and is ready to live with her, she must not divorce ”(1 Corinthians 7v12b-13).

Because marriage belongs to Creation while slavery belongs to the Fall, to subject them both to revision, as Spufford does, is to compare a breath of fresh air to a bout of lumbago.

As to Spufford’s superficial treatment of Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is important to be clear that Paul did not simply send Onesimus back to his master; he also pleaded with Philemon based on their shared Christian worldview:

“I am sending him back – which is my whole heart – to you. I wish I had kept him with me so that he could take your place to help me while I was in chains for the gospel. But I didn’t want to. do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do doesn’t seem forced but is voluntary. Maybe the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you could get him back forever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother. He is dear to me but still dear to you, both as a neighbor and as a brother in the Lord “(Philemon v12 -16).

Again, Paul’s view of a Christian person’s eternal identity as the primary aspect rather than his temporal social status is strongly present here. It was Paul’s teaching on Christian identity that led Christian slave owners in the Roman Empire to want to free their slaves, but they knew they had to do it legally rather than inciting a slave revolt.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Morecambe, Lancashire.


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