We all have a tendency to see in the Bible text what is in ourselves. If we have a prejudice for or against the text, we will find reasons for our preference in the text. Some readers find errors and contradictions in the Bible. Others find truth and consistency in the Bible. Whatever we find, we will tend to find what we are looking for. The Bible is transformative as we come to it allowing ourselves to see, hear, and imagine the unexpected.
On the other hand, we also have a sense of what goodness and godliness ought to look like. Many years ago a friend and my wife and myself were guests in my parent’s home. My wife and I, after making our coffee left the pour-over cone in the sink and left for the day. When we returned our fellow house guest asked, “if you are Christians, why did you not clean, wash and put away the coffee cone.” Right or wrong, our friend had a sense of what Christian ought to do, what constituted goodness.
I say all this because I notice two things that co-exist in us. One is the impulse to accuse the Bible of promoting slavery and misogyny when it does not. The Bible has been mis-interpreted and misused to justify both slavery, and misogyny and other wrong and terrible things. People leveraged the Bible’s cultural authority to gain their own ends. They found in the Bible what was in them. Because of this legacy, our impulse is to discard anything that claims to have authority, rather than to find out what that authority involves. We should consider whether the resolution is not to divest texts of authority but rather to divest humanity of sin. To do the second in not only much harder, it also requires someone with the authority to forgive sins.
While we also read the Bible to discredit it or avoid the Bible from prejudice, we also have the same expectations that the Bible claims to produce in sinful humans. Let me ask, what would you honestly think if I told you the following, “I have met Christ. He has forgiven my sins and given me a new life. I have been born again. I need to make things right. I am sorry and ashamed of the ways I have failed God and humanity. I long to live right from this time forward. From here on out I am going to participate in human trafficking and spousal abuse.”
I think you would question my conversion. As I began to speak you might wonder whether there was something there. As I finished, you would know the beginning did not match the end. If you thought this, it would be because you saw my conclusion as inconsistent with what the Bible has told the world about God. There was a mismatch between God as a good, kind, generous Creator and someone promoting misogyny or slavery.
I am hard pressed to find instance where the Bible has converted people to belief in the goodness of slavery or misogyny. It has been misused by those pre-disposed to these sins and seeking to justify their evil ways of life. Conversely the Bible has converted people and convicted them to become abolitionists and liberationists- because the overall tenor of the Bible is that God is at work to set captives free. In the West, both abolitionism and women’s liberation were movements forged and powered by an impulse arising from Biblical Revelation.
For this very reason, slave masters withheld most of the Bible from their slaves and forbid slaves to learn to read for themselves- because the Bible, when completely and carefully, is dangerous to the status quo. If reading the Bible was sure to make one submissive to mistreatment, slave owners would have taught all slaves to read and the Bible would have been their primer. Rather, slave owners preferred to offer slaves a religion that is an “opiate of the masses” while withholding the word of the LORD that “breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” But the slaves of the New World, the Colonies, and the fledging United States got hold of the Bible. And the Bible got hold of them. They sang “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumbling down” because they had faith to expect that the empire of slavery could not stand before their Liberating LORD. The Bible is not an opiate. No, the Bible invokes a revolution of love that liberates all peoples.