You would find, if you looked through history, not only that there were people who, at every point of great progress or new realization or innovation tried to stop it, but that many of them did it using scripture. A quick google search can show that, in the face of abolition and integration and the women’s suffrage movement and the heliocentric solar system, there were those who looked to scripture to find reasons why these new ideas were not just different, not just uncomfortable, not just too much too soon, but sinful or forbidden. It points us to a reality that we have to do work with if we’re going to claim our faith, this is an old book. This is a book, or a collection of books, that was written a long time ago. Thousands of years. And there are things in it that just don’t match up anymore. It is easier, through scripture, to make the case for polygamy than monogamy. For monarchies or dictatorships than democracy. In scripture we can find justification for genocide, reasons for stoning children, and instructions for making a woman marry her late husband’s brothers in consecutive order until she is able to have a child. It is one of those things that gets thrown at our faith, one of those arguments we need to be ready to face, what do we do with a book that seems so outdated, how do we decide what is meant for now and not only for then?
Probably the topic that has drawn out this conversation most throughout history is slavery. There are instructions in both testaments for how believers should practice slavery. Those texts were used for years to defend and justify the practice. Scripture was used to defend the institution in the midst of the abolitionist movement. And yet we could also find examples of people whose faith called them to speak out, who believed that slavery was a sin that must be eradicated. Both sides found strength for their arguments in the words of scripture. Of course now we’d be shocked and dismissive of anyone who used the bible to defend re-instituting slavery, so it makes for a good example of how folks have reacted to these outdated ideas in the past and what we can do with the things in scripture that seem so out of place to us now.
So, what do we do with slavery or any of the other outdated things that we find in scripture? One option is that we attempt to explain it away, make the argument that it isn’t as bad as it might seem. You can find, if you search for it, folks bending over backwards to explain why biblical slavery wasn’t as bad as you might think. And they have some points I guess – biblical slavery wasn’t racial for the most part, for example. And in the Old Testament at least slaves were supposed to be released after a certain amount of time and children couldn’t be born into slavery, all of those things are true. And its true that if you compare that to the system of African slavery that existed for over 400 years in more recent history there are some elements that aren’t as bad. But its still slavery. And if you’re defending slavery, you’re probably doing something wrong. And the issue with taking that approach is that if we’ll bend over backwards to justify things that happened in the past, we’ll do it now. We’re very good a justifying our sin. When God asked Adam where he was in the garden, he had a great answer, “I was naked and didn’t want you to see me.” When that didn’t work and he was confronted by his sin he had another great answer, “The woman you put here made me do it.” And then Eve had a great answer, “the snake tricked me.” Good answers and justifications, but no acknowledgement, no repentance, and no forgiveness. We need to acknowledge and repent from our sin if we’re going to be forgiven.
Another option is to look at stories of folks in the past and dismiss those people as backward or ignorant, to say that “they didn’t know any better” but reassure ourselves that we do. The issue with that is very similar, we can’t know how people are going to judge us in the future. None of the people whose quotes we saw earlier believed they were being backward or ignorant, it never crossed their minds they could be wrong. If we never acknowledge the chance we might be wrong we’ll fall into the same trap. If we assume we have all the answers we can easily find ourselves in the same place, using scripture to justify our own beliefs, convinced that we couldn’t possibly be wrong. We need to be able to question ourselves, to wrestle with the idea that we might not have all the answers or know immediately what’s right. I found this quote from Rachel Held Evans incredibly powerful: “the degree to which we take sin seriously isn’t so much in how good we are at spotting it in others, but rather in how good were are at spotting it in ourselves. And sometimes that means combing through our shared history and flinching a little at how quickly those dusty pages can transform into mirrors.”
The outdated parts of scripture are important because they remind us that God hasn’t stopped speaking. This old book, shows us the story of humans trying figure God out, struggling and stumbling at times, and God still loving them and guiding them through it all. These realities remind us that God always has more to reveal to us, more to show us. We never reach a moment when we’ve gotten all the answers, and that’s a good thing. Wouldn’t life be boring if we already had it all figured out?
There’s another aspect of slavery that shows up in scripture. The Hebrew people practiced slavery, its true, but they also experienced it. They were slaves in Egypt. They knew what it was to be held down and oppressed, to be worked to death, to look around a believe that all hope had been lost. And in the midst of their slavery they called out to God and their cries were heard. And God freed them from their bondage. Thousands of years later the apostle Paul looked at his life, looked at the entire human condition, and realized that it was a kind of slavery in its own right. He realized that sin kept him and the people around him in bondage just as sure as Pharaoh had his ancestors. He realized the need to cry out for salvation as well. And he realized that the same God who broke those physical chains could break the spiritual ones as well. He realized that we don’t have to live in captivity. That God has made a way for us to be free. That Christ can break our chains if we’re willing. We learn from the literal slavery in this book, but it can tell us so much more if we’re willing not to brush it aside as outdated. It can show us the reality of our own captivity. It can give us the answer to why things are the way they are instead of what it seems they should be. It points us to Jesus, the only one who can make us free. There’s a lot to wrestle and struggle with in this book, but its worth it, because the fruit is good. It’s the word that leads to eternal life. Amen, and Amen.