When he was Australian Attorney General, Philip Ruddock was in the habit of citing a verse from 1 Peter to claim that the New Testament can be used to justify slavery:
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)Ruddock used to do this to downplay concerns about the influence of the Quran on Australian society. His argument was that the Bible would appear to endorse slavery, but modern Christians do not endorse it, so it is wrong to assume, just because some of the verses of the Quran appear to advocate some bad principles, that Muslims will necessarily seek to put these principles into practice.
This week the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also invoked the Bible and slavery, arguing that if someone was to object to same-sex marriage based upon the Bible, they would also have to endorse slavery, based on the Bible. The comment was made in an interchange with Pastor Matt Prater:
Pastor Prater: I think the thing is that every pastor, we do marriages between husbands and wives, and you know Jesus said a man shall leave his father and mother and be married, and that's the Biblical definition. I just believe in what the Bible says. I'm just curious for you, Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don't you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?Rudd also put his position that science has proven that people are born gay:
Prime Minister Rudd: Well mate if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, slaves be obedient to your masters. And therefore we should have all fought for the confederacy in the US Civil War. I mean for goodness sake. The human condition and social conditions change.
I do not believe people when they are born choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don't decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other. It is how people are built. Therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is wrong. I don't get that. I think it is a completely ill-founded view. ... if you thinkRudd appears to misrepresent the findings of science when he says that people are 'born gay', for the evidence goes all the other way. There are no studies proving that sexual orientation is already determined at birth: quite the contrary. In an earlier blog post I wrote:
homosexuality is an unnatural condition, then frankly I cannot agree with you based on any element of the science.
Research has shown that sexual orientation is fluid and changeable, especially in adolescence. It is correlated with a complex mix of factors including psychological and environmental factors. Multiple studies of twins (see also references here) have shown that if one twin is same-sex attracted, on average the other twin is not.There are many scientific questions surrounding same-sex marriage which are unclear and deserve further investigation, but the notion that people are born gay is not one of them.
However my main concern here is Rudd's argument that if you oppose same-sex marriage based on Jesus' teaching about marriage, you must, to be consistent, also support slavery, because St Paul supported slavery. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, there has been a long history of Christian debates over whether the Bible supports or opposes slavery. Christians have argued both sides, and neither side interpreted the Bible in a literal way.
Given the well-known history of these debates, it is naive to assert that taking the Bible at face value compels anyone to be a supporter of slavery.
Second, it is an irony that Rudd appears to be critiquing a literal approach to interpreting the Bible, yet he does this by first reading something into the text and then turning this around and insisting that literalists must accept his non-literal reading. This is a straw man indeed. In reality the Bible nowhere says that slavery is a natural condition.
Third, Rudd is reading things into the New Testament in a way which tramples on basic principles of interpretation. He was apparently referring to Ephesians 6 (rather than Ruddock's favoured 1 Peter 2) as this is the passage which speaks of slaves being obedient to masters:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)Note that Paul instructs slave-owners to serve their slaves 'in the same way' (verse 9) as slaves are to serve their master. He is saying that Christian slaves and masters should treat one another as if serving God himself. The point is that all people will be judged for the spirit in which they relate one to another: whatever their status in life, the same rules apply to all Christians.
This is hardly an endorsement of slavery as something natural. Paul is not discussing whether slavery is good, but what principles should govern relationships between Christians.
More generally, when St Paul and Jesus teach Christians to act ethically in relationships that is not an endorsement of the rightness of the particular relationship. For example when Jesus commands his followers to 'love your enemies' or 'do good to those who hate you' (Luke 6:27), he is not saying that enmity and hatred are natural conditions.
Fourth, where Paul does discuss the ethical status of slavery, he is highly critical of it. Slave-traders are referred to, along with murderers, adulterers, perjurers, perverts and liars, as ‘lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious’, whose manner of life is ‘contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel’. (1 Timothy 1:9-11).
It is disappointing that a Christian leader of considerable intellectual gifts would misuse the Bible like this: it's a poor way to bash the Bible.