Earlier this week, Kevin Giles made connections between complementarianism, slavery, and apartheid. His main thrust being that as evangelical, or reformed, theologians once used the Bible to defend slavery and apartheid, their successors continue to do so with complementarianism. And if, Giles continues, complementarians were willing to admit that leading theologians once advocated slavery then they would be in a position where “they might have to re-examine their argument” with regards to complementarianism.[1]Kevin Giles, “The Silence of Complementarians on Slavery” 25 April, 2016 – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/04/25/the-silence-of-complementarians-on-slavery/

However, Giles’ assertions are problematic. Slavery within Western Europe had largely been eradicated under Christendom, with a gradual decline between the 4th and 11th centuries.[2]Mako A. Nagasawa, “Slavery and Christianity: First to Fifteenth Centuries“; Martin A. Klein, “Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) p. 259. Indeed, whilst there was a transition to ‘serfdom’, which had its own issues, slavery only significantly reappeared in the 15th century.[3]Whilst serfdom had it’s own troubling problems, it generally did not treat individuals like property that could be ‘owned’, and subsequently bought and sold. Therefore, when we approach the re-establishment of slavery after the 15th century, it must be understood that this was contrary to the trajectory taken by Christianity for centuries prior.

Thus, when we examine Giles’ assertion about slavery in the Americas and the Christian defence of it, we must take a much more critical approach to his generalisation. While Giles is right in stating that there were renowned theologians who supported slavery, such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and Robert Dabney; it is also equally true that there were also reformed theologians who condemned it. Unquestionably, many of the anti-slavery movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in both Britain and the United States were driven by strong religious elements underpinned by those of the reformed, or evangelical, traditions.[4]

Certainly, if we go as far back as Richard Baxter (1615-1691), the Puritan minister and theologian, we already find a vehement distaste of the African slave trade. A sentiment that would be echoed much more loudly by subsequent generations. In his Christian Directory, he states:

“To go as pirates and catch up poor negroes or people of another land, that never forfeited life or liberty, and to make them slaves, and sell them, is one of the worst kinds of thievery in the world; and such persons are to be taken for the common enemies of mankind; and they that buy them and use them as beasts, for their mere commodity, and betray, or destroy, or neglect their souls, are fitter to be called incarnate devils than Christians, though they be no Christians whom they so abuse.”[4]Richard Baxter, “Christian Directory” (Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), pg. 462

Even Jonathan Edwards, whilst hypocritically owning slaves, condemned the “the Transatlantic slave trade.[5]Thabiti Anyabwile, “Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans” (Feburary 1, 2012) pg. 7 He also rejected the notion of the inferiority of Africans, and affirmed them as spiritual equals. His son would take the next logical step and advocated the total abolition of slavery. So too, contemporaries of Charles Hodge, such as the minister Alexander McCleod and the theologian, John Williamson Nevin, disagreed with Hodge on his stance on slavery.[6]McCleod, a Presbyterian minister, wrote a popular treatise titled “Negro slavery unjustifiable: a discourse” which had numerous printings. John W. Nevin was a contemporary Presbyterian theologian at Princeton who was a well-known advocate for the abolition of slavery. This is despite them sharing much of the same theological positions and background. Thus, while there were those who tragically erred in their defense of slavery, there were also those of similar theological persuasion who agitated for abolition.

Furthermore, Giles’ accusation that no complementarian is willing to admit to the fact that individuals, such as Edwards or Hodge, held to a so-called ‘biblical’ pro-slavery framework is false. There abound numerous resources which address this particular issue, such as the excellent evaluation of Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans by Thabiti Anyawbile. Just because Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood lacked any acknowledgement of pro-slavery reformed theologians shouldn’t matter. The work was not intended to give a treatment of Christianity and slavery in the early United States, it was intended to give a complementarian perspective on the roles of men and women as accorded by scripture. Indeed, to subject a work to scrutiny on a topic which it was never intended to cover is nonsensical.

However, by Giles linking Complementarianism to both slavery and apartheid – he is attempting to imply that Complementarians manipulate texts to justify our framework. However, there is a significant flaw to his point in that unlike slavery and apartheid, both which are worthy of condemnation, complementarianism has a bounty of supporting text. Ranging from the role of husband and wives (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Pet 3:1-7; 1 Cor 11:3), the running of church (1 Tim 2:12 c.f. 1 Cor 14:34), and the requirements for church office (1 Tim 3; Titus 1), amongst others. Yet, when we look at racial segregation in scripture – we see it being actively dismantled, through the evangelizing of the gentiles and Samaritans by the Jews, once the most isolationist group in the region (Acts 8:4-5; Acts 10; etc.) and through recorded actions such as Galatians 2:11-13, where Peter is rebuked by Paul for separating himself from the gentiles. Likewise, with slavery, there is not a single New Testament verse that condones the practice, but rather there are verses that regulate the practice of the time. A practice which, it must be emphasised, differed largely from the slavery much later in the Americas.[7]It should be noted that slavery within the Jewish and early Christian context differed from what we understand as slavery, as informed by the ramifications of the Atlantic slave-trade. Rather, slavery in biblical times was mostly economic, in that people sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt. Israel had laws which meant that when such individuals were to be given freedom in the seventh year of service (Deuteronomy 15:12-15 c.f. Exodus 21:2-3). However, ‘man-stealing’ as the African slave-trade effectively was, was condemned. (Exodus 21:16 c.f. 1 Timothy 1:8-10).

Thus, to imply that Complementarians have a framework with a basis as flimsy as the biblical support for apartheid or slavery is a gross misrepresentation. Further, it demonizes individuals who hold that framework as being akin to proponents of slavery or Jim Crow laws. A charge which is both unfair and untrue. Complementarianism is the free submission of both men and women to the creational order that we envisage God has set for us to prosper. An order we see God has created with both sexes being equal but different. A far cry from enforcement of slavery or racial segregation.

However, it must be wondered if Giles’ reference to theologians who have erred on certain points is an attempt to discredit them on all positions. As not only does he attempt to do this by appealing to the theological proponents of slavery, but also by recounting his own experience at Moore College. The fact is, individuals can attempt to be faithful to scripture and still get certain points wrong, but this does not mean we should dismiss everything the person says.  As protestants, we acknowledge that Martin Luther got justification by faith right yet we reject the anti-Semitic remarks that he made.  Likewise, for Calvinists, we acknowledge that Jonathan Edwards got it right on the idea of God’s sovereignty, but we distance ourselves from his understanding of slave-keeping. There are secular examples as well – we acknowledge the great role that Abraham Lincoln played in the abolition of slavery in the United States yet we still distance ourselves from the ‘scientific’ racism that he espoused. Evidently, we are called to discern right from wrong, and just because an individual got it wrong on slavery or apartheid does not mean at all that he gets it wrong on complementarianism.

Ultimately, I agree with Giles that scripture has been used to defend a myriad of controversial positions, some of which are clearly at odds with the principles of scripture. However, Complementarianism is not one of them. It is a robust interpretation of an abundance of scripture. We, who adhere to it, understand that it is part of God’s creational order and, when followed faithfully, helps us prosper as an embodied testament of the Gospel.

References   [ + ]

1.Kevin Giles, “The Silence of Complementarians on Slavery” 25 April, 2016 – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/04/25/the-silence-of-complementarians-on-slavery/
2.Mako A. Nagasawa, “Slavery and Christianity: First to Fifteenth Centuries“; Martin A. Klein, “Historical Dictionary of Slavery and Abolition” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) p. 259.
3.Whilst serfdom had it’s own troubling problems, it generally did not treat individuals like property that could be ‘owned’, and subsequently bought and sold.
4.Richard Baxter, “Christian Directory” (Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), pg. 462
5.Thabiti Anyabwile, “Jonathan Edwards, Slavery, and the Theology of African Americans” (Feburary 1, 2012) pg. 7
6.McCleod, a Presbyterian minister, wrote a popular treatise titled “Negro slavery unjustifiable: a discourse” which had numerous printings. John W. Nevin was a contemporary Presbyterian theologian at Princeton who was a well-known advocate for the abolition of slavery.
7.It should be noted that slavery within the Jewish and early Christian context differed from what we understand as slavery, as informed by the ramifications of the Atlantic slave-trade. Rather, slavery in biblical times was mostly economic, in that people sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt. Israel had laws which meant that when such individuals were to be given freedom in the seventh year of service (Deuteronomy 15:12-15 c.f. Exodus 21:2-3). However, ‘man-stealing’ as the African slave-trade effectively was, was condemned. (Exodus 21:16 c.f. 1 Timothy 1:8-10).