A new article on CNN’s belief blog asked the question whether the black Church in America isn’t being hypocritical over homosexuality as it uses the exact same Bible to denounce gay marriage that others used to affirm slavery. James Cone, a leading black churchman and author of The Cross and Lynching Tree, asks: “I tell some people, ‘These people were against you.’ They would have lynched you. How are you going to now join them and help them lynch somebody else?’”
Along the same lines, in his recent interview with Dr. Robert Jeffress, Martin Bashir stated that President Obama used the identical language to affirm homosexual marriage that William Wilberforce used to condemn slavery. Bashir asked Jeffress: Why couldn’t the same golden rule that helped outlaw slavery apply to homosexuality?
Both Cone’s and Bashir’s line of argument is that the Bible cannot be a standard of morality for us today since it clearly upholds slavery, which everyone knows is morally reprehensible. That being the case, in the same way that we should reject the Bible’s position on slavery, we should discard its moral pronouncements against homosexuality because (just like with slavery) a particular class of persons is being denied their moral rights.
Is such a comparison fair and accurate?
No, it’s isn’t, and it’s not for at least two reasons. First, it misunderstands the concept of slavery as described in the Bible, and second, it fails to realize that there is a difference between all people being equal from an intrinsic moral worth perspective and the moral behaviors and practices those same people engage in being equal.
A Jet Tour of Slavery in the Bible
When non-Christians read about the practice of slavery in Israel, they immediately associate it with antebellum slavery, with its de-humanizing slave trade and various atrocities. In fact, slavery has been one of the weapons of choice by atheists such as Sam Harris who say that the Bible refers to slaves as “farm equipment”.
Such a belief is simply false. People forget that God is actually the original abolitionist as evidenced by the fact that He abolished the forced slavery of the Israelites by the Egyptians (cf. Ex. 3-5). The truth is that the type of slavery as practiced by Israel was of a debt-servanthood nature and should be likened today to apprentice-styled positions that are used to pay off debts. Such a thing was mimicked by America’s founding population when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World, after which they then became free.
Because of various economic or ecological tragedies, a family back in ancient Israel’s day could find themselves hopelessly in debt with no external means at their disposal to remove that debt. The end result was that they would offer their debtor the only thing they had: the labor-producing abilities of the head of the household and sometimes other members of the family. The only other type of slavery tended to be that which resulted from a war outcome where the vanquished people were placed into servitude for a time.
It should be noted this practice stands in stark contrast to the typical image of antebellum slavery. The Old Testament had very clear laws against physical abuse (cf. Ex. 21:26-27), against the kidnapping of people for sale into slavery (cf. Ex. 21:16), against infinite servitude (cf. Lev. 25), and against returning a foreigner who was a slave back to their master (cf. Deut. 23:15-16). When reviewed properly, slavery (“servitude”) in the Old Testament is found to be something that may have been necessary at times, but not optimal from a long term perspective.
During New Testament times, Christianity stood out as impressively distinctive from the practices of the Roman world, whose population was dominated by slaves (some 80-90%) who held both high and low positions. The New Testament writers carried forward the Old Testament truth that all people are God’s image bearers and should be treated equally from a moral worth perspective (cf. Gen. 1:26-27; James 3:9). Of this fact, the Apostle Paul wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
The assertion that the Bible affirms antebellum slavery is dashed to the ground in a number of places in the New Testament. Paul explicitly tells the Corinthians: “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:21–23).
Paul also denounces slave trafficking in his first letter to Timothy: “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers [rendered ‘kidnappers’ in other translations], liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, (1 Tim. 1:9–10, emphasis added).
Much more could be said on the subject of slavery and the Bible, but after careful and historical analysis, the conclusion that a thinking person should come to is that the Scriptures never come close to affirming antebellum slavery. In fact, there is an anti-slavery motif that runs throughout the entire Bible, which presents God as the One who sets His people free from the slavery of sin and breaks the bondage that they are in.
Does the Bible record such practices of antebellum slavery? Yes it does, but one must be careful to understand that there are plenty of things that the Bible records that it does not approve of. Moreover, have certain prominent figures down through history used quotes from the Bible erroneously to support their personal desire to keep slaves? The answer to that is, yes, however there are also plenty of other situations where people have attempted to use the Bible to back a sinful lifestyle or desire they had. The fact is, humanity always looks to affirm its desires, and is no happier than when it thinks it finds approval from a source outside and beyond itself.
The Question of all Moral Practices Being Equal
The argument from both Bashir and Cone that the Bible endorses the concept of antebellum slavery is simply incorrect, and with that line of reasoning out of the way, we can now address the second error each makes: confusing all people being equal from an intrinsic worth perspective with all moral practices being equal.
Bashir and Cone, without realizing it, already implicitly uphold this distinction – they both decry the practice of racism and believe it is an untenable moral position to hold. This fact aside, there are a couple of additional arguments that each make, which deserve attention.
The first is that, just in the same way an African-American is born with black skin, the homosexual is born the way they are sexually and are and unable to change. There are several problems with such a comparison and assertion.
First, the question of whether a person is born a homosexual is the subject of lots of debate. In the 1940’s, sexologist Alfred Kensey asked homosexuals why they practiced homosexuality, and only nine percent said they were born that way. A decade later, that percentage climbed to 35% and today nearly all claim they are born homosexual.
Why the change? Because the belief is that if a person is born with such a predisposition, then (1) that predisposition must be right and morally good; (2) that predisposition obviates any moral responsibility to act contrary to ‘what they are’.
But such an idea is grossly flawed. Nearly all men admit they were not born monogamous, and yet many choose to live sexually monogamous lives with their wife. In addition, anyone using just a thimbleful of intellectual honesty acknowledges that all humans are born impatient, egocentric, selfish, prone to angry outbursts, unforgiving, and with the ability to lie with ease. And yet, they are raised to work against every one of these ‘born with it’ traits. The bottom line is that the ‘born homosexual’ argument simply fails from a moral obligation perspective. Also, it should be remembered that many former homosexuals have freed themselves from that lifestyle and live today as heterosexuals.
The second argument made by Bashir in his interview of Jeffress is that something is moral because society’s laws say it’s moral. When asked by Jeffress why polygamy and incest should not be embraced but homosexual marriage should, Bashir responded “the law of the nation says they’re unlawful.”
But the law of the nation also once said that sodomy was unlawful, and yet the homosexual lobby worked to get that overturned. Bashir makes the classic mistake of confusing “is” with “ought”.
Further, the attorney arguing for polygamist Kody Brown and his multiple wives uses the exact same line of argumentation as those who support homosexual marriage when he says: "There's a host of constitutional problems when a state goes into a family and says your family has to look like ours; [That] you have to live your life according to our values and our morals. The question is, in this country, is whether you can have a family that's different.”
One argument that neither Bashir nor Cone seem to make is that the Bible actually does not condemn homosexual practice. At least both recognize the perspicuity of Scripture on the subject and the number of clear passages (e.g. Gen. 19:4-11; Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13; Rom. 1:24-28; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) that condemn homosexuality as morally sinful.
Additionally, the Bible also clearly states that marriage should only be between one man and one woman with both Jesus (Mark 10:6-9) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:2) confirming heterosexual-only marriage.
In the end, Cone and Bashir’s attempts at denying the use of the Bible in matters of homosexuality because of its supposed support for slavery fail to hit the mark. No affirmation exists in the Bible for antebellum slavery, nor is the attempted analogy and linkage of skin color and moral behavior one that is valid.
Lastly, Cone’s subtle but unmistaken reference to the black (or any) church committing violence against homosexuals in the same way that African-Americans were once lynched is misplaced. While acts of bullying, assault, and murder have certainly been committed against homosexuals, the Church of Jesus Christ is called to love all those entangled in sin, no matter what that sin may be. The world will call telling a person that homosexuality is a sin ‘hate speech’, but the Bible calls it speaking the truth in love.
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 18.