Contemporary Notre Dame scholar Mark Noll wrote about the reasons that good theologians in the South and the North interpret the same biblical texts in totally opposite ways. It is interesting to me that contemporary theologians will say that all interpretations are equal and must be accepted, while arguing vehemently that some interpretations during the 19th century were wrong.
The two texts that Noll uses are Noah’s curse to one of his sons and the verses that address slavery in the New Testament. Interpreting Noah’s curse as a declaration that black people should be the servants/slaves of white people is not warranted. The text is being forced to serve the context in which interpreters lived.
The New Testament is not a good place to find support for slavery either. While it does not tell people to free their slaves, it has many verses addressed that tell masters how to treat their slaves. Jesus starts by saying, “I no longer call you servants. I call you my friends because I have revealed everything.” He inverted the societal order altogether by washing his disciple’s feet, which was a servant’s job. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for his disciples and talks about his oneness with them.
One of my black friends used to tell me that his great-grandmother loved Jesus deeply but was not very fond of Paul. The reason that Paul gets criticism is because of the submission clause. Indeed, if one plucks the submission clauses from the New Testament, one can accuse Paul of unilateral submission. “Wives, submit to your husband” is an explosive statement in the 21st century. “Slaves, submit to your masters” is difficult to read as well.
Paul’s arguments always start with submission within the Holy Trinity. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5-7) As Jesus submits to the Father, so the Spirit submits to Jesus. These are the verses that tell wives to submit to their husbands and command husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave his life for her. This is sacrificial love, not lordly requirement from a master.
In the slave passages, Paul has more to say to the masters than to the slaves. “You treat them as those who know you have a master in heaven.” The guidelines were set by God. As God has treated the owner of slaves, they should in turn treat their slaves the same way.
In Romans, Paul talks about those who claim to know God but do not act that way. He concludes that God’s name is dishonored by what they have done. The Old and New Testaments have guidelines about coming to God as individuals and as nations—when you come to the altar, if you remember that you have done something to your brother, you should leave your sacrifice/praise there to go reconcile with your brother. We must confess when we have interpreted Scripture to hold power over other people and confess what we have done and ask forgiveness. Only then can we live changed lives.