Slaves, obey your masters
Colossians 3.12 Slaves, obey your masters.
Colossians 3.18 Wives, submit to your husbands
Colossians 4.1 Masters provide your slaves with
What could be clearer? Christianity provides a way forward in every situation – in marriage and even in slavery. In every nation, in every civilization. For all time. Doesn’t it?
Paul took the existing situation and applied his Christianity to it. He did not preach revolution. There was no call for slaves to rise up and throw off their shackles. There was not even an acknowledgement anywhere that slavery was thought to be basically wrong. He did not preach non-resistance. Instead, he applied the life lived in Christ to everyone, everywhere, in whatever situation they found themselves in.
That was two thousand years ago. As the centuries passed men became more civilized and gradually began to apply the heart of the gospel to the conditions existing in their own societies. Eventually after eighteen hundred years of being ‘blessed’ by the St Paul and the churches, slavery was abolished in Britain. Slavery still goes on in other areas of the world however, even now some two hundred years later. It has been estimated that there are about twenty seven million slaves worldwide.
The process of applying the gospel to contemporary life still goes on. We Christians are still discovering the depths of God’s purposes for us. We have begun to see the wrongness of hunger, homelessness, illiteracy and all the other limitations on men, women and children across the world. We are beginning to see that to have a Church with only male clergy is wrong – that, being equal, women are as valid and as needed in our preaching and pastoral work as the men. We are recognizing that a male dominated culture would, naturally, exclude women from positions of power.
We have hardly touched some of God’s purposes as yet. We are trying to apply what we understand of God to our contemporary life. For example, the more enlightened Christians now welcome gay people in as contributing valuable gifts and insights in the Church of Christ. The more truly biblical Churches welcome gay Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ. But the point is still in contention for some Christians.
We came to see slavery as wrong because it means the dominance of one human being by another – which runs counter to the basic teaching of Christ that our Heavenly Father values each of us equally as infinitely precious.
The problem at the root of slavery - and of submission by women to husbands - is the element of dominance. So far, in our best understanding of what Christ taught us, we have to say that the time has come to move beyond dominance in whatever form it is found in human society. And certainly in the form of slavery and in marriage. We have a lot to learn yet about economic dominance between countries and religious dominance within countries, to mention but two of its forms.
While we are getting rid of slavery and dominance in all its forms wherever it is found, we want to keep marriage. However, sometimes we may have an uneasy feeling that marriage, too, is suspect. But if we recognize that once submission/dominance is removed from the relationship between husband and wife, then the relationship is healthy, and we feel we can then fully endorse marriage as an institution given us by God. From marriage we derive a Christian endorsement of the Christian family, all the time decrying the family where one person dominates the others.
Slaves obey your masters? No! That injunction we have had to throw out, pass over, disregard. It proves to us how important it is to read the bible discerningly, and always with the help of God. If a direct injunction of the foremost writer in the early Church clearly directs us to have an attitude which we now find morally abhorrent, then we must accept that all the words of the bible – Old Testament and New - need checking daily for relevance and applicability to our lives here and now. What was relevant two thousand years ago may be irrelevant now. What is relevant today may become irrelevant tomorrow.
Of course the Holy Spirit still shows us things old and new from scripture at any time. He can use any part of the bible – or any other literature. We need to be open in case the Lord is going to show us something, or say something to us, through the most unlikely or even obscure passage in the Old Testament or the New Testament. But we have to bring our minds and hearts into play to examine what is on the page in front of us – to distinguish between what is acceptable today and what must be bypassed. And just because the Holy Spirit uses the bible to show us some truth does not mean that the printed words are ‘truth’. What it shows us is that the Holy Spirit communicates to our hearts and minds, using whatever we read.
The Old Testament contains ideas and moral values that predate Christ and which he did not endorse. Over and over again we read in the gospels that he said: ‘..but I say unto you…’ .
Christ did not violate the deepest insights of the old religion into the nature of God. But he overthrew almost everything else. Christ brought new life, not old life smartened up.
Christ brought new thinking, not old laws refurbished
Christ brought new wine, and called for new wineskins.
He reversed the current Jewish approach and attitude. He did more than that – he utterly reversed the accepted and normal human attitude.
How absurd to go an extra mile when forced to go the regulation mile of baggage carrying for some soldier.
How absurd to turn your cheek for another blow when you have been struck.
How crazy for forgive four hundred and ninety times.
How beyond all reason to lay down your life for a friend – and then to treat every one as a friend.
We cannot catch the full flavour of the revolutionary Christ unless we are prepared to see him as upsetting the conventional Jewish view of things.
Out with the old. In with the new. Don’t put old cloth patches on new clothes. But we are so often concerned with the patch that we miss the fact that it is to be put on new clothes.
I believe that a lot of us, who call ourselves Christians, have to grow up in relation to the bible. We have to learn to let go of some of the Jewish baggage. Not because it is Jewish, but because Jesus jettisoned it. Yes, of course the history of God’s past dealing with the Jews is vital. Yes, we learn a lot from the Old Testament. Yes, of course we could not understand the New Testament without the Old Testament. Yes, yes, yes …BUT
And this ‘but’ is a big one. We need to let go of our clinging dependence of the Old Testament, as if it were fully relevant to today. The insights into human nature in the Old Testament will last as long as mankind. But we need to launch afresh into the new life and new approach that Christ gives us. We need to see Christ’s message in its pristine newness. We need to stop turning to the Old Testament hoping that God will point out the relevance for our lives of some obscure event in Joshua’s life – and turn to the new Joshua – Jesus. Only then will we have a truly biblical approach. To be biblical does not mean that we have to become Christianized Jews – it means that we catch the incredible new world that Christ shows us. A new world that emerges from its Jewish past, and by so doing becomes relevant to today and tomorrow.
Our Old Testament is a priceless compendium of 2000 years of history of God’s dealing with the Jews. Now a further 2000 years have passed since it was written. I value it above any other book or literature. The bible is like a huge field – and there is a pearl in that field – and that pearl is Christ. We must sell all we have for it, but the prize is the pearl, not the field. The field comes with the pearl. You buy the one for the other. We inherit the Jew’s history of 2000 years – and thereby we understand Gods dealings with man – but it is the pearl we are after, not the field.
So away with all these literalist interpretations! They are fundamentally unsound and unbiblical. Let us turn from an unhealthy concern with Old Testament history. Away with rigid conservative views that suggest that somehow we are meant to know about and exalt all the old Jewish ideas and concepts. We are Christians and to live out our lives as Christians we do not need to spend days and months deciphering what the prophecies of Ezekiel might mean for us today. That approach betrays our Christian faith and calling. It is so easy to fall into an approach that mirrors the attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes in the time of Jesus. Christians have to wake up! We have to recognize where God is moving – to go with love in our hearts for all we meet.
Only if we do this will those who lack faith – and are desperately looking for soul-satisfying answers – who are all around us - see that our faith is actually relevant to their lives. While we are preoccupied with our roots in Jewish history and thought, we are failing to show the relevance of Christianity to our neighbour. They find all this business about the Jewish background far too unreal and unrelated to their life today. They are put off by it. They look for a real approach to today’s world – and you don’t find that by living in your thought world in the Old Testament.
Much of the Jewish Old Testament seems as outdated as slavery to most people today. They want to know how being a Christian has affected your life today. We have to live and talk about that for them. Living in the past – however essential for a full understanding for theology – cuts no ice with them. We either hear their appeal or, as an organized church body, we perish – it is as simple as that. If we get stuck in the past we shall find that Christ has moved on and we are no longer with him.