Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
September 08, 2013
Way back in the sixteenth century, when the Western Church was splitting into Protestant and Catholic, some radicals accused Protestant Reformers like Luther of turning the Bible into a ‘paper pope’. The Protestant Reformers had freed Christians from the authority of the Pope but, the radicals said, had set up in place of the Pope a book, the Bible; trusting in another human creation instead of in God.
Was that true? Is the Bible a ‘paper pope’ for Protestants? For some churches, it might be. Some churches proudly proclaim that they are ‘Bible-believing’ churches, and I think that declaring a belief in the Bible is a good indication that you do follow a ‘paper pope’. But the Uniting Church is not one of those churches. As seriously as we take the Bible, we do not ‘believe’ in it. For us it isn’t the word of God. According to the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union we find in the Scriptures ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ to the Word of God, who is of course a person, Jesus, and not a book. That Word of God is heard when the Scriptures are read and understood in the worship and witnessing life of the Church, the Basis tells us.
The Basis of Union was drawing on the theology of people like Karl Barth, who was writing in the middle of the twentieth-century. Barth wrote about the Bible as giving us the Word of God in human words. That Word of God, Barth said, is a gift placed in human hands and is ours if we make use of it by reading, interpreting and understanding it. It is the job of the Church, of the Christian community, to do that reading, interpreting and understanding, so that the human words of the Bible reveal to the Word of God. Moving from human words to the Word of God demands work. As the Basis of Union puts it: ‘The Uniting Church has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith’. The Uniting Church is not a Bible-believing church, but a Bible-interpreting church, using literary, historical and scientific enquiry to learn more about God through the Bible’s ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ to God.
Why am I making such a point of this today? Because reading today’s epistle reminds us that if Christians were satisfied with simply believing in the Bible, we might still be upholding slavery as acceptable.
At the end of today’s gospel reading Jesus says: ‘none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions’. Hard as it might be for us to get our heads around, this is what Paul’s letter to Philemon is asking him to do. Onesimus, about whom Paul is writing, is a slave, a possession. And Paul is asking Philemon to change the way he relates to Onesimus – not as a possession, but as a beloved brother. But Paul is not asking Philemon to set Onesimus free, or suggesting that slavery in itself is wrong.
Paul’s letter tells us that Onesimus is the slave of Philemon, a Christian who has a church meeting in his house. Onesimus has run away from Philemon, met Paul, and under Paul’s influence become a Christian. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon, with the request that Philemon will receive Onesimus kindly, as a brother. Beyond these few details, many questions remain, of which the biggest is: why does Paul, the man who wrote ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,’ (Galatians 3:28) not challenge the institution of slavery?
Paul is seeking to persuade Philemon to do the right thing, to welcome Onesimus as a brother rather than punishing him as a slave. Paul’s challenge to Philemon is to go beyond convention and the rules of society and see in a runaway slave an equal, a cherished member of the family, and welcome him home. What Paul is doing is radical – to some extent. Paul’s asking for forgiveness for a slave from a master who had every right to arrest and brutally punish him. It’s absolutely clear that Paul wants Philemon to go beyond legality; to replace the demands of the law with the new demands of Christian love. But Paul doesn’t condemn slavery. Paul tries to change the status of slavery within one small group, the church that meets in the house of Philemon, while ignoring the question of whether there is any place for slavery in society. Paul is looking at the relationship between two people, trying his best to create a new society within the church. His aim is to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus; not to change all of society.
Is that because Paul simply was not worried about the rest of society; he saw his role as limited to pastoring two Christians? Or did he want to keep the tiny Christian community free of the rebellion and violence that opposition to slavery would bring? Or was Paul so embedded in that society that he just didn’t see that slavery, even a slavery in which masters treated their slaves as brothers, is wrong?
Hard as it might be for us to understand, I suspect that Paul simply might not have seen slavery as wrong. After all, over a millennium later John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ continued to be the captain of slave-trading ships and an investor in the slave trade for years after his conversion.
Later Biblical writers went further than Paul does in this letter by telling slaves to obey their masters, even if their masters mistreat them. The author of the First Letter of Peter wrote: ‘Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly’ (1 Peter 2:18-19). And the author of the Letter to the Ephesians wrote: ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ’ although at least he also wrote: ‘And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.’ (Ephesians 6:5, 9)
Given these biblical injunctions, it’s not so surprising that the second-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote to his fellow bishop Polycarp of Smyrna that Christian slaves should live as better slaves to the glory of God, rather than seeking their freedom. Ignatius’ opinion was that it would be inappropriate to use church funds to help slaves buy their freedom.
It’s hard to imagine now, but for centuries Christians believed that slavery was perfectly compatible with Christianity, and they were able to turn to parts of the Bible to justify their belief. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch says that: ‘It took original minds to kick against the authority of sacred scripture. What was needed was a prior conviction in one’s conscience of the wrongness of slavery, which one might then decide to justify by a purposeful re-examination of the biblical text.’ It was only when people were convinced that slavery was wrong that they went back to the Bible to find ways of justifying their belief. And of course they found them. If you are convinced that slavery is wrong it isn’t hard to argue that Jesus’ teaching: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 7:12) takes precedence over ‘Slaves, obey your masters’! But it was a hard journey for some. According to one historian of American theology, the debate over slavery in that country ‘compelled some theologians to recognise that they had to choose between biblical literalism and a form of interpretation that took into account historical criticism, the social and cultural context of the biblical writings, diversity and development within the canon, and the force of presuppositions in biblical scholarship’. Obviously sticking to biblical literalism would have been much easier and simpler. But then people would still be enslaved.
Every Sunday morning the service starts with the Bible being carried in and ends with the Bible being carried out. That’s how important it is. The Scriptures are, as we say every week, a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Everything that I say up here is ‘controlled by the Biblical witnesses’. But the words of the Bible must be interpreted by the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Uniting Church is not a ‘Bible-believing’ church. And slavery is wrong.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 208.
 Basis of Union, paragraph 5.
 Karl Barth, God here and now (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 64-5.
 Basis of Union, paragraph 11.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London: Allen Lane, p. 116
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London: Allen Lane, p. 868.
 E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 43.
 Basis of Union paragraph 5.