Responding to biblical arguments for slavery, and for subordination of women

The somewhat mysterious* C Miller of Mustard Seed Kingdom has written an interesting and provocative post (or perhaps it’s just the subject matter which is provocative) summarising what Kevin Giles has written about the biblical argument for slavery, as put forward by many 19th century evangelicals, and how we should respond to it.

To summarise even more briefly, Giles wonders whether the evangelicals who supported slavery “were mistaken in their interpretation of the Scriptures”, or “were right”, or

were basically correct in their exegesis of the passages to which they referred but wrong in their doctrine of the Bible, in viewing it as a timeless set of oracles without historical conditioning.

If we presuppose that they were not right in supporting slavery, we have to conclude that either their exegesis was wrong or their doctrine of the Bible was. Giles writes about them:

These men appeared to the Bible as if it were a set of timeless oracles or propositions not recognising that in fact it reflected the culture of its authors and their presuppositions at least to some degree…failed to note that on most issues addressed by the Bible various answers are given to complex questions.

And he goes on to draw the lessons from this for the biblical argument for the subordination of women:

The biblical case for slavery is the counterpart of the case for the subordination of women, the only difference being that the case for slavery has far more weighty biblical support. …the internal biblical critique of slavery is less profound than that against the subordination of women.

And he concludes by suggesting that within a century the biblical argument for subordination of women will be rejected just as clearly as today the argument for slavery is rejected.

Any reactions?

* Actually I have discovered that she is called Clare and lives in or near Durham, for which her blog header photo is in fact a dead giveaway for those who can recognise a cathedral. And I think I have even found her brief resume with a picture. So much for Internet privacy!

0 thoughts on “Responding to biblical arguments for slavery, and for subordination of women

  1. Thanks for the lead to the mysterious Miller – I’ll keep up with this blog now. Could be just up my street – I’ve been interested in K Giles for a while now.
    Rachel Re vis.e Re form

  2. Well Peter, you tracked me down!

    Good detective work… did you recognise the skyline first (one of my favourite views!) – or find the Google maps post?

    Having a blog ‘identity’ without a first name was a deliberate experiment in gender responses in the blogosphere… I wondered whether being assumed male would make a difference in the way that other bloggers responded to me (my previous blogging identity was explicitly female), especially on topics such as theology. It’s been interesting – and funny being referred to as ‘Mr Miller’ from time to time. Although, for anyone who cared to check the ‘gender’ category on my blog – I made it quite clear!

    Anyway, it made me smile to be referred to as ‘mysterious’. Maybe I’ll make that my tagline – ‘the mysterious Miller’ 😉

  3. Thanks for pointing to this Peter.

    I like the summary of the choices we have:

    *they were right
    *they were wrong
    *their exegesis was right but their doctrine of the Bible was wrong

    This is a nice summary that carries over well to current debates – I suppose in many places the role of women is still an open debate – that cause us some much dark heat.

  4. Pingback: Three options on slavery, women, and homosexuality « John Meunier’s Blog

  5. Thanks, Clare. But your “assumed male” didn’t work – I assumed that like JK Rowling (but not JK Gayle) and A Nyland you were using an initial because you are female! Yes, I recognised the cathedral first and then searched the blog for “Durham” to check that you weren’t just using a nice photo. I found the resume by googling “Clare Miller Durham”.

    John, thanks for your comment and link.

  6. I wonder if Giles’ options are a bit simplistic: It’s not necessarily the case that the Bible was blandly thought of as a collection of timeless oracles in the nineteenth century – and nor is it the case today that (at least academically responsible) proponents of Christian submission argue in this way. Giles is making it out as though people who hold a different position to him are just unthinking rednecks.

    I think the question is not, “Is the Bible historically conditioned?” – but rather “In what ways should the new testament’s call to Christian submission be expressed in the sorts of relationships that we have today?” Surely there can be little debate that submission as a general theme is a fundamental response to the cross in the NT – it consistently features in the ethics of Paul & Peter. Today we would generally automatically see this as applying to parent/child relationships, to employer/employee relationships, and to government/citizen relationships… the question remains: Should this orientation of submission also be a part of today’s marriage relationships? Would that be another appropriate avenue for the expression of this cross-responsive attitude, or are there other trajectories of the NT’s application of the cross & resurrection that would suggest other possibilities?

  7. biblical argument for subordination of women = complementarianism ? That seems to be the undercurrent here. I’m all for ending the subordination of the women, but not if that really means bringing in full-blown eglatarianism / secular feminism.

  8. Matthew, I’m sure not by everyone in the 19th century that “the Bible was blandly thought of as a collection of timeless oracles”. But that seems to have been in general the assumption of those arguing pro-slavery in that period. Perhaps Giles’ full article would be more specific. As for today’s “proponents of Christian submission”, I’m afraid I haven’t seen any academically responsible ones; the irresponsibility of most of the arguments currently put forward has been clearly demonstrated in posts by Suzanne McCarthy e.g. at Better Bibles Blog.

    Alastair, I think Giles is indeed an egalitarian, although not a secular feminist. But that doesn’t invalidate his critique.

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