I remember listening to Tony Campolo speak in chapel when I was a student at Wheaton College. His passion inspired me. His compassion for the downtrodden motivated me. I revered him as a biblical and prophetic voice.

So when I saw earlier this summer he had endorsed gay marriage, I was saddened. The statement on his website is eye-opening and concerning. He concludes:

Obviously, people of good will can and do read the Scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one. However, I am old enough to remember when we in the church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of Scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out. (emphasis added)

Matthew Vines, another proponent of gay marriage and author of God and the Gay Christian, writes, “In the 19th century, experience played a key role in compelling Christians to rethink another traditional—and supposedly biblical—belief. This time, the issue was slavery” (15). Vines claims that Christians have made pivotal decisions based on the principle of good fruit and bad fruit. For example, the early church decided to include Gentiles. Likewise, 19th-century Christian abolitionists “appealed to conscience based on the destructive consequences of slavery. A bad tree produces bad fruit” (15).

So, for Vines, the church was basically supportive of slavery throughout history until the 19th century, when “experience” brought about a reinterpretation of Scripture. But is this a fair historical account? Most importantly, does it do justice to the authority of Scripture?

Slavery’s Complex History

First, we must acknowledge that the story of slavery throughout the ages is complicated. Specifically, we must recognize key differences between slavery in New Testament times and slavery in America and elsewhere in more recent history. In his book Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (IVP Academic, 2001), Murray Harris summarizes several key differences between Greco-Roman slavery and New World slavery:

In the first century, slaves were not distinguishable from free persons by race, by speech, or by clothing; they were sometimes more highly educated than their owners and held responsible professional positions; some persons sold themselves into slavery for economic or social advantage; they could reasonably hope to be emancipated after 10 or 20 years of service or by their 30s at the latest; they were not denied the right of public assembly and were not socially segregated (at least in the cities); they could accumulate savings to buy their freedom; their natural inferiority was not assumed. (44)

It’s imperative that we understand these differences as we assess how the church through the ages has interacted with slavery. This is not to imply that slavery in the first century was a pleasant thing. But the race-based, chattel slavery practiced in the United States is in a different category. There is no way to defend such an abomination from Scripture, and those who sought to do so revealed their deep-seated racism. 

While the Bible lacks a crystal-clear text condeming the institution of slavery, it does not commend slavery either. The features of slavery in the first century (for example, not race-based, the regularity with which slaves earned their freedom, and so on)—and also the critical role this particular form of slavery played in the economy—help us to understand why abolition was not on the apostles’ front burner.

Key Differences

The abolitionist position rightly sees in Scripture indicators pointing toward freedom. We can cite passages that seriously undermine the institution of slavery (for example, Exod. 21:16; 1 Cor. 7:21; 1 Tim. 1:10; Philemon). Even the passages some used to defend slavery were revolutionary in their original context, for they put master and slave on the same footing (for example, Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1).

Additionally, while slaves were instructed to obey their masters, the institution of slavery was never rooted in creation. It was understood to be a reality of contemporary life, not a creation ordinance from God. In contrast, one-man/one-woman marriage, gender roles, and the prohibition of homosexual acts are consistently rooted in creation (Rom. 1:24–27, where there are distinct echoes of the creation account; 1 Cor. 11:8–9; Eph. 5:31; 1 Tim. 2:13–14). 

Scripture doesn’t speak out explicitly against each and every sinful practice going on in the world. Some practices such as slavery are tolerated within the biblical narrative even while they far short of the God’s ideal. We could put polygamy in this category, too. That we come across many examples of polygamy in the Bible, even among individuals praiseworthy in other respects, does not endorse the practice. Similarly, the biblical passages addressing slavery shouldn’t be read as condoning slavery as an institution. In fact, as we observed, the instructions regarding slavery bring radical transformation to the master-slave relationship.

We may recognize one more key difference between the abolitionist arguments and the pro-gay marriage arguments. The abolitionists were going against the tide of culture, whereas gay-marriage proponents are jumping on board a cultural movement that is picking up speed by the minute. As Tim Keller observes:

During the Civil War, British Presbyterian biblical scholars told their southern American colleagues who supported slavery that they were reading the scriptural texts through cultural blinders. They wanted to find evidence for their views in the Bible and voila—they found it. If no Christian reading the Bible—across diverse cultures and times—ever previously discovered support for same-sex relationships in the Bible until today, it’s hard not to wonder if many now have new cultural spectacles on, having a strong predisposition to find in these texts evidence for the views they already hold.  

Experience Is Not Ultimate

We shouldn’t be surprised when Scripture challenges cultural trends, even when it challenges our strongly felt experiences. At these moments we must determine which authority holds final sway in our lives. Every generation of believers will face new challenges to biblical authority and new temptations to compromise the truth and manipulate God’s Word to condone sinful practices. Today that temptation is great, as it is proclaimed to us by respected professing evangelicals. 

But experience is not the final arbiter of truth. Scripture is. In these times of cultural upheaval, we must allow Scripture to interpret our experiences—not vice versa.