The church changed its mind on slavery. Why not on sex?

Will Jones writes: It rarely takes long in any discussion about a controversial ethical issue amongst Christians for someone to bring up slavery. Slavery is the great exemple of how Christian thinking has changed on a key ethical issue. Christians in the past permitted slavery, practised slavery, defended slavery. Scripture clearly permits slavery in certain circumstances, and does not call for its outright abolition—and this has frequently allowed it to be used to defend the awful institution. Yet now we know slavery to be always and everywhere wrong and contrary to the will of God. What does that mean for how we understand the moral teaching of scripture and how we are to interpret it? If Christians for 1800 years failed to appreciate this key aspect of the moral law, does that mean that scripture can be unclear on critical moral issues? Should we therefore doubt its plain meaning and look more deeply for principles which, while apparently contradicting some specific verses, express deeper truths of God’s will for his creation?

It is not hard to see where this is going. The shift in thinking on slavery provides a model for many people of how the church might make a similar shift on sexual ethics. If the Bible seems to allow slavery, and Christians always used it to support slavery, yet now we all know this to be wrong, who’s to say that even though the Bible seems to disallow same-sex relationships, and Christians have always used it to oppose them, we shouldn’t now come to see things differently? What’s to stop the same revolution happening here, and indeed, shouldn’t it?

In a word, no. The issues are quite different in their relationship to scripture, theology and Christian history, and it doesn’t require an in depth knowledge to understand why.

To begin with, slavery in the Bible and throughout Christian history has always been regarded as a social evil, heavily regulated, carefully limited, and often suppressed. The story of God’s people revolved around their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and this fact is woven throughout their law and their self-understanding (Exodus 6:6, 20:2), and carried forward into the ethics and self-understanding of the New Covenant people of God (Galatians 4:21-31). For this reason, Jews were never to enslave one another (Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:39-43), and likewise Christians always placed tight restrictions on the enslavement of fellow Christians. Scripture teaches that human beings are created in the image of God, and hold the highest place in God’s natural created order (Genesis 1:26-8).

It is of course true that the New Testament does not condemn the institution of slavery outright or give clear instruction to seek its abolition. However, its teaching on freedom and equality in Christ, on love for neighbour and enemy, and on the universal application of the moral law, contains the seeds of all the later movements throughout Christian history to suppress it, prohibit it and, ultimately, abolish it.

Very importantly, the New Testament never affirms slavery, but only accepts it as an established part of the social order. This leaves the door open to the real possibility that, when the opportunity arises, it might be much better to do away with it completely. That possibility is shown to be highly desirable by all else that the New Testament teaches. For the New Testament is clear in affirming the humanity of slaves (Revelation 18:13); in proclaiming freedom and equality in Christ for slave and free (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 6:9); in urging slaves to obtain their freedom where possible (‘for whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord’, 1 Corinthians 7:22); and even in portraying an apostle urging a slave owner to free his runaway slave (Philemon 16). This does not of itself add up to a call for abolition. But it provides all that is necessary for such a call—and in the meantime, a clear agenda for limiting slavery, softening it, and keeping it in check. Which is precisely what Christian peoples did.

The formal line amongst Christian teachers was that slavery was contrary to God’s true intention for the world, and not part of the natural law. It was in the world because of sin, taught Augustine (City of God, Book XIX), and Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Q57), Luther (Erlangen, Vol. XV, 2) and Calvin (Commentary on Jeremiah 34) followed him. However, it was in that capacity permitted and thus had a just form and was to be regulated. John Chrysostom described it as ‘the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery, the fruit of sin, and of human rebellion against our true Father’ (Homily XXII). He did, however, recognise a just form of it, and within that enjoined masters to love their slaves in imitation of Christ (Homily II). Gregory of Nyssa was the standout exception who outright condemned slavery in all its forms, asking: ‘What price did you put on rationality? How much did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God?’ (Homilies on Ecclesiastes).

The general tolerance of slavery amongst Christians did not prevent particular places and peoples from taking extra steps towards its suppression and prohibition. In England, for example, the slave trade was banned by the Christian Normans in 1102. Likewise slavery largely died out in Europe (especially in the North) by the later Middle Ages, though it did persist more strongly in areas which bordered on non-Christian lands (e.g. the South and East) because of its connection with the conquest of non-Christian peoples. The Roman papacy, for its part, restated on numerous occasions its prohibition on the enslavement of Christians in most circumstances, and in some circumstances of non-Christians as well. Its record was far from unblemished, however, and it sanctioned the enslavement of Africans by the Portuguese and Native Americans by the Spanish at the start of the terrible Atlantic slave trade.

Regrettably, it is indeed the case that the unequivocal condemnation of slavery in all its forms by Christian churches had to wait until the eighteenth century, with abolition following in the nineteenth. Although defenders of slavery continued to use the traditional arguments and scriptures, abolitionists were not short of scriptural and theological arguments of their own. Christian scripture and theology were full of principles and sentiments which undermined slavery at its source, and which had been used throughout history to limit and soften the institution, and at times to suppress and prohibit it. The big difference now was that these principles were being pressed without the usual exceptions and exemptions. The traditional allowances were no longer being tolerated, and the clear principles of scripture and the natural law were being insisted upon with universal application.

It would, then, be a mistake to think that abolition involved a revolution in the Christian understanding of the scriptures and the moral law, as though everyone up till that point thought that slavery was just fine. It is much more accurate to see it as the ceasing of tolerance for exceptions to the natural law which had hitherto been thought intractable. The church had always known that slavery was deeply suspect: it was not part of the natural law; it was a result of sin and a form of punishment; it should be heavily limited, regulated and softened; and it was always liable to be prohibited or suppressed, and states often did so. In abolishing it, therefore, there was no radical reversal of principles of the natural law, no overturning of biblical teaching on the goodness of slavery or the sinfulness of freeing slaves. What there was, was a final doing away with the exceptions and allowances that Christians had previously permitted for the sake of accommodating human sinfulness and its consequences.

It will by now be evident how greatly this differs from the case of same-sex relationships. Not one of the considerations given above has any application to the matter of same-sex sexual relationships. There is, for example, no equivocation in any scriptural text, New Testament or Old, in setting out a negative view of same-sex sex. There is no suggestion that the ban on same-sex sex is something that a person should seek to be freed from, or that despite the ban there is an underlying freedom and equality in Christ as regards same-sex sexual relationships. There is no tradition in the church of characterising the ban as the fruit of sin and trying to limit it or suppress it for the sake of a higher ideal of love. Unlike slavery, the ban on same-sex sex is grounded on a clear positive principle of natural law that has never been in dispute, and is repeatedly affirmed throughout Old and New Testaments—namely the creation of human beings as male and female for mutual attraction tending to marriage (Genesis 1:27, 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Romans 1:26-7, Ephesians 5:31-2). The relationship of the two issues to scripture, the natural law and Christian history could not be more different.

Abolishing slavery involved the clear articulation of principles of the natural law, stated in scripture, in order to overcome the exceptions and accommodations that had previously been made because of sin. Affirming same-sex relationships, by contrast, would require the overturning of clear and established principles of the natural law, stated in scripture, and the complete rewriting of biblical sexual ethics so that it no longer accords with its plain stated meaning. Abolishing slavery meant finally doing away with an institution which the New Testament clearly regards as undesirable, and which its teaching undermined at source. Affirming same-sex sexual relationships would mean approving of conduct which the New Testament is emphatic in condemning as sinful (Romans 1:26-7, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-11). The cases could not be more different, or the consequences of failing to recognise this more serious for the standing of the Bible in Christian moral teaching.


Dr Will Jones is a Birmingham-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He works in a Church of England Diocesan office and has a keen interest in all things to do with public religion and social theology.

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399 thoughts on “The church changed its mind on slavery. Why not on sex?”

  1. Ian,

    Thank you for that. I agree there has to be a balance as Packer and France made clear, but I felt that Will’s remarks to Peter were taking things too far the other way. I recognise that historical context requires the a degree of scholarship. I believe some of those who differ on this matter have looked at the historical evidence with some scholarship and deserves to be taken seriously.

    I do have a problem with that line from the GAFCON statement though!

    (By the way – I was aware his family knew him by that name – but I was not sure how widely that went. It seemed a bit familiar!)

    • Hi Nick.

      ‘I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties’ is a quote I cited from NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. It is somewhat dismissive, I agree, and I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified to make a statement like that. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to dismiss all consideration of cultural context – he wouldn’t be in his position if he did that! But he clearly doesn’t regard the method to be being applied well on this issue, and considers that it is trying to do something that the text and cultural context won’t allow.

      The point in other words is that the claim that the behaviours condemned in the three specific verses wasn’t intended to include all (male) same-sex sex is textually and culturally implausible.

  2. Why would you say we know slavery to be always and everywhere wrong, and contrary to the will of God? I would not say that it is a sin to own a slave or the be a slave in a culture where that was permissible.

    Slavery among the Hebrews was not the same as it was in the American south. There were rules, and slaves could be set free if they were injured. Being enslaved for seven years was also a way of compensating victims of crime in some cases. It was more just and less pointless than some of our modern laws and practices related to imprisonment.

  3. The comparison of not owning slaves now to allowing perverted sex acts between people of the same sex isn’t the same. As I understand it was never a sin NOT to own slaves. (I could be wrong about that. I’m not sure if it was ever commanded in a specific case of a specific individual.) But it is a sin to fornicate or to commit the abomination of a man having sexual relationshs with a man, or for a man or woman to have sex with an animal, or to have sex with one’s mother, sister, etc.

  4. I stumbled upon this blog post, and I found it insightful. Now that gay marriage is legal, I really have no stake in these religious issues concerning gay relationships. I am agnostic, and interest in biblical issues I see in a more philosophical or academic way.

    That said, I think there is some naivete in this post. Christianity and Judaism have always been changing as have the views of Christians and Jews themselves. Every generation seems to think it “got it right this time,” but views do morph, change, and portions of scripture are given more importance than other portions. To say that modern views have always been there in the bible goes against what is written as well as any common sense interpretation.

    • Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. I’d be interested to know where you think the beliefs of Christians and Jews have ‘morphed’. Seeing as Paul told masters that slaves should be dealt with with ‘equality’ in Col 4.1, I don’t think it can be said of slavery.

  5. Hi Will, I appreciate you taking the time to write about such an important topic. I especially appreciated the primary source work that you did with the Church fathers to show the variance in their views.

    Why do you think that the fact that same-sex marriage has never been a point of dispute necessitates that male-female marriage is natural law? Historically, marriage has not been viewed as a matter of love, but rather a matter of power and familial alliances with children as a focus. As a result, same-sex marriage was not truly on the table within how marriage was conceptualized. I don’t know that I am tracking your natural law argument, can you elaborate on how you landed there?


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