The Devil Can Cite Scripture
A sermon based on Philemon at Mount Vernon, OH on September 4, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Steve just read most of a kind of obscure book in the New Testament, Philemon. (Fah-lee-mon) This “book” is a letter from Paul to Philemon (Fah-lee-mon), a slave owner. It is a letter about one of Philemon’s (Fah-lee-mon) slaves, a fellow named Onesimus, who sought refuge with Paul. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) with the letter asking him to see Onesimus “[n]o longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in flesh and in the Lord.” And Paul asks him to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul himself.
I hear in this 2,000 year old letter a renouncement of slavery. Such a renouncement is in line not only with Jesus’s command to love your neighbor, but with many comments by Paul himself on slavery. In Galatians 5 (1) Paul wrote “ For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” In 1 Corinthians 7 (21, 23) he wrote “whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a free person . . . do not become slaves of human masters.” And perhaps most famously are these words from Galatians 3 (28) “There is no longer . . . slave or free . . . for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It will probably comes as little surprise to most of us that the Book of Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) was often cited in the 19th century by those who opposed slavery. It might come as a surprise though that it was also quite often cited by those who favored slavery: In The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders George Freeman in 1836 wrote that in Philemon (Fah-lee-mon)
we are furnished with one remarkable instance, in which an Apostle appears to have been instrumental, not in setting at liberty, (as some over-benevolent persons in our day are forward to do) but in reclaiming and sending back to his master, A FUGITIVE SLAVE! . . . Phile[m]on, (Fah-lee-mon) it appears, was a Christian . . . His slave Onesimus had eloped from his master; but meeting St. Paul in his travels, he became a convert to the Christian Faith, and now, under the influence of Christian principle set home to his conscience, doubtless by the faithful exertion of the Apostle, he resolved on returning to his master’s service. . .
Freeman adds this
“*Footnote: Some strenuous advocates of emancipation, . . . have sought to give this transaction a somewhat different aspect. From the expressions used by the Apostle . . . they have inferred that he did not mean to consign Onesimus again to bondage; confidently trusting that since his conversion he would no longer be regarded by Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) as a slave, but be received and acknowledged not only as a Christian brother, but as an equal. A candid examination of the Epistle, however, must, it is thought, satisfy every impartial mind that the view [I’ve stated] is the correct one. ” 1.
Frederick Douglass an ex-slave, intellectual, articulate voice and an American hero who championed the anti-slavery movement responded like this to such arguments:
The leading Doctors of Divinity in America, and the Professors in the Colleges, were in favour of slavery. There was Professor Stewart, of the Andover seminary, one of the first Biblical schools in New England——that gentleman had committed to him the instruction of the Ministers of a large portion of the congregational denominations, and he was an advocate for slavery. The Rev. Dr. Fisk, who some time ago, was welcomed by the Methodist Church, in Dublin, though they had shut [me] out,——this Doctor Fisk became uneasy, when he heard it said that slavery was a sin, and, not willing to commit himself on the question, wished to have the opinion of Doctor Stewart on the subject. This man, who would have said that sheep-stealing was a sin, and would have decided so at once, had to consult a learned Doctor as to whether man-stealing was a sin . . .. . . Doctor Stewart sent him a reply, in which he referred to the case of Onesimus, whom he stated Paul had sent back to Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) for life.
Douglass then notes this:
[I] would be glad to know where Dr. Stewart learned that Onesimus was sent back into slavery for life; was it, [I] would ask, from the law? If it was, [I] would tell him, that Jewish slavery was not for life; there was no such thing known among the Jews as slavery for life, except it was desired on the part of the servant himself. What did the Apostle say himself? He said, he sent back Onesimus greater than a servant; and told Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) to receive him as he would receive him, Paul; not as a slave who could be sold in the market, but as a brother beloved. 2 ///
One set of Christians claimed the Bible supported slavery; another claimed it opposed slavery. This church was deeply involved in the dispute. We were founded as an anti-slavery church. Our founders understood Christians were called to oppose slavery even as others felt the Bible supported it.
How could the Bible be read to bolster such opposing views? How could one book be construed in such drastically different ways? Didn’t Moses lead the Hebrews out of the evil of slavery in Egypt? Yes! Didn’t Israel lament the captivity of her people in Babylon? Yes! But the Bible also remembers Abraham owned and impregnated a slave girl and Solomon built the Temple with slaves. There are stories in the Bible that can be read to support and to condemn slavery.
The Bible is a collection of experiences from very distance times and places and cultures. It contains echos of many voices. Among the many voices are those that include support for domination systems like slavery. Marcus Borg refers to this generally as a part of “Royal Theology.” 3 We can hear this voice particularly strong in the King Saul and David stories, where God is experienced as appointing, supporting and siding with the monarchy. Royal Theology legitimates power structures including systems of domination like slavery.
Also among the many voices in the Bible are those that oppose domination systems, Borg refers to this generally as a part of “Prophetic Theology,” the voices that protest and seek to subvert the power structures and systems of domination like slavery. 4 We can hear these voices in the Moses traditions and later in the prophets who oppose oppressive power. And we can also hear these voices in the words of John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus –each of whom was put to death by the domination system of Rome they stood up to.
Royal theologies and Prophetic theologies are in tension throughout the Bible. Those who experienced oppressive rulers see things differently than rulers. What we have in the Bible are recordings over time of different experiences of God, what my seminary professor, John Bracke, referred to as “witnesses.” These witnesses come before us in scripture and WE must judge which witness to believe, which one speaks for the God we know.
I trust that we would not accept that God speaking through Biblical witnesses would ever be heard to call us to support slavery in any fashion, anywhere. We must judge every scriptural witness against Jesus’ prophetic call to love God, ourselves and our neighbors and we understand that slavery is far, far from that call to love on each of those levels.
Slavery is an easy issue for us to judge today. As a culture we have come to abhor it. When we can bear it, we look back at our history and see we wrongly captured, tortured, killed and enslaved millions of human beings. How could a predominately Christian culture do that? How could churches, clergy and Christians have allowed it? How could the Bible have been quoted to support it?
Shakespeare’s character Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice, notes that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It’s true! In addition to pro-slavery supporters citing it, here’s Adolph Hitler using it:
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.5.
So slave owners and Adolph Hitler and many others who have done and want to do wrong often turn to scripture for justification of their ungodly acts – the devil can indeed cite scripture for his purpose.
How can we know when scripture is valid or being used validly? How can we hear when God is speaking? The answer is to consider it in the light of of Biblical texts, church traditions, reason and your own experiences. We talked about this in TAG this summer, John Wesley the founder of the Methodist church came up with this method for theological reflection. It’s called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” what you do is take the Bible, church tradition, reason and personal experience and use them as checks and balances to help determine where Truth can be found in the religious witnesses that come before you to determine when God is speaking.
Let’s take the lesson Steve read and see if we are called to or away from slavery by God?Let’s begin with the Bible leg of the Quadrilateral. In this church we ground our theology in the Biblical witnesses in the Hebrew Scriptures from Micah on the wall behind me. Seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. And in the New Testament we look to I John’s (4:8) declaration that “God is Love” and most especially to Jesus’ greatest commandments that cannot be superceded by any other commandments– to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” [and] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Slavery is in opposition to these Biblical groundings. Seeking justice and loving kindness requires letting captives go free. A God of Love could never condone slavery. And how could we love the image of God in others and love our neighbors as our self, if we allow them to be enslaved?
Tradition, the second leg of the Quadrilateral, helps in this regard as well, for millennia many in the church have called for abolition of slavery and in the last century-and-a-half church tradition has come to uniformly abhor slavery.
The third leg, reason – that is rational thinking– tells us that slavery is an awful, horrid, inhumane and immoral thing to do to another human being.
Finally the last leg is experience: our personal and communal experiences of God tells us that slavery IS ungodly and awful.
So Wesley’s Quadrilateral– scripture, tradition, experience and reason– evidences God clearly speaking, telling us slavery is not good. Paul calling Philemon (Fah-lee-mon) away from seeing Oneismus as a slave and toward seeing him for what he was: a beloved brother, IS in line with God’s Word.
It is easy for us to look back and shake our heads at those in America who claimed slavery was supported by the Bible and God. We have the vantage point of history. We have the advantage of living in a culture that has evolved to the point of teaching us slavery is awful. Before we get too smug in our righteousness on the issue of slavery, we’d do well to ask what things WE hear the Bible being touted in favor of that future generations – and I dare say God– will look back at us and wonder how a people of God could ever have so misused the Bible?
It’s not an unfair question.Is the Bible being misused today to support wrongs? There is no denying that it has been used on both sides of a number of issues. We can hear Biblical arguments for and against evolution, the death penalty, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, natural resources, abortion, war, peace, welfare, immigration, and even the age of the earth– just to name a few. Even both sides of the presidential race thump the Bible to support the very divergent positions.
To answer the question: is the Bible being used today to support wrongs? we cannot rely solely on the arguments of others. When we hear the Bible touted on behalf of one side or another, of any argument, we have a duty – EACH OF US– to search for truth, for God speaking, in Scripture and to clearly hear the God of Love’s call and act upon it.
One way time honored way to do that is to turn to the Bible, to tradition, to reason AND to our own experience and determine where God of love and Jesus are speaking in any scripture being thumped on the issues of our day. We cannot trust Bible thumping alone as the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. It’s our job, not to listen to the devil, but to seek out, find and listen to hear God’s voice. May all of us do just that. With Biblical arguments we hear being made on issues of our day.
* based on a sermon I wrote in 2007
1. Excerpts from The Rights and Duties of Slaveholders: Two Discourses Delivered on Sunday, November 27, 1836, in Christ Church, Raleigh, North-Carolina, By George W. Freeman, (Charleston: A.E. Miller, Printer to The Protestant Episcopal Society for the Advancement of Christianity in South-Carolina, 1837): p.5-11.
2.Frederick Douglass, “Baptists, Congregationalists, the Free Church, and Slavery: An Address Delivered in Belfast, Ireland, on December 23, 1845.” Belfast News Letter, December 26, 1845 and Belfast Northern Whig, December 25, 1845. Blassingame, John (et al, eds.). The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One–Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Vol. I.
3. Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), 298
5. Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)