The argument goes like this: the Bible does not outright condemn slavery, but it sows the seeds for its eventual demise. There is a ‘hermeneutical trajectory’; a ‘redemptive spirit’ that leads inexorably (if painfully slowly) to abolition.
The same is true (it is argued) with regard to male and female roles. The Bible assumes, but does not prescribe, some kind of hierarchical structure. But the same ‘trajectory’, or ‘redemptive spirit’ leads us to abolish that structure, and to treat men and women just the same.
This is the view of Kevin Giles, as expressed in a number of his writings, including What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women.
‘Paul recognized that for the Gospel to succeed the early Christians had to accept the taken-for-granted social realities of their day. So we note he never denounced the institution of slavery. Rather, he exhorted Christian slaves to accept their lot in life, albeit asking their Christian masters “to treat their slaves fairly and justly” (Col 4:1). Similarly, he exhorted Christian wives to be subordinate to their Christian husbands, albeit asking these men to love their wives like their own bodies (Eph 5:28, cf. Col 3:18). We can thus rightly say Paul accepted the subordination of women and slavery as taken-for-granted facts of life in the first century yet, as we will see, sought to subvert these cultural norms in his teaching and practice.’
One of the simplest and clearest responses to this argument comes from Matthew Lee Anderson, in this review of Discovering Biblical Equality (eds. Pierce and Groothuis):
‘To treat masculinity and femininity as being in the same category as slavery is to make a category error—slavery is not an intrinsic property of being human. Yet the preponderance of Scripture suggests that patriarchy is an intrinsic property of humankind—hence the fact that DSB only deals with those problem prescriptive texts and not with the fact that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The “redemptive spirit” in Scripture is not to redeem society from patriarchy, but from its abuses.’
John Stott (Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., p339) calls the analogy between women and slaves ‘extremely inexact’, for two reasons:
‘Firstly, women were not chattel property, bought and sold in the marketplace, as slaves were. And secondly, though Paul sought to regulate the behaviour of slaves and masters, he nowhere appealed to Scripture in defence of slavery, whereas he did base his teaching about masculine headship on the biblical doctrine of creation.’ [1 Timothy 2:13; 1 Corinthians 11:8-12]
Drawing on the work of James B. Hurley, Stott shows that Paul’s argument is guided by creation, rather than culture. He highlights:
- The priority of creation. In 1 Tim 2:13, Paul writes that ‘Adam was formed first and then Eve.’ By right of primogeniture “the firstborn inherited command of resources and the responsibility of leadership.’
- The mode of creation. In 1 Cor 11:8 the apostle says that ‘man did not come from woman, but woman from man.’ Eve was made from the man, and brought to him for naming, and ‘the power to assign…a name was connected with control’.
- The purpose of creation. In 1 Cor 11:9 Paul says that ‘neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man.’ True, Paul goes on to teach that the two sexes are interdependent, yes woman was made, as Stott says, ‘after man, out of man, and for man.’ She was made, not as an afterthought, but as his companion and fellow worker, to share ‘in the service of God and in the custodial ruling of the earth.’
‘What creation has established, no culture is able to destroy. The wearing of a veil or of a particular hairstyle was indeed a cultural expression of submission to masculine headship, and may be replaced by other symbols more appropriate to the twenty-first century, but the headship itself is creational, not cultural.’