Some weeks back, I began teaching an African American Church History course. When assembling the syllabus, my initial concern centered on where to start the story of black church history in America. You can imagine that this is a sticking point for ethnic minority students, let alone the professor! Depending upon who you consult some scholars, and noted itinerant preachers from the 18th century, actually think that African slaves were gifted Christianity as a perk of their enslavement. Some noted American church leaders owned slaves, participating in the dehumanizing enterprise while writing books on the sovereignty of God. The reality is that African people, and those of African descent, were Christian long before the transatlantic slave trade, including some of our most influential church fathers like Augustine, Origen, Athanasius, and Tertullian–to name a few were North African. Some of the oldest and strongest Christian witness hails from Ethiopia, Nubia, and the Kongolese.
This ignominious intersection of racism and American Christianity confronts the serious student of Biblical preaching. The repeated question for me is, “How did these things happen from the Christian pulpit?” Before we give quick, pragmatic answers we might want to consider that some of the exegetical fallacies that undergirded the church’s complicit support of slavery linger on.
Who can forget the audacious claims that the Bible endorsed chattel slavery? Who is not haunted by the intentional, inaccurate use of Biblical texts to justify the denial the Imago Dei in African slaves? Motivated by the exercise of free labor to build the wealthiest nation these preachers manipulated Scripture. To assuage their consciences by using the Bible they promoted the very antithesis of the gospel. The Bible was no mere pawn in the hands of learned men. It was a toy meant to dehumanize and exploit an entire people group for the benefit of another.
This article is not about racism per se. By looking at this incident from African American history, I hope to provide a case study (a case study with a sober warning, that is) that will lead us all toward a healthier Biblical exposition. We need to interpret Scripture in its context and in the larger context that includes the whole story of the Bible. In other words, I am arguing that when preachers consider the redemptive historical narrative in their interpretation of a singular Biblical passage, the resulting sermon is more likely to accurately reflect the intention of Scripture. Those of us concerned about getting the message of God right should submit the specific argument of a particular text to the larger theme of the overarching Biblical story. No text should be used to make a point that the superintending canon of Scripture disallows. I submit that there are simple ways to ensure that our preaching says what God has already said in his Word.
Preaching is the kind of discipline that requires a healthy system of interpretation; one that considers the whole of Scripture when discerning meaning from particular passages. If we fail to understand both the message and the goal of the entire Bible we have already failed in our basic study of individual passages. A basic theological truth should guide our Bible study. It is this: sin wrecked the world, God through Jesus Christ offers redemption, and those who receive his free gift are empowered to live righteously in the here and now while we await the full manifestation of God’s kingdom. This means that some of what we read in Scripture is descriptive not prescriptive. There are stories, incidents, and behaviors that are not to be repeated. Slavery is one of them.
The whole story
So what do we find as preachers when we consider the whole story of the Bible on slavery? Nowhere in the Bible is slavery commended as a good thing. In fact, the slavery we do read about is not race-based chattel slavery. The earliest mentions of indentured servitude are communicated with a view toward the freedom of the slave. The constitution of Israel, which included the year of Jubilee, acknowledges the chaos that sin created with provisions for full restoration. The disruption of land ownership, economic imbalances, and the selling of one’s self to pay debt are the result of sin. The law, in fact, comes to set regulations that deliver people from these plights. It did not fix the problem in totality. Jesus does that.
Even from the beginning, we can read of God’s concern for people not to be enslaved. In the New Testament, beset by a world run amuck with slavery, the commendation for the church is to see the slave as brother and sister. In this, the Bible does not condone or endorse the institution of slavery. In fact, it preaches the liberation of men through the gospel. Prophets and Apostles alike declare the marvelous freedom of God both from personal sin and corporate bondage. We need but look at the Exodus account to see that God is a deliverer both of sin and also of systemic injustice. In the New Testament, we discover freedom is still a virtue of the people of God. Although the primary meaning of Galatians 5:1 is a freedom from the burden of the law, its force speaks to the joy of freedom generally. The great issue with God is that we not be in bondage to anyone or anything. From the Old Testament to the New, freedom is of prime value.
We encounter the full counsel of God in preaching that moves from passage to passage.
3 lessons to learn
What can we learn from this historical case study? First, I urge preachers to consider the whole of Scripture and its contribution to the subject matter of the specific passage we preach. In this example, if a passage that speaks to slavery is taken in isolation, without a system of interpretation that considers the entire message of the Bible, it can be used as a pretext to make a presumed point. As African American preachers began to preach, they preached a message of liberty and justice for all. Their preaching became the catalyst for revolt, slave rebellion, and ultimately the abolition of slavery. They preached the same Bible that their slave masters read, only with a fuller view of the entire narrative. This may sound simple, but it is worth our consideration.
Second, to prevent the past sins of poor preaching I commend sequential exposition. As much as we like to preach our favorite passages, or those we consider easy, we should refrain from a text selection that resembles cherry picking. The discipline of sequential exposition further enables the preacher and the congregation to understand the connections of the whole Bible. It fills the gaps of thought, and conveys more fully the mind of God. We encounter the full counsel of God in preaching that moves from passage to passage. Sequential exposition is an acquired discipline. It may require a few trial runs before the church embraces it. In addition, a healthy interchange from the New Testament and the Old keeps our congregations appreciative for the nuances of both.
Third, this case study shows that we can learn from the mistakes of preachers in the past. In other words, beware of your sin-nature when you preach. None of us can claim the absence of cultural bias when we study. It affects theological formation and the emphasis of doctrinal formulation. Admit it and pray through it. I have found it beneficial to ask the Lord to check my biases before I get to the pulpit, while I’m preaching, and in the application of my preaching when I sit down. My great fear is not that people won’t hear me, but that my biases will mislead them. I pray that the Lord will shine his light on my biases and transform my preaching to most accurately reflect the intention of his written word. I pray he will do the same for you.
Charlie Dates is the senior pastor at the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois.