The Common Good

Science, Salvation, Slavery, and Equality: The Bible and Historic Reforms

Have you ever pondered the dangers of reading the Bible? Perhaps booksellers should provide consumer warning labels that read: "Be careful, reading this book may change you and your worldview forever." If Christians are correct, we encounter God's infinite power every time we read scripture:

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"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16 NRSV).

Should we be surprised, then, that as we ask difficult questions, God's spirit gives us new ideas and new direction? And should it astonish us that Christians often arrive at different conclusions on matters considered "orthodox" by previous generations? There are many examples of this, but here are a few.

The Copernicus Reform: For centuries, Christians believed that all heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. We now know that earth and its planets revolve around the sun. Under the Copernicus reform, the church was forced to retract senseless dogma regarding the orbit of the planets and recognize that the essentials of Christian faith are not compromised by scientific inquiry. Through this challenge, the church was freed to pursue scientific inquiry as God-given and integral to God's purposes for humanity. Scientific discovery not only advances the well-being of human existence, but also assures us that all truth is God's truth.

The Protestant Reform: As a system of indulgences sold by the church had overshadowed the doctrine of the atonement, theologians throughout Britain and Europe (especially Martin Luther in Germany) demanded that the church embrace Christ's completed work on Calvary as the only path to salvation and as integral to biblical revelation and Christian faith.

The Abolition Reform: The abolitionists considered anew the scriptural challenge to ascriptivism -- the notion that one's value and sphere of influence was determined by one's ethnicity or class. Discerning the difference between the moral teachings of the Bible and biblical culture, the abolitionists exposed prejudice, self-interest, and a shallow reading of scripture that circumvented the biblical ethic to love one's neighbor as one's self. They embraced a whole-Bible approach to interpreting scripture, insisting that the Bible should be read for its primary emphasis and not its attendant features, as Willard Swartley suggests in Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women.

The Gender Reform: Like the abolitionists, the first-wave feminists (or egalitarians) in the late 1800s argued that the whole of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, expands rather than limits opportunities for women's service. Christians such as Frances Willard, A.J. Gordon, Fredrick Franson, Katharine Bushnell, Catherine Booth, Sojourner Truth, and others presented a cohesive and comprehensive biblical case that challenged the long-standing view that women are inferior to men and should therefore submit to male authority in church, home, and society. Like the abolitionists, egalitarians developed a whole-Bible approach to interpreting scripture that freed the church from theological and moral error regarding the treatment of women and the stewardship of their God-given gifts. It was their biblical research that guided their activism.

These few examples help us see that throughout its earthly pilgrimage, the church continues to undergo renewal and reform through a vigorous engagement with God by way of scripture. In doing so, the Holy Spirit cleans house in each age, allowing the church to confront its indifference, ignorance, and moral failings. As God prompts the church to examine the biblical texts anew, the Spirit works within scripture, (as Gordon D. Fee points out) leading us, sometimes kicking and screaming, to a better understanding of God's purpose for the church. It is important to observe that this process often leads us to truth that has gone unobserved by the church, as with the case of slavery and also the leadership of women.

Though critics claim that egalitarians do not engage scripture in developing their egalitarian ideas, nothing could be further from the truth, as is shown in our book Global Voices of Biblical Equality. If CBE is about anything, it is about reading and interpreting scripture consistently. We locate our egalitarian ideals in scripture, because we believe the Spirit leads us in the text. Our authors and staff have spilled an ocean of ink to show how scripture teaches that God gifts individuals without regard to gender, ethnicity, or class.

Mimi Haddad

Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Read more about the rich history of female leadership in the New Testament and in evangelical Christianity in Mimi Haddad's article, Empowered by God, in July's issue of Sojourners.

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