Slavery and Sexuality

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Slavery and Sexuality

Those who believe in the biblical view of sexuality are treading the well-worn path of scriptural literalists who, in ages past, supported slavery using precisely the same mode of textual interpretation—or so goes the argument. Dr. Robert Cargill of the University of Iowa put the view forward rather vigorously in his blog:

“Let me say this to those who oppose same-sex marriage—ESPECIALLY IN THE NAME OF GOD: You are deserving of all public shame, chastisement, loss of reputation, and abandonment of friends and colleagues (both secular and Christian) that accompanied those who freely chose to defend the divinely ordained institution of slavery. You deserve the loathing you receive, for you have chosen to suppress the rights and privileges of your fellow humans because you think God told you to do so, but you don’t condemn evenhandedly. You deserve to be intellectually exposed and called out publicly, because you condemn in the name of a god who ENDORSED, LEGISLATED and MAINTAINED SLAVERY!”

Is Dr. Cargill correct? Does it follow that if you oppose slavery from the Bible, you must similarly support same-sex marriage? Or if you oppose same-sex marriage, is it a logical requirement to support slavery?

It’s worth noting at the outset that Christians drove the abolition of slavery—giants like William Wilberforce, John Wesley, Charles Finney and Ellen White. None of them believed that their biblically based opposition to human bondage meant they must abandon biblical sexual morality.

Why not? There are three primary reasons.

Firstly, there is a distinction between laws that regulate and laws that mandate. As Christ made clear when He critiqued Moses’ divorce law (Matthew 19:8), not all laws regulating society in the Bible can be construed to approve the underlying behaviour.

The biblical laws regulating slavery were, like divorce, instituted to manage and reduce the impact of the practice, not uphold it. Like the Mosaic divorce laws, the slavery laws didn’t mandate the underlying practice but rather regulated it when it occurred. This is in stark contrast to the laws of sexual behaviour, which were mandated in the strongest of possible terms.

A second distinction is that the Bible doesn’t link the implementation of slavery regulations with salvation.1 Sexual morality, in contrast, is an issue directly linked to salvation. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (NKJV), of the 10 examples of the unrighteous who will not “inherit the Kingdom of God,” four relate to sexual morality. Similarly, in 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (NKJV), two of the eight examples of those who are “ungodly and profane” are those who engage in sexual immorality.

Thirdly, the practice of slavery regulated in the Bible differed substantially from Anglo/American slavery. In Exodus 21:16, kidnapping people for sale was explicitly banned. Exodus 12:49 also banned treating people differently under the law based on their nationality. Further, time limits on slavery were imposed in the Bible and slaves were accorded some rights. In contrast Anglo/American slavery not only had no time limits but involved the enslavement of slave descendants, provided no practical protection from rape and other acts of brutality, and was part of a program to exploit an entire race of people. To use biblical regulation of a practice so far removed from Anglo/American slavery to justify its abuses is transparently unprincipled.

While it may not be a historical or logical truth that views on slavery and sexuality are intrinsically linked, it has become, in many minds, a rhetorical truth; a rhetorical truth with very profound implications to how societies treat Christians individually and collectively.

In the face of vehement opposition to Christian views of sexuality, do we have the courage to stand firm? Do we have the backbone to withstand attacks on our character, our intelligence and our integrity? In the words of Dr. Cargill, are we prepared to be “loathed?” But just as importantly, are we able to not loathe in return? Do we have the kind of character and resolve, compassion and dignity that Dr. Martin Luther King demonstrated in the face of hatred? Do we have not only the courage of Christ but also the heart of Jesus?

We will all know soon enough.



  1. Quite the opposite—slave traders are listed among the “ungodly” in 1 Timothy 1:10.

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About the author

James Standish

James D. Standish earned his Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Georgetown University, his MBA from the University of Virginia, and his BBA from Newbold College, England, where he was the student association president. He runs a Washington based consultancy firm. He is married to Dr. Lesia Morton-Standish, and together they have two daughters and a son. James previously served as director of legislative affairs in the General Conference Public Affairs & Religious Liberty department. as communications director and editor of the Adventist Record for the South Pacific Division, and as Executive Director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom – a commission of the US Government. James served on a White House taskforce during the Obama Administration and also served as secretary of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief.