If you’re at Westminster Abbey, walk over to the St. James Park tube station and take the District line over to Embankment where you’ll connect to the Northern line. Head south (you’ll need a Zone 2 pass) until you reach your stop: Clapham Common station. Head up the stairs and you’ll see a lovely green space in front of you, dotted with families relaxing, people walking their dogs, and a few pick-up games of football (aka soccer). Tucked away in a corner of the park, almost out of view behind some trees, will be Holy Trinity Church. Unlike the Abbey, this place is not overrun with tourists snapping photos or school groups in queues. It certainly doesn’t look like much. But, for my money, this is one of the most important churches, indeed one of the most important buildings, in the world. Affixed to the edifice is one of the ubiquitous blue signs denoting a historic location. It reads: “William Wilberforce and ‘The Clapham Sect’ worshipped in this church. Their campaigning resulted in the abolition of slavery in British dominions, 1833.” Another plaque erected by the church lists ten names of “servants of Christ…who in the latter part of the XVIIIth and early part of the XIXth centuries labored so abundantly for national righteousness and the conversion of the heathen and rested not until the curse of slavery was swept away from all parts of the British dominions”. A small bulletin board informs you that the church promotes racial reconciliation through regular “Wilberforce meetings”. Standing on that lovely common in the outskirts of London and gazing upon that simple church is to stand on holy ground.
One year after Richard Furman wrote his “Exposition”, William Wilberforce wrote “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in behalf of the Negro slaves in the West Indies”. The epigraphs were Jeremiah 22:13 (“Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work;”) and Micah 6:8 (“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”). Wilberforce and a small group of evangelical Anglicans and Methodists had worked tirelessly to awaken England from its moral slumber and had succeeded, after a 20-year campaign, in abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Now, this aging member of Parliament was calling on the British people to finish the job and abolish slavery entirely. It was the final chapter in one of the truly heroic lives in world history. Wilberforce was born wealthy in 1759, went to Cambridge, and became an MP at the age of 20. He seemed to be on his way to the comfortable life of a gentleman politician. But then Jesus got a hold of him. In 1785, he experienced a Methodist-style conversion and, upon talking with converted slave-trader John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame), he was convinced to use his position to do good. He committed himself to a life of advocating justice for the oppressed. He worked on prison reform, labor rights, electoral reform, missionary outreach, and even the prevention of cruelty to animals. But his great crusade was the end of slavery and he would soon link up with a small but committed group of men and women to do just that. It was these Christians who would end the practice of slavery in the largest empire the world had ever seen, and their example would cause a cascade of abolitionist movements in the 19th century which eradicated the practice in most of the world.
Discovering Wilberforce in college on the eve of my foreign study in England renewed my faith as only studying the saints can. Here was a Christian who, rather than taking Scripture out of context to justify his own selfishness, delved deep into the heart of the gospel message and allowed it to change him and, thus, the world. And that story is repeated wherever you find abolitionist movements anywhere in the world. The gospel message of radical equality before God (a unique message of Christianity) has broken chains around the world. In America, it was Quakers like John Woolman who started the first abolitionist societies. The Grimke sisters of South Carolina combined a passion for women’s rights with abolitionism, all spurred on by a deep faith in Christ. Indeed, it was the spiritual revival of the Second Great Awakening that lit the fuse of abolitionism. After all, it was a committed Calvinist preacher’s kid named Harriet Beecher Stowe who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that woke the conscience of the nation. Of course, African-Americans themselves were spurred on to work for their liberation by the message of gospel, which calls us out of slavery into freedom. And the list goes on. While there has been a concerted effort by secular historians to downplay it, committed Christians were at the forefront of the abolition of modern slavery wherever it was found. The Enlightenment, when not leavened by the gospel, did not stand against slavery and the “meritocracy” of Enlightenment thinking was often just thinly-veiled white supremacy. To its great shame, the Church has sometimes stood alongside those who promote power above all. But Christ declares the power of the powerless, and the riches of poverty. Those who took Jesus seriously changed the Church and made the world more just, peaceful, and equitable.
Christian abolitionism didn’t start or end with Wilberforce. Early Church Fathers both Eastern and Western condemned slavery. St. John Chrysostom (349-407) said that “slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery…[it] was the fruit of sin.” Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote that “the condition of slavery is the result of sin…by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin”. In the supposedly-backward Middle Ages, the Church worked to end slavery in Europe. In 873, Pope John VIII declared it a sin for a Christian to own another Christian. The Sachsenspiegel (c. 1220), the most important law book of the Holy Roman Empire, condemned slavery as a violation of man’s likeness to God. Queen Isabella of Castille banned slavery in the newly-discovered colonies and banned the enslavement of Native Americans in 1493 (that second decree was more successful than the first, to be fair). And so on. While the Church has never been consistent in applying Christian principles, slavery could not withstand the gospel and faithful Christians have always stood against it. Even today, it is Christians who stand at the forefront of movements to end slavery and sex trafficking (see, for example, the wonderful work of the International Justice Mission). The message of Scripture, far from promoting slavery, has liberated millions from bondage both material and spiritual and broken down systemic oppression the world over.
In light of all this, how are we to interpret difficult passages of Scripture? How do we keep our own biases and presuppositions, conscious and unconscious, out and allow God in? These are big questions, of course, much too big for this essay. But I want to underline a few basic principles as I conclude this study.
First: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inerrant Word of God and contain all things necessary for salvation. They are the bedrock of all truth and the basis for living a holy (and joyful) life. Simply dismissing difficult passages as “from a different time” and therefore able to be discarded denies God’s ability to use His word to teach, correct, and encourage. We must avoid the Thomas Jefferson-ish temptation to remove the parts of Scripture that make us uncomfortable and face them head on.
Second: That said, not all Scripture is the same. The Bible contains a wide variety of literary styles from history to poetry to philosophy to prophecy to personal letters. Each passage must be interpreted with an understanding of the style of writing and the historical context in which it was written. Conversely, each passage must also be interpreted in the light of the entire message of Holy Scripture, since each part contributes to the whole of God’s salvation story. Which brings us to…
Third: The central story of Holy Scripture is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His salvation of the world. All Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of the gospel message. Interpreting the Old Testament without reference to the Jesus revolution is to miss the entire point of the story. The four Gospels are the center of the Biblical canon for Christians, the first among equals, just as the Torah was (and is) for the Jews. Any interpretation of Scripture that undermines, detracts, or contradicts the message of salvation found in the Gospels is a false interpretation. If you have to discard the Golden Rule to justify what you are doing, you have entered the realm of heresy.
Fourth: The tradition of the Church should not be ignored, especially the teachings of the early Church Fathers. When the united Church spoke with one voice, particularly in the councils, we ought to give special weight to their interpretation of Scripture and not throw it out because the culture has “moved on”. Moving on is not the same as progress. When Sts. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa (among others) condemn the practice of slavery as sinful, we ought to take notice.
Fifth: Interpreting Scripture is not meant to be a solo activity. Christ gave us the Church to build each other up in the faith. Praying and studying Scripture together, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will keep us from straying too far off the narrow path (Matthew 7:14). If the Church speaks with one voice on something, we ought to be humble enough to submit to its teaching, understanding that our obedience will be rewarded even if the Church is in the wrong. That is why those in Church leadership must be especially careful about how they present the Gospel, for if they lead the sheep astray, it is the shepherds who will be held accountable.
Lastly: Sometimes we must say with St. Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) If a particular passage continues to elude our understanding, we may continue to struggle with it, perhaps all of our lives. But we must be radicals, that is we must delve our roots deep into the center of God, which will always be a mystery. The center of that mystery is love and that love is demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ. Scripture is not an end in itself — it is merely a window through which we may glimpse the infinite God in all His inscrutable wonder. This can be frustrating at times or even disheartening, for sometimes God acts in ways we think unjust or feels absent when His presence seems necessary. That is why we must have faith. Life is a risk and none of us will get out of it alive. I intend to use what little time I have in service to love, specifically the love found in Jesus Christ. If I’m right in taking this risk, I will leave behind a legacy of peace and hope and salvation. If I’m wrong, at least I will have served something greater than my own selfishness, at least I will have tried to make the world a little better by my being here. Isn’t that worth the risk?