In a recent post, I quoted historian Rodney Stark extensively about how religions are not all the same. The different theologies of god in the world religions produce very different kinds of moral systems – some religions have no moral features at all. Consequently, monotheism, and Christianity in particular, was uniquely capable of theologies of God and humanity that made slavery incompatible with faithfulness. It was only when the Bible was corrupted by unchristian motivations that it was perverted to excuse an evil and sinful institution. From the beginning of the church, Christianity developed theology that condemned slavery. The church in the American South and other Christians throughout history who used the Bible to justify their bigotry and enslavement of human beings were the tragic exceptions to the rule. Their abuse of the Bible stood against the broad and historical understanding of what Christians believed the Bible taught about the equality and intrinsic value of every human being, not matter their race.
Antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently “lost” from history until recently....
Except for several early Jewish sects, Christian theology was unique in eventually developing an abolitionist perspective....
As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops—including William the Conqueror (1027–1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009–1095) and Anselm (1033–1109)—forbade the enslavement of Christians. Since, except for small settlements of Jews, and the Vikings in the north, everyone was at least nominally a Christian, that effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe....
The first shipload of black slaves [arrived in Portugal in the 15th century], and as black slaves began to appear farther north in Europe, a debate erupted as to the morality and legality of slavery. A consensus quickly developed that slavery was both sinful and illegal…. The principle of “free soil” spread: that slaves who entered a free country were automatically free. That principle was firmly in place in France, Holland, and Belgium by the end of the seventeenth century. Nearly a century later, in 1761, the Portuguese enacted a similar law, and an English judge applied the principle to Britain in 1772. Although exceptions involving a single slave servant or two, especially when accompanying a foreign traveler, were sometimes overlooked, “beyond a scattering of servants in Spain and Portugal, there were very few true slaves left in Western Europe by the end of the sixteenth century.” ...
The problem wasn’t that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen....
In 1787 the Quaker-inspired Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery was headed by Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, two of the most respected and influential living Americans. Not to be outdone, many Christian groups and luminaries took up the cause of abolition, and soon abolitionist societies sprang up that were not associated with a specific denomination. But, through it all, the movement (as distinct from those it made sympathetic to the cause) was staffed by devout Christian activists, the majority of them clergy. Indeed, the most prominent clergy of the nineteenth century took leading roles in the abolition movement...
Moreover, as abolition sentiments spread, it was primarily the churches (often local congregations), not secular clubs and organizations, that issued formal statements on behalf of ending slavery. The outspoken abolitionism expressed by Northern congregations and denominational gatherings caused major schisms within leading Protestant denominations, eventuating in their separation into independent Northern and Southern organizations....
[A] virtual Who’s Who of “Enlightenment” figures fully accepted slavery…. It was not philosophers or secular intellectuals who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was a sin.
Historian Rodney Stark explains why the theology of God in different religions produces very different religions. All religions cannot basically be the same because their gods are not the same; some religions don’t even have a deity. The kind of god one believes in determines whether or not morality is part of the religion (some religions have no moral guidelines) and whether or not we are meant to have relationship with the deity. Some gods, as conceived by various religions, just are not capable of being moral or having a relationship with human beings. Stark explains in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery:
Whether religions generate moral culture depends greatly upon their image of God. Not only are divine essences unable to issue commandments; they cannot sustain any concept of “sin.” The Tao does not advise humans to love one another, nor does the “First Cause” tell us not to covet another’s spouse. Paul Tillich’s “ground of our being” is not a being and consequently is incapable of having, let alone expressing, moral concerns. Only Gods—conscious supernatural beings—can desire our moral conformity. Even that is not sufficient. Gods can lend sanctions to the moral order only if they are responsive and dependable—if they are concerned about, informed about, and active on behalf of humans. Moreover, to promote virtue among humans, Gods must themselves be virtuous—they must favor good over evil. Finally, Gods will be more effective in sustaining moral precepts, the greater their scope—that is, the greater the diversity of their powers and the range and duration of their influence. Besides lacking scope, the many Gods of polytheistic systems are often not conceived of as responsive and dependable, or as necessarily favoring good over evil. Among the Indians of the Northwest Coast, the Gods (such as they were) did not concern themselves with morality, and magic dominated ritual life. Aside from those involved in ascetic sects, most Greeks and Romans believed that their Gods could hear their pleas, but that they mostly didn’t listen and didn’t care. Aristotle taught that the Gods were incapable of real concern for humans—lust, jealousy, and anger, yes, but never affection. Such Gods may require propitiation, and it may sometimes be possible to bargain with them for favors. But they are not to be counted on, and it is quite uncertain that it is even wise to attract their attention. Indeed, the Gods of Greece and Rome (and of polytheisms in general) sometimes kept their word, and sometimes they provided humans with very valuable rewards. But they often lied and did humans great harm for very petty reasons…..
It may have been worthwhile to periodically offer such Gods a sacrificial animal or two (especially since the donors feasted on the offering after the ceremony), but they were not worth more. Consequently, they could not ask more. In contrast, the immense Gods of the monotheisms ask much more and get it. In return for the otherworldly rewards they promise, and to enable humans to avoid the terrible punishments they threaten, these Gods uniformly impose sets of demands. And all of these sets include extensive codes of human conduct, not only toward the sacred, but toward one another….
Recently, a substantial body of anthropological and experimental evidence has been assembled to explain that variations in the importance placed on ritual precision reflect differences in the capacities attributed to the supernatural agents to which (or whom) the rituals are directed. When, as in the case of magic, the supernatural agent is an unconscious entity or is a supernatural creature of very limited capacity (such as a demon or an imp), it will be assumed that each ritual must be performed with extreme precision because the supernatural agency lacks the capacity to know the intent of those performing the ritual and is unable to overlook errors in ritual performance. As Justin Barrett put it, ritual precision is required in dealings with “dumb gods.” This same logic applies, if to a somewhat lesser extent, to religions based on Gods of limited scope. They, too, may take note not of the intent of rituals but only of their execution. Indeed, there is a substantial element of compulsion in interactions with small Gods, as well as with the creatures that are sometimes invoked by magic (see the introduction). Here, too, the rituals must be perfect; otherwise the supernatural agent will not find them binding. In contrast, the omnipotent Gods of monotheism are thought to be fully aware of the intentions of the supplicant. Consequently, rituals are far less important, and precision is barely an issue when humans deal with Gods conceived of as all-seeing—if the priest errs, Jehovah knows what was meant, and the efficacy of a prayer does not hinge on precise adherence to a sacred formula.
Sometimes the best remedy for a moral/theological controversy is simply a good old-fashioned, down to earth, nothing buttery, search-the-Scriptures to-see-if-it’s-so, Bible study. Of course, because of ambiguities in the text, not every challenging, contentious biblical dispute can be settled this easily. Frequently, though, a careful, close look at the Scripture is all that’s required to resolve what might seem at first to be a difficult dispute.
That’s the approach Alan Shlemon and Greg Koukl take to respond to one of the most severe challenges to Christian orthodoxy the church faces today. The question: What does God really think about homosexuality? This isn't only a dispute over morality. It's a question of what God teaches us in the Bible and its authority over how Christians live and what we teach. Some Christians, such as Matthew Vines, suggest that the church has misunderstood the Bible's teaching on homosexuality for 2000 years. In this first part of a two-part series, Alan and Greg show how these claims are not what the Bible teaches.
I watched a conversation on one of the morning political talk shows today that was disturbing. The discussion was about religious freedom in the aftermath of the same-sex marriage ruling. Both people, on opposite sides of the marriage issue, agreed with religious freedom to dissent. But how they defined that was significant.
The SSM advocate heartily agreed that Christians have a right to disagree with the ruling, but he proscribed that freedom to the private realm and church. Churches have a right to teach what they wish with no repercussions. Individuals can believe what they want. But this freedom ends once a Christian enters the public square. Once a Christian enters the business world, they cannot discriminate. And he compared the efforts to protect religious freedom in business to Jim Crow laws, exceptions to the law that allowed discrimination and bigotry to continue.
There is no comparison to Jim Crow laws. So-called Christians who found ways to continue their unjust discrimination despite equal protection laws had no sound basis in the Bible or in Christian history. Bigotry had no widespread precedent in the teaching of the church in any place or at any time. Their use of the Bible was the exception, not the rule. In fact, the abolition movement came from Christian churches – and reaches back to the very beginning of Christianity and throughout history. The civil rights movement came from the churches and challenges those Christians who abused the Bible to excuse their racism and abuse of human beings. I watched the movie Selma a couple of days ago. It shows how support for civil rights was based in the church and supported across racial and denominational groups. The bigots were the exception in Christianity, not the rule.
Marriage between a man and a woman, on the other hand, has sound basis in the Bible and has been the universal teaching of the church at all time and in all places. It has been the rule of teaching.
Comparisons to the civil rights movement have very powerful persuasive power. But the comparison is unfair.
The First Amendment provides for the religious freedom of individuals to practice their religion in the public square. It’s an individual right, not just a right given to churches. It’s a right at all times, not just in private. This is how the man on TV this morning gave lip service to religious freedom but actually was in favor of restricting it.
Christian bakers and photographers have a right to follow their religious conscience in their businesses. They are not required by the Constitution to leave their religion at their front door once they step into their business. They do not discriminate against individuals of any kind. They do not want to participate in events that their religion says are wrong. This has sound basis in Christian teaching and is in no way similar to Jim Crow laws that were hideous violations of the Bible's admonition that all people have equal value.
There's a shift in the way the First Amendment is understood and being applied that actually undermines it. Rather than protecting religious freedom of individuals, the new interpretation will restrict religious freedom. Religion is being pushed from the public square and relegated to private, personal belief and churches. This isn't the robust, free public square our Founders had in mind.
Last year, I was intrigued to learn that a new musical about John Newton was playing in Chicago. Now it’s made its way to Broadway, and it officially opens July 16th (previews began last week). If you’re anywhere near New York City, the production was gracious enough to give us a discount code (29r7fx) for performances through September 6th. You can download all the info for the special offer here.
Below is a sneak peak for you, and you can visit the website to learn more about the show. I hope it does well!
“Freedom is destroyed not only by its retraction; it is also devastated by its abuse.” —Ravi Zacharias
Our culture is changing fast. Things that would have seemed absurd to most people’s moral intuitions are now championed. Even some things that still seem odd are accepted because our culture accepted a definition of freedom some time ago that is playing out.
Radical moral relativism, the view that individuals can define their own morality, has led to radical relativism in general. People think freedom means they can define their own reality. There’s no objective moral standard. And now there’s no objective standard at all that should be imposed on an individual to restrict their freedom of choice. Every individual defines themselves.
There’s nothing objective to constrain us. This has become established in U.S. law already, and it has serious implications. The Declaration of Independence, which is fundamental to all U.S. law including the Constitution, states that our rights are established by God. Because human rights are objective, governments must respect them and cannot violate them. But if there is nothing objective to constrain our freedom, then there’s nothing objective to constrain the government. Our rights become whatever we declare them to be and whatever the government at any time and place declares them to be, changing with the fashions of the day.
This is where we are in our culture now. It’s a very dangerous place to be in. As quickly as the court can bestow a new right, it can be taken away.
It reminds me of Sir Thomas More’s response to his pupil Roper: “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” It’s naïve and short-sighted to change the law unmoored from any objective standard because it can be changed in any way possible then.
The astounding thing about a very few documents in history is that government power was limited because citizens had rights above the government. But when societies no longer recognize this, the governments are back in the position of defining the rights of citizens. As Os Guinness has said, “When the fashionable new ‘right’ trumps the traditional rights, then rights merely arise from power.”
The tragedy of our culture celebrating the new definition of individual freedom is that it has also destroyed what has protected us from tyranny. As Ravi Zacharias pointed out, we’ve abused our freedom and we’ve destroyed it.
Since Time is saying “Now’s the Time to End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions,” it’s important we understandwhy our government has not taxed religious institutions in the past. I recently explained that one reason for non-profit tax exemptions is that “the power to tax implies the power to destroy” (McCullough v. Maryland, 1816), and our government has not been given the power to govern religion. But there’s more to it than that.
Al Mohler discussed this issue on Monday’s episode of his podcast, beginning with the charge that the government is wrongly “subsidizing” religion through tax exemptions. Not only are tax exemptions not logically a subsidy (after all, it’s not the government’s money the churches are keeping), they’re also not legally a subsidy, as Dr. Mohler explained. From the podcast:
The key statement on these issues was made by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1970, in the case Walz versus Tax Commission of the City of New York; it was a stunning 8-1 decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren Burger made very clear that a tax exemption is not a subsidy; that was affirmed by other justices in concurring opinions. A subsidy would be the transfer of tax money to institutions. That’s not what’s going on here…. Rather, the tax exemption is granted with respect to institutions the government does not feel that it has the right to tax on the one hand and on the other hand, institutions that it believes are essential to the Commonwealth and to the commonweal, to the well-functioning of society.
It’s in our best interest to prevent our limited government from taking money away from organizations that are using that money to build up our communities. Local organizations know the people they’re helping, they can give more personalized care with less bureaucratic waste, and those who receive the help do so in the context of relationship, which means gratitude and accountability. Whenever care can be given by the people closest to those who need help, that should be the preferred method of helping, not government:
One [of] the most basic principles that is deeply embedded in American jurisprudence is the fact that the government cannot do everything. This gets to the fact that mediating institutions including churches, synagogues, temples and other religious institutions fulfill a function the government actually cannot fulfill so well.
And the value added to communities by churches isn’t merely material help (such as feeding the poor); it’s also intangible goods, such as spiritual support and the strengthening of interpersonal relationships within the community, which works to reinforce good character, support marriages, raise good citizens, increase general happiness, and more. If you doubt the value churches bring to communities, you need only look at the aftermath of recent tragic events in Baltimore and Charleston. What made the difference between rioting and mass hymn singing? The churches. The difference they made and will continue to make in Charleston is the kind of invaluable good the government cannot provide. As Joe Carter said, “The government doesn’t “subsidize” charitable non-profits; charitable non-profits subsidize society.”
There’s yet another reason why the government does not take money from churches:
Again, in his majority opinion Chief Justice Burger wrote,
“The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state.”
That is extremely important language. Here Chief Justice Burger was affirming that the most basic fundamental and important reason that the government does not tax churches is that by taxation the church would be required to support the state. Members of synagogues, temples and churches are already taxpaying citizens. It would be a different thing altogether to require the synagogue, the temple or the church actually to fund and support the state. Those who supposedly believe in a separation of church and state have to recognize the dangers inherent in the proposal that the government tax the church….
Chief Justice Burger and Justice Brennan in writing their opinions in this case understood that taxing churches and religious institutions would inevitably put those churches and institutions in the position of funding the government and would put the state in the position of entangling itself in religious organizations and churches. [Emphasis added.]
The government is prevented from controlling churches by the Constitution. This means it does not do so through taxation. Further, it would not be in our interest as a society for the government to take money away from the work churches do in their communities. The government simply cannot replace it.
Some Christians say they wish churches would lose their tax-exempt status so they could have full free speech rights (i.e., the right to comment on political candidates). But giving up all of the above in exchange for the ability to endorse a candidate seems like a poor trade to me.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few days, it’s this: Most people—religious or otherwise—have no idea what marriage is, why it exists, and what we need it for. And what’s worse, they have no idea they have no idea.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.