The Best Argument for a Trajectory Hermeneutic - And Where It Goes Wrong

I've written here before about the importance of hermeneutics within evangelical discussions, and last month's lunacy over biblical sexual ethics has only highlighted it further. (I'm not talking primarily about the political brouhaha - though that too - but the "evangelical" arguments presented in Christianity magazine and in the discussion that followed). Perhaps more than anything, what Steve Chalke's article, the profile it received on being published, and the way people have responded demonstrates is the instability of the so-called "trajectory hermeneutic". Scholars can write books, as Bill Webb did, arguing that we should use eighteen criteria when deciding whether to obey a New Testament imperative or not; they can make their case carefully and with plenty of nuances and caveats. But when the sort of reasoning represented by trajectory hermeneutics hits the streets, it becomes very difficult for people to understand, and many simply cannot see why they should do what the Bible says about sexuality, but not about gender (to take the most controverted example). If you need any convincing that this is the case, a quick glance through Christianity's letters page should suffice.

If it were not for the complementarian implications, my guess is that a much simpler hermeneutic would be used: obey all New Testament instructions unless it’s clear from the context that they only apply to specific individuals (and, of course, translate external symbols where needed). I keep calling this the “presumption of obedience”, but it appears that the name is not catching on, perhaps because of the unsavoury acronym; any suggestions would be welcome, since I’m likely to be talking about it for the next forty years or so. Anyway, the trajectory hermeneutic, or “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” as it is sometimes called, is the predominant framework used by those who would argue that we should not obey all New Testament instructions, since God’s “ultimate ethic” is beyond what the text actually says. And load-bearing for this hermeneutical approach is the issue of slavery.
The logic is simple. The ownership of one person by another is fundamentally immoral. Yet Paul, in places, condoned it. And if Paul (or any other New Testament writer) condoned actions which are immoral, on the basis that the actions in questions were extremely common in first century culture, then (a) we cannot be sure that the New Testament gives us a reliable record of how we are to behave, and (b) God must have wanted for us to discern the redemptive spirit of the texts, and where they might be pointing to in the future, rather than obeying them to the letter. After all, those who operate with the presumption of obedience, or whatever we end up calling it, end up endorsing (or at least condoning) slavery. Don’t we?
Well, let’s see. I assume nobody has an ethical problem with the way Paul talks about slavery in Philemon (“have him back, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave - as a beloved brother”), or 1 Corinthians 7 (“if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity”). His outright prohibition of stealing and selling people in 1 Timothy 1:10 is emphatic, and constitutes a knock-down biblical argument against the West African slave trade, along with trafficking and all sorts of other vile practices since. Neither, I imagine, does anyone mind him using slavery as a way of describing his relationship to Christ (Rom 1:1 etc), or Christ’s sacrificial service to us (Php 2:7). So the problem must come from the two Haustafel passages: Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1. The question here is whether Paul condones something that is fundamentally immoral.

Eight of these ten verses are addressed to slaves (as are the very similar instructions in 1 Timothy 6:1-2). In a nutshell: if a Christian is a slave, they are to serve faithfully, as if serving Christ himself, and to remember that their true reward is from the Lord. That’s pretty much it. Does that involve Paul condoning something fundamentally immoral? Surely not. To tell someone what to do if X takes place is not to condone X, but merely to recognise that X happens sometimes, as all pastors know full well.

If I counsel someone who has been physically assaulted to respond in a certain way, I am not thereby condoning physical assault. If I urge someone who has been wrongfully dismissed to react without malice, I am not signing off on the wrongful dismissal, or saying that it doesn’t matter, merely that they are responsible for handling it in a godly way. To speak less hypothetically: for Paul and Peter to urge believers to rejoice in, and bear up under, persecution is not somehow to applaud the persecution of Christians, nor to treat it as morally neutral, but to teach believers in all situations, however difficult, how God would have them respond. The same, surely, is true of Paul’s teaching to slaves. In fact, I’m sure that, were I speaking into a cross-cultural mission context in which slavery was both rife and legal in society, and common within the church, and in which runaway slaves faced the death penalty, I would find Paul’s teaching here to be of invaluable benefit. I would probably find it extremely difficult to know how to advise them without it.

So his teaching to slaves cannot be invoked in support of the claim that he condoned something immoral. Much Greco-Roman slavery was appalling, although it varied significantly (as we’ve talked about here and here), and Paul does not condone the abuse, beating and oppression that frequently went on; he simply tells believers how to respond to it. Consequently, I conclude that the texts people have in mind when they refer to Paul condoning something immoral must be the two verses addressed to masters:

Masters, do the same to them [that is, serve your slaves as if serving the Lord, and look to him for your reward], and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Eph 6:9)

Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 4:1)

There it is, in black and white: Paul condones the ownership of one person by another. He could decide to tell all Christian masters to manumit all their slaves, but he doesn’t. He lives with slavery, because he hasn’t yet seen the full implications of his own kerygma. He’s blinded by the prevalence of slavery in his culture. And we should feel free to move beyond him on this, and also on other issues (like gender, and maybe sexuality) where he didn’t quite grasp the redemptive spirit of the gospel. Case closed.

It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the case for trajectory hermeneutics hangs, almost entirely, on these two verses. Both emotionally and intellectually, they ground the claim that New Testament ethics are not God’s final revelation on the way we should live, a claim which then permits moving beyond Scripture on gender and so on. But before we relativise Paul’s ethics for his condoning of something fundamentally immoral, we need first to establish that he is, in fact, condoning something immoral. And that’s where the problem lies.

Let’s imagine a couple, Amur and Shamim, who live in a society where slavery is commonplace. Neither of them have ever known a world without it; in their culture, selling oneself into in indentured servanthood is a common way of coping with what we would call bankruptcy, and prisoners of war tend to become household slaves rather than being imprisoned. And let’s imagine they own a slave (or bondservant, or indentured servant, or whatever we call him), named Chinnanan. As is common in their culture, Chinnanan has a variety of domestic duties - cooking, cleaning, childcare - but is very much a part of the family, and they have generally acted fairly towards him. He has no property, income or legal identity of his own; but since he lives with them, and has his food provided, he has never really needed them.

Now imagine that Amur and Shamim become followers of Jesus, through the preaching of a cross-cultural missionary. The impact of the gospel in their lives is immediate, and transformative. Their understanding of the work of Christ causes them to serve Chinnanan in the same way as he serves them: they begin to care for his needs, look after his children, and cook meals for him and his family. Though legally entitled in their culture to expect full-time labour from him and to threaten or even beat him if he refuses, they consistently treat him with respect, justice and equity, on the basis that they themselves are slaves of Christ, and that is how Christ treats them. In other words, they live exactly as Paul instructs masters to live in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 4.

Now: are Amur and Shamim sinning? Are they living in a way that is fundamentally immoral, or that undermines the redemptive spirit of the gospel? Of course not. Quite the opposite: they are demonstrating the radically subversive power of the gospel within their particular social situation, and doing so in a way that both blesses Chinnanan personally, and demonstrates Christlike service to their household and their neighbours. This, of course, is exactly what Paul urges masters in Ephesus and Colossae to do, and rightly so. Within their context, it is exactly how Christian submission and love is best demonstrated.

Please note what I am not saying. I am not saying that slavery in the ancient or modern worlds was usually like this; clearly it wasn’t, and isn’t. I am not saying that, since it is possible to treat slaves in a radically loving and gospel-shaped way, slavery is not that big a deal and we shouldn’t fight it today; clearly, since so few people do treat slaves like this, we should (and my wife and I have given regularly to a charity that fights modern slavery for years). Nor am I saying that abolition was not a wonderful example of applying the gospel; it was, and still is. I am simply saying that, given the situation of his readers, Paul’s instructions were thoroughly moral, and thoroughly appropriate.

In the light of all this, it’s frankly rather patronising to Paul to stroke our chins and tell him that he sensed something of the redemptive spirit of the gospel, but didn’t quite see it through to its logical conclusion (or that although he “sowed the seeds” for abolition, as a child of his time, bless him, he didn’t realise its importance). Paul’s theological and ethical imagination, as we know, was phenomenal, and it is hard to see why envisaging a world without slavery should be substantially more difficult than envisaging a world without sin, sickness, suffering and even death. What is remarkable, in my view, is not that Paul did not speak directly about abolition, but that he managed simultaneously to condemn human kidnapping and trafficking (and hence to condemn the West African slave trade), to teach people how to live with slavery where it was inescapable, and to subvert it beyond all recognition within the church. I don’t know what I would say if, in no more than a hundred words, I had to present a Christian response to slavery that would show what gospel obedience looked like for Amur, Shamim, Chinnanan, William Wilberforce and Gary Haugen. But I highly doubt I could improve upon what Paul wrote here.

So I don’t think Paul condoned immoral behaviour. I don’t think he failed to see through the redemptive implications of his own gospel. And I don’t think the New Testament imperatives reflect a stepping stone on the way to a later, ultimate, ethic. Paul’s words on slavery, frankly, cannot bear the weight that trajectory hermeneuticists put on them, and that calls all sorts of other conclusions, from Bill Webb’s to Steve Chalke’s, into question. In the absence of a compelling reason not to, we should probably stay with the more conservative approach: with Teaching in the New Testament, Obedience is Assumed, and Symbols are Translated. Or T’N'TOAST, for short.

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