Grace: the slippery slope

Did anyone wish — and there are many who do — they could easily compile a very long list of passages from the Christian Bible condoning misogyny, slavery, and other vile and ignoble practices.

Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord (Colossians 3:22).

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and sincerity of heart, just as you would show to Christ (Ephesians 6:5).

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22).

Moreover, not a great deal of digging will show that these “submission” passages were in complete agreement with the highest Stoic moral teachings of first century Palestine and, therefore, the most sophisticated theological teachings of Jewish moral philosophy; all nicely summed up in the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Romans:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).

Since there is no question but that these teachings brilliantly summarize pagan Stoic moral philosophy, Christians who embrace them rest their case ultimately on something like St Paul’s argument in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (18-22).

That is to say, Christians who defend the misogyny and slavery condoned by God in the Christian Bible must (and do) claim that, however flawed and fallen, Creation sufficiently reveals God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature,” to leave all people, be they ever so removed from “special revelation” (i.e., the Bible), “without excuse.” Stoics, notwithstanding their pagan understanding, are felt to have been sufficiently keen students of Creation to appreciate God’s “invisible attributes,” “eternal power,” and “divine nature.”

From which it follows that the misogyny and defense of slavery we find in Scripture owe their validity not to the limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms of first century Palestine, but to the God Who reveals Him Self in Creation.

Let me suggest that any deviation from this, the clear teaching of Scripture will send the true Christian down a slippery slope that finds limited, fallen, and flawed cultural forms throughout Scripture and to avoid which Christians need to presume that even the most culturally and socially embedded biblical teachings — e.g., household, judicial and military codes — enjoy divine approval (I think, for example, of stoning or of David’s mass removal of the foreskins of enemy combatants).

Let me now suggest that this slippery slope is the slope of grace and that it comes with the full endorsement of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Recall that it is not extra-biblical or extra-canonical practices that the Psalmists, the Prophets, and then Jesus called into question during their lives, but commandments delivered directly by God to Moses on Sinai. That is to say, they are not merely “laws of men” posing as divine law. They enjoy the status of what some would call “special” as distinguished from “general” revelation.

On what grounds were they then found wanting?

Even the most superficial reading of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will help us to see why these laws were found wanting: they were without grace.

Grace is the slippery slope down which we begin to slide once we abandon the security we find identifying Creation and what it is said to be “clearly reveal” with divine intention. Creation “clearly reveals” that the low-born, uninstructed, weak and powerless are victims of God’s divine wrath (see Romans 1-3). To which the Apostle replies in First Corinthians:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:16-31).

This is not simply a deeper understanding of “general” revelation. It is an interpretation that leads one to the very opposite conclusion that one would reach through “general” revelation. It is grace.

Moreover, this grace is not on the page. It is not in the words. Building upon sola scriptura you will never reach this grace:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; 

but just as it is written,

         “Things which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard;
         And which have not entered the heart of man,
         All that God has prepared for those who love God.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words (2:6-13).

This is the slippery slope of grace that not only deepens, but fundamentally challenges what is “clearly revealed” not only in Creation, but Scripture itself.

When Christians reject misogynist passages in Scripture, when they reject slavery, or when they reject all institutions that subject one category of human being to another, they are cascading down the slippery slope . . . of grace.

Many Christians catch themselves sliding down this slope. Slavery is wrong, but wives should be subject to their husbands. Slavery is wrong, but democracy is OK. Or, wives and husbands are equal, but only if they are male and female; for, it is “clearly revealed” in Creation. We catch ourselves before taking the full plunge into grace. Yes to the ordination of women, but . . .

But what if grace is itself the slippery slope?