Most of us agree that being a Christian is more than a set of beliefs; it requires right action. Furthermore, Christian action, we think, ought to be informed by the Bible. Yet in the history of the church, Christians have read the same Bible and sometimes ended up justifying radically different actions—especially related to questions of war, race, gender and sexuality.
The 19th-century U.S. struggle over slavery is a case in point. Many northerners condemned slavery, whereas southerners supported it. The Rev. James Pennington, who was born a slave in 1807 in Maryland, escaped to become one of a handful of well-educated African-American clergy serving Congregational churches in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He was active in the anti-slavery movement.
Pennington, like many black Christians, struggled to have faith in a God who could permit slavery—who could make such a "serious blunder" in the order of things. He could not imagine how a wise and good God created a world with the evil of slavery. "If I am deceived here—if the word of God does sanction slavery, I want another book, another repentance, another faith, and another hope! I speak very reverently, and from a deep and mournful reflection," he wrote.
In his struggle with this issue, Pennington came to believe that slaveholding was "condemned by the general tenor and scope of the New Testament." Why? Because the "system of slavery" produced "great cruelty." Look at the actions supported by slavery, he preached. "If we could calculate the amount of woe endured by ill-treated slaves, it would overwhelm every compassionate heart." Such actions did not "agree with the Gospel." No text in the Bible, he insisted, sanctions cruelty, or mangling, or imprisonment, or starvation, or torture. Therefore, Christians must ask other Christians "by what authority they have done these things and continue to do them."
Pennington thought that Northern Christians had "a right to refuse communion with American slaveholders as Christians." "My brethren," wrote Pennington, "the question is fully settled with me; I hope it is with you."
There are issues in our time where biblical texts present conflicting messages that divide Christians. Like Pennington, we might do well to ask, what is the "general tenor and scope of the New Testament?" How do various beliefs relate to actions? And what actions are in keeping with the whole message of the Gospel?
In the end, the answers to such questions probably are more important than any of the prohibitions or practices found in particular biblical texts.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.