The church's initial assumptions on
slavery, women's rights & gay rights
In colonial days in North America, "liberty and justice for all"
really meant "liberty and justice for white, Protestant, male, heterosexual
landowners." Over time, most of these qualifiers have faded. "All" now means
"almost all." Religious groups in the U.S. and Canada have played and continue
to play, a major role in this transition. Some have tried to speed up the
process; others have attempted to slow it down. Very few have taken a neutral
At the start of the 19th century, there was a near consensus among religious
groups concerning the legitimacy of human slavery. They had no difficulty
interpreting what the Bible said on the topic. Human slavery was seen as a natural part of North American and many
African Americans had inherited the "curse of Ham."
They were destined to be enslaved because of Ham's unspecified sinful activity with his
father Noah circa 2325 BCE, almost 100 generations earlier. Rabbi M.J. Raphall
(circa 1861) commented that the Tenth Commandment places slaves "under the same
protection as any other species of lawful property." 4
He might have added that the Tenth Commandment also implies the same status for
women and children.
From today's vantage point, we can see that the Bible is quite ambiguous on
human slavery. There are certainly passages throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old
Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) that
regulate the ownership of human beings. But the Bible also contains themes of love,
mercy, justice, and equality that can be interpreted as strongly supporting the
abolition of slavery. The latter passages went largely unnoticed to most 19th century
Christians. Today, it is the pro-slavery verses that go unnoticed.
Similarly, from the second century to the middle of the 19th century, Christians saw little or no
ambiguity in the Bible's message regarding the roles of women.
emphasized those passages in the Bible which placed
strict limitations on their clothing, behavior and role in the family,
church, and elsewhere in society. Again, the church position was derived from
specific restrictive passages in the Bible,
not from the Bible's general themes of love, justice, and equality.
Finally, by the middle of the 20th century, Christians had held a near
consensus on homosexuality for almost two millennia. They interpreted the
six "clobber" passages in the Bible as
forbidding all homosexual activity, irrespective of the nature of the
relationship. For a third time, there was little importance given to general biblical
In each case, the church's initial assumptions were very similar, whether
they were dealing with race, gender or sexual orientation. White male
heterosexuals were given a privileged position. The Bible was interpreted as promoting
oppression of everyone else.
Specific initial assumptions:
Jack Rogers, Moderator of the 213rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.), when considering the oppression of African Americans and women,
"Why did good, intelligent, devout Christian people not see what we now
recognize as mitigating factors in the biblical record? ....In each case, we
accepted a pervasive societal prejudice and read it back into Scripture. We
took certain Scriptures out of their context and claimed to read them
literally with tragic consequences for those to whom these verses were
In his book, "Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality," he explains that
the Church originally used three assumptions to justify: