Monthly Archives: November 2017

Bonhoeffer and Discipleship

November 2017 Pulse

“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” These words eloquently summarise the central message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s influential book, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937.

This book began life as a series of lectures about the Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde, a seminary that trained ministers for the “Confessing Church” during the Nazi period. Bonhoeffer later joined the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a crime for which he was arrested and executed at the age of 39.

In this book, Bonhoeffer tried to disabuse his readers of the idea that they could take God’s grace for granted just because they have received it freely and unconditionally. Hence, in the pages of The Cost of Discipleship we find the oft-repeated refrain that although grace is free, it is never cheap.

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” Bonhoeffer insists. “We are fighting today for costly grace.”

By “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer is referring to a religion that makes no demands on its adherents, a religiosity that gives a polite nod at commitment but refuses to pay the price it exacts.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” he writes.

The free grace of God is costly because it is made available through the sacrificial death of Christ on Calvary’s cross. But this grace is also costly for Christians because it “calls us to follow Jesus Christ”.

For Bonhoeffer, then, at the heart of Christian discipleship is obedience to Christ. No one can claim to be a Christian – a believer – if he is not also a disciple, that is, if obedience does not characterise his life: “… only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

The obedience demanded of the believer is also not something open to negotiation or bargain, but absolute, without reservation or hesitation. For if you are only partially obedient – which means that you occasionally acquiesce to sin – “you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control”.

True obedience therefore requires self-denial, the resolve to remove the self with its ambitions, passions and wants from the centre of one’s life so that Christ may take His rightful place there. To obey is to smash the idol of the “sovereign self” and to bring the self into humble submission to the true Sovereign.

Only when we are determined to deny our selves can we embrace the suffering that comes with discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes movingly: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”

In this book, Bonhoeffer also explores the profound relationship between discipleship and the moral law of God by drawing creatively from the Lutheran tradition that shaped his theology.

To be obedient is to live our lives according to the purposes for which God created us; it is to bend our wills to God’s. And since God’s will is revealed in His moral law, the disciple must order his life according to it.

But the divine law points to the holy God who, in giving it, invites His people to commune with Him. This means that the divine law, which is purposed to usher us into an intimate covenant relationship with God, can never be reduced to rules – the dos and don’ts – that govern external behaviour.

The Christian can never be an antinomian (who regards the moral law of God as unimportant) or a legalist (who thinks that the Christian life is only about rule-keeping). In other words, discipleship is not just about doing what is required by the law; but if one ignores God’s law one ceases to be a disciple.

Discipleship therefore has to do with obedient love.

“If you love me,” Jesus said to His disciples, “you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” (John 14:15, 21)


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Prayer from the Depths of Despair

November 2017 Credo

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
The wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it,
And is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
23 They are new every morning;
“Great is your faithfulness,
24 The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I have hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 (ESV)

These are the first words of prayer (that is, words actually addressed to God), that the Poet of Lamentations has uttered. The word ‘your’ in verse 23 shows he is at last speaking to God – right here in the middle of this chapter which stands in the middle of the whole terrifying book. Verses 22-23 are the only part of Lamentations that most people know, because they generated Thomas Chisholme’s lovely hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness,’ – even if those who sing that hymn are quite unaware of the shocking context in which those words were originally uttered.

For this is the prayer of ‘the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (3:1) – and what affliction, what a rod! Look at verses 1-18. That repeated, accusing word ‘He’ refers to God. Lamentations was written in the immediate aftermath of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-6 BC. That had happened, according to the prophets (and accepted by this book), as God’s judgment for the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites for generations, in spite of all warnings to turn around and avoid it. And the suffering was incomprehensible – except perhaps by those today caught up in the hell of Syria, or South Sudan, or Yemen, who know only too well what such descriptions mean.

In chapters 1-2, the Poet personifies the city of Jerusalem as Lady Zion, gasping out in the dust for somebody, anybody, – even God if only he would –  to look at her, listen to her, comfort her. She is a woman stripped, gang-raped, beaten, exposed, violated, her children traumatized and dying in the streets. If this is judgment, even if it is deserved, is it not too awful, too cruel? Whatever the moral argument, the suffering and pain is given voice, the tears are allowed to fall, while God remains silent. There is no comfort, but neither is there any rebuke, nor any heartless ‘told you so.’ Suffering is given the dignity of a hearing. Lamentations has been called a bottle for the tears of the world (cf. Ps. 56:8). If it can be called prayer at all, it is the prayer of desperate suffering, of lament, and protest.

Then in chapter 3 the Poet speaks: ‘I am the man…’ His words speak both for himself and for his people. He was there. He had endured what the city suffered, and puts it into searing poetry that pauses at verse 18 with complete loss of hope.

Hope Perishes

Read again through the catalogue of metaphors in verses 1-18. ‘The Man’ has been beaten by a bad shepherd (1-6 are a negative Ps. 23); walled up alone (7-9); hunted, mauled and shot at (10-13); trampled face-down in the dust (14-16). He is left utterly without peace, unable even to recall what happiness felt like (17), and worst of all, with all his hopes gone (18).

Without hope, life is unbearable. Friends in Lebanon tell me of the tragic rate of suicides among women and young girls in the Syrian refugee communities there – for which the prime reason given is, ‘We have lost all hope for any possible future.’

Hope Remembers

All the Man is left with is his memories. But there are two kinds of remembering. There are the bad memories that come unwanted and unbidden, the flash-backs and nightmares of trauma, the tormenting, bitter and poisonous memories that the Man struggles with in verses 19-20. But then comes the intentional remembering of verse 21. This is a deliberate act of will, in which he forces himself to remember what he knows to be true. Literally, he says, ‘This I cause to come back into my mind.’  He chooses to think differently. ‘And therefore I have hope’! What a contrast. Verse 18 ends with all hope gone; verse 21 ends with ‘I have hope.’ What is the ‘This’ that he chooses to remember, that makes such a dramatic difference?

The last word of verse 18 is the name of the LORD – Yahweh, the God of Israel’s history, exodus, covenant and centuries of repeated faithfulness. Yahweh is the God who defined himself as ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6). If the LORD is still God, then surely this terrible anger and suffering cannot be his last word? You see, once you let the LORD in, even by the back door at the end of verses 1-18, things cannot remain as they are, and that’s what the Man remembers, and turns into prayer.

What he prays is something like this,

‘My life, my hope, my future feel like they have all ended (v. 18),
BUT this is what I remember (v. 21):
Yahweh’s acts of love, they have not finished
For they have not come to an end, his acts of compassion (v. 22 literally).
Indeed, not only have they not ended,
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (v. 23).

The God who had acted in judgment is still the God who will keep his promises to his people and will never abandon his covenant with them, nor his ultimate purposes for the whole world through them. So, with that long-term perspective, the Man decides to wait in hope  (v. 24) … Almost as if he had just remembered Psalm 33:20-22. Maybe he had. It’s another powerful prayer.

Then another shock (for us) in verses 25-27. Each of those verses begins with the Hebrew word for ‘good’. ‘Good…good…good’ he says!  How can somebody who has just described the horrors that God had inflicted in verses 1-18 turn round and say, ‘The LORD is good…’? Yet he does. He affirms it as the bedrock of Israel’s faith, of biblical truth, and of Christian worship. As the Africans say, ‘God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.’

But, this does not at all deny or lessen the pain of verses 1-18. Nor does it stop him from going back to that pain very soon after – in the second part of chapter 3 and on into chapters 4-5. But if the God who judges or allows suffering is the God who is good, then even God’s wrath cannot be the last word for those who turn to him – as this Poet is urging his people to do. God will have a good purpose ahead. So even if it cannot be imagined at this moment, even in the midst of the unbearable pain, ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD’ (even though ‘quietly’ is hardly the mood of this whole book).

The swings between gut emotion and theological affirmation in Lamentations are vital to its message. Aren’t there times when singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ seems hollow, hypocritical and bitter because of the stress and suffering of the moment? And yet other times when it expresses exactly what you do believe and need to affirm?

Hope Explains

We still wonder, though, how the turbulent desperation of verses 1-18 can reach the calm prayers and advice of 22-30. So the Poet obliges with his explanation. Each of verses 31-33 begins, in Hebrew, with the word ‘For.’ He is saying ‘Here’s why…here’s why…here’s why!’ These three verses begin with the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, right in the middle of the whole book. In the midst of the pain, sin, rebellion, judgment and suffering – here is what we must know.

  • Yes, God may reject his people when they rebel — but not forever (31).
  • Yes, God causes grief when he punishes – but his compassion and love will return (32).
  • Yes, God afflicts (or allows affliction) – but ‘not from his heart’ (literally; 33).

We should not equate God’s anger and God’s love, as if they were equal and opposite eternal characteristics. They are both realities. God’s anger is his reaction against all sin and evil that opposes his love and goodness. But anger does not define God in the way love does. ‘God is love.’ God is not anger – on the contrary, God defined himself as ‘slow to anger,’ and Micah affirms that this is something that makes Yahweh the God of Israel unique – ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Mic. 7:18-19).

So in his prayer, the Man drops anchor into the bedrock of God’s eternal, unchanging, faithful,  covenant love. That gives him security. But it does not give him release from the suffering. The anchor is down, but the storm still rages and his ship tosses – as chs 4-5 will show. Nevertheless – at the centre of the book and the centre of his faith, God’s eternal love has been affirmed in faith and in prayer. I doubt if the Man could have sung this song just yet, but its truth is close to his experience and testimony:

You are my rock in times of trouble;
You lift me up when I fall down.
All through the storm, your love is the anchor;
My hope is in you alone.


 


Rev Dr Christopher Wright is the International Ministries Director, Langham Partnership.

 

 

 

 

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

 

Clarity on Sexuality

November 2017 Credo

Without a doubt, human sexuality is one of the most controversial issues that the modern church faces. Insofar as the church is situated within a cultural milieu, it is in some sense influenced and sometimes inadvertently even shaped by society’s strongest sentiments. This is especially true with issues surrounding homosexuality.

Buffeted by unrelenting pressures from all sides, Christians have sometimes come under considerable stress to simply acquiesce to their demands. And recently, a number of conservative Christian thinkers and leaders appear to have buckled under the strain.

For example, in a recent public lecture, Nicholas Wolterstorff shocked those who have always known him to be theologically conservative by expressing his approval for same-sex marriage. ‘I’ve listened to these people’, says Wolterstorff, ‘To their agony. To their feelings of exclusion and oppression. To their longings. To their expressions of love. To their commitments. To their faith. So listening has changed me’.

In an interview conducted by columnist Jonathan Merritt of Religion New Service, Eugene Petersen, the celebrated author of The Message also affirmed same-sex marriage. He told Merritt that the ‘debate about lesbians and gays might be over’ and that he would conduct a same-sex wedding if he were a pastor.

Soon after the interview was published, however, Petersen retracted his statements. ‘To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm the biblical view of everything’, he said in a subsequent statement.

Amidst these episodes of capitulation and flip-flop by some of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders, the Nashville Statement on human sexuality is refreshing, timely and welcomed (https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The_Nashville_Statement_Initial_Signatories_List.pdf).

The Statement is uncompromisingly faithful to Scripture, and provides a reliable compass to help the church navigate safely through the fog of confusion about sexuality and gender.

In its preamble, the Statement underscores the fact that Christians in the 21st century inhabit a period of ‘historic transition’. As Western culture drifts from its Judeo-Christian heritage, we witness ‘massive revisions of what it means to be a human being’.

This has brought about radical changes to the way in which we understand human sexuality. ‘It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences’.

The Statement presents a series of affirmations and denials (in 14 articles) concerning human sexuality based on the teachings of Scripture. In the rest of this article, I will briefly highlight some of its most salient points.

The Statement begins by clearly articulating its position concerning marriage (Article 1). Everything that it has to say about human sexuality and sexual relations in subsequent articles is framed by its biblical view of marriage.

The Statement eschews the view that homosexual, polygamous and polyarmorous ‘marriages’ are part and parcel of God’s design. It states categorically that marriage as God had intended it is a ‘covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, husband and wife’.

Against the prevailing secular understanding of marriage as a contract, the Statement insists on the covenantal nature of this union.

Sexual relations between a man and a woman are appropriate only within the covenant of marriage. The Statement clearly affirms ‘chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage’, and rejects all forms of sexual immorality, including sexual intercourse outside marriage (Article 2).

The divine institution of marriage is established on the doctrine of creation, especially that creation of human beings as male and female (Articles 3 & 4).

The Statement affirms that God created human beings as male and female as bearers of his image and ‘equal before God as persons’ (Article 3). In addition, sexual distinctions – male and female – are not the tragic results of the fall. Instead, they are ‘divinely ordained’, that is, they ‘reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing’ (Article 4).

God has created humans as sexed beings. Sexual difference – being male or female – is therefore not a social construct, but a biological reality ordained by the loving Creator for human flourishing. This means that human sexuality cannot be re-defined according to the temper of the times, the whims and fancies of the prevailing culture.

Articles 3 & 4 set the stage for the more complex issues surrounding human sexuality. They include the dissonance that some people experience between their biological sex and their self-conception as male and female (Articles 5–8). These articles deal primarily with homosexuality and transgenderism.

Article 5 makes clear that neither physical anomalies (inter-sex?) nor psychological conditions (gender dysphoria) ‘nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male and female’. The Statement rejects the claim that ‘adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption’ (Article 7).

Article 6 maintains that those with sexual disorders are bearers of the divine image and ‘have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers’. Article 8 in turn gives the assurance that people who experience same-sex attraction ‘may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ …’

Sin receives its first mention in Article 9. The authors of the Statement judiciously avoid singling out homosexual acts alone, but include both homosexual and heterosexual immorality in this brief article. ‘We affirm that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality – a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality’.

The remaining four articles of the Statement address a number of different issues. These include attitudes towards homosexual immorality to the efficacy of divine grace in conquering sexual temptations and sins.

Article 10 states that ‘it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism’. Such approval, it notes, can never be seen as a ‘matter of moral indifference’ but rather essentially as a ‘departure from Christian faithfulness and witness’. Article 11 underscores ‘our duty to speak the truth in love at all times’.

Article 12 affirms that the grace of God in Christ has transforming power that enables Christians to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’. This same grace enables ‘sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions’, states Article 13, and to see the connection between biological sex and one’s self-conception as male and female.

Article 14 is a summary of the Gospel.

Like most documents of this nature, some passages are lacking in clarity and issues that are either left out or given just a cursory mention should be given more attention.

For example, it would be helpful to make clear the distinction between experiencing same-sex attraction and having homosexual sex. It would also be helpful to clarify that while the Bible categorically prohibits homosexual sex, it does not address the issue of sexual orientation.

The issue of sexual orientation, so important in the current debate, is totally omitted by the Statement.

Article 6 appears to be most problematic because of its lack of clarity. Who exactly is the Statement referring to by ‘those born with a physical disorder of sex development’ – the homosexual, transgendered or inter-sex person?

Since inter-sexuality is not mentioned at all, the unfortunate impression is that the Statement affirms the biological basis for homosexuality and transgenderism. But if Article 6 refers to the inter-sex person (which I think it does), it should make this more explicit.

But these minor glitches aside, the Nashville Statement is a clear and robust articulation of the Christian vision of human sexuality. It is thoroughly biblical and in harmony with the orthodox teachings of the Church throughout the centuries.

Since its publication, however, the Nashville Statement has been heavily criticised. This should not surprise us.

Some of the most venomous criticisms come from Christians who appear to have become subservient to the very culture to which they were called to exercise a prophetic witness.

For example, Brian McLaren (of ‘emerging church movement’ fame) scathingly opines that theologically the Statement ‘is based on the same regressive way of reading the Bible that was used to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, apartheid, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science, and the slaughter of native people’.

On the social front, McLaren says, the Statement ‘plays into the same virulent scapegoating that has encouraged the KKK and other white supremacists to take off their sheets’.

Finally, he adds that politically it ‘perfectly serves the purposes of Trumpism by creating a pristine and pure “us” who need to push the dirty “other” to the margins’.

Some Christians may no doubt find such rhetoric compelling. But these sweeping harangues are in fact vacuous and ludicrous. They only show how far some Christians have capitulated to the prevailing culture.


 


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Modern Slavery

November 2017 Pulse

Despite the incredible leaps that our species have made in the last couple of centuries, one of the oldest scourges that has accompanied us throughout our history still remains alive and well today: slavery.

In the modern world, slavery is the primary human rights issue that has attracted international attention and aroused global concern. Yet, despite universal condemnation and numerous international efforts, slavery continues to flourish in many parts of the world.

Modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that covers a variety of practices. This includes traditional slavery and slave trades, child prostitution, child labour, human trafficking (for sexual exploitation), children in armed conflict, debt bondage, etc.

A United Nations document entitled, ‘Contemporary Forms of Slavery’ presents the enormity of the problem of modern slavery thus: ‘Slave-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it’.

It adds that ‘[t]he problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out’.

A quick glance at slavery across the world would help us to appreciate just how grim the current situation is.

In Albania, 90 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school because they are afraid of being abducted and sold as sex-slaves. One study estimated that about 80 percent of women traded as prostitutes in Western Europe may be from the Republic of Moldova, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe.

Muslim tribesmen from northern Sudan conduct slave raids on non-Muslim Dinka people in the south, taking with them thousands of women and children. And the United Arab Emirates (UAE) receives a constant supply of women trafficked from the former Soviet Union.

In India, debt slavery is prevalent in certain sectors of society. For example, Dalits are forced to accept loans from their landlords to perform social duties associated with death or marriage.

But as Justin Campbell explains: ‘These loans are designed to be impossible to pay back, and because Dalits are traditionally denied education, they are left with little recourse but to accept the loans and become indebted to their landlords. So just as one’s position in the caste social hierarchy is inherited, so debts are passed from one generation to another’.

Christianity has been woefully slow to condemn slavery. Many Christians have found justification for keeping the practice alive in the way in which certain passages in the Bible are interpreted.

Far from condemning slavery and urging its abolition, the Bible appears to take the practice – so prevalent in the Ancient Near East – for granted as an acceptable social norm. A number of passages from the OT even seem to sanction the buying and selling of slaves, both male and female, by the Israelites.

For example, in Leviticus 25, we read: ‘As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. And you may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property’.

In the NT, we find instructions on how slaves should behave towards their masters and how the latter should treat the former (E.g., 1 Timothy 6:5-6; Ephesians 6:5-6; 1 Peter 2:18-29). But there is no specific injunction for Christians to free their slaves or to oppose this dehumanising practice.

The great theologians of the Church appear to hold the view that slavery is in some sense necessary in the sinful world in which we inhabit. While both Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth insisted that slavery should never be understood as part of natural law – that is, as part of God’s intention for human beings – they maintain that it is an appropriate concession in a world crippled by original sin.

It must be stressed, however, that although Christians are slow in condemning slavery, the Gospel that they embrace has forced them to look at slaves very differently. For example, if all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore enjoy equal dignity and value, the Christian cannot look upon slaves as mere property for their masters to do as they wish.

And if in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:27-28), the Christian must no longer treat his believing slave as merely a slave, but as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, we find in the canon of the NT the remarkable letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, which exhorts him to treat his runaway slave Onesimus ‘no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother’ (Philemon 16).

It was on the basis of the Christian understanding of the dignity and value of the human being that the abolitionists of the 18th and 19th century conducted their campaign to end the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the chattel slavery in the United States.

Although slavery today is vastly different from previous centuries, modern abolitionists must receive inspiration from their predecessors – Frederick Douglass, William Wilberforce, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Candy – and follow in their footsteps in the fight against this ancient crime and in doing so restore the dignity and humanity that slavery has stolen from its victims.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.