Ask a Pastor Ep. 36 - Slavery and Polygamy
Welcome to Ask a Pastor, a podcast from Orchard Hill Church! Have you ever had a question about the Bible, Faith, or Christianity as a whole? Submit your question and one of our pastors will answer on the program. New episodes every Wednesday.
This episode our Senior Pastor, Dr. Kurt Bjorklund, talks with Strip District Campus Pastor, Joel Haldeman.
"Question I have is about slavery and polygamy in the Bible. Can you give me your thoughts on this please? Have had a few times where these two practices have come up with friends, who do not want to accept the authority of the Bible because of these two issues. Slavery more so than polygamy."
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Kurt Bjorklund: Hi, welcome to Ask a Pastor. Thanks for taking a few minutes of your day to just jump into some content and I think there's some great questions here today that might be really helpful, especially the first one. We may only get to that, just we'll see how time goes. If you have questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love to address those at some point in the future and if you are listening and wouldn't mind jumping over to the podcast avenue of delivery and subscribe to it, leave some thumbs up, comments, positive ratings, whatever's there on your mechanism to get it, that would be helpful. It just helps other people find the content as well. If you're listening on the radio, welcome. On Facebook or other means, again, we're glad that you're here. I'm joined by Joel Haldeman today. Joel, welcome.
Joel Haldeman: Yeah, thanks.
Kurt Bjorklund: Joel is our campus pastor of our Strip District location. A lot of exciting things happening there. Tell us just some of the things people can expect this summer in the Strip.
Joel Haldeman: Yeah. This is an incredible season for us. I'm just so excited. There's so much energy in our church right now and in our Strip District campus and seeing God do some incredible things. So yeah, come join us on a Sunday morning,
Kurt Bjorklund: Beautiful location that's been rebuilt really from the inside completely. So some Sunday, go do breakfast at the Strip, go to a service there. You won't regret making that part of it. So Joel here's a question that came in and this has got a lot of layers to it. It's in some ways a simple question and other ways, it's got a lot of layers. And it's subtitled slavery and polygamy in the Bible. Can you give me your thoughts on this please? And I could just leave you there, but then it says this. I've had a few times where these two practices have come up with friends who do not want to accept the authority of the Bible because of these two issues. Slavery more so than polygamy.
Kurt Bjorklund: I'm not sure what their friend's question is around polygamy. If it's ... Yeah, we'll leave that alone for right now. But so just give us your quick, somebody is sitting around and says, hey slavery, the Bible was pro slavery and I'm assuming from the question, maybe they think the Bible was pro polygamy because of some of the Old Testament stuff. So the Bible supported slavery, polygamy. Why would I believe in that kind of a faith or God? What would you say?
Joel Haldeman: I think the first thing that I'd say in that conversation and to the person asking this is, we're starting in the wrong place. We can't establish the validity of the Bible on the basis of practices that are recorded in the Bible. We believe the Bible is true because we believe in the historical Jesus. We believe that he lived on this earth, that he died on this earth, that he rose from the dead. And if that is true, I'm going to pretty much go with whatever that guy says, I mean, if Jesus really rose from the dead. And so the slavery and polygamy question I think is secondary in whether or not we're determining if the Bible is true or not. So I guess that would be my advice to the person asking that question to first of all, refocus that conversation on the person Jesus, not on some of these sort of secondary issues. I mean would you agree with that?
Kurt Bjorklund: Well that's a great point, because you're right. What happens a lot of times in faith discussions is people want to have discussions that are five steps removed from the crux of who Jesus is and whether or not coming to faith is wise for them. So they'll say things like, well what about the person in some remote country's never heard about God. That just seems so, so bizarre. I can't believe in a God who would, or ... So I think you're right to say come back to who is Jesus? Is he who he said he was? Is he trustworthy? And if so, then you can start to play forward some of these other things. However, that seems to get some Christian leaders in trouble. I mean, I've heard some people take an issue like abortion, where they'll say, well you know, I don't want to get into whether abortion's right or wrong because I don't want that to be the first issue somebody thinks about. I want them to think about Jesus and then come to a decision on that and people will get all fired up.
Kurt Bjorklund: These issues aren't quite probably as tense for some as abortion. And so there probably is another issue here and that is to what extent should Christians on a whole, speak to secondary issues versus primary issues? And I'm not saying abortion's secondary or polygamy's secondary. When I say secondary, I mean not at the core of what it is to believe in Jesus. I don't mean to diminish those issues in any way. And if you heard that the email for this is Joel Haldeman. Just kidding. So let's dive into slavery. So when somebody says slavery, because I do agree with what you're saying, absolutely. Get to the primary issue if you can-
Joel Haldeman: But the issue matters.
Kurt Bjorklund: ... but somebody is going to say, okay, but I still can't get past slavery. So unless you can answer that to my satisfaction, I'm not going to even consider this historical Jesus. So let's do slavery first and then polygamy.
Joel Haldeman: Okay. I think in both of these cases, slavery and polygamy, we have to first recognize that there's a difference between something being recorded in the Bible and something being prescribed in the Bible. And that's a really big deal because the Bible is not primarily a story about heroes. We say that all the time around here, right? It's a story about one hero, Jesus. And the story, before and after Jesus, is a story of people who are failures, losers, fools, and very occasionally a righteous person that God uses to bring about his plan of redemption. So, David is a murderer. Now that doesn't mean that that murder is condoned by the Bible. So I think that's the first thing we have to say. And the second, along with that, is just the ability to recognize there are significant cultural differences in the way that we view both slavery and polygamy today versus 2,000 years ago.
Joel Haldeman: So slavery, first of all, when we think of slavery we have this very specific occurrence of slavery in mind that is this chattel slavery where people are kidnapped from another land, brought to a place and they suffer greatly. And I would absolutely say that that kind of slavery is wrong. That that shouldn't happen. That harms, that goes against what we believe about the image of God in people. But there's been another kind of slavery that has existed in the world that hasn't been the same as that. And I think you have to think of this in terms of, imagine you're living in 500 BC, you're living in an agrarian country. You're a farmer, a poor farmer, you don't own land. And for some reason, you and your family come under this huge debt that you can't pay, but you have to repay it.
Joel Haldeman: And what's the consequence of you not repaying this debt? Well, you're going to get thrown into prison. Your whole family is going to get thrown into a debtor's prison. So now you have a choice. Now in a day when there are no banks that are just going to give you a loan, you can't declare bankruptcy. What someone had the option to do was to sell themselves into slavery. They're in slavery for a temporary period of time, seven years, and they're able to repay that debt. And so you can think of it that way as just a very different type of slavery. The conditions in Israel where slavery happened were ... They were vastly different than what we imagine. And so I think the first part is just understanding that slavery has existed in different forms throughout the world.
Kurt Bjorklund: Okay. So your first kind of response is the Bible records things it doesn't endorse.
Joel Haldeman: Right.
Kurt Bjorklund: Would you say then that the Bible does not endorse slavery?
Joel Haldeman: I would say that slavery has always existed in the world. It wasn't an invention of the Bible. What we find in the Bible as we start to read through law codes, is that it begins to regulate something that already is existing in the world. And I think that's both the case with polygamy and slavery.
Kurt Bjorklund: So that feels to many like endorsement. So rather than fighting against the institution, it said, well, since you're already doing it and you're going to do it, let me give some regulations. How is that not endorsement in somebody's mind?
Joel Haldeman: Yeah. I don't know that I have a great answer for that. And at least in the Old Testament. I know that in the New Testament we would say the reason that Jesus didn't just come right out and say slavery is wrong, is because it's believed that a third of the Roman world was made up of slaves. That that was such a significant part of their economy, that to just say this is the end of slavery, Rome would have squashed Christianity as this movement that was trying to overthrow the empire. And so what Jesus did was something very subtle and very effective. He begins to preach about the individual worth of people. And what happens is over time, society, the world laws begin to change so that after hundreds of years of the Christian message, slavery is actually abolished in the Western world. I mean, you know-
Kurt Bjorklund: With Christians leading the charge.
Joel Haldeman: Exactly. And so William Wilberforce is leading the way for slavery to be abolished because of his Christian faith. And so what I would say to this person is the reason you are even asking this question is because of the influence of Christianity. Because you've come to believe that slavery is wrong because Jesus taught us that individuals have worth and identity and meaning.
Kurt Bjorklund: Right. I appreciate that answer and I think especially the idea that Christians led even in the United States, the path to saying this is not correct. This needs to go away. And the one piece I would emphasize, just as I've heard you talk about that, I'd be a little cautious to want to say that Jesus endorsed something that he believed fully was wrong. And so I think what you said earlier about slavery being a different practice in that world than what we experience. I'm so tainted by my American perspective that I equate slavery with race and slavery with mistreatment and dehumanizing things, rather than as part of an economic system that was economic and for people's benefit actually, rather than against it. Now I'm not saying slavery's a benefit, but what I mean is-
Joel Haldeman: But in that day it was.
Kurt Bjorklund: ... somebody did it because it was their best deal. It would be like somebody's taking a really hard job today and saying, that's my best deal. And at times it feels like slavery for me to take that job because it's my best deal. That's what people did. And so I don't think, again, the equating of slavery to our modern idea makes that a hard leap. But I think to say Jesus moved that forward and it is Christians that fought against slavery in Europe and in America and helped bring about the societal change. And your point is, the reason you believe it's wrong is actually rooted in Christianity, is a great concept.
Kurt Bjorklund: So polygamy is a little less clean in the sense of there again, you have all of these Old Testament figures practicing polygamy. I mean, Solomon had by most accounts, what is it? 700 wives, 300 concubines? I mean, that's enough ladies to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with a different lady every day and not do a repeat meal until like September, October. I mean, that's absurd any way you look at it and yet Solomon is lifted up. And I know you said we don't say that we have heroes, but clearly it's recorded, not necessarily endorsed. In fact, we're told that all these women led his heart away from the Lord. But clearly he experienced some good things at the hand of God in the midst of of having a thousand women. So as a pastor, how do you deal with that?
Joel Haldeman: I guess what I'd say is that from the very beginning, God establishes the first ... Like God arranges the first marriage, right? And it's one man and one woman and that's meant to be sort of this prototype of what marriage is to look like. Moving forward, I think polygamy is kind of a big question mark in the Bible in terms of, does God approve this or not? I mean, I would say that the Bible at no point condones polygamy or I should say the Bible at no point calls polygamy good. But the Bible also, at least in the Old Testament, does not prohibit polygamy. Now I think that-
Kurt Bjorklund: So I've got to butt in here just for a moment.
Joel Haldeman: All right. Yeah do it.
Kurt Bjorklund: Just if for no other reason than my own entertainment here. So if it's not prohibited, is it cool for you to have a second wife?
Joel Haldeman: In America?
Kurt Bjorklund: I'm just asking the question.
Joel Haldeman: I think it's illegal, right?
Kurt Bjorklund: I think I just heard you. Well, in some places ... What if you say I'll divorce my first wife legally in the state and then take a second wife? I mean, there's ways to get around the law.
Joel Haldeman: I think that there are times when we can say that though this might not be technically a sin, it's not a good choice and it's not in the best interest of someone. I don't know. How would you respond to that?
Kurt Bjorklund: Wait a second, wait a second. Did you just say polygamy is not a sin?
Joel Haldeman: I don't know that I can point to a place in the Bible where it says that it is a sin. I know that that monogamy is held up as the ideal, that an elder has to be the husband of one wife.
Kurt Bjorklund: So that raises a whole nother host of questions. If the Bible doesn't call something a sin, does that mean you can't call it a sin?
Joel Haldeman: Well.
Kurt Bjorklund: That's a trick question.
Joel Haldeman: That is a trick question. On the one hand, I think we don't want to be like the pharisees-
Kurt Bjorklund: Absolutely.
Joel Haldeman: ... who create additional sins. On the other hand, there are sins of Facebook, right, that The Bible's not going to record. So yes, there are sins that the Bible doesn't record as sin, but it kind of has to fall into a category.
Kurt Bjorklund: Well the reason I ask that question is, I think the impulse to say, I don't want to call something sin that the Bible doesn't call sin, I'm 100% with. Like I don't want to be the person who's like, I'm making up sins and creating categories that don't exist and by implication making all kinds of things. At the same time, like sometimes you'll hear people say, well, Jesus never said polygamy was wrong. Jesus never said X was wrong. Well, Jesus never said that rape was wrong. Jesus never said that incest was wrong. I have no problem saying rape and incest are sin.
Joel Haldeman: That's true.
Kurt Bjorklund: Because those are clearly against God's intention for human sexuality based on an entire reading of the Bible. I think I would be able to say, although I agree that polygamy isn't as clean because of the way that it was practiced and by people who again would be heroes of the faith, if you want to use that phrase, which again we don't like because there there are no heroes. We're all fallen, which I actually think is the point of that ultimately.
Kurt Bjorklund: But I think I'd be comfortable going back to Genesis and saying human relationships were instituted to be a man and a woman. Jesus affirmed that when he said that a man should leave his father and his mother and the two should become one flesh, not three. And so I think I would be able to comfortably say, say if somebody takes on more than one spouse, that that isn't God's design for sexuality, therefore it would be sinful. So I guess I would want to be able to say, yeah, although I don't think it's as clean as some other things as thou shalt not murder, I think you can make a pretty compelling case that it isn't God's design for human sexuality, which therefore would make that indeed sinful or wrong. And I think the reason that's important is, at least in this context, is somebody again, Christian ideal. Where do you get the ideal that marriage should be between two people, not three. Well, where you get the ideal is Christianity.
Joel Haldeman: Yeah, that's right.
Kurt Bjorklund: And when I say a part of the point of the Old Testament of Solomon and David and different people is that they didn't always walk with God and yet God worked in their lives. And it's really easy to sit in our cultural moment and say we figured it all out. We're monogamous, we're antislavery, we're pro the environment, therefore we're good, we're the right people. And I think every culture has its blind spots. And I know I've said this, I think I said on the last Ask a Pastor or two ago, one of our cultural blind spots is greed and materialism. And as a result, what happens in our culture? Like someday, people will look back at our cultural moment and they'll say, can you believe how much wealth those Christians had and how much they used on themselves? And yet God is still at work in our lives. He still reaches into them.
Kurt Bjorklund: But we tend to have a cultural blind spot to that because we think that we always have to have more. And I think in that day there was a cultural blind spot to certainly polygamy and probably to slavery, because not all slavery in the Bible was probably indentured servant-hood. There was probably some that that crossed the line. But that doesn't change the fact that I would say slavery was sinful and I think maybe not as it was practiced exactly in Jesus' day, but certainly as we came to know it in America. Polygamy, I wouldn't hesitate to say is sinful, and I would say conspicuous consumption in our day is sinful. And so although I've only had one wife and only intend to have one wife, I can only handle one wife, will never be able to handle a second wife and I'm a fortunate man with the wife I have.
Kurt Bjorklund: The idea that I can still say and yet I can know that there are areas of my life, in terms of consumption, that I don't know how to totally reign that in to a point where I would say, wow, now I'm completely Biblical in that. And polygamy is a little easier because you can say do I have two wives or one.
Joel Haldeman: Yeah, that's right.
Kurt Bjorklund: And so it's a little cleaner than then do I need another ... Do I need a new car or can I fix the one I have?
Joel Haldeman: That's right.
Kurt Bjorklund: Why do I need to get a new car instead of just fixing one that still runs? Well in this culture, as you know, you've got a 12 year old car with 170,000 miles. It's kind of an old car. You think, well, I need a new car. And that's, I think, a problem when we start categorizing all of this.
Joel Haldeman: Just to add to the polygamy discussion, I can't think of a single instance in the Bible where polygamy is portrayed positively. Like in almost every instance it's polygamy that leads to hardship. Like think about how David, like that was the downfall of his family and the kingdom was the mess in his family. Abraham with Hagar and Sarah like that was just a mess. And actually the first polygamous instance I think is a Lamech in Genesis. What is that? Three or four or something like ... Not three, four or five. And he's just ... He's presented as a fool. And so I'd agree with you that it is the ideal of God that marriage is a man and a woman together.
Kurt Bjorklund: Right? Yeah. Yeah. Single entity. But I think your impulse again to say I don't want to call things sin that aren't clearly sin. I would just say for me, I think you can make that jump on this one.
Joel Haldeman: Yeah, okay.
Kurt Bjorklund: Just even though in the Old Testament it wasn't as clean because of the people who were there. But again, I think to your point, that is the mess and it is God was working in spite of peoples' blunders. Cause if you go back to Genesis and then to Jesus affirmation, you see two becoming one was the ideal at every turn, not three becoming one and in that. So I love your point though about where the impulse of should comes from, is often actually Biblical ideals that have so shaped our thinking, that the idea of human value, fairness, monogamy, loyalty. Those are Biblical ideals.
Kurt Bjorklund: So to the person who says, my friends struggle with these things. I think what Joel's saying, and I think he's right, is to say, if you can turn that around and say you're actually longing for something that is taught in the Bible rather than arguing against it and the Bible recorded it, it didn't endorse it and shows us that God works in spite of human failings. And then I think my point is that every culture has its human failing. It has its cultural blind spot. That happened to be theirs. We have our own in this day. That one day people will look back. In fact, in this day, people look from other parts of the world at America and say, really like that's how you exercise your faith? And when we see that, it's easier than to say that points to the graciousness and the goodness of a God who deals with people who are blinded sometimes to their own rebellion without even naming it as such against him. And so, any other thoughts on that?
Joel Haldeman: No.
Kurt Bjorklund: Well, very good. Well, Joel, thank you. I think that was helpful to me just to hear your thoughts on that and to walk through. So if you have questions, again, send them to email@example.com and we will be happy to address them in the days ahead.