A Battle with the Bible
Paul was an apocalyptic writer, which means he believed Christ would come again during his lifetime. It also means he was trying to make life better within the context in which he lived. In the case of slavery, it meant that he was aware that his lifetime was too short to change such a powerful social institution. But he could make the situation better for slaves and their masters. He couldn't make slavery go away, but he could encourage that their relationships be respectful, peaceful, and functional.
This is a great example of a Biblical text that must be read within the context it was written. We no longer have a social or political structure that tolerates slavery. So we can read this text in our own context as an encouragement to treat all people with respect, peace, and functionality.
What does this mean for the rest of the Biblical texts? Do we take everything in context? Do we throw out the texts we don't like and keep the ones we do? Are all the texts meant to be read literally or not?
I think it means this. If we read the Bible as a textbook on how to behave properly, or if we see it as a rulebook for living, then we will always get hung up on the contradictions, the texts that are unpleasant, or the ones that don't make any sense. We will spin our wheels trying to reconcile texts that are unreconcilable.
On the other hand, if we read the Bible as a storybook with myths, fables, history, metaphors, poetry, lyrics, and anecdotes all rolled into one big, beautiful work of literature, then our understanding of the text changes dramatically. We can live with the contradictions because we read through them to the heart of the story. We can sit uncomfortably with the unpleasant texts because we are not expected to imitate them -- we are invited to mourn, detest, or squirm because of them. We can let lie the ones that don't make any sense because making sense of them isn't the point. If we stop turning the main characters into saints and the colorful characters into pure evil, we can see ourselves in all of them. We can look instead to the relationship God has with God's people -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I finally started reading the Bible like this -- that is when I fell in love the Bible for the very first time.
Narrative Lectionary Text: Ephesians 6:5-9
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.