Last month the President of Bob Jones University publicly apologized for his school's racism. The President spoke on behalf of all of American Christianity and the problems that Christians, particularly in the south, had with slavery and racism. There are some who feel that any discussion of American Christianity's sins regarding race should never be discussed, much less used as a teaching tool for the present. I am of a different opinion, however, and so it seems is the President of Bob Jones. A discussion of our past sins is important for the integrity of our future. Bob Jones was absolutely correct in offering a public apology. However, though I commend the President for his apology, there was an interesting statement he made about the reason his university was racist:
(L)ike any human institution, we have failures as well. For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos (i.e. American culture) than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures.
Did you catch that? American Christianity's view on "race," including two centuries of southern slavery, was because American Christianity followed culture rather than Scripture.
Christians in America, particulary conservative Baptists in the South during the 19th Century followed their interpretations of Scripture regarding slavery. Southern Christians, including Southern Baptists, promoted slavery because of their interpretation of Scripture, not the "ethos" of culture.
Let me illustrate. One of the passages that addresses slavery is found in Genesis.
"Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem.'" (Genesis 9:25-27).
Baptists, Presbyterians and other southern evangelicals in the 19th Century took passages like the above and taught that the Bible not only condoned slavery, but advocated it as a proper and just institution. For example:
"The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." Rev. Richard Furman, D.D., a Southern Baptist pastor from South Carolina.
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis. (Dunbar, Rowland, "Jefferson Davis" Vol. 1, page 286).
Now, fast forward a couple of centuries and we have conservative, evangelical Christian Bob Jones University apologizing for their racism - but the fault lies with the "ethos" of culture, not their faulty interpretations of Scripture.
A Modern Application
Some modern evangelicals, including we Southern Baptists, would do well to remember history. There is nothing wrong with interpreting the Bible and coming to conclusions about what you believe. In fact, every Christian should study the Word and hold fast to that which we believe the Bible teaches, always being willing to elucidate for others our beliefs when asked.
But other than the diety of Christ, salvation by God's grace through faith in Christ, and the foundational Christian doctrines it would be wise for all of us to have a little humility about our "interpretations" of God's Word.
Any Christian who acts mean-spirited toward those who disagree, or tries to bully other Christians to believe a certain way through intimidation, would do well to remember Christian history and the number of times we have wrongly interpreting the infallible Word of God. Advocates of closed/open communion, or a particlar ecclesiology, or those who are pro/con women in ministry, or promoters of cessationism or continuationism, etc . . . should always LISTEN to others, COOPERATE with those evangelicals who disagree, and REALIZE that one day we may end up apologizing for our previous understanding of what the Bible teaches.
If you don't see yourself as possibly being wrong in your interpretations, you are precisely the kind of Southern Baptist that would have kept slaves and justified it by claiming God's "infallible, inerrant" Word condones it - without ever questioning that your interpretation could be wrong.
A little humility and a great deal of love should characterize all of us Christians when it comes to our interpreting the infallible Word of God.
And when we discover a mistake, we ought not blame it on "culture."
In His Grace,