At Mass on Wednesday, the reading was St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 6:1-9. It reads in part, “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling.” The words are always jarring. In this letter, and others, Paul seems to condone slavery, and biblical scholars have long debated what Paul actually believed about slavery. We do know this: his letters have been quoted throughout history, including in the pre-Civil War United States, to justify it.
The priest at Mass on Wednesday, a wonderful priest, did what many do after this upsetting reading. He explained that Paul’s words don’t actually mean the Church or Jesus himself condoned slavery. He said that Paul lived in a very “different time,” the Roman Empire, 2,000 years ago. Slavery, tragically, was ubiquitous. And Paul was a product of that ancient world with laws and customs today’s world would reject.
Hearing all this, again, I was left with my perpetual question. In Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy 1, Paul also condemns homosexuality. And those letters, too, have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify treating gay men and woman differently, even to reject them. So how is it that we don’t hear the same “different time” explainers about Paul and gay people? How is it that the Church has found a way to discount and dismiss what Paul said repeatedly about slaves, but not discount and dismiss what he said repeatedly about gays?
I don’t have the answer. I simply ask the question.