Theology & Spirituality

Al Mohler, Slavery, and the Bible

If we want to know what the Bible has to say about American chattel slavery, we’ll need to do more than type “slave” into the Bible Gateway search bar. Perhaps that is the lesson we should learn from Al Mohler’s recently surfaced denunciation of runaway slaves on Larry King Live in 1998. In that interview, Mohler contended that Harriet Tubman — and others who ran from slave owners or abetted runaways — disobeyed St. Paul’s declaration in Ephesians that slaves should obey their earthly masters. 

It just so happens that I recently finished teaching an elective course to high schoolers titled “Biblical Slavery in Ancient and American Contexts.” After spending the first two-thirds of the semester examining passages about slavery in the Old and New Testaments, we spent the final months considering how antebellum Southern clergy, slave owners, and slaves interpreted and used those texts. We finished with excerpts from Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South describing how slaves defied slave owners in order to read Scripture and worship God. Would Mohler have had them dutifully obey instead? And does this mean that Christians facing persecution ought also cease worshipping when commanded to do so by governing authorities? 

As a teacher of American history by day — until a few weeks ago, that is — I first noted Mohler’s flawed understanding of emancipation: it was not moral authority but military force that freed the slaves. This basic error of historical fact hints at his broader failure of historical imagination, which failure explains his misreading of Scripture. Biblically faithful answers to such thorny questions require a more historically conscious hermeneutic than Mohler displayed in 1998. Though driven by a genuine desire to be faithful to the Bible, Mohler’s hermeneutical principles simply cannot do justice to Scripture, and while the outcome of such an approach will not always be so disturbing, it will always be insufficient.


Mohler’s comments are now over twenty years old. Much has changed. Two years ago Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) — the institution of which Mohler has long been president — released a report on “Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” That report, the result of a historical investigation which Mohler had initiated a year earlier, was praised for its forthright and unvarnished depiction of the seminary’s history of support for the slave system in the antebellum and Civil War years and defense of white supremacy thereafter. Today Mohler is as likely to be lambasted by conservative critics for being overly sympathetic to Critical Race Theory as he is to be attacked by others for being insufficiently responsive to the Southern Baptist legacy of slavery and racism.

In a recent interview with Jonathan Merrit for Religion News Service, Mohler rejected his 1998 views: “It sounds like an incredibly stupid comment, and it was… I fell into a trap I should have avoided, and I don’t stand by those comments. I repudiate the statements I made.” Merrit’s reporting, however, included assertions by two of Mohler’s acquaintances, each of whom claims to have heard him espouse the same views in the 1990s and 2000s — suggesting that his statement was not an off-the-cuff remark but rather reflected a longstanding opinion. Merrit frames Mohler’s 1998 comments within a broader portrait of his history with the seminary, cumulatively implying that some degree of latent racism lies at the heart of Mohler’s interpretation of St. Paul.

Merrit’s article does not necessarily offer a well-balanced portrait of Mohler. While, late in the piece, Merrit does say that Mohler is not “a cross-burning, hood-wearing reincarnation of Nathan Bedford Forrest” and that he does not hold the same “views on slavery and race” as the seminary founders, he offers not a single quotation supporting or defending Mohler’s nearly three decades at the helm of SBTS, and he downplays aspects of his leadership which might suggest a greater responsiveness to questions around race. A quarter-century ago, the Southern Baptist Convention released a powerful statement admitting and repenting of the SBC’s history of supporting slavery and segregation — and indeed of “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” Merrit mentions the statement in passing but does not say that Mohler, already by then the president of SBTS, was part of the working group that drafted the statement. 

That was three years before the 1998 Larry King Live interview. While Mohler’s participation in that statement’s drafting redounds to his credit, it also suggests that, even if the questioning in that interview was a trap, it was one Mohler ought to have seen coming. And so the question remains — why didn’t he?

In speaking with Merritt, Mohler does not highlight his hermeneutical principles. Rather, he alludes to the enduring influence of his upbringing, saying, “I grew up in the context of the American South during a time when the myth of the lost cause of the Confederacy was part of the background.” Moreover, Jerry Falwell Sr., another guest on that 1998 Larry King Live segment, demurred from Mohler’s interpretation at the time — “I would have started and operated an underground railway to Canada,” he claimed — bolstering the idea that hermeneutics is not to blame. Still, it does not necessarily follow that submerged racism is the sole or even primary influence in that reading. 

More to the point, neither Falwell then nor Mohler now — nor any of the critics of Mohler cited by Merrit — explain how a Christian ought to understand St. Paul’s injunctions to slaves. No rejection of slavery, segregation, and racism — no matter how sincere — automatically fixes a dehistoricized biblical hermeneutic. Without more attentiveness to principles of biblical interpretation, Mohler’s about face on Ephesians 6 eliminates a particularly galling symptom of a fundamentally unresolved error — and does so at the risk of falling into the very inconsistency Mohler clearly feared in 1998. Absent any theological rationale, Mohler’s recent words sound more like a capitulation to “popular culture” and less like what he really needs, which is a fuller, deeper, and more profound biblical fidelity.


In his 1998 comments, Mohler does get some things right. When Sts. Peter and Paul instruct slaves to obey slave owners, they are not justifying the institution of slavery — any more than Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount” endorses persecution. They simply provide guidance within particular circumstances. Jesus’s instructions to the persecuted and the epistolary commands to the enslaved both result from the biblical injunction to love, no matter the circumstances. The obedient slave’s potential moral authority, which Mohler highlights, is an incentive in addition and subsequent to the driving principle of love without exception. 

If Sts. Peter and Paul affirm that the slave’s obligation to love results in a duty to obey, Mohler’s interpretation might seem correct. Like Mohler, my students tended to assume a straightforward application of such texts to American slaves. But this is precisely where they — and he — need a more robust historical consciousness.

In class, we spent some time wrestling through a particularly difficult passage in Deuteronomy 21 about how to treat enslaved women captured in war. It is a hard text, one that seems at a glance to validate the kidnapping of women in warfare — followed by shaving their heads and marrying them, and then tossing them out like so much refuse if “you are not satisfied with her” (v. 13). Frequently passages like this become a bludgeon to criticize the Bible as violent and regressive, while Christians of a more fundamentalist stripe might believe that, in order to defend the Bible, they must defend the justice of that sordid sequence of actions. The fundamentalists and the Bible-haters would likely dismiss alternate readings as weaselly unfaithfulness to a literal interpretation of Scripture.

Yet this superficial reading misses the clear purpose of the passage. The text does not justify the then-universal practice of taking captive women as wives, but it does regulate how it could happen in such a way as to protect women. The head-shaving, which was followed by a mourning period of a month prior to marriage, wards off short-lived lust from a fickle would-be husband. (Some commentators suggest that the head shaving — combined with the paring of nails — acts as a culture-crossing rite of passage, not a protection. Whatever the intent, it would have functioned in practice as a protective measure — nor is there any reason to believe that it could not serve both functions.) Far from justifying the implied dissatisfaction with these women, the language used strongly suggests the deplorable wickedness of such an act. Upon closer examination, this profoundly uncomfortable passage actually stands out as yet another example of the Mosaic Law’s unparalleled regard for the downtrodden — when viewed, that is, within the context of other Ancient Near Eastern law codes.

I did not entirely resolve my students’ discomfort — not to mention my own misgivings. One can certainly protest that the passage does not go far enough. Still, there is no question about it’s fundamental direction. The reason it exists in the Mosaic Law is to protect vulnerable women. If, in pursuit of a supposedly “literal” interpretation, you end up moving in the opposite direction — if you end up suggesting that the passage justifies the exploitation of the vulnerable — then something has gone terribly wrong with your reading.

Granted, bringing regulations about Ancient Near Eastern war practices to bear on the contemporary world is not the same as applying St. Paul’s commands for slaves in Ephesus to slaves in America. Both readings, however, rest upon a wholly inadequate and superficial method of reading Scripture.

Modern American chattel slavery was a profoundly different institution than Roman slavery. We rightly use the word slavery to describe both, because all slave systems across time and culture have core similarities that justify a common descriptor (though the form of slavery described in the Mosaic Law is so drastically different from any other slave system in world history that interpreters are justified in choosing an alternative translation — “bondservice” or the like).

Nevertheless, they are not the same system. Mostly obviously, Roman slavery was in no sense racial — race as such not being an existing category in the ancient world. Further, Roman slaves sometimes held positions of power and respect in the broader community and often could expect emancipation at some point, followed by a life relatively free from the stigma of slavery — one in which they might achieve prominence, wealth, and success. In America, emancipation was a rare event, inevitably leading to a tenuous second-class existence in a society which did not so much promote as simply presume white supremacy. Then again, Romans were more willing to throw away the lives of their slaves in great numbers. As diabolical as the horrors of American slavery were, Americans did not build coliseums to showcase slaves killing one another for sport, nor were slaves eaten by wild animals as entertainment for the masses. Life was remarkably cheap in pagan Rome. The point is not that Roman slavery was better or worse than the American form. The point is simply that it was different.

We cannot therefore blindly apply the Pauline injunctions in Ephesians to Harriet Tubman. They do, however, apply — just as they apply to all of us. The Bible is the Word of God. Every jot and tittle matters. But as we are not members of first-century house churches in Ephesus, all applications of Pauline imperatives operate by analogy — even when applying the advice to other slaves, whether in ancient Rome or in Athens, Georgia. 

As with the passage in Deuteronomy, we must ask ourselves what St. Paul’s pastoral advice then means for us now — or for those slaves then. And this analogical application is rarely as straightforward and simplistic as Mohler’s condemnation of runaway slaves. Such contextualization is not postmodern subjectivism but rather a direct implication of the Incarnation. Our Lord did not come to us abstractly but rather in the flesh, as a Jewish carpenter in the backwaters of the Roman Empire who lived briefly and died young. If we wish to know the truth — or goodness or beauty — we must know it embodied.

Moreover, while St. Paul’s epistles are specific to the particular communities he wrote, the household advice in them is generic. It is a template for living well in Christ, not individualized advice for specific circumstances. Mohler, though, reads the injunction to obey masters as absolute and without exception: “I really don’t see any loophole there… as much as popular culture might otherwise want to see one.” Yet the only instance we have of St. Paul addressing a specific slave owner and slave — Philemon and Onesimus — presents a far more complicated picture than simple submission and obedience. St. Paul does send the runaway Onesimus back to Philemon (which, given Mohler’s hermeneutic, would seem to violate Deuteronomy 23:15-16) but “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16a). The logic of the letter strongly implies emancipation, though St. Paul stops just short of explicitly ordering it on the basis of his (very clearly asserted) Apostolic authority — so that Philemon’s emancipation of Onesimus can be freely done rather than under compulsion. Moreover, the context of the letter suggests that St. Paul waited quite some time to send Onesimus back. Apparently St. Paul found a “loophole” to his own rule.

St. Paul likewise offers no explicit caveat to his command that all “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). The specific commands to slaves are part and parcel of a broader biblical theology, which teaches us that submitting our will to others in love and service — particularly to those with rightful authority over us — prepares us to submit to God. Yet this did not and does not mean that we must always do what others tell us. 

For one thing, there’s the question of legitimate authority. My eldest daughter likes to set herself up as the governing authority over her little sister, but, as my wife and I try to clarify gently, she ain’t. Mohler acknowledges this principle — he implies that if some foreign country conquered the United States, resistance would be justified. (This, incidentally, was a go-to justification for the War for Independence.) Mohler’s 1998 reading of St. Paul, however, apparently leaves him with the impression that slave owners as a category are in fact rightful authorities. This is a bizarre assumption to make, all the more so given that Africans and American freedman were often kidnapped into slavery. (It was more common in both the Ancient Near East and Rome to end up in slavery semi-voluntarily — to resolve an unpayable debt or pay for a crime.) 

Even in cases of unquestioned lawful authority, the Apostolic authors themselves made exceptions to the rule. Most famously, in Acts 4, the “rulers and elders and scribes” arrested Sts. Peter and John “and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’ ” Would Mohler accuse them of denying Scripture, since Romans 13 provides no “loophole”?

The apostles’ defiance of a superficial reading of Romans 13 was in concert with the Old Testament examples of obedience to God rather than man — most famously the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego — as well as the intertestamental Maccabean revolt. Likewise, the New Testament is full of exhortations to persist in following Jesus despite persecution from legal authorities. All of the language about obeying ruling authorities throughout Scripture has at least one caveat, one so obvious to the authors that it was not always explicitly stated: you obey lawful authority, but never in defiance of God.

Raboteau’s Slave Religion also portrays the American slaves’ interaction with biblical texts about freedom. In class, some of my students suggested that these slaves read a promise of physical freedom from the chains of slavery out of passages that are actually speaking about spiritual freedom from the bondage of sin. This is a legitimate concern. From the Revolutionary War on down to today, Americans have tended to apply biblical language about freedom in fairly imprecise ways — as though the “yoke of slavery” in Galatians 5:1 refers to taxation without representation, eminent domain, or municipal orders requiring masks in public.

Nevertheless, the biblical theology we explored as a class militates against overly rigid distinctions between the spiritual and the physical. Undergirding the Old and New Testament teachings on slavery is the claim that God is the rightful Master of all. We obey governing authorities because their authority flows from his. But it is also the case that, precisely because we are the servants of God, all other forms of enslavement are improper — whether to sin or slave owner. When God demands that Pharaoh free his people, he asserts that they cannot be Pharaoh’s slaves since they already are God’s. This enslavement to God is paradoxically true freedom — a servitude that turns out to be adoption, heirship, and inheritance. The spiritual freedom of which the Bible speaks is holistic, and, because we are not souls trapped in bodies but rather body-soul unities, it surely includes release from the chains of literal slavery. 

This does not necessarily mean that American slaves were always and automatically justified in running away or in doing so by any means necessary. They lived — as we live, as all live — under a divine injunction to love, a command that truly is without exception, without fail, and without loophole. Here a robust understanding of love is critical. Allowing a manipulator to manipulate, an abuser to abuse, or an oppressor to oppress is not loving — not to the victim, not to the community in which the abuse occurs, and not to the abuser himself. If you find that loving your neighbor seems to be interfering with your pursuit of justice — or vice versa — then you have misunderstood one or the other or both.

At the same time, we must recognize that the biblical picture of justice and flourishing does not always match up with our inclinations. We must take care not to remake the Bible in our own image, softening and domesticating it so that it is no longer a threat to our preferred ways of being and acting. If the Al Mohlers of the world sometimes end up with interpretations of passages that appear to be faithful to the letter while wildly contradicting the intent, we must also acknowledge that others end up pushing the Bible entirely to the side in favor of a foreign cultural agenda.

Contrary to popular perception, the Church fathers who eventually formulated just war theory — St. Augustine foremost among them — did so not by carving out exemptions in which the demand to love could be suspended. Rather, they taught that, even if we must kill, we can only do so as an act of love. This is not as impossible as one might assume, though surely quite a bit rarer in practice than the invocations of just war might suggest. This theological development occurred in light of a new, post-Constantinian reality, but it was not a capitulation to “popular culture.” Rather, it was a reconsideration of the demands of love in a new context. And if it is possible for there to be circumstances in which killing can be an act of love, surely it is easy to recognize that the demands of love might compel a slave to flee from her enslavers.

In his cover letter to the 2018 SBTS Report, Mohler acknowledged, 

“We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story [of the seminary]. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.” 

Perhaps this new and deeper “historical curiosity” about the seminary’s historical context will likewise produce a deeper historical consciousness in reading the texts of Scripture. Without such a development, Mohler’s recent statements evince hermeneutical inconsistency rather than increased attentiveness to the embodied nature of Holy Scripture. 

Reading the Bible faithfully is not always easy, and we should rid ourselves of any notions to the contrary. As with so many other errors, humility would go a long way in resolving mistakes like Mohler’s — more humility about our personal capabilities as interpreters of God’s Word, and more humility in our judgment of others. Mohler’s lack of historical consciousness not only undermined his ability to read Scripture well. It also led him to apply that misreading to the lives of slaves with an astonishing degree of presumption. An indifference to context, a hubristic dismissal of the precise details of a given life — these do not make for faithfulness to the Word of God and the Word made flesh.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar ( He taught for nine years at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Guest Author

Guest Author

Conciliar Post welcomes Christians from around the world to post articles as Guest Authors.

Previous post

"Critical Race Theory" and Its Dissidents

Next post

Podcasts in Review, Two