It may be jarring to the Christian conscience to allow it to sink in that King David practiced all of the social evils listed in the heading above: polygamy, slavery, racial prejudice, and military conquest.¹ Carrying on in these seemingly abusive or destructive ways, at least by modern Western society’s standards, did not not annul the testimony of David that he would be a man after Jehovah’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14). God called Abraham His “friend” after he was long dead (Isaiah 41:8), yet the patriarch accepted and practiced some of the ills on this list, as so many other godly souls did in ancient times.
It may be tempting to believe that Western society has moved beyond these practices in recent decades through what might be called “social evolution”. The Mormon religion practiced and encouraged polygamy in America until it was outlawed over 100 years ago. Slavery has only been eradicated (or at least has gone under cover) from the Western world for a little over 150 years, and institutionalized racial supremacy for a little more than 50 years. Militant imperialism mostly faded away in the West as a result of the Second World War. Progressive humanism takes the credit for improvements in the fabric of society and in the national and international laws that allow men to live free from these threats and abuses, while at the same time accepting many other moral evils that are just as destructive, but more insidious.
However, there is no doubt in the mind of an instructed believer in Jesus that Christianity, not humanism, and not any other religion or belief system, was and is responsible for the change in the way modern civilized societies view these scourges. It is greatly to be regretted that many who organized themselves under the Christian banner, from Constantine and the Roman church, to the Mormon cult, to the Southern Baptist sect, championed or defended one or another of the ideas or ideologies in the list above during various periods of the Christian era. If anyone is in need of a brief refresher course in Christendom’s history, it was Constantine’s “conversion” in 312 A.D. that introduced the idea of employing carnal weapons of war² to conquer under the sign of the cross, purportedly seen by him in a vision. The Roman church continued that ideology through the centuries until it became politically expedient to use less violent means to their ends. Mormon polygamy has already been pointed out. And many in this century have likely forgotten that the raison d’être of the Southern Baptist Convention was the defense of slavery based on a faulty understanding of the scriptures. Of course, the racial prejudice and segregation that were integral to the institution of slavery in the Americas has died a very slow death in some segments of the Christian profession. Oh, the leavening effect of these and so many others of Satan’s devices that has permeated the “great house” of Christendom.³
Why did God allow these ideas and practices among His people of old, even among true saints, before Christ came? This article is too brief to cover this question in detail. In any case, we should be careful not to consider them as moral equivalents of each other across the board. We cannot but believe that polygamy was never in God’s plan for His people, for the practice originated among the early descendants of the rebel Cain, although the Law that Moses received from Jehovah in the establishment of the old covenant did not forbid it. The Law did restrict some of the worst abuses of polygamy (Deuteronomy 17:17 and 21:15) as it regulated the related practice of divorce, both of which were results of the selfish and lustful hearts of men. But perhaps God allowed this perversion to continue under regulation for the ultimate purpose of setting forth in stark relief the surpassing character of Christ’s and Christianity’s teaching on the dignity and worth of the woman. Matthew 19:3-9, I Corinthians 7 and 11:11-12, and I Peter 3:7 are abundantly clear as to the equality of rights enjoyed by male and female in the marriage relationship.
Slavery and servitude was regulated under the Law of Moses as well, but the practice predates the Law by centuries, no doubt. One who was really a “bondman” and not merely a “hired servant” (Leviticus 25:6) had no right to direct his own activities or live according to his own rules while under bondage. However, passages such as Exodus 21 give rules for the fair treatment of slaves, and in Deuteronomy 23:15-16, we find a refreshing provision that further distinguishes Old Testament slavery from the evil depths to which a “Christian” America descended, as epitomized in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in the place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”
Christians are instructed to be even more merciful toward those who serve them, as we find in passages like Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1. There is no thought here of holding a person for service against his or her will. The apostle Paul pleads with the godly Philemon for the elevation of his former slave (bondman) to a position of equality in Christ. So while God allowed slavery to be practiced in former times as an example to the believer that we are not our own to do as we please, but are rather the bondmen of Christ (I Corinthians 7:22), He clearly puts servitude and employment on a much higher and more dignified plane in Christianity.
Racial prejudice was used by Jehovah, in commandments found in the Law, to make a clear distinction between Israel (whom He had chosen for His own pleasure) and the ungodly, idolatrous nations around them (e.g.: Deuteronomy 23:3). Of course, there are many examples of individuals from those nations that believed the living and true God. But that racial distinction that Jehovah made has as one of its purposes to teach believers now that there is a “racial” distinction between those who are born again and have received “justification of life” (Romans 5:18; I John 5:1-4), and those who are still by nature the “children of wrath”. Now under the blessing of the teaching of Christianity, as to the racial differences of ethnic heritage and skin tone, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
As to the use of military power to conquer or subjugate other peoples, or even in defense of a land once conquered thus, there is no pattern nor command in all of the New Testament that indicates this is meant to be the place of a believer in Christ. The Christian’s portion is heavenly, and we “wrestle not against flesh and blood”, but with spiritual weapons against (quite literally) spiritual enemies. God had His purposes in using His saints of old in earthly warfare, both for the judgment of His enemies (the ungodly nations), and to prefigure the heavenly warfare that the Christian ought to be fighting with all courage and faithfulness (Ephesians 6:10-18). The very character and nature of Christianity is contrary to the use of force to obtain or maintain temporal benefits, and scriptural texts to that effect are almost too numerous to list (e.g.: John 18:36; I Thessalonians 5:15; Hebrews 12:14; etc.).
The shining light of Christianity, as taught by the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles, brings with it blessing, peace, and hope wherever and whenever it has been received and practiced in faith. Where it has been perverted or corrupted by the mind of the flesh in man, there has been sorrow and misery. Where that light has been violently extinguished, or where it has not yet reached, it is surely by the sovereign goodness of God’s restraining hand that nations and cultures have not succeeded in destroying themselves.
¹ I Chronicles 14:3; 18:9-13
² See II Corinthians 10:4
³ See Matthew 13:33 and II Timothy 2:20