I've been reading a book on the theology and life of Jonathan Edwards (major evangelical theologian, pastor and leader of revival in 18th century N America), and was very disappointed to learn that while he condemned the slave trade, he also owned slaves. Edwards has been something of a theological mentor for me, so I felt pretty sad that he was so inconsistent and, to be honest, ungodly at that point. The surprising thing about this is that Edwards was, otherwise, so distinctive, holy and willing to challenge the culture of his day. But, he was also a man of his time and, though unworldly in so may ways, he was very worldly at that point (interestingly, his son was an abolitionist). What does one do with that?
1. Realize that we are all over-contextualized at some points to our culture. Normally, it is precisely at those points where we are least aware! Even the most godly and distinctive amongst us will have real, glaring sin (even if its less obvious than Edward's owning slaves). Everyone needs the cross - and desperately so.
2. We desperately need good, well-thought out social ethics. So much of our preaching and Christian living is focused on the individual, but holiness must also involve living out the social consequences of the gospel. We must work out what the gospel means for "us" and not just "me": our church, our culture, our society.
3. Edward's inconsistency (denunication of the slave trade and yet owning slaves) cannot help but echo some of the issues of global justice today. So, we denounce slave labour but wear clothes and use products made in sweat shops. We find ourselves caught in a conflict between our values, the complexity of the world and our immediate desires. We need to pray for grace that we might know the Lord's will in this situation.
4. Working out the consequences of the gospel takes time in a fallen world. This is not an excuse, but it seems that understanding how to live for Christ is not always immediately apparent or obvious at every point. Each age and culture has its particular sins and complexities which need several generations to work through.
May God be merciful to our generation and give us wisdom to live rightly!