From Philemon to Eternity

Our reading for today is the little book of Philemon. This is an intensely private letter written from Paul to Philemon, a member of the church at Colossae. The book concerns Onesimus, a runaway slave that belonged to Philemon whom Paul had met in Rome and converted to Christ. Because Onesimus is Philemon’s property, Paul sends him back to Philemon. But because Onesimus is so dear to Paul and such a help in his ministry, Paul drops not so subtle hints that Philemon should free Onesimus and so that he could return to Rome.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. (Philemon 12-14)

Paul offers to pay any expenses that Philemon has incurred because of Onesimus’ absence… but only after pointing out the huge debt that Philemon already owed Paul (v. 19). Why didn’t Paul just come out and TELL Philemon what to do? He wanted Philemon to do the right thing for the right reason. And he recognizes that given the socioeconomic reality under which both Philemon and Onesimus lived, Philemon had property rights that Paul was unwilling to violate. Philemon had to come to see on his own that the right thing was to free Onesimus.

That raises a much bigger question. Why didn’t Paul just blast the institution of slavery itself? I believe that slavery is evil. Not only that, I believe God thinks it is evil. My problem is that God never said it was evil; in fact, He permits and regulates it in the Old Testament and includes lengthy section on how slaves and their owners are to behave in the church (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1)

  • Slaves were to obey and respect their masters, even if the master wasn’t watching. They were to serve them as if they were serving God.
  • Masters were to treat their slaves fairly and justly, not with threats or violence, recognizing that they had a Master in heaven.

The New Testament never condemns the institution of slavery. It tells slaves to accept their lot, even if mistreated by abusive owners (1 Peter 2:18ff). Even Jesus assumes the institution of slavery (Lk 17:7) and never condemns it as sin!

Churchmen of the 1800’s pointed to these verses as justification of slavery. Even those who did not actively support the practice of slavery taught that the Bible at least affirmed its morality. Alexander Campbell said, “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.” Well, Campbell right… and completely and absolutely wrong! Slavery, both in first century Rome and nineteenth century America, was a reprehensible affront to our Holy God. The whole witness of the Bible speaks out against slavery even though you’ll never find the subject directly addressed.

Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery? There wasn’t anything directly he could do. The Roman economy and social order was based on slavery. If Paul directly condemned slavery, the world would have rejected the gospel. Slavery was a systemic evil; it had to be dealt with systemically. Paul struck at slavery in Galatians 3:28— in Christ, there is neither slave nor free. Yes, he commanded slaves to obey and respect their masters, but he also demanded masters relate to their slaves based upon mutual brotherhood in Christ. That led to slavery’s fall; as Christianity spread, then slavery ceased to exist in Rome!

William Webb in his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, calls this a “redemptive hermeneutic.” In the chart, X is the original culture that the Bible’s words (Y) were meant to inform. First century masters were taught not to treat slaves as property, and this moved them closer to God’s heart (Z). But the Bible didn’t end with the first century; it was written for all times and all cultures. It’s words are redemptive, carrying us beyond that was written to Ephesus and Colossae and Philemon. Everything scripture says about the golden rule, equality and love demands that we go beyond its specific words on slavery. Our world is closer to God’s heart on the subject of slavery; we know that it’s wrong to own people. So the words of scripture continue to speak to us and move us closer to the heart of God in how we treat people. To use Bible’s words as our pattern on slavery would move us further from God. And yet we have much further in order to reach God’s will on full love and unity.

In other words, the whole Bible does for us the same thing Paul did for Philemon. Paul could have demanded Philemon to free Onesimus; he didn't, but he did make demands that would ensure Philemon did free Onesimus.  The Bible could have demanded that all slave owners free their slaves (and throw the entire Roman world into utter chaos). What God did is call slave owners closer to His heart and gave them principles that, when conscientiously applied, would lead to the conclusion that the entire institution of slavery was evil and should be dismantled. And that’s precisely what happened.

Now what is the application we should make to women and their full inclusion into church ministry and leadership? Oh my, would you look at the time!