Philemon, Slavery, and the Gospel

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I have been reading and studying the book of Philemon this week in preparation for teaching Wednesday night at  church.  It is an interesting letter, only containing one chapter of 25 verses.  In it Paul, who is in prison, writes to Philemon informing him that one of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus, who has run way is now with Paul.  Not only that, but Onesimus has become a disciple of Christ.  Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, reminding him that he who was his slave is now his brother in Christ.  The parallel between Onesimus being once a slave and now a brother as we are slaves to sin made brothers in Christ is striking and I will dig a little deeper into that in a later post.  What interests me today is not the things Paul says in this letter but the things he doesn't say.

At first glance, this seems to be the perfect opportunity for Paul to denounce the practice of slavery.  By most accounts, Philemon was intended primarily as a personal letter from Paul to Philemon asking him to receive his runaway slave back.  Why wouldn't Paul use this opportunity to ask Philemon to stop keeping slaves or at least to release Onesimus?  I think that the answer to that question leads us to and resides in the heart of the gospel.

Slavery in ancient Rome was different from the image that immediately springs to most of our minds when the topic of slavery comes up.  The slavery we are familiar with is the result of stealing people from their homes or homelands, imprisoning them, and forcing them into labor.  Theses slaves were treated as less than human.  The bible clearly speaks against this form of slavery.  Exodus 21:16 condemns a man to death if he kidnaps someone to sell him.  In 1 Timothy 1:8-10, Paul includes slave traders in a list including murderers, liars, and adulterers among others.  The practice of willfully taking a person and forcing them into slavery was not unheard of in Rome, but it was not the main source of slaves either.  Many slaves were free people who sold themselves in order to satisfy a debt.  Most slaves arrived in Rome as spoils of war. Slaves in Rome were also treated much better on the whole than the slaves of the pre-Civil War south were.  Many slaves held positions of honor in the homes of their owners, some rising as far as being entrusted with the finances of the household.  Slaves were often trusted to tutor or guide the children of the home as well. (Of course, some slaves did not fare so well, including those who found themselves as entertainment in the Colosseum.) Despite the differences between slavery in ancient Rome and 1800's America, I don't believe this is the reason Paul did not denounce the practice of slavery.

The bible is very clear that in Christ, God makes no distinction between slave or free man in terms of the worth of a person (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).  Yet Paul never teaches, encourages, commands anyone to free slaves nor does he encourage slaves to escape from their masters.  Paul gives instruction to slave masters on how to treat slaves (Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:9) and he instructs slaves to obey their earthly masters (Ephesians 6:5-8, Titus 2:9-10).   The patterns here is that instead of speaking to the institution of slavery, Paul speaks to the participators in the institution.  In his letter to Philemon, again Paul's focus in on the people involved, in this case Philemon and Onesimus, rather than the institution of slavery.  Is Paul skirting the issue of slavery?  Is he condoning it?  What is Paul's reasoning behind his method of addressing this issue?

Paul's concerns in the letters he writes in the New Testament seem to be primarily two fold: first, that the churches and people he writes to believe, teach, and preach the one true gospel and second, that individuals conduct themselves in a manner consistent with a belief in the one true gospel.  Paul knows that the gospel is the only means by which a man or woman can be saved from sin.  This message is more important to him than any other.  This gospel is so important that in his letter to the Galatian church, Paul says that if anyone teaches a false gospel, he is to be accursed(Galatians 1:8-9).  Nothing is more important to Paul than Jesus Christ and His gospel.  Paul is much more concerned with dealing with issues of the heart than he is social or political institutions.  Paul writes to ensure that the gospel is understood by, taught by, and has tranformed the heart of the readers.

A look at the ministry of Jesus reveals the same concerns.  Many of the Jews of the day expected that Jesus, as Messiah, had come to overthrow the oppressive Roman government and re-establish a Jewish kingdom on Earth.  Jesus made it clear that He had no interest in such things (John 18:36).  He even told the Jews to continue paying taxes to the very same oppressive government He was asked to overthrow (Matthew 22:21). His purpose was to do the will of His Father by becoming the perfect substitution for His people on the cross, conquering death by His resurrection, and returning to the Father to mediate on our behalf.  Jesus, like Paul after Him, was much more concerned with the hearts of men than He was their institutions (including their religious institutions at times).

Specifically in Philemon we can see Paul's concern with how the gospel tranforms the heart.  Paul states that he had the apostolic authority to command Philemon concerning Onesimus but that he preferred not to.  Rather, he chose to appeal to Philemon to do what was right concerning his runaway slave (Philemon 8-9).  Paul was convinced that because of the transforming power of the gospel in Philemon's life he would choose what was right (Philemon 21).

The gospel is not about overthrowing evil or immoral institutions but about reconciling individuals back to the God who created them.  Social and political change, if it is to happen, will occur from the inside out and one person at a time.  Our calling is to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18) to a world of people who desperately need the good news of the cross.