Philemon and Slavery

You often hear people in our culture reference the Bible’s alleged endorsement of slavery, and it seems like they usually have in mind Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 4:1. Usually the point is to somehow undermine the Bible’s authority or show it is out-dated. There are lots of responses that I think can convincingly answer claims along these lines – for example, slavery in the New Testament world was more like indentured servanthood than what we in the modern West usually think of as slavery (a race-based institution in which the slave is considered property and has no legal rights). That kind of slavery was always condemned in Scripture (Exodus 21:16). But in addition to defensive arguments like this one, I think we have a responsibility to go on the offensive and show that the Bible is not only not pro-slavery, but is actually anti-slavery, because the gospel creates a new humanity centered around reconciliation to God in which all forms of oppression and injustice are overturned and replaced with relationships of love and equality.

As I was reading through the book of Philemon recently on one of those annual Bible reading plans (I’m way behind), I was struck by the relevance of this book to this issue, and I wonder if its contributions to the discussion are sometimes under-valued. Colossians and Ephesians are ad hoc letters written to churches, and Paul’s concern in these passages is with the ethical implications of the gospel among the current relationships and structures and lifestyles in which his listeners are living. Its difficult to draw conclusions about Paul’s actual view of structural evil from these exhortations – it would be like trying to discern a pastor’s political convictions on the basis of the fact that he exhorts his listeners to vote in an upcoming election. But in the epistle to Philemon Paul is writing to a slave owner about his runaway slave, and in that unique scenario I think we get a clearer picture of how the gospel indirectly subverts institutional slavery by radically transforming relationships within the body of Christ.

Paul is concerned for Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (16), and even exhorts him to “receive him as you would receive me” (17). In his day this is shockingly progressive – Paul wants the slave-master relationship between Philemon and Onesimus to be dissolved, and a new one to be erected in its place: a brother-brother relationship, in which the former slave is treated as the apostle himself would be treated. Amazing. And why? Because Onesimus has become a Christian. He has experienced reconciliation with God. And that God-reconciliation is so profound, so radical, so amazing, that it cannot help but pull human-reconciliation into its orbit. The relationship simply cannot stay the same, for both members are now united in Christ. No wonder Paul can say elsewhere that in Christ “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

I’m reading John Piper’s Bloodlines right now, and though this statement is about racism, not slavery per se, I think it captures the same wonderful truth that the gospel transforms all of our relationships:

“That I am chosen for salvation in spite of all my ugly and deadening sinfulness, that the infinitely precious Son of God secured my eternal life through his own infinite suffering, that my rebellious and resistant heart was conquered by sovereign grace, and that I am kept by the power of God forever – if these truths do not make me a humble servant of racial diversity and harmony, then I have not seen them or loved them as I ought” (130).

What relationships in our lives do we not allow the gospel to transform? What would it look like to experience more of the reality of Colossians 3:11 in our churches? These are things I’m continuing to think about.

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