So, I was reading the book of Philemon the other day and was a little perplexed. What? The book of Philemon? It’s the little one-pager right before Hebrews. Yeah, there it is. You haven’t heard of it? That’s OK. I think the only time most of us hear about it is when we memorize the books of the Bible or do a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year thing. Which is why I was reading the book of Philemon. It came up in my Year-long Bible.
Philemon is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon regarding Onesimus. Apparently, Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon but had run away. Philemon was a Christian who had apparently been won to Christ by Paul. At some point, Onesimus came into contact with Paul and became a believer. Paul seems to have convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon with this letter in which Paul exhorts Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household as a brother in Christ.
I got a lot of the info in the previous paragraph from the Broadman Bible Commentary. Some of it can be easily inferred from Philemon itself, but some of the other information is more obscure. For example, it is generally agreed that Onesimus was a runaway slave, although it is not explicitly stated in the letter. Some people have speculated that Onesimus was an apprentice which would make most of the rest of this post irrelevant, but bear with me anyway.
The part of the letter I have a question about is verses 15-17 “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Here’s my question – why didn’t the Apostle Paul explicitly tell (or ask) Philemon to free Onesimus? It is agreed among Christians today that slavery is completely foreign to the will of God. There is an implied request that Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother, but there is no explicit statement that Philemon shouldn’t OWN another person. It’s so obvious to me that slavery is wrong and I have a hard time seeing that this belief is culturally conditioned. So why doesn’t Paul tell people, “Hey, quit it! You can’t own another person! You need to treat each other with the dignity God has given you.”
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells the Ephesian church that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect – OK, that’s understandable since they can’t do anything about it. But then he goes on to tell masters to treat their slaves well. Hmmmm.
Here are some options and my thoughts:
1. Slavery is no big deal. People can own each other and God is cool with it.
I seriously doubt it!!
2. Slavery is a cultural situation to which we should adapt as Christians (think – women wearing pants in the 20th century).
I’m not comfortable with this explanation. Clothing can be a cultural issue that can change while the primary moral issue – modesty – remains in place. In the situation of slavery, it’s hard to see how there can be any acceptable ethical or moral situation for Christians to own slaves.
3. Baby steps. When an individual comes to Christ, the Holy Spirit doesn’t convict them of every sin all at once.
Talk about overwhelming! In a modern situation, a business person who comes to Christ may be convicted first to deal with anger issues with a spouse before dealing with shady business dealings. The point here is that the Holy Spirit convicts. Perhaps Paul knew that Philemon was not yet ready to deal with the slavery issue. Perhaps, having Onesimus return as a Christian was going to be the impetus for him to deal with it. But, this doesn’t really deal with the fact that nowhere in Scripture does Paul speak against slavery like he does adultery and plenty of other sins. The Apostle Paul certainly wasn’t shy!!
4. Paul was trying to get across concepts that transcend earthly relationships.
This might be a reasonable explanation. In whatever situation, we need to act in a Christ-like fashion. There may have been a very few examples in which freeing a slave was not in anyone’s best interest (I’m thinking of 19th century American in which free blacks were often picked up and sold back into slavery) and treating each other in a Christ-like way is more important. Paul’s statements would also apply to employer/employee relationships as well.
5. Paul may not be terribly concerned about slavery because once we have freedom in Christ, our situation on this earth is paltry compared to what awaits us in Heaven.
I’m not sure what I think about this explanation. I think it makes sense from the perspective of the slave, in that, our soul’s are free no matter what happens to the body. I still have trouble with the idea that a Christian could be a slave owner.
I know that the book of Philemon and verses from Ephesians 6 were used to justify continuing slavery in the United States, even though most slaveholders were nominally Christian. Why isn’t Scripture more explicit on this topic? Do you have any ideas or thoughts?