Philemon 8-16 – Is the Bible Pro-slavery?
I Everyone my name is Josh Pollard and I am the Adult Ministries Pastor here at Renovation Church.
Do you ever accidentally get mail in your mailbox that is for someone else and for a moment you want to take a peek and see what’s in there? Well, normally it’s a crime so, don’t.
But today we get to read someone else’s mail and it’s totally ok. Because we are in the second week of our study of the book of Philemon, which is a short letter from the apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. And it is every bit as dramatic and finding out your neighbor has a subscription to mayonnaise magazine or whatever is in their mail.
The book of Philemon is only one chapter long, so today we’ll be focusing in on verses 8-16, where we will get into Paul’s reason for writing the letter.
Go ahead and grab your Bibles. Philemon is near the end of the Bible just before the book of Hebrews. And if you are using one of the Bibles under the chairs then we’ll be on Page 816. Find the little number 8.
While you are finding that remember that Philemon is a much-loved church leader that was led to Christ by the apostle Paul.
Last Week, we read how Paul has just built Philemon up by calling Philemon a man of deep love and faith, an encourager and a refresher of hearts. And now Paul has a request. Let’s start reading at verse 8:
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Alright so we are now introduced to a man named Onesimus who was a runaway slave that belonged to Philemon. He has somehow been connected with Paul while he is in prison and Paul has led him to Christ which is what Paul is referring to in verse 10 when he says he became his son – he means Spiritual son. And now Paul is sending him back to Philemon and he wants Philemon to accept him back, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. And then to possibly send him back to Paul to help Paul.
How Slavery in the NT has been addressed historically
At first reading, this text seems like a great tale of redemption and restoration. Two people, at first in contention with each other, then made brothers through the work of the Gospel. Sounds like the makings of a feel-good movie.
However, If we only look at what Paul said then we can conclude that his reasoning for freeing Onesimus was that he was now a Christian brother. And as I studied this passage this week, the one question I could not get out of my mind was “why wasn’t Paul’s reasoning for setting Onesimus free, just because slavery itself was wrong?” This book, along with some other parts of scripture have quite a difficult history of interpretation and application.
Historically, this issue has been addresses in two ways.
The first was to use this text to justify slavery. For example, during the American slave trade White Christians in the American South would often point to Philemon as a good Christian Slave owner. They would uses passages like Eph 6 that says:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
They would say see, having slaves is ok, the bible says you just have to treat them nice. They would say if slavery was wrong then Paul or Jesus would have just said it outright, but he didn’t, so it’s just fine.
I would surely trust that we all bristle at such an interpretation, but it might be easy to see how some critics say that the Bible endorses slavery. In fact, I just read a news article this week that a man in Florida is trying to get the Bible to be official banned in public school and one of his reasons was that it was pro-slavery, siting the passage in Ephesians that I just read.
The second, and more common way in our day of addressing this issue is to not justify slavery in general but to point out the differences between American Slavery and Roman Slavery, in an effort to justify Philemon’s slaves without justifying America slavery.
They often say it wasn’t like the dehumanizing chattel slavery of the Atlantic slave trade, it was more like indentured servitude, which was a system where people in deep debt would essentially sell themselves in an attempt to work off their debt. I find that conclusion not very comforting because it seems to say the Bible might not endorse enslaving people based on race but it is ok enslaving them because they are poor.
They will also point out that in Roman slavery, a slave had certain legal protections that slaves in America didn’t. They say the same about slaves in the Old Testament, sighting Old Testament laws that say how slaves should be treated and even set free every seventh year. But again, the conclusions says the Bible Teaches that having slaves is ok, (for up to 6 years) if you are nice.
They also leave out the fact that we don’t know how Onesimus became a slave, and selling oneself into indentured servitude was a way but not the main way into slavery in the Roman world. The more common way was that you were born in to slavery by a slave parent that was a captive of war and the master could just sell you off as a baby if the wanted and break up the family.
They’ll point out that Roman slaves could have a variety of jobs, they could be manual labor, sure, but they could also be teachers, philosophers, or even doctors, but they forget that it was completely at their owner’s discretion as to weather they were a doctor, or a maid, or a concubine, or an object of physical pleasure. It was up to the owner if they were well fed, or beaten, and starved. As a runaway slave, Onesimus would have now been a fugitive and would probably face a serious physical consequence if he was caught by a slave hunter and returned for the bounty. In fact, Onesimus was a common slave name, mockingly given by Roman masters, because it means “Useful”. Hey Useful, go take care of the sheep. Paul plays on that fact later in the letter.
So was Roman Slavery and American Slavery different? Technically there were differences, but it was slavery. We need to stop pretending that indentured servitude was a good thing – like an unpaid college internship where you’re just biding your time until you can pay off those student loans.
Why Didn’t Paul or Jesus just say No More Slaves?
Then you get the interpretations that say ok well Roman slavery wasn’t great but Paul or Jesus couldn’t just set all of the slaves free because it basically just wouldn’t work. It would either a) cause a slave rebellion and get them all killed, or b) get all the poverty-stricken slaves out on the streets and they would basically die from starvation and exposure. If that’s the case, it seems like quite an uncharacteristic hesitation for guys like Paul, who is constantly causing riots wherever he is preaching, or Jesus who calls his followers to take up their crosses and follow him.
I’ve also heard it said that they didn’t say no more slaves because they didn’t come to change Roman law, and Roman Law allowed for Slavery, in fact it expressly forbid freeing any slaves until they were at least 30 years old. So instead of saying no more slave, they just said, just be nice to your slaves for now until the Roman’s decide to change their laws.
So what do I do?
And so, as a man whose deepest desire is to mold my life around God’s word, I am left perplexed about what to do about Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Philemon, the good Christian Slave master. Are those other interpretations valid? Is the Bible Pro-slavery? Are the people that are looking at a bible with critical eyes right for accusing it of being morally questionable at best and a tool for oppression at worst?
Is my immediate and adverse reaction to slavery an aspect of Christ in me? Or just an aspect of modern morality that I assume the Bible agrees with?
Well I think to answer to my concern we must do something very important and that is to come at scripture with a blank slate. Let the text just say what it is saying and form your life to that. Trust God’s conclusion more then your starting place no matter what it is.
So let’s do just that.
Verse 8 starts with “Therefore” What that shows us is that The request that Paul is going to make is based upon the description he has just given about Philemon’s Character. If Philemon was not a Christ loving man, if he did not have a deep faith and love for God’s people then the following request would not be effective. He’s saying “Philemon, since you are a Christ loving man, you will understand what I am about to do.”
And the sentence that follows, I believe, is the crux of the entire book. If you miss this, you miss everything. Don’t read this part too fast or you will miss what Paul is doing with the rest of the letter – not just what he’s saying, but what he’s doing. He says “Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do…”
In other words, he would have the full authority of Christ, as Philemon’s spiritual father and as an apostle to just order Philemon to set Onesimus free and to send him back to Paul to help in his ministry. He Could do that, and He’d be totally justified and correct if the entire letter just read “Dear Philemon, In the name of Christ you are going to set Onesimus free and he’s going to help me. Sincerely, Paul.” He’s saying the Right thing to do, What Philemon Ought to do, is to set him free, and Paul can completely and validly demand it in Christ’s name. He could Order it. The authority is there.
Tell me, what type of person gives orders to people? Do you see here that Paul is using the language of a slave owner? Normally it would be Philemon ordering Onesimus, but here it is Paul who has the ability to give the order. He’s saying “Philemon, you may have authority over your slaves and your higher worldly authority empowers your authority over your slaves, but I too have authority. And my authority is over you, and my authority over you is empowered by God. Watch as I show you how to wield authority as a Christ lover”
And He goes on in verse 9 and says “Yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of Love.”
Love is preferable to giving orders, even when in positions of authority. You can see it in Paul’s behavior. He’s behaving Christlike in this entire letter, effectively not just asking Philemon to set Onesimus free, but showing Philemon how Christian authority really looks. “could order, but I don’t”. He is Modeling behavior. Paul has continuously humbled himself in this letter. He calls himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus twice, in v.1 and 9, He points out being in chains in v. 10, He calls himself an old man. In v.14 he refuses to keep Onesimus without Philemon’s consent. This continues throughout the whole letter. But on the other hand, be continually builds up and honors Philemon throughout the entire letter.
In Philippians 2:5-7 Paul writes
“5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
The Greek word here in Philippians 2 uses to call Christ a servant is Doulou. The Greek word in Philemon v.16 that calls Onesimus a slave is Doulou.
So Paul, who though he does have valid spiritual authority over Philemon in Christ, is not considering that authority in Christ as something to be used to his own advantage, but rather makes himself an old prisoner of the Christ Jesus in chains – taking on the vary nature of Onesimus a slave, whom he calls his very heart.
If we look at Paul’s words, we might only see one relationship changed by the Gospel from Slave & Master to brothers. But if we look at Paul embodying Christ’s approach to authority, we see a shift in how we relate to all people. A total undermining of the very concept of slavery. And not just because they are brothers but because they are fellow men. In v. 16 he calls him a very dear fellow man. So it’s not just for Christians. This is how we relate to everyone – on a basis of love – Christ says even to love not just your brother but even your enemy.
What I see here in this passage is a masterful teaching of Christian authority. Is authority bad? NO! Christ has authority, Paul has authority. How you use it is what is in laser focus in the Book of Philemon. Paul, in effect, say, “look at me Philemon, don’t just do as I say, but do as I do.” In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul tells another church “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” This is what he’s portraying for Philemon in this letter. He’s not just speaking, he’s modeling behavior.
Christ is our model for life. Paul is imitating Christ, and He’s calling Philemon to imitate him as well.
Make your life shaped like Christ’s life. Do not relate to people with authoritative coercion, relate to them with appeals of love from a place of humility. As Christ did – as I, Paul, am doing now.
This is what our Master did for us. Could not God have forced himself upon us? Does he not have the rightful authority and power to make us worship him and do his bidding? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, he does, yes, he Could. But instead, he appeals to us on the basis of love so that our worship is not forced, but voluntary.
And since the Bible’s calling on our life is to be formed into the likeness of Christ, I must conclude that the Bible is an emphatically anti-slavery book.
But, you might ask, if that’s the case then why did Philemon, a church leader converted by Paul himself, not already know this? To that I would say that Christianity is a journey, and even Leaders have room to grow, and good ones, like Philemon embrace it, and share it. And Slavery was a norm in that society, so the concept was not obvious as it seems to us today, it was revolutionary. So, we should not expect it to be in lesson one for him. For them it might have been a meatier lesson that required some spiritual maturity to understand.
The Book of Philemon is not just an obscure personal letter. It is the cutting edge of the gospel in action. I think Philemon understood that. If this had been simply a letter with a simple request, Philemon could have said ok, fine I’ll set him free and send him back, and then he would have thrown away the letter. But that is not what happened is it. If that happened, the letter wouldn’t be in your hand today. Instead, Paul addressed it back in V.2, to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the Church. Paul meant this as a church teaching. Not just a personal request. I believe this letter survived because the church understood the deep Gospel teaching that Paul was giving in that letter and so they passed it on. Instead of just, “ok I’ll give you to Paul”, Philemon’s response was “make copies of this letter and send it to the churches in Philippi and Corinth, and Thessalonica and Jerusalem. I think they all understood the theological importance of it as well because they kept spreading it and saving it , it went viral, until it was included in the New Testament with other works like Romans and Hebrew, Revelation, and Luke. This was no ordinary letter.
Now, someone might hear that and think, well, if Christians knew slavery was un-Christ like way back in the 1st century, why did it take 1800 years for slavery to be widely condemned?” and for that I will borrow a note from our Reformed Brothers and Sisters. A traditional slogan from the reformation is “reformed and always reforming.” It took until the protestant reformation in 1517 to pull the church back to the scripture as its main authority. There have been many long periods in church history where the church in large part strays from scripture and it must be every generation’s duty to have our heart reformed by scripture. Otherwise, it will be formed by the world. We can look at those long dark chapters of church history where the scriptures, if there were read at all, were twisted to be a tool of personal advantage and even oppression, and simply call them what they were. Bad biblical interpretation. Bad theology, bad discipleship. Bad theology doesn’t become correct theology just because it’s been around for a long time. The people or even generations that suggest that the Bible, when taken as a whole, endorses slavery, were just wrong.
Now it is my hope that I didn’t have to convince anyone here of the wrongs of Slavery – That wasn’t my goal. But all of you are in relationships and I hope the Book of Philemon has shown us how we as Christ’s followers are to approach every relationship we have – on a basis of love, not as something to use to your own advantage. And maybe some of you have had your reservation about Christianity because of some terrible things that you’ve heard done in church history, or because of some of the things you’ve heard the Bible teaches and the wounds that it has created. Well, as someone once said, “The best therapy is good theology.” So, when you because a Christian know that you are not putting your faith in Church history or your faith in Christians. when you become a Christian, you put your faith in Christ. You trust that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins. While we were still his enemies, and he could have rightly crushed us or commanded us, instead he took our place and died for us, and now he appeals to us, on the basis of His love, to turn our lives over into his hands, where they rightfully belong.
And if you want to do that today, and become his follower then we want to give you an opportunity to begin that journey today.
And to give everyone a moment of Privacy with God I’m going to ask that everyone bow your head, close your eyes and pray for those around us. And if you want to become a follower of Christ today, then raise your hand.
[If someone raised their hand]
For those of you that raised your hand, we want to pray with you. We want to go to our Father with you.
So let’s all pray this prayer together. It’s not magic but it’s a good starting place for a young faith and a good reminder for an old faith because this is what we all believe.
Repeat after me
1. Dear God
a. I confess to you, that I have sinned against you.
b. But God I believe, that you sent your Son Jesus, to take my place
c. And God, I thank you, for forgiving my sins.
d. And now I commit, to following you, with my life.
Now while everyone is still praying and thanking God for this amazing miracle, for those of you that rose your hand, you’ve just made the most important decision of your life, so we want to give you some more information about what comes next. So, in a second here I’m going to pray and we’re going to move into a final song, and I want you to head out into the lobby where it’s a bit quieter and Our follow up team and I will get you some more information. You won’t walk out alone, there will be others that walk out with you, and our follow up team as well.
The rest of us, let’s praise God during this last song for nothing other than who He is.
Alright, I’m going to pray so you can head on out.
[If no one raises their hand]
Then let me join you all in prayer.
Copyright: Josh Pollard
Renovation Church in Blaine, MN
You may use this material all you like! We only ask that you do not charge a fee and that you quote the source and not say it is your own.
MAY 15, 2022