Monday, December 01, 2003


Philemon glared angrily at the young man standing before and snatched the letter from his hand. Opening the letter he read:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, 

To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)

What a strange day this was turning out to be. The young man before him was named Onesimus, who had been a slave in Philemon's household. He had runaway some time ago, and now had returned carrying this letter from Paul.

The letter was short, but it would cause Philemon to search his soul. It would bring him to hard choices.


Most human civilizations have or have had a practice of enslaving others. Slaves could be defeated enemies. Slaves could be debtors unable to pay what they owe. Slaves could be born as slaves. That the practice is common has never made it right. That it persists in its various forms reveals much about the hearts of men and women.

Slavery requires strong cultural support. Men and women will rarely choose to be slaves. People are slaves only when it is not in their power to be free. A society that sanctions slavery must sanction penalties that induce fear in slaves. The slave owner must have the right to use physical force against his slaves, for they must fear him to remain slaves. The slave owner must also have to right to maim or kill a slave who runs away or revolts, because that is a slave's ultimate crime. 

Onesimus, Philemon's slave had run away. There is evidence that he had stolen from his master when he left. For this, Onesimus before Philemon was in very bad trouble. He should not have returned, but he had--carrying a letter from Paul.

Slavery Practiced by Christians

There were Christians in England and the United States of America who bought and owned slaves. From several New Testament references, one must conclude that early Christians also bought and owned slaves. The sad fact is that those who have owned slaves have used the Bible to justify the practice. They confused regulation with approval.

The Bible has done the same for other practices. The most obvious is the regulation of marriage:

  • Polygamy -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of having multiple wives by limiting the pool of women from which you could consider marrying (Leviticus 18). It required a man to marry his brother's wife (Deuteronomy 25:5). 
  • Divorce -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:3)

And yet in the New Testament, Jesus established the ideal of one man and one woman united as husband and wife:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So just because the Law regulated polygamy and divorce does not place God's seal of approval on the practice. The same is true with the practice of slavery. In Jesus' day, the Jews no longer practiced polygamy and servants were accorded higher status than hired hands. But slavery persisted and so even the New Testament regulated it. For example, Colossians 4:1 reads, "Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven." (Colossians 4:1)

Side Note: It is interesting to see the Biblical wisdom behind regulating what might be impossible to stop. As Jesus said, "Because of the hardness of heart." Because of our hard hearts, there will be cultural institutions that the Lord tolerates and regulates, because they are impossible to eradicate given our sinful leanings. As Christians, we can apply this principle in democratic governance. How much more effective might our efforts to enact pro-life legislation improve if we could tolerate a less than perfect solution. So much of our efforts have been all or nothing. By seeking abolition instead of regulation, many more unborn children have died. This is not to say that abolition should cease to be the goal. It rather suggests that when society is not ready for abolition, regulation is a biblical alternative. 

Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul

In his letter, Paul will ask Philemon to free his former slave. In doing so, Paul is striking into a cultural situation. Philemon must not only overcome his own attitude towards this thieving run away slave, but he must also face the disapproval of his slave owning friends. By being lenient, he weakens the system.

That Paul succeeded is evident from the fact that we have the letter to this day. It made its point and the impact rippled through the church, and the church made the letter its own.

Tuesday: Philemon -- No Wasted Words


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