Slavery. What an incredibly inhumane concept. What kind of pride does it take to believe that you can own another human being? Of all the awful sins of humanity, this should rank near the top of the list.
The Bible, however, with all of its condemnation of sin and prohibition of inhumane activities, seems to say little against the practice of slavery. Actually, I am no longer convinced that that is true. Especially after studying Philemon, I am now persuaded that the Bible says plenty to condemn slavery, just not in ways we expect.
Paul writes to Philemon, the Christian slave-owner:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
“Maybe,” Paul says, “God is using Onesimus’ crimes to carry out His will: that is, to bring Onesimus freedom.”
Now, Paul has already made it clear in the letter that he is not going to command Philemon to do the right thing. He will plead, appeal, convince, and persuade, but not command. So, Paul’s recommendation about what to do with Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who became a Christian, does not come in the form of a , “Thus saith the Lord,” but, rather, in the form of an encouraging commentary on the providence of God. “Maybe,” Paul says, “God is using Onesimus’ crimes to carry out His will: that is, to bring Onesimus freedom.”
But, although this is an appeal rather than a command, I know of no more direct instruction regarding slavery in the Bible. Paul is saying to Philemon, when we strip away the “flowery” language, “God wants you to not only accept your runaway slave back, but to welcome him and treat him like a brother.” No doubt that would include granting the slave his freedom–spiritually, emotionally, physically, and legally (the contrary views of nearly every major commentator notwithstanding). When Paul says, “no longer as a slave,” he means just that.
When Paul says, “no longer as a slave,” he means just that.
This may be one of the clearest condemnations of slavery, but it is by no means the only one. In Colossians 4:1, the sister-letter to Philemon, Paul tells Christian slave-owners to treat their slaves “justly and fairly,” being mindful of how their “Master in heaven” has treated them. Their “Master” (in Greek, Lord) certainly treated them “justly” when He gave them freedom through His death on the cross.
In 1Corinthians 7:22-23, Paul reveals the inherent problem with Christians being slaves: they are actually slaves of Christ, and must split their devotion if they are slaves of men. So, Paul says, “Do not become slaves of men,” clearly indicating that (for Christians at least) slavery is not approved by God. What would this mean, if thoughtfully considered, for a Christian who owned a Christian slave?
Even under the Law of Moses, the Israelites were told that they were not to become slaves or to make their fellow-Hebrews slaves.
Even under the Law of Moses, the Israelites were told that they were not to become slaves or to make their fellow-Hebrews slaves (Leviticus 25:39-46). And, if a Hebrew did become a slave (or hired servant, as it were) of another Hebrew, God established provisions for them to be unconditionally released, either the seventh year after becoming slaves (with the owner giving them money to help them get on their feet) (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12-15), or in the Year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year) (Leviticus 25:8f).
Examples of discussions of slavery as well as Biblical principles (such as equality and justice) that speak to this issue could be multiplied. Yet, Christians went on for thousands of years owning human beings. In fact, they often used the Bible to try to support the practice of slavery.
That leads us to something of a dilemma. In the letter to Philemon, why didn’t Paul just tell Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom? Of course he did, in a persuasive-argument sort of way, but why not clearly and unequivocally say, “Philemon, slavery is wrong, so as a Christian you need to set Onesimus free.” And, in the context of the New Testament, why don’t we have an inspired writer telling all Christian slave-owners that the practice of owning slaves is wrong, and that they should all release their slaves?
(To be continued…)