Slavery & Christianity

Paul's Letter to Philemon

John W. Robbins



Excerpt from pg 16…According to the Bible, the only thing that matters is not one's ancestry, race, or heritage, but one's ideas: one's faith. Ideas — not blood, genes, heritage, or ancestry — make the man. As Scripture says, a man is what he thinks (Proverbs 23:7), not what he eats or who his granddaddy was.
But the letter says even more: Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and Timothy, half-Greek and half-Jew, are writing to Gentiles, Greeks and Romans - Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in their house - about a slave: Onesimus. Paul and Timothy are dealing with people of diverse races, back­grounds, and economic status on the basis of their common ideas: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their community is one based on shared propositions, not shared family or national histories. Their fellowship is in the truth (which is only and always prepositional), not in blood. Timothy and Paul address or call each other and all these people "beloved" and "brothers." What makes them beloved brothers is not a common bloodline or ethnicity or nation, but their common faith, their common doctrine, the Gospel of Jesus Christ …

Excerpt from pg 19…Paul addresses Philemon as his "fellow" and this too contributes to his argument. In one sense, Paul is Philemon's superior: Paul is an apostle. In another sense, Paul is Philemon's inferior: Paul is a prisoner. But whether in chains or free, Paul is always Philemon's fellow - and that implies that slaves and free men, not just Paul and Philemon, are fellows.

Paul describes Philemon as a "fellow laborer." The word laborer indicates a humble status - not rich, powerful, promi­nent, or of the master class. Those professed Christians who defend Southern slavery and praise the antebellum South always imagine themselves as masters, never as slaves. But Paul does not imagine himself or Philemon to be other than they are — laborers, not masters, and he tactfully reminds Phi­lemon that he too is a laborer. In the Gentile Roman world, labor was disdained, just as it is in all slaveholding societies, including the American South. In those societies labor is something that animals and slaves do, not gentlemen. But Christianity does not condone this heathen, Gentile attitude toward labor and slavery: God himself worked for six days creating the universe …Gen 2:2-3

Excerpt from pg 26…Paul has not mentioned his apostleship at all. What he has mentioned is that he is a prisoner, that he is a fellow laborer and a fellow soldier, and that he prays for Philemon. None of these seems to give Paul the authority to command Philemon.16 Though Paul's apostleship is not mentioned, both he and Philemon know he is an apostle, and it is that office to which Paul here alludes when he says that he might command what is fitting. That is, Paul is about to urge Philemon to do something - namely, to set Onesimus legally free - that he has the right to command him to do. But he does not do so. Why does Paul not boldly command Philemon to free Onesimus? He will make the answer very plain: He intends to set an example for all, and he also wants Philemon himself to grow in his love and understanding.…

Paul says that he is appealing to Philemon "for love's sake,"

Excerpt from pg 29…It is the law of the Lord Jesus Christ that governs in Philemon's situation, not Caesar's. Philemon's ownership of Onesimus was perfectly legal under the pagan laws of the Roman Empire, but Paul says that it was not morally proper, that is, it was sinful. Implicit in Paul's doctrine is the idea that legality and morality are two different things. … In his letter to Philemon Paul makes it clear that Christians must be governed by Biblical law, not pagan law, when the two differ. So even though slavery was legal in the Roman Empire and acceptable to many people, including Christians such as Philemon, it was not fitting.

Excerpt from pg 31…At the end of his letter, Paul expresses his hope that he will soon regain his freedom. Here he is cleverly planting the idea in Philemon's mind that slavery is not a permanent condition: Paul is now a prisoner, but he was not a prisoner earlier. He was unjustly put in chains. And soon, thanks in part to Philemon's own prayers, Paul will once again be a free man.

If Philemon were to insist on keeping Onesimus a slave, he would be keep­ing Paul's son a slave.…

Excerpt from pg 35 In a loose sense, Paul did comply with Roman law by sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Even more remarkably, Onesimus, by willingly returning to Philemon, was complying in some fashion as well. But their actions do not imply that Ro­man law regarding fugitive slaves was just: It was not. Nor does Paul ever cite Roman law as his reason for sending Onesimus back to Philemon. His reason was entirely different.

The reason the Roman Empire's fugitive slave law was not just is Deuteronomy 23:15-16: "You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him." As a rabbi, Paul must have known this verse and many other verses in the Old Testament con­cerning slavery. That is why he did not turn Onesimus over to the Roman authorities: God's law supercedes Roman law. And when Paul does send Onesimus back to Philemon, he sends him back as a free man. Onesimus returns to Philemon freely and voluntarily, not in chains, not as a slave.

Excerpt from pg 37 With God’s law in mind, Paul commands Philemon to receive Onesimus: “You therefore, receive him." Now why would Paul have to command Philemon - or why would Paul think he has to command Philemon - to receive his own slave back? Would not the slaveowner Philemon have accepted the slave Onesimus without such a command - in fact, even demanded his return? And what is the purpose of the "therefore" in this command? These questions arise because Paul's command is too narrowly understood. Paul's command is not simply that Philemon receive Onesimus, but that he receive him as Paul's "own heart," that is, as Paul himself. From the beginning of this letter Paul has been identifying himself with Onesimus. First, Paul called himself a prisoner; then he called Onesimus his son; and now he calls Onesimus himself: "my own heart." Paul commands Philemon to accept Onesimus as he would accept Paul himself- not as he would accept a runaway slave who, under the laws of the Roman Empire, deserves to be punished for his disobedience. That is why Paul commands Philemon: While Philemon might be eager to get his slave Onesimus back, he would be eager to receive him back as a slave, not as a free man. Paul commands Philemon to ac­cept Onesimus as a free man - as himself. Paul is applying to this specific case the injunction to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Excerpt from pg 39 Paul wants Philemon's consent so that "your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary." Here Paul makes the contrast as stark as possible. On the one hand, compulsion; on the other, consent and voluntarism. The two are opposites, and Paul clearly favors freedom, consent, and voluntarism, and opposes compulsion. That is, Paul opposes slavery .…

Excerpt from pg 40…These words make it clear that Paul already regards Onesimus as a free man, and that all that is necessary now is that Philemon agree, consent, receive him back as if receiving Paul himself, and take whatever legal steps are necessary to accord him full status as a free man under Roman law. Paul is not returning a runaway slave: Onesimus is "no longer a slave."

Excerpt from pg 42 The phrase "no longer as a slave" is the focus of the entire letter. Onesimus is no longer a slave, and Paul urges Philemon to recognize that fact and to formalize it in law. The only sense in which Paul can be understood as urging Philemon to free Onesimus is the purely formal, legal sense. Morally, Onesimus is no longer a slave. Paul is teaching Philemon, the church in his house, and us some of the social implications of Christianity, in which no man is naturally a slave, nothing should be done without consent, compulsion should be used only against criminals, all men are brothers in the flesh, and some men are also brothers in the Lord.…

Excerpt from pg 43 Throughout the letter Paul has been trying to make that he and Philemon are men, brothers, equals – and so is Onesimus.…

Excerpt from pg 47…Paul is not asking Philemon to do anything different from what he has been doing - just doing it in a new way, a way that will end the institution of slavery. Paul had led Philemon to see one of the implications of Christian ethics: the abolition of slavery. If we are to treat others as we would have them treat us, if we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we cannot be slaveowners. The sphere of Christianity will become the sphere of freedom - a shining city on a hill, while the world lies in darkness and tyranny.

Excerpt from pg 48 Paul says that he is writing to Philemon because he has "confidence in his obedience." Onesimus must ask, obedience to what or to whom? To Paul? As we pointed out earlier, all Paul's authority is ministerial, delegated to him by Christ. He has no authority to command anything that is not already com­manded by Christ. That is why he repeats the phrase "in the Lord." Paul is not inventing some new social doctrine regarding slavery; he is making clear to Philemon and his readers what the law of Christ, not the law of Paul, requires. Paul is sure that Philemon will obey that law. So sure is he that he says that he knows that "you will do even more than I say."…

Excerpt from pg 49 Did Philemon do all that Paul said? Scripture does not say, but archaeologists have found an ancient inscription in Laodicea, near Colosse, dedicated by a slave to the master who freed him. The master's name is Marcus Sestius Philemon.


Slavery and Christianity. Paul's Letter to Philemon. John W. Robbins. 2007.
The Trinity Foundation. P.O. Box 68, Unicoi, TN 37692