Slavery in the New Testament (Philemon)

13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

This little letter is from the Paul to Philemon (a slave owner) on behalf of Onesimus (a slave owned by said owner) whereby the Apostle practically lives out the New Testament teaching on slavery. When we hear the word “slave” we think of the kind of slavery in the Western World from about 200 years ago. The kind of slavery that was present in Biblical times (and for most of the world for most of history) is generally a bit different. Nevertheless, there are parallels. The New Testament teaching on slavery really depends greatly on who’s receiving it. For slaves, the Bible says “do your best to work hard for your master as though they are Jesus, that’s how best to make the gospel look good.” The teaching for slave owners is “treat your slaves well and don’t be harsh with them, that’s how best to make the gospel look good… and if they’re Christians, treat them as a brother, not a slave.” So, here is Paul. One would think, from our context “surely the Bible condemns slavery!” But it doesn’t. But neither does it endorse slavery. Paul’s actions give us a practical example of how we live… an individual’s status is not the primary concern of the Christian life, it’s all about the advancement of the gospel. “But wait, slavery is evil and there’s nothing more important than stomping out slavery/racism/bigotry!” Right? Well, at least according to the Bible, there is something more important, as evil as those things may be, and that’s telling people about Jesus. In other words, if a Christian is more concerned about “social justice” than getting out the message of Jesus, they’re not lining up with the Bible too well. So, Paul doesn’t say slavery is an abomination, or that there should be laws against it, and he doesn’t feel compelled to hide Onesimus because slavery is unjust and thus he had an obligation to fight it. In fact, Paul sends the slave back to his owner and reasons with Philemon to do what’s right on the basis of the gospel. Of course Paul is opposing slavery, but he does so in a way that shows there is something more important than our “pet projects,” the gospel. No, social justice isn’t the gospel, telling people of the death, burial, resurrection etc. of Jesus, that’s the gospel. If we can effect positive change in other areas, that’s wonderful, and we should, but not at the expense of every single Christian telling people about Jesus. That’s hard to understand, even harder to do, yet we should.

About John Harris

χian, Jesus saves. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, Pastor at Pleasant Heights, PhD (NT) candidate at Midwestern; forever Texan, μολὼν λαβέ; Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Allons-y
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