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In United States Of America, slavery( and also racial segregation) was a painful part of history. Therefore, Would it be correct to say that Bible's Philemon makes a case for abrogation/abolishing of slavery?( or is that a stretch?)

(Philemon 1:10-20) 10 I appeal to you for my child [a]Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my [b]imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my [c]imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to [d]mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). 20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

( Reference Link: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-did-god-permit-slavery )

(Quote from John Piper's answer from link above)

The book of Onesimus (Philemon) is the book that is brought forward most often—and rightly, I think—to show that Paul was sowing the seeds to explode the whole situation of slavery. Onesimus himself was a slave when he got converted. Paul sent him back to Philemon who had been his master, and he said, "I am sending him back as a brother. Honor him." I think that kind of spiritual dynamic is intended to explode the system.

Another thing to explode the system is when Paul says to masters, "Do not threaten them, remembering that you too have a master." So he puts the command of neighbor-love—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—in the place of the right of the master to threaten. And if you don't threaten, what do you do? You win by love, and that transforms slavery into employment.

So I think it's not wrong that the Christians in America moved from a justification of slavery to a justification of the abolition of slavery, and that it was long and hard in coming. The biblical principles that were used to undermine the Old Testament's own speech about slavery was appropriate. It's right to say that there are changes that come about in the process of redemptive-history which make some laws in the Old Testament no longer appropriate or relevant at all in the New Testament.

(Side Note, Other closely-Related Posting: Is Paul suggesting that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery? )

Would it be correct to say that Bible's Philemon makes a case for abrogation/abolishing of slavery?( or is that a stretch?)

2 Answers 2

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In Bible times, people sometimes sold themselves as slaves because they could not pay their debts or provide for their families. Some people actually chose to be slaves so as to have all their needs provided for by their masters. This is quite different from how we view slaves and slavery.

Paul declares (in Philemon 1:16) that Onesimus is no longer viewed as a bondservant (or slave) but as a beloved brother in the Lord. Having run away, Paul has sent him back to his master in the hope that Philemon would embrace him as a dear brother. This article explains what a bondservant is:

A bondservant is a slave. In some Bibles the word bondservant is the translation of the Greek word doulos, which means “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of, his master; a slave.” Other translations use the word slave or servant.

The Hebrew word for “bondservant,” ‘ebed’, had a similar connotation. However, the Mosaic Law allowed an indentured servant to become a bondservant voluntarily: “If the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:5-6). https://www.gotquestions.org/bondservant.html

Today millions of people have been trafficked and sold into slavery and live lives of abject misery. Their passports have been taken from them and they have no recourse to justice or freedom. This article shows how God utterly condemns “man-stealing” and those who do such things will answer to God:

Both the Old and New Testaments condemn the practice of “man-stealing,” which is what happened in Africa in the 16th to 19th centuries. Africans were rounded up by slave-hunters, who sold them to slave-traders, who brought them to the New World to work on plantations and farms. This practice is abhorrent to God. In fact, the penalty for such a crime in the Mosaic Law was death: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Similarly, in the New Testament, slave-traders are listed among those who are “ungodly and sinful” and are in the same category as those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, adulterers and perverts, and liars and perjurers (1 Timothy 1:8– 10). https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-slavery.html

Was Onesimus captured by slave-hunters and sold to slave-traders, then passed on to some rich master? That would be the equivalent of modern human trafficking. Or had he voluntarily gone into service in order to pay off a debt? The Bible does not say. The Mosaic Law says the death penalty would apply to any person who had been found to kidnap someone in order to sell them as a slave.

Rather than making a case to abolish slavery, Paul persuaded Onesimus to return to his master and to fulfil his obligations. Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome him, namely, as a fellow servant of Christ and a spiritual brother.

All men are created by God and made in His image (Genesis 1:27) and to those who belong to the Lord, there is neither free man nor slave – we are all equal in the eyes of God (1 Corinthians 12:13).

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It is significant that slave traders, most often were "devout" Christians that used the book of Philemon as proof that they were within their Biblical rights to force slaves to return to their masters.

However, I still agree that at its core teaching, the NT is vehemently anti-slavery; but this is NOT explicit. That is, there is no "proof-text" to abolish slavery.

This is an important point - if the NT had been written by some modern Christians would begin with a statement of human rights (I am not opposed to such) and a bold statement about abolishing slavery. Paul took a different approach. He made no attempt to reform the Roman society but only to create God's ideal within the Christian church.

Thus, within the Christian community we have the following ideals:

  • Gal 3:26-29 - You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.
  • John 8:32, 34-36, “…the truth will set you free…whoever sins is a slave to sin…so if the Son sets you free you are free indeed.”
  • Gal 5:13, 14, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use our freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
  • Gal 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
  • Gal 3:22, “But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”
  • Ps 118:5, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.”
  • Ps 119:45, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”

As Christians read this sort of Biblical material and sat together each week in church, slavery became more and more difficult to reconcile with a genuine practice of the Christ-like life. It was this that ultimately motivated started the great abolitionists to initiate the social reforms to eliminate slavery.

Back to Onesimus: While it is true that Paul sent Onesimus back to his slave owner, we also read that in Col 4:9 Onesimus appears to be be a Gospel work with Paul and others - Philemon had obviously freed his slave!! Therefore, I regard Col 4:9 as a better text about anti-slavery than most others.

That is, while Paul had not asked Philemon to free his slave, he simply asked him as follows:

Philm 8, 9, 17 - So although in Christ I am bold enough to order you to do what is proper, I prefer to appeal on the basis of love. ... So if you consider me a partner, receive him as you would receive me.

Paul is implementing the "Law of Christ" (Gal 6:2, 1 Cor 9:21), or the "Law of Liberty" (James 1:25, 2:12). See also Rom 13:8, 10. Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love to a fellow Christian (Phil 1:16, John 13:34, 35).

APPENDIX - Freedom of Choice

Freedom of choice is another of the implicit teachings of Scripture. However, a few passages come close to being explicit. Let us examine a sample of the Bible data.

  • Gen 2:16, 17 – the original choice given to Adam and Eve to choose service to God.
  • 1 Cor 10:13 – God is gracious enough to only allow temptations that we can bear. This reveals that God recognizes the effect that sin has on our will; sin weakens our will but God helps by both strengthening our will and only allowing temptations that we can bear.
  • 2 Peter 3:9 – God is patient wanting all people to decide for Him.
  • Gal 5:13 – We are given freedom by God but the privilege should not be abused.
  • John 7:17 – People can choose to do the will of God and such a choice bring further enlightenment.
  • Josh 24:15 – The Israelites were encouraged to choose God.
  • Mark 8:34 – Choosing to serve God involves personal sacrifice which is why it is such a serious decision.
  • Rev 3:20 – God wants to be with us but we must choose to allow Him into our lives.
  • Gal 5:16, 17, John 8:34-36 – Sin enslaves but the Christian life by the Spirit gives freedom.
  • Isa 55:6, 7 – Isaiah encourages the people to choose service to God over all else.
  • Deut 30:19, 20 – Moses encourages the people to choose between life and death.
  • Exe 18 – an entire chapter about the consequences of choice which ends with the plea, “Repent and live!”

Thus, while Biblically implicit, the concept of the freedom to choose to serve God or otherwise is woven into the very fabric of scripture. See “Election” for a discussion about Calvinism and its attitude to Freedom.

In addition to the above, there is a more fundamental reason why freedom of choice is essential to the plan of salvation. Observe the following:

  • John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
  • John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
  • 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 16, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another … No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us … And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them … We love because he first loved us.”

It is immediately apparent that love is the very essence of God and our relationship with Him and each other. Now, here is the point; love cannot be forced else it is not love. A programmed machine can recite loving sentiments but does not love. Thus, love can only be love when there is a free choice to love.

Therefore, for love to exist there must be freedom of choice. Stated another way, if God were to force us to love and obey Him, we would not love God at all and God would be saving machines.

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