In a recent posting T.C. Robinson addressed the usefulness/purpose of the Epistle to Philemon. He concluded that this epistle is a microcosm of the salvific effects of the gospel. As we are freed from our enslaved nature by Christ so we see the gospel working outward to change more than our hearts but the whole structure of the world. He credits N.T. Wright with this insight.
Along comes Bill Ross to comment and he suggest that the Apostle Paul’s letter was “vindicating the owning of slaves”. As someone who has given years to studying the Apostle Paul I find this statement to be seriously misleading. It is one thing to not demand that Philemon release Onesimus; it is something altogether different to applaud slavery! We must read Paul in his historical context.
It is well known that the Roman Empire stood on the backs of slaves. Slavery was a given in the Greco-Roman world. For Paul to have made any attempt at overthrowing this institution he may as well have forsaken the spread of the gospel. He would have been crushed if he has tried to use force.
We must remember Paul did not have any political clout. He was not a government official. He did not have a voice in the court of Caesar. He was not the citizen of a democracy. He would have had little to no impact if he would have attempted to start some sort of riot. Rather, the gospel would have been seen by all people as something other than the message that it was for Paul. It would have been the loss of many audiences to his message.
Furthermore, it seems apparent that Paul was pacifistic. He did not support violence in any of his epistles. While the slave situation was gray in his world view it seems that violence was black and white. While the institution of slavery was something much too large for him to fix he could maintain control over any urge to use violence. Therefore, we can count revolution out as an option.
Even here in the United States it was blood shed that led to the freeing of slaves. Even though our current situation is better than it was before Lincoln even the northern victory did not fix root causes such as racism. Do we dare demand from a first century Christian what we may demand from a twenty-first century Christian? Hardly.
We must realize that Paul’s calling as an apostle is to call people to allegiance with his risen Lord. He lived in an apocalyptic mindset that was aware that what was of primary importance was not changing all of society but being ready to meet the returning King. Any social reform (which we have already seen was not even possible) would have been distracting.
When Paul writes to Philemon he does not demand that Philemon let Onesimus be free. He uses wise words reminding Philemon that he owes Paul but he must make the decision on his own. Furthermore, Paul realizes Philemon is a product of his era so he massages his ego emphasizing that Philemon has the opportunity to do the good on his own that will inevitably be a benefit to the Kingdom of God.
What if Paul would have demanded Onesimus’ freedom? I contend we would not have the letter preserved for us today. Philemon would have thought Paul had gone to far, wadded it up, and tossed it somewhere never to be recovered again. Onesimus would have remained a slave. Paul would have lost a partner in the gospel.
Rather, Paul’s pastoral wisdom likely softened Philemon’s heart. Why else would the letter have survived. It is said that Onesimus later became a bishop. If we were in Paul’s position and we did things our way would this have come to pass? I doubt it.
In his letter to the church of Colossi he encourages the slaves to work toward the Lord. How is this pro-slavery? It subverts the human masters if anything. It reminds the slaves that they can give their lives to God which is greater than they would have seen themselves otherwise. He ends this discourse by reminding the slaves that wrongdoers will be judged. Is this a criticism toward the slaves? No, it is a reminder that if they are mistreated God will avenge them (3. 22-25)!
He confronts all slave owners by reminding them their is a great “Master in heaven” (4.1). I can guarantee one thing: the Christian slave owners may have not released their slaves but I am sure that if they heard Paul they treated them differently. Even if they had released the slaves how many could have survived or avoided being enslaved by someone else? To accuse Paul of supporting slavery is misguided at best. It ignored the complexity of the society of which he was part.
Let us remember the plight of many American slaves after they found freedom. For many it meant poverty. Yes, freedom but even today the African American is usually going to face more hardships that the white American. Political power does help, but it doesn’t fix it all.
Paul writes similar things to the church in Ephesus (6.5-9). One thing of which I am sure is that slaves faired much better under Christian slave owners. Likewise, I would not be surprised if Paul had more people like Philemon that he eased into releasing slaves for the good of the Kingdom. Paul was a wise man who was perfect for his time.
So before we describe how Paul should have done it let us put ourselves in his world. It is easy to sit here comfortably under the assumption that moral progress is not a tough issue for those who live through the debates and the times of turmoil. Yet slavery is more prominent in today’s world than it was in Paul’s. Do Paul’s critics back up their righteousness by fighting the slave trade? Do they go to Portland, or San Francisco, or New York seeking to set people free? If not, do I dare say you are supporting slavery because you are not actively fighting against it? It is easy to be self righteous after society has changed (to the extent that it has which is obviously not far enough). If I were the one chosen to do Paul’s work would I have done as well as he did. I would like to hope so, but I doubt it. If we are going to judge Paul judge him as an amazing man of his time.