Philemon: The Bible and Slavery

Philemon: The Bible and Slavery

One attack against the Bible, and one that disturbs and perplexes many Bible believers, is that the Bible does not condemn slavery and in many cases appears to condone it.

One should remember that slavery was ensconced among every society in Bible times. While we could write at some length regarding the Mosaic Laws regarding slavery contrasted with the worldwide practice, we will focus our attention on Paul’s little letter to Philemon.

Paul’s letter to Philemon provides insight regarding the Christian view of slavery. Following his salutation and commendation (vv 1-7), Paul tells Philemon of a situation wherein he might be inclined to bind a command upon Philemon, but instead would prefer Philemon to act according to his appeal.

What was the matter at hand? A slave belonging to Philemon named Onesimus who had been converted by Paul hundreds of miles from Colosse (cf Col 4:7-9). Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him as a helper in the gospel, but he knew the proper thing was to send Onesimus back to his master, which thing Onesimus was willing to do. Moreover, Paul instructed Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in the Lord.

A few brief points of note. First, Paul says that what he is about to command Philemon is “fitting” (cf Eph 5:4; Col 3:18). Thus, Paul would not command it, but hoped Philemon would do what was proper.

Second, Onesimus was willing to be returned, as such was also fitting (there is a lesson here for illegal aliens).

Finally, the instruction concerning bondservants (slaves) and masters elsewhere in the New Testament provides a stark contrast to the then present practice of slavery (cf Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1).

It has been said, and rightfully so, that no document has done more to help abolish slavery throughout the modern world than the doctrine of Christ in the New Testament. A fair examination of both Testaments further establishes that truth. The Christian has nothing

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