The New Testament epistle of Philemon is arguably the most personal book in all of Scripture. Paul wrote to Philemon (a friend and fellow Christian) on behalf of “my Son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains,” (Philemon 1:10). While we don’t know the specific details, we know Onesimus had at one time been a slave in Philemon’s house (see 1:16), that he defrauded (or stole) from Philemon (see 1:11), and had subsequently become a Christian and a close companion to the Apostle (see 1:11-13). Providentially, an ugly situation had become a mutually-beneficial (and potentially world-changing) convergence of circumstance.
To understand what happened next, we have to understand slavery. For Americans, that conversation usually begins with the actions of January 1, 1863 on our mind. If we recognize that date or not, most of us know what President Abraham Lincoln did on that day as he signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” We should know the slavery that dominated the southern United States in the 1800s wasn’t the reason our country fell into war (despite many people assuming it was), but it had a great influence on the thinking that divided our nation in two. The National Archives describes the influence and effectiveness of that monumental piece of legislature this way:
Despite the (strong) wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. Unfortunately, it applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory. Although it did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After it was signed, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom.¹
As a nation, we have held on to the idea that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery across our world, but that’s just not the case.² Slavery kept rearing its ugly head throughout the 1800s and 1900s and still exists in 2019. All across our world, people are enslaved in new ways for the same old reasons (to learn more, follow this link).
I hope it shocks you that a recent study estimated some 400,000 people find themselves in a form of modern slavery in the United States alone. This modern slavery is overlooked because it’s a far cry from the chattel slavery (follow this link to learn more) of the Antebellum age and isn’t an openly-endorsed and encouraged practice. Even though it’s condemned, it still remains a part of our world. I would encourage you to follow this link to the Global Slavery Index to see the results of a study devoted to the topic and then this link to read about some of the different forms it takes. The one thing modern slavery has in common with much of the past instances is clear – in almost every case modern slavery is immoral – and there’s very little reason to believe it offers anything of value to our world in 2019.
Despite those facts, we should hesitate to declare every circumstance of slavery in the ancient world as immoral. I believe a thorough study of slavery within both the OT and NT will show several instances where slavery was beneficial to both servant and master. We can see relationships that produced genuine devotion and even affection between servants and masters. If nothing about that sounds harmful, are we comfortable calling it sinful? I personally believe the reason this sounds so strange and even wrong is because we only imagine the shameful past of American slavery when that word comes up. Our experience with slavery is toxic, so we assume all associations to that practice must be toxic as well. Please don’t shut me down or reject this conversation after reading my statements. I promise you, I initially struggled with the idea as well.
What if I can prove from ancient experiences and the Word of God that Our Heavenly Father didn’t forbid slavery amongst His people? What if I can prove He condemned the degradation of people made in His image? What if I can prove everyone is important to Him and all were thought of as Jesus died on the Cross? What if I can prove He thought enough of us to govern our relationships with principles that sought to honor each other and I can prove we ignored those principles? What if I could prove that human degradation was attached to most relationships brought upon by slavery, but it wasn’t a predetermined outcome? If I can answer those in a way that harmonizes with all of Scripture, could I prove slavery isn’t sinful, merely an opportunity (or incubator) for sin to arise? Those are the difficult questions we have to ask if we want to truly understand Philemon.
If we’re honest with each other (and I mean brutally honest), we’ll discover humanity has degraded each other in every possible relationship known to us, not just ones defined by slavery. Parents, siblings, spouses, children, neighbors, and enemies are guilty of wronging one another and forgetting we are all made “in God’s image.” Degradation isn’t something inherently attached to slavery.
As I bring this introduction to a close, I want to tell you why this study of slavery and Philemon became so important to me. I’ve been following the exhibits at The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. since it opened in November 2017. One of those exhibits centered around a Slave Bible printed in 1807. Notice this except from the exhibition:
The Slave Bible, as it would become known, was a missionary book. It was originally published in London on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of enslaved Africans toiling in Britain’s lucrative Caribbean colonies. They used the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read while at the same time introducing them to the Christian faith. Unlike other missionary Bibles, however, the Slave Bible contained only “select parts” of the biblical text. Its publishers deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation.³
Knowing that Philemon’s story was excluded from that version of the Bible made me angry. It frustrated me that the message God wanted delivered to people across all generations was thrown away due to someone’s unjustifiable prejudice. It’s humiliating to know people who called themselves Christians ignored Christ’s teaching and Philemon’s letter. Those “missionaries” weren’t interested in God’s Word, merely justifying their own beliefs and the status quo. The letter they needed to know (and thus live) was all-too conveniently left out of their message. More than anyone in the history of our world, they needed the truth of Philemon but didn’t have the time to consider it’s value.
Over the years, I’ve learned that God’s Word is rarely convenient and is implicitly meant to challenge the status quo we often settle on with far too much compromise. That’s why I wanted to study this topic. My thoughts have been challenged (and I’ll admit reshaped) by this and I hope it will do the same for you. Slavery isn’t the clear-cut subject I assumed when I walked into this study. The answers to why and how and how come weren’t as simple as I expected. I’ve found it’s a complicated topic because humanity has complicated it. I pray these lessons will help clear up some of those complications.
As I sit here and reflect on all those impacted by this, I can’t help but hum Chris Tomlin’s version of Amazing Grace from the movie of the same name about Wilbur Wilberforce, a leader of the abolitionist movement in the United Kingdom in the early 1800s. His version adds this chorus to the traditional hymn:
My chains are gone, I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, Amazing grace.
In our next lesson, entitled “The Text” we’ll see the moments Scripture discusses slaves, their treatment, and how they changed the world before Onesimus was even born.
¹ Follow this link to learn more at the National Archives website.
² Follow this link to learn about the slave trade that continued in Brazil until the late 1800s. The most emphatic statement found in the article is this: “The struggle for total abolition kept moving forward under his leadership, and finally on May 13, 1888, the imperial family passed Lei Aurea, “the Golden Law,” making Brazil the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to formally abolish slavery.
³ Follow this link to watch a short video about the exhibit.