“No longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Philemon 1:16 esv
The subject of slavery and the Bible has been very heated in our modern world where it has become universally understood that owning another human being is completely unethical. But the problem has not gone away. It is estimated that there are more slaves now than any particular time in history, but there are few who know about it or make a fuss because it is not visibly evident in our society. The slavery that persists today concerns the underground sex trade market that many unknowing Christians would rather ignore than do something about.
When Christians today think of slavery, it is often associated with racism or sexuality. What many believers can’t grasp is a society of believers who could accept this practice, but we need to understand that slavery was not so much an issue of race in biblical times, but a system of classes; wealthy people owned poor people. This is a hard distinction to make, but a necessary one. Though not to diminish the aspects of slavery, people really owned human life, it was typically a contract between individuals and voluntary in many cases (not referring to issues of war where victims were taken as slaves rather than killed).
The people of God had served a great deal of time in slavery. A pharaoh owned God’s people while they were in Egypt, and God used Moses to lead the people to freedom. After establishing themselves as a nation, God used foreign kings and rulers as a means of punishing His people when they would wander away from His precepts, carting them off to serve as slaves to their captures. There were even laws in the Old Testament dealing with how long someone could be indentured to someone else. Though Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, never once in His earthly ministry did He set a slave free. Now, in the book of Philemon, Paul has changed his typically bold speech patterns to a gentle request about a fellow brother in Christ concerning a slave who has become close to the apostle.
Philemon is one of the very few books that is written by the apostle to a single recipient, yet it is preserved in Scripture for us today. The book is short and deals directly with a personal issue concerning a slave and his owner, both of which are followers of Christ. What Paul is requesting seems rather simple to us, but in their culture and with their laws, slavery was not so black and white. Philemon would have been within the law if he had wanted to kill the slave Onesimus, who had ran away from his owner.
In other epistles, Paul teaches slaves that they should submit to their masters and maintain a testimony of obedience for the sake of the gospel. But in this letter, Paul has a specific request for Onesimus’ freedom that he does not make by compulsion. Paul was never an abolitionist. This does not mean that abolitionists are out of the will of God today, but it is important to note how Paul addressed what seems to be an obvious ethical problem. Instead of making a big deal about slavery, Paul often used it as an illustration for the life of a believer, teaching that we were once a slave to sin, but now are slaves to God. The evils of slavery are directly proportionate to the wickedness of the owner, but God is our father and is concerned with us more than we care for our own selves.
Slavery is prevalent throughout the Scriptures and paints a complex picture of how Christians today ought to think about it. Though we recognize that it is unacceptable within our culture, it important that we understand what it was, what purposes it served, and how believers responded to it during that day. There were few times God spoke directly to freeing of slaves, but multiple times how slaves should think of their masters. Understand, that in our culture it is easy to think we are free to ourselves, but you, as a Christian, have been bought out of slavery to sin by a very heavy price. Wherever you go, you represent the One who freed you and now owns you. Represent Him well.