June 24Arts Camp 2013
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Scripture: Isaiah 6-7, 2 Chronicles 26-27, Philemon
Philemon 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
I recently heard someone reference Philemon as an example of the Bible “getting it wrong about slavery”. He stated that Paul didn’t say it was wrong for one human being to own another; instead he just described how one person should own another. This man’s conclusion was that the Bible can’t be trusted, and that it’s wrong about other things as well. He displays a lack of appreciation for the context and Paul’s masterful navigation of a difficult subject.
Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave. He had met Paul while the latter was in prison, and there, Paul led him to Christ. Now Paul is sending him back to Philemon “no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.” Notice the words Paul uses to describe the relationships between the three of them.
It’s true that Paul doesn’t command Philemon to emancipate Onesimus; but he clearly says that he won’t command Philemon to do anything—instead he appeals to him to do the right thing. Many believe that Paul’s confidence that Philemon will do “even more than I ask” is an appeal to emancipate Onesimus and send him back to help Paul.
At the time, the Christian movement was incredibly small and marginalized. Any attempt to directly overthrow slavery in the Roman empire would have been 1) squashed by Rome, 2) a detour from their primary calling to make disciples. It would most likely have been the end of Christianity. Paul wisely kept his mission in focus, and at the same time sowed the seeds for the end of slavery by making slaves and masters brothers in the Lord.
If there is any doubt about how Philemon should treat Onesimus, it is dispelled in verse 17: “welcome (receive) him as you would me.” Paul asks Philemon to treat his runaway slave as he would the great apostle, to whom he owed his life!
So did Paul “get it wrong” on slavery? Not hardly. Paul consistently taught equality in Christ. While he didn’t attack the institution of slavery head on, he undermined the values that supported it, and taught Christian values that would eventually overthrow it.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23)
I want to treat each person with the same respect I would show the great apostle Paul. If he showed up, how would I welcome him and treat him? Because I am a Christian, even the person lowest on the social ladder—like a runaway slave—is to be treated like Paul.
While our men’s group was reading the Bible this morning, we were interrupted by a man who wanted to talk about our computers—a man who lacked some social feedback mechanisms (he went on and on). I was irritated. And as I look back, I didn’t treat him as I would have treated Paul, or someone I deeply respect. My bad…
Making distinctions between people—ranking them higher or lower—is the mentality that led to slavery. It’s still alive in all of us, and needs to be nailed to the cross.
Prayer: Lord, help me see each person as you see him/her, and treat them as I would someone like Paul, whom I admire.