Paul and Slavery

In just a few minutes I’m going to be preaching from the New Testament book of Philemon, and for today’s exhortation I want to take a little time to address a complicated topic behind this book. I’ll say more about this in the sermon, but the Book of Philemon is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a guy named Philemon about another guy named Onesimus — and Onesimus was a slave who worked for Philemon until he ran away.

So we need to address this topic of slavery. And there are all kinds of things to say, but let me just say a few things now, and then close with an exhortation connected to it. 

Slavery of any kind is a flawed institution that is ultimately at odds with human dignity. Slavery is not a Christian idea and historically it’s actually been Christian truth that has led to the end of slavery in the Western world, both in Great Britain and eventually in America. But in the ancient world, slavery was as common as the shoes we have on our feet, and there was a wide spectrum as to how slavery may have looked in different settings. But for us, the image we have of slavery is the kind of slavery that was experienced in early America, and by and large, that kind of slavery was one of the worst manifestations of slavery in world history. 

And that’s because slavery in America was an ethnic-based, chattel slavery — which means that white people with guns went to Africa and kidnapped black people from their homes, sent them across the Atlantic Ocean like merchandise, and then sold them here to get rich. There are other gruesome forms of slavery in history, but it doesn’t get worst than this. 

Our country’s experience with slavery is deplorable — and it’s not the same thing as the situation with Philemon and Onesimus. The first thought about slavery in the ancient mind was not “depraved, human injustice” (and we know this, for one, because one of the metaphors the Bible uses for being a Christian is that we are slaves of Jesus, which is a good thing). 

Now again, ultimately, I think human slavery of any kind — the enslavement of one human by another — ultimately that is at odds with human dignity — but the kind of slavery Paul is speaking into here, economically, is more like an employer-employee relationship. And Paul actually says that because Philemon and Onesimus are both Christians, they now have a brother-to-brother relationship. 

So know that the apostle is not complicit with evil. He’s not giving any kind of pass to the ethnic-based, chattel slavery that we have in our minds, that was experienced in our country. 

That’s not the kind of slavery here, and thank God, that kind of slavery is illegal and doesn’t exist in our society. But, the racism and oppression in our society that made that kind of slavery possible 150 years ago, that does still exist. Because that’s a sin problem, and it always starts subtle. The racism and oppression that leads to ethnic-based chattel slavery starts as subtle as thinking that the differences of someone make them inferior. It happens when someone looks at someone else and thinks that that’s person’s differences make them less valuable. And people do that. We all do that. And there’s no law on this planet that can fix that brokenness. Only the gospel of Jesus can — which reminds us of our need to confess our sins.

Prayer of Confession

Father, we hate sin. By your grace, we hate the evil so deeply entrenched in our hearts, and we want it gone so badly, and we confess that too often it’s still there. In ways we don’t realize, and in ways we don’t want to admit, we sometimes think other people are less valuable because they’re different. Because people are not like us, we can look at them with contempt. And for that we repent. Forgive us, Father, for seeing the world on its own terms, and not in the light of your reality. We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. And we know that if we guard iniquity in our hearts, our prayers will be ineffectual, and so we confess our individual sins to you now in silence.