“12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” -Philemon 1:12-16
Philemon, the shortest of the apostle Paul’s letters, focused on one big problem–slavery. Rather than attacking the entire system, Paul singled out one man–Onesimus–a runaway slave who had become a Christian after meeting Paul. To follow the law and clear the man’s name, Paul wrote a letter and sent it back to Philemon, a man Paul had previously known who had also become a Christian.
Through polite and gentle words, Paul encourages him to treat Philemon “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” This attitude marks what would be the early Christian belief regarding slavery. Slaves, especially those who had converted to Christianity, were not to be treated like slaves, but as humans made in God’s image, as family.
Some like to point a finger at the Bible and argue that its archaic teachings promote slavery as acceptable, but this letter to Philemon argues otherwise. Paul clearly noted where he stood on the issue–slavery had no place in the lives of those who follow Jesus. Further, he used what ability he had to stand against it.
Yes, Paul does speak about slavery at other places without regard to its degrading nature, even telling slaves to be subject to their masters. His top goal was always Christ and the gospel message. Yet he worked when he could, likely outside of his letter writing to help right a social wrong. Without waving a banner or signing a petition, Paul helped to free Onesimus, a man church history records as later becoming a leader in the early church.
May we follow Paul’s lead to stand against the indignity of slavery whenever and wherever we can.
(On a side note, I’ve written a coauthored book on modern slavery where you can learn more on this social issue and how to help stop slavery and human trafficking. See NotInMyTown.net.)
Dillon Burroughs is the author and coauthor of numerous books and is handwriting a copy of all 31,173 verses of the Bible at HolyWritProject.com. Find out more about Dillon at Facebook.com/readdB or readdB.com.