Lessons from Philemon and Preeminent Bible Scholars - Part 9 of a series of 10.
According to the commentary of the highly esteemed Rev. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) on Paul’s Epistle to Philemon [written about 60 AD], Philemon was probably a minister of the Church at Colossae. The church there met at his home. Philemon had a servant (slave) named Onesimus, who having stolen goods from him, fled and eventually came to Rome. By God’s Providence, there Onesimus came under the influence and preaching of Paul, then a prisoner for preaching the Gospel. Onesimus became a Christian and ministered to Paul’s needs in prison.He became very useful and like a son to Paul, but understanding that Onesimus was the legal bond-slave of another man, indeed, his close friend in Colossae, Paul realized that he should not retain him there in Rome without the permission of Philemon. Paul thus decided that the right thing to do was to reconcile the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, sending Onesimus back to him, now an earnest Christian seeking reconciliation with his master. This short letter is a plea from Paul to Philemon to take back Onesimus as a brother in Christ.
This letter and its background are important to our study of a proper Biblical perspective of slavery. It may have been written in the same time frame as Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
There is a modern controversy over verse 16:
“…that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother…”
Does this mean that Onesimus was to be freed to voluntarily serve Philemon or does it mean Onesimus would continue to be not only a trusted bondservant but also a beloved brother in Christ?
We do not know what happened. At least one modern conservative commentary hints that this was an advanced unfolding of a new Church social reform policy on slavery. This view, however, is hard to reconcile with Paul’s statements in 1Timothy, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, 1 Corinthians, and Philippians. Matthew Henry’s commentary used these books plus 1 Peter to conclude that Paul was by no means lobbying to change the status of Onesimus from bondservant to free but only exclaiming the far more important spiritual improvement and value of Onesimus as now being a Christian brother, which would make him far more than a faithful bondservant.
Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), the famous scholarly colleague of the reformer Martin Luther, puts the question of slavery in this perspective:
“The Gospel does not abolish the established order and polity, but preaches other things, namely, of eternal good, justice, and eternal life, which God produces in the hearts of men, whom, nevertheless, He wills in this mortal life to be subject to that order which, according to the will of God, is suitable to corporal life.”
In John Calvin’s introduction to his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to Philemon, he obviously believes that Paul’s main motive in writing was to reconcile Philemon to his fugitive slave.
“How great was the elevation of Paul’s Spirit, although it may be better perceived in his more weighty writings, is also witnessed in this epistle, in which, treating an argument otherwise humble and abject, he raises it ultimately to God. Sending back again to his master a slave who was a fugitive and a thief, he asks they he may be forgiven.”
Calvin also deals with the difficulty of reconciling the order, hierarchies, and subordinations of this life to the reason of men.
“As every man is disposed, with a false estimate, to arrogate superiority to himself. There is no one who bears with equanimity that others should govern him. Those who cannot avoid the necessity, do indeed unwillingly obey their superiors; but inwardly they fret and feel indignant, as if they thought some injury was done to them. All such disputations, however, the Apostle cuts off with one word, when he exacts a willing subjection from all who are under the yoke. For he shows that they were not to inquire whether they were worthy of such fortune , or a better one; because it was enough that they were bound in that condition” [See also Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy 6:1-5; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; and Titus 2:9 in part 1 of this series and Colossians 3:9-13; 1 Corinthians 7:9-24, and Philippians 2: 4-8 of part 4 of this series]
A helpful note on Bible words meaning slavery
Using our definition of slavery as “servitude for life, descending to the offspring,” this is doulos in Greek, ebed in Hebrew, and servus in Latin. English translations may render them as slave, bondservant, or servant, but they all represent the same legal status. Hired servants are almost always distinguished from these and rendered mishotos in Greek, sakir in Hebrew, and mercenaries in Latin. Many English translations prefer the terms bondservant or servant as less inflammatory than slave, but the meaning and status is all the same. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is most likely to render this status as “slave.” Whatever the words, the accrual conditions of slavery varied widely over history and cultures.
These verses also point out that regardless of our status in this life, the only status that counts is our relationship to Christ. We should have humble and forgiving hearts befitting bondservants of Christ, who is attentive to justice and assurance of our great and eternal blessing.
Christians should be concerned with justice and relieving those who suffer, but we have a tendency to lose our spiritual perspective, which usually results in strife and unforeseen and undesirable consequences. In John 18:33, Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. We should remember his answer to inform our perspective.
John 18: 36
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
I will cover one more subject before concluding this article. One Civil War era abolitionist criticism of Southern slavery was that it could divide families. This criticism, however, was also common in the South. The actual incidence was not as common as suggested by ultra-abolitionists. One estimate is that it was only about one in 22 per year, usually the result of estate sales or westward migration. But one in 22 families in a year accumulates ten in a decade. This was an issue that even plagued the late Roman Empire. In 539, the Emperor Justinian prohibited separating slave families. Most Southern pastors were engaged in trying to prevent or alleviate these separations. However, the family separation issue begged for visible state reforms. .It is doubtful that any such reforms would have appeased the radical abolitionists, but appeal to conscience should have been sufficient enough. It also showed a longer range increasing impracticality of any system of long-term slavery. Although separating children as well as husband wife were an important part of the issue, the spirit of Scripture for the whole family can be seen in Mark 10.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate”.
It is important to understand the historical realities of slavery today, because widespread ignorance and shallow perspectives have left our gates open wide to aggressively destructive social and political ideologies.