Today we come to a difficult subject presented by this New Testament letter, namely slavery. Does the Bible approve of slavery, or not?
Well, the question is almost impossible to answer with a simple yes or no. Part of the reason for that, as we have seen all along in our study, is that the Bible is a collection of books, written over a long period of time, by many different authors. It is a sacred library, if you will. All throughout the ancient world in which the various books of the Bible were written, slavery was assumed. It just existed, seemingly from time immemorial, at least from the perspective of someone like Philemon, a slave owner.
So Paul, writing in the first century context in which slavery was a given, did not, I think, in most cases, want to upset the status quo. If Paul had condemned slavery outright, and repeatedly, throughout the Roman Empire, then he certainly would have lost a hearing for the Gospel, at least in many quarters. Yet, Paul, and other writers of the New Testament, introduce certain principles, namely the value and equality of each human being in the eyes of God, in such a way that eventually these principles, enshrined in the hearts of Christians, would help to see the overthrow of slavery.
Yes, there have been many Christians down through history who justified slavery based upon some of Scripture’s simple commands wrenched from their context. I am thinking of commands like: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters…” (Titus 2:9) But look at the rest of that verse: “…and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.” Thus, Christian slaves (and there were many of them in the Early Church) were to set a good example in order to win their masters to Christ.
And so we come to the high point of the trajectory of New Testament teaching on slavery in Philemon. Here Paul sends a runaway slave back to his master…but, Paul urges that Philemon receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:16)
It is because of elements in the New Testament like this letter to Philemon, that English Evangelicals like William Wilberforce (1759-1833) saw their way clear to fight for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. (If you have not seen the movie, Amazing Grace, all about Wilberforce and the fight for abolition, you really should.)
Thus, I think we learn from Philemon that it is always important to read Scripture as a whole, not wrenching little bits out of context, and with a sense of the historical and cultural context as well. In addition, we need to read Scripture with the assistance of the Church, the Church down through the ages. We need to have in our library next to our Bibles, commentaries and books on the lives of Christians who have lived in other times (people like Wilberforce). And when we read these books together, prayerfully, I believe the Holy Spirit will give us understanding and application for our own times.