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What the Bible actually teaches us about slavery

A man is silhouetted in the 'Door of No Return' at the House of Slaves on Goree Island near Senegal's capital Dakar, March 16, 2007.
A man is silhouetted in the "Door of No Return" at the House of Slaves on Goree Island near Senegal's capital Dakar, March 16, 2007. | REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Many people — including Christians — criticize the Bible for its lack of abolitionist language. But is that really true? One of the smallest books in the Bible may shed some light on that claim.

Philemon was a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a Christian slave owner who lived in Asia Minor. Paul wrote to Philemon urging him to welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, who had recently become a Christian while Paul was in prison.

The real power of Paul’s letter can get lost in the immediate surface tension of slaves and slave owners. Paul did not ask Philemon to set his slave free, which, on the surface, might appear to be more harsh than heavenly. After all, if Onesimus had run away and was no longer with his slave owner, why is it merciful of Paul to request Onesimus return to his slave master?

What Paul understood is what Christians today need to grasp in order to be obedient ambassadors of Christ: In order to free the oppressed, Christ must transform the heart of the oppressor.

Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his slave owner and may have stolen from the man just before he made his escape. The Apostle Paul was in prison during this time, and at some point, he and Onesimus crossed paths, though we don’t know just how or why. Paul proclaimed the Gospel to Onesimus, and Onesimus received salvation in Christ Jesus, as is understood when Paul calls Onesimus his “son” (v. 10).

At that time in world history, there was no more reviled part of humanity than a runaway slave. Runaway slaves had difficulty finding long-term refuge, as very few people would even consider housing them for one hour let alone indefinitely. Being a runaway slave meant one could not get work, buy a house, rent a hotel, etc.
While Christians today might not be able to relate to the slave/master dichotomy, we can certainly relate to the reconciliation of cultures the Apostle Paul is attempting to perform. Consider the fact that Paul was a Jew and, at one time, the highest of the Pharisees, next to whom there was no religious equal in that faith tradition. Philemon was a Gentile who came from wealth and privilege. And of course, Onesimus was a runaway slave. Make no mistake, at the time Paul wrote Philemon, it was still quite significant for a Jew, a Gentile, and a runaway slave to be in the same physical proximity, let alone the same literary sentence.

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The Apostle Paul began his petition for Onesimus by calling Onesimus “his very heart,” indicating a deep love, which must be acknowledged in light of their very different cultures. A Jew of the highest order does not love — let alone spiritually adopt — a runaway slave. But Paul did.

Paul was also careful not to have Philemon respond to his request out of obligation or duty. At the time of the writing, Paul certainly could have “pulled rank” as an important founder of the early Christian church. But he did not. In verse 21, Paul writes that he is sure Philemon will do much more than he is asking him to do, implying that not only will Philemon reconcile kindly with Onesimus, but he will give him the ultimate gift of freedom because of the love of Christ that binds them in unity.

And there it is. The bonds of slavery and oppression are broken, not by the laws of the land, but by the love of Christ in the hearts of people, transforming and compelling them to Christ-like action.

People often object to the idea that prejudice must be dealt with at the heart/spiritual level because they do not understand that love is more than a feeling or an emotion. Love is actually a powerful, compelling, and undeniable force that leads those who submit to it to freedom and life in Christ.

At the same time, too many Christians mistake intellectually agreeing with God for actually loving Him and applying His truths in their lives. This is how the Church has, in many ways, remained the most segregated institution in American society long after the demise of national slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. The Church has agreed that slavery and discrimination are wrong, but overall, we have not applied that truth to our lives as a universal body of believers, and therefore we remain separated into our own cultures, having not yet tasted the freedom Paul writes about in his letter to Philemon.

In response to Paul’s letter, Philemon did three important things that our modern-day Churches should emulate.

1. Philemon acknowledged Paul’s apostolic authority

While Paul did not “order” or otherwise force Philemon to respond favorably to his request, Paul’s authority in the Church was not unnoticed or misunderstood by Philemon. This is critical because, in his apostolic authority, Paul is giving a “new dignity to the slave class,” something that would have been a revelation to Philemon at the time.

God is the one who gives people dignity and worth. The question to us is whether we will acknowledge His authority and respond accordingly or continue ignoring God’s absolute right to ask us to receive the “runaway slaves” in our own communities. Just like Paul did not force Philemon’s response, God does not force ours either, wanting us to obey out of our love for Him instead of compulsion. The very person you would rather not deal with may be the very person God is asking you to receive in His Name.

3. Philemon learned that Onesimus is a child of God, just like him

Because of the unity of humanity that is only possible through Christ, Paul is able to ask Philemon to begin to see Onesimus as a brother in the Lord instead of a slave. Furthermore, Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus as a fellow man, implying not only their equality in Christ but also their equality in humanity as creations of God. Paul also pleads with Philemon to see Onesimus as a partner, a word which, in Greek, has the connotation of “business partner” or “partner in ministry.” In other words, Paul is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as he (Philemon) might “receive Paul himself.” One cannot help but hear the echoes of Jesus Christ Himself saying “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).

Who is your Onesimus right now? A co-worker? Perhaps a group of people in your city? A family member? Do you have any concerns that they may not “fit in” with you and/or your friends at church? If so, you may want to ask yourself this question: Does Jesus want that person to “fit in,” or does He want you to make room for them to be adopted into His family, and into your church family specifically?

It is sobering to realize that we are no different than the people and/or cultures we are either uncomfortable with or might even despise. And yet God’s vision for people has always been that multiple cultures would come together as one people and that all those cultures would come under the Lordship of Jesus.

3. Philemon learned humility by accepting repayment from Paul instead of Onesimus

While it is reasonable to assume that Onesimus likely stole something from Philemon, given that was a common practice of runaway slaves during that time, it is possible Onesimus owed Philemon some other kind of debt. Biblical scholars and historians are not settled as to what kind of debt Onesimus may have owed, but it is clear from the passage that Paul is assuming whatever financial responsibility Onesimus accrued.

Moreover, Paul reminds Philemon that he (Philemon) is indebted as well. In this way, Paul does for Onesimus and Philemon what Christ has done for everyone who believes in Him. He paid their debt.

One of the greatest challenges is getting past the hurts and wrongs we have done to each other in generations past and present. Americans who grew up through slavery and segregation will pass on a different legacy point of view to their children and grandchildren than will those Americans who did not experience the same. Sometimes the injustices of generations past can still echo pains and hurts for years into the future.

When Paul proposed to Philemon the notion of paying Onesimus’ debt, he was asking Philemon not to hold that debt against him (Onesimus). It is difficult for human beings to accept justice when it does not come in the form that we might prefer or believe to be best. Forgiveness seems to let the perpetrator off the hook and potentially dismiss all hope of full justice ever being brought to fruition.

When Jesus died on the cross, He paid a debt to God for our sins. God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to restore the relationship with humanity. When we extend that work to cultural reconciliation through the Church, we need to be prepared to submit to the justice God wants to bring to us through Christ.

It seems as if today’s society holds never-ending grudges over the sins of the past and demands retribution. But here's the hard truth — no one living today committed those sins, and we should not be accusing each other of such evil.

Our society today is all about dividing humanity into two camps: the oppressors and the oppressed. But if the Apostle Paul could speak to us now, he would tell the grandchildren of slaves to forgive the grandchildren of the slave owners. And he would tell the grandchildren of the slave owners to view the grandchildren of slaves as absolute equals in every way, even as their own family. This is what Paul was asking of Philemon concerning Onesimus, and it's the genuine reconciliation God can do in our hearts if we submit to Him and His Lordship in our lives.

Both sides will have to come to the same table, at the same time, and partake together in fellowship. And all involved will have to accept the payment and justice offered in and through Jesus Christ as “paid in full.” The Apostle Paul asked Philemon and Onesimus to do that very thing. So should we.

Andrew Southwick is a pastor turned broadcaster, author, filmmaker, and musician. His latest book is entitled More Than Reconciliation: Coming to the Table of Grace. He has assisted churches with revitalization efforts, mergers, and church health coaching and earned a master’s degree in Discipleship & Church Ministry from Liberty University. He is currently hosting both a radio and television show called, Culture Crossroads, on the BEK News Network. For more information visit

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