The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Phm and slavery

It is very fitting in itself that Paul's one private letter left for us (Philemon) should be an earnest plea and fervent expression of love and unity for a slave -- a class that was then treated as less than human. Paul calls him his son, his brother, and his own heart.

It is probable, in the very nature of things, that slave-owners would be very few among the brethren. The vast majority would be either slaves, or poor free men. The Gospel was preached to the poor, and its principles have the greatest appeal to them.

This epistle enters into the Brotherhood's relation to slavery more than any other part of the NT. Paul gives instruction concerning slaves and masters in Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Timothy, but here is an actual example and a whole epistle bearing on the matter.

In the Roman Empire in NT times slaves out numbered the free. Very often the slaves were in chains continually day and night. The master had power of life and death. They had little or no rights or protection of law, no property, no true marriage, no choice of a mate -- their master gave or took mates at his will. The children belonged to the master as slaves for any use or purpose the master desired. Runaway slaves usually received torture, branding, and often a cruel death.

If our version were more consistently translated, this aspect of NT times would be more obvious: three-quarters of all the appearances of the word "servant" in the NT should be translated "slave," as in some of the more modern versions. The Bible has been accused of condoning and even supporting this human evil. This is due to two universal misunderstandings concerning: (1) The purpose of the Bible; and (2) The deep import of its teaching, fully comprehended.

Through much of history, and almost to the present, slavery has been a major aspect of human society. Actually, it is a much wider and more inclusive thing than generally regarded. That is, all dictatorship is actually slavery; all industrial and economic oppression is actually slavery, especially where the victim's circumstances leave him no choice but to submit.

It has been a universal characteristic of man to seek to oppress and enslave his fellowman and use him to increase his own wealth, power, and leisure. Slavery in its various forms -- fiefdom, serfs, peasantry, etc -- has been the common lot of the poor up until very recent times, and practical slavery still exists in much of the world today, where the few rich who own all the land exploit and oppress the vast and hopeless multitude of the poor.

Slavery is just one part of the great human fabric of evil and wickedness. For the Bible to seek to abolish slavery would require it to write the laws for all nations, appoint all rulers, and enforce justice by divine power. This would be the Millennium (which will come in God's own proper time).

The greatest slavery of all, before which all else pales into insignificance, is man's slavery to his own selfishness and fleshly desires, and to this all are in bondage. Most, indeed, are eager victims with no desire for freedom. This is the deep root of the weed to which we must lay the axe of Scripture. Chopping off the branches only makes the evil fruit grow bigger.

The Bible's purpose is not to reform the world -- yet. Its present purpose is to call out and prepare a people for God. The present evil constitution of man is the necessary furnace of affliction for the purifying of the saints.

The Bible is concerned with the character of the individual, the release from the universal slavery of self and sin, and the preparation for God and eternity. It tells the slave to serve his master, whether he be good or bad, as service done to God and accepted by God. It tells the master to treat the slave as he himself would desire to be treated, with perfect justice and mercy, even as he hoped in mercy to be treated by his Master -- Christ.

The Bible is not out to put odd and futile patches on a thoroughly corrupt and fleshly constitution of things, but to perfect personal relationships and prepare individuals for divinity. The principles of the commands of Christ, spiritually comprehended and faithfully applied, would completely transform and beautify ALL human and social relationships.

Paul in this epistle applies these principles to an actual master-slave relationship. He sends the runaway and disobedient slave back to his master in submission and repentance, and he exhorts the master to accept him, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother in Christ to whom Paul himself was a willing slave and for whom he was even then in actual chains. And he seals the bond of brotherhood between them with his own infinite love for both.

It is notable that Paul's fullest instructions concerning masters and slaves occur in the two epistles which appear to have been written and sent at the same time as this -- one to the same place; that is, Col and Eph. Similarly at the close of Colossians he calls Epaphras the "slave of Christ," the only time he separately applies this term to anyone but himself. It would seem that he is attempting to soften and dignify the position of the natural slave by reminding the brotherhood of the honor and dignity of their slavery to Christ unto life eternal. He shows how a mark of natural ignominy can be a badge of spiritual glory.

The instruction in Eph (which is the fullest) occurs in Eph 6:5-9. We note that in three successive verses, he says they must serve as unto Christ, and not to men, and he promises by the Spirit that such service will be accepted and rewarded as done to Christ himself.

Our state and circumstances in this life are utterly unimportant because of its brevity and because of the transcending importance of other greater things. Whatever God wills is best, for it is designed to forward His purpose and prepare us for a place in that purpose.

The instruction for slave-owners is all in one verse (Eph 6:9) but it is all-inclusive -- "Do the same thing to them" -- work on the same principle that EVERYTHING WE DO MUST BE DONE AS TO AND FOR CHRIST -- "Forbearing -- giving up, refraining from -- threatening." Threatening anyone is entirely out of the question for a brother of Christ. If the relationship is not in mutual love and respect, it is not acceptable to God. This command alone would transform the whole picture.

"Knowing that your Master also is in heaven: neither is there respect of persons with him." He will deal with us as we deal with others. On the same subject, Col adds an instruction which, fully comprehended, spells the end of slavery (Col 4:1) -- "Masters, give unto your slaves that which is JUST AND EQUAL, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven." Brethren were required to treat slaves the same as they are required to treat all men -- with love, gentleness, kindness, and humility. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THESE RULES. This would raise and purify the relationship far above anything the world dreams of. Even in the Roman world there were cases of deep devotion of slaves to benevolent masters.

The brethren and sisters of the first century had no experience of a society not built on slavery. This was an inseparable part of the only world they knew. They had much to learn. The lesson for us is to examine ourselves for prejudice or preconceived worldly notions absorbed from our fleshly surroundings that have no spiritual reason or justification. We are all to a large extent creatures of our times, blind sheep following the crowd. We take things for granted as right and acceptable just because the wicked world around us so takes them for granted. We do not stop to think things through for ourselves independently, strictly on scriptural, spiritual principles. (GVG)
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