Well-meaning inquirers and hostile skeptics alike wonder why the New Testament Scriptures do not forbid slavery outright. This question is particularly poignant considering the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a man named Philemon concerning Philemon’s runaway slave named Onesimus. Let’s take a look at what Paul says about the situation.
Let’s remember that Paul loved Philemon. Paul was the one to share the gospel of Jesus with him (see Philemon 1:19). Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter and expressed his gratitude for Philemon’s faith and service to the Lord and his church. It is clear that Philemon was wealthy as the church in Colossae met in his home, which required it be large enough, and he owned slaves—at least one, that is. After expressing his love and joy for Philemon, Paul wrote this:
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—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.Philemon 1:8–14 ESV
He begins this section by connecting what he is about to write to what he has just written: accordingly, or therefore, or for this reason. Because of Paul’s love and affection for Philemon, even though Paul could command him, he instead prefers to appeal to him—for love’s sake, he said. He’s referring to his apostolic authority. As an apostle of the Lord, Paul had the authority to intervene in Philemon’s personal affairs to the degree that he could command him to release his slave! Instead, however, because Paul loves him, he says he would rather appeal to Philemon for Onesimus.
In verse 11 Paul makes a play on words. The name Onesimus was a common name among slaves in ancient Rome. The name means “useful.” Paul says he pleads for Onesimus—for “Useful”—for though he had been useless to Philemon, he is now useful to both Philemon and to Paul. Onesimus had run away from Philemon and by God’s grace he heard the gospel preached by Paul and became a follower of Jesus. He became one of Paul’s trusted assistants in his ministry as an apostle. He was so very valuable and dearly loved by Paul that he tells Philemon he is sending Onesimus back to him, but Philemon must know that Paul is sending Philemon his very heart. Paul’s love and affection for Onesimus is clear. He says he became Onesimus’ father, which means he loves Onesimus as a man loves his own son.
Remember that Paul indicated he had the authority in Christ to command Philemon’s obedience in this matter. As an apostle he could have commanded the release of Onesimus from slavery as well as all other slaves owned by believers, yet he did not. He said for love’s sake he preferred to appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. In verse 14 he reiterates this point:
…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.Philemon 1:14 ESV
We’ll see the real impact of Paul’s appeal later in the text, particularly as it relates to the subject of slavery. For now, notice what Paul is saying. Rather than force obedience from Philemon, he preferred to have Philemon make this choice on his own. Paul is clearly indicating that he must free Onesimus from his slavery, but rather than force his obedience, he pleads with Philemon to make the choice freely and joyfully. As an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul had the authority to bind the conscience of Philemon. To disobey the apostle’s command would be to disobey Jesus himself! Rather than force his obedience, Paul urges Philemon to act in love toward Onesimus.
This is the “law of Christ.” The pattern Paul repeated in many of his letters is simple: this is what the love of God in Christ has done for you; therefore, here is how you ought to respond. Read the first three chapters of Ephesians, for example. There are no commands, only statements declaring what God has done for us. Then chapter 4 begins with, “Therefore, walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Living for Jesus is not a life of following rules, as if Christianity were merely an ethical framework for life. Living for Jesus is an on-going response to the grace of the Lord that is constantly poured out on us.
Paul appeals to Philemon on this basis. For the sake of Christ, out of love for him and his church, Philemon must free his slave Onesimus. By allowing him to make this choice freely, Paul is offering him the greatest motivation for godly living there is: the love of Christ.
The truth is that we have an obligation to live for the glory of God in the face of Christ, but our motivation for doing so must never be mere duty. We do not live according to a list of rules. We live in response to the kindness of God he has shown us in his Son. As Tim Keller often says, the good news is not that if we obey, we will be accepted. The gospel of Jesus says that we are accepted; therefore we obey.
Church, let’s live for him today. Let’s freely choose to live in such a way that we honor the one who freely chose to love us and pour out on us his vast, unlimited kindness.