The question of slavery in the Bible has long been raised, especially in the form of why the Bible does not seem to condemn it outright. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he addresses the issue, but from a rather different approach.
Philemon was a follower of Jesus who heard the gospel from Paul. He was wealthy so the church in Colossae met in his home. At some point his slave Onesimus ran away. While away from Colossae he encountered the apostle Paul, heard the gospel of Jesus, and believed. He became a partner in Paul’s ministry, though Paul was in prison during at least part of their relationship. With this letter to Philemon, Paul is sending Onesimus back to him. He told Philemon that he could command him to release Onesimus from his servitude but he also told him he preferred to appeal to him on the basis of love instead. He wanted the decision—the right decision—to be Philemon’s choice. Rather than forced obedience to an apostolic command, he wanted Philemon to see what was good and right and then make that choice freely. Paul then writes,
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.Philemon 1:15–20 ESV
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. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
(The ESV uses the word “bondservant” since the modern idea of American slavery was so very different from that of the first century.)
Paul says that it may be that Onesimus ran away so that he might return to Philemon, though not as a slave; as something much more than a slave. Hear the weight of Paul’s words. He wonders whether God, in his sovereign providence, had orchestrated events so that Onesimus would return to Philemon as a beloved brother in Christ. Paul continues with a truly remarkable—and game-changing—statement: if you consider me your partner. Wait. If Philemon considers Paul a partner in ministry? Paul was an apostle of the Lord Jesus! Yet he tells Philemon that if he considers Paul to be his, that is, Philemon’s partner in ministry, then Philemon should receive Onesimus in the same manner that Philemon would receive Paul himself.
Think of what Paul is saying. In a world of very strict class distinctions, particularly between the wealthy and everyone else, if Philemon considers Paul to be on his level, then Philemon must also consider Onesimus to be on his level, for Onesimus is on Paul’s level!
It is very likely that this letter was delivered along with the letter to the Colossians. We know from Colossians 4:7–9 that Onesimus was with Tychicus in delivering that letter and Paul declares that Onesimus “is one of you”. In Colossians Paul wrote concerning the church of Jesus:
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.Colossians 3:11 ESV
Paul says that here, specifically meaning in the church in Colossae, ethnic differences (Greek and Jew) do not matter. Religious background (circumcised and uncircumcised) does not matter. Cultural background (barbarian and Scythian) does not matter. And he says that socio-economic status (slave and free) does not matter. Why? Because Christ is all, and here’s the money shot: and Christ is in all.
Without directly commanding him to, though he could as an apostle of Jesus, Paul is telling Philemon to free his slave(s). The reason he gives is the unity we have in Christ. As humans we bear God’s image and so all are equally valuable. The social strata to which we’re all accustomed carry zero weight in the kingdom of God. Paul is so emphatic on this point that he says if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, whether money due to lost productivity or perhaps he stole something when he escaped, he must charge that to Paul. This further emphasizes their unity in Christ: Onesimus’ debt is Paul’s debt.
After reminding Philemon how much he actually owes Paul (Paul did, after all, proclaim the gospel to him), he returns to his pun. The name Onesimus was a common slave name that meant “useful”. Paul says he was once useless but has now become useful. In verse 20 he tells Philemon he wants some benefit from him in the Lord. The word translated benefit is connected to the name Onesimus: useful or beneficial.
In this letter the apostle Paul undercuts any rationale for owning slaves. Any argument that could be offered as justification for owning slaves is destroyed in this simple and brief letter on this basis: before the Lord we are all equal, from the holy apostles to runaway slaves and everyone in between.
The truth is that the things that divide people outside the church must not divide us in the church. Rich or poor, black or white, educated or uneducated, “useful” or “useless,” Democrat or Republican, male or female, all stand before the Lord as equals. Let’s praise the Lord today that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we stand as equals and even though we may have these very real differences, they do not define us. What defines us this: Christ is all, and in all.