Paul, Philemon and Onesimus and Slavery

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Greetings,

I have been looking at Philemon, and I can't resolve a question. Was Paul asking Philemon to free Onesimus? Or was he asking him to forgive his transgressions and to treat him as he would a brother in Christ in addition to remaining a slave? Verse 16 also says that Onesimus would return "no longer as a slave." But the verse also says the that Philemon should accept him back as "more than" [merely] "a slave."

Thanks
 

Bill The Baptist

Puritan Board Graduate
People have often criticized Paul for not explicitly insisting on the release of Onesimus, but if you read carefully, you will see that what Paul suggests is far more radical. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as a true brother in Christ, which if he were to actually do, would very naturally make it impossible to continue to enslave him. Paul understands that the hearts of men cannot be changed by law, but only through the gospel.
 

Alan D. Strange

Puritan Board Senior
@Ed Walsh

Ed:

This is something that I may write more on. Here's a little something that I've written (in the conclusion to my Hodge volume published in the Fall) about the Philemon situation.

I do see this as a bit of a biblical test case for the spirituality of the church. Paul did not command emancipation because this would have confused the gospel with its consequences, though clearly the consequences of a life transformed by the gospel should impact our whole life, particularly how we show love to our fellow Christian especially and fellow man more broadly. Now the quote:

While it is true that Christ and the apostles did not abolish slavery, it is also the case that the consequences of the gospel would tend to ameliorate if not eliminate such (seen in Paul’s letter to Philemon).[1]

Had Christ or Paul ordered the end of all slavery, it would have rendered the gospel revolutionary and made its central concern social, political and economic equity. If Paul, for instance, had simply commanded Philemon to free Onesimus and not suggested that he be emancipated as a consequence of the new relationship that they sustained in the gospel, Christians would have viewed such an apostolic command as binding, necessitating the abolition of slavery immediately everywhere. This would have obscured the true spiritual message of the gospel—salvation in Christ to all that believe on Him—and have rendered the Christian faith another competing, indeed radical political agenda, especially in the Greco-Roman world, with so much of the population in slavery. The New Testament contains no explicit commands to abolish slavery—though it prohibits man-stealing (I Timothy 1:10) and thus proscribes American slavery—leaving it to the outworking of the gospel to address such in the Greco-Roman world of its day.[2]



[1] As seen in the practices of Christians in the early church, in A. J. Harrill The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Siebeck, 1995). Though opposition to slavery itself, as opposed merely to slavery’s abuses, was long in coming, as seen in Trevor Dennis, “Man Beyond Price: Gregory of Nyssa and Slavery,” in Heaven and Earth: Essex Essays in Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Peter J. Wexler (Worthing, West Sussex: Churchman Publishing Limited, 1986), it was Christianity, or Christendom, at least in part, that brought slavery to an effective end between the fourth and tenth centuries, with serfdom developing in seignorialism and feudalism subsequent to slavery’s diminution.

[2] Though Kyle Harper, in Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), showed that slavery lasted deep into the Christian era, in his most recent book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), he shows that Christianity’s strict moral code was particularly sympathetic to the sexual exploitation of the slave. So Christianity played an important role in reforming and ultimately ending ancient slavery.

Peace,
Alan
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
@Ed Walsh

Ed:

This is something that I may write more on. Here's a little something that I've written (in the conclusion to my Hodge volume published in the Fall) about the Philemon situation.

I do see this as a bit of a biblical test case for the spirituality of the church. Paul did not command emancipation because this would have confused the gospel with its consequences, though clearly the consequences of a life transformed by the gospel should impact our whole life, particularly how we show love to our fellow Christian especially and fellow man more broadly. Now the quote:

While it is true that Christ and the apostles did not abolish slavery, it is also the case that the consequences of the gospel would tend to ameliorate if not eliminate such (seen in Paul’s letter to Philemon).[1]

Had Christ or Paul ordered the end of all slavery, it would have rendered the gospel revolutionary and made its central concern social, political and economic equity. If Paul, for instance, had simply commanded Philemon to free Onesimus and not suggested that he be emancipated as a consequence of the new relationship that they sustained in the gospel, Christians would have viewed such an apostolic command as binding, necessitating the abolition of slavery immediately everywhere. This would have obscured the true spiritual message of the gospel—salvation in Christ to all that believe on Him—and have rendered the Christian faith another competing, indeed radical political agenda, especially in the Greco-Roman world, with so much of the population in slavery. The New Testament contains no explicit commands to abolish slavery—though it prohibits man-stealing (I Timothy 1:10) and thus proscribes American slavery—leaving it to the outworking of the gospel to address such in the Greco-Roman world of its day.[2]



[1] As seen in the practices of Christians in the early church, in A. J. Harrill The Manumission of Slaves in Early Christianity. (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Siebeck, 1995). Though opposition to slavery itself, as opposed merely to slavery’s abuses, was long in coming, as seen in Trevor Dennis, “Man Beyond Price: Gregory of Nyssa and Slavery,” in Heaven and Earth: Essex Essays in Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Peter J. Wexler (Worthing, West Sussex: Churchman Publishing Limited, 1986), it was Christianity, or Christendom, at least in part, that brought slavery to an effective end between the fourth and tenth centuries, with serfdom developing in seignorialism and feudalism subsequent to slavery’s diminution.

[2] Though Kyle Harper, in Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), showed that slavery lasted deep into the Christian era, in his most recent book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), he shows that Christianity’s strict moral code was particularly sympathetic to the sexual exploitation of the slave. So Christianity played an important role in reforming and ultimately ending ancient slavery.

Peace,
Alan
Paul saw that freedom in Jesus that the slave and slave master both now shared would be the way to have the master legally now as a direct result of seeing the slave as his equal in Christ, to now set him from his slavery bondage.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
@Ed Walsh

Had Christ or Paul ordered the end of all slavery, it would have rendered the gospel revolutionary and made its central concern social, political and economic equity.

Quite. There are plenty of SJWs around as it is who equate the gospel with being a SJW - just imagine if they had a "proof text".

I think your general point about one effect of the gospel being to eliminate slavery is a very pertinent one. I've often heard or read this idea the Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but there's nothing to suggest he was (in the sense that slavery was practiced in the Roman Empire). He was a servant of Philemon - I'm no Greek scholar, but am pretty sure doulos can equally be rendered slave or servant. The early part of the epistle makes very clear that Philemon was renowned for charity, hospitality and generally "loving his neighbour" - it's pretty unlikely that his servants would have been slaves as we understand slavery in that time was often practiced.
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
Quite. There are plenty of SJWs around as it is who equate the gospel with being a SJW - just imagine if they had a "proof text".

I think your general point about one effect of the gospel being to eliminate slavery is a very pertinent one. I've often heard or read this idea the Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but there's nothing to suggest he was (in the sense that slavery was practiced in the Roman Empire). He was a servant of Philemon - I'm no Greek scholar, but am pretty sure doulos can equally be rendered slave or servant. The early part of the epistle makes very clear that Philemon was renowned for charity, hospitality and generally "loving his neighbour" - it's pretty unlikely that his servants would have been slaves as we understand slavery in that time was often practiced.
One of the hardest things new readers to the Bible have to do is to remove from their minds our notion of how USA practiced slavery, and how the Romans practiced it.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
One of the hardest things new readers to the Bible have to do is to remove from their minds our notion of how USA practiced slavery, and how the Romans practiced it.

Yes, they should just read the Authorised Version, which translates the word as servant, giving, I think, the true sense of its use in Philemon, and probably most other places it is used in the NT.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Paul saw that freedom in Jesus that the slave and slave master both now shared would be the way to have the master legally now as a direct result of seeing the slave as his equal in Christ, to now set him from his slavery bondage.

I'm not sure what you are saying, but are you saying that Paul's teaching meant that masters had to free their slaves if they were Christian?
 

TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
I've often heard or read this idea the Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but there's nothing to suggest he was (in the sense that slavery was practiced in the Roman Empire). He was a servant of Philemon - I'm no Greek scholar, but am pretty sure doulos can equally be rendered slave or servant. The early part of the epistle makes very clear that Philemon was renowned for charity, hospitality and generally "loving his neighbour" - it's pretty unlikely that his servants would have been slaves as we understand slavery in that time was often practiced.
From what I can tell, the term literally means slave. It always means that, unless it is used in a figurative way. Here are some parallel resources on the word.

Remember that in older English, slaves were very frequently called servants, or bondservants. So, the AV use of servant doesn't imply the translators understood the word to mean a free servant.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
From what I can tell, the term literally means slave. It always means that, unless it is used in a figurative way. Here are some parallel resources on the word.

Remember that in older English, slaves were very frequently called servants, or bondservants. So, the AV use of servant doesn't imply the translators understood the word to mean a free servant.

"bondman, servant, slave

From deo; a slave (literal or figurative, involuntary or voluntary; frequently, therefore in a qualified sense of subjection or subserviency) -- bond(-man), servant."

From the link you posted (Strong's concordance) - emphasis mine. Seems very like it can mean either, though given Roman culture it would probably have been usually understood at that time in the sense we understand slave today. As I say though, I'm no Greek scholar.
 

TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
"bondman, servant, slave

From deo; a slave (literal or figurative, involuntary or voluntary; frequently, therefore in a qualified sense of subjection or subserviency) -- bond(-man), servant."

From the link you posted (Strong's concordance) - emphasis mine. Seems very like it can mean either, though given Roman culture it would probably have been usually understood at that time in the sense we understand slave today. As I say though, I'm no Greek scholar.
Good eye. It would appear that the word for slave can be figuratively applied to a free servant.
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
Paul asks Philemon to free Onesimus in the same round-about way that he thanks the Philippians for their gift to him in that same round-about way. Not directly, but indirectly.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
e
Onesimus as a true brother in Christ, which if he were to actually do, would very naturally make it impossible to continue to enslave him.

Thanks for writing Bill (and everyone else too)

I am not sure I agree with you, but I am open-minded as my OP states. In one sense Christianity levels the field. I am thinking of Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." But neither does Paul teach an egalitarian Christianity. Some have tried it and suffered at the results. The Pilgrims nearly starved to death as a result of all being equal. They quickly ceased from that foolishness.

In several places, Paul treated slavery as amoral and not at all as we consider it today.
Colossians 3:22
Servants, (δοῦλοι) obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: (See also Eph 6:5-9)​
I chose the Colossians because they were a true success story. Not at all like the folks you find in Corinth. If anyone were mature enough to go deeper and repent of the sin of slavery it would be them.

Here's the "harshest" statement I could think of that Paul makes against slavery.
1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV
Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)
Jesus repeatedly used the slave/master relationship in his teaching on the Kingdom of God. You don't hear him speak of a prostitute/pimp relationships in that manner. Slavery was, in Jesus' hands, spoken of as an established way of life in his days. Matthew 13:17; Matt. 18:23ff (using it as a comparison of the Kingdon of Heaven); Matt 20:27 (slavery used as an illustration of the service leaders are to emulate); Matt 22:3ff (Jesus uses slavery as a type of ministers calling people to salvation); Matt 24:25ff (again the master/slave to exhort believers to watchfulness until the Lord returns) - I will stop with Matthew. Jesus doesn't use sinful relationships to illustrate the Kingdom of Heaven.
 
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Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
I'm not sure what you are saying, but are you saying that Paul's teaching meant that masters had to free their slaves if they were Christian?
I think that the Gospel transforms the relationship between slaves and masters to where the masters at least were to treat their slaves with respect due fellow believers, not to be harsh taskmasters, and the end goal was to have slaves made freed.
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
I have read that in the roman Empire at time of Jesus, over 50 % of the slaves were there voluntarily, as they took on slavery to pay off their debts and obligations. many o them would have been teachers, tutors, field workers etc.
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
e

Thanks for writing Bill (and everyone else too)

I am not sure I agree with you, but I am open-minded as my OP states. In one sense Christianity levels the field. I am thinking of Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." But neither does Paul teach an egalitarian Christianity. Some have tried it and suffered at the results. The Pilgrims nearly starved to death as a result of all being equal. They quickly ceased from that foolishness.

In several places, Paul treated slavery as amoral and not at all as we consider it today.
Colossians 3:22
Servants, (δοῦλοι) obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God: (See also Eph 6:5-9)​
I chose the Colossians because they were a true success story. Not at all like the folks you find in Corinth. If anyone were mature enough to go deeper and repent of the sin of slavery it would be them.

Here's the "harshest" statement I could think of that Paul makes against slavery.
1 Corinthians 7:21 ESV
Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)
Jesus repeatedly used the slave/master relationship in his teaching on the Kingdom of God. You don't hear him speak of a prostitute/pimp relationships in that manner. Slavery was, in Jesus' hands, spoken of as an established way of life in his days. Matthew 13:17; Matt. 18:23ff (using it as a comparison of the Kingdon of Heaven); Matt 20:27 (slavery used as an illustration of the service leaders are to emulate); Matt 22:3ff (Jesus uses slavery as a type of ministers calling people to salvation); Matt 24:25ff (again the master/slave to exhort believers to watchfulness until the Lord returns) - I will stop with Matthew. Jesus doesn't use sinful relationships to illustrate the Kingdom of Heaven.
The new relationship both masters and their slaves had in Christ would have led to the slaves being treated fairly, and eventually set free.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
The new relationship both masters and their slaves had in Christ would have led to the slaves being treated fairly, and eventually set free.

I certainly agree with the first part, but I don't know enough history to know if the second part is accurate.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I think that the Gospel transforms the relationship between slaves and masters to where the masters at least were to treat their slaves with respect due fellow believers, not to be harsh taskmasters, and the end goal was to have slaves made freed.

Answer my question. Are you saying that Paul's teaching means masters must free their slaves? Yes or no?
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
Answer my question. Are you saying that Paul's teaching means masters must free their slaves? Yes or no?
If the Masters were now saved by the Grace of God, would say yes,, but also was suggesting that there could well be a gradual change. They would be treating their slaves in a manner befitting now knowing Christ, and that should eventually lead to freedom for their slaves.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
If the Masters were now saved by the Grace of God, would say yes,, but also was suggesting that there could well be a gradual change. They would be treating their slaves in a manner befitting now knowing Christ, and that should eventually lead to freedom for their slaves.

Perhaps, but the text doesn't say that.
 

TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
I think the case can be made that, all things being equal, a master loving his slave as himself would result in his liberation. However, things aren't always that simple. What if, for the slave, bondage means food, clothing, shelter, community, etc., while freedom amounts to destitution. Further, if the slaveholder is dependent on the system of slavery for his economic well-being, immediate emancipation might well mean poverty for both slave and master.

If I remember right, that was the position R. J. Breckinridge (along with many others, both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line) found himself in.
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
I think the case can be made that, all things being equal, a master loving his slave as himself would result in his liberation. However, things aren't always that simple. What if, for the slave, bondage means food, clothing, shelter, community, etc., while freedom amounts to destitution. Further, if the slaveholder is dependent on the system of slavery for his economic well-being, immediate emancipation might well mean poverty for both slave and master.

If I remember right, that was the position R. J. Breckinridge (along with many others, both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line) found himself in.
You would have to either have the practice regulated, as God did under the OT economy, or else grant the slaves freedom, as in the NT model.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
You would have to either have the practice regulated, as God did under the OT economy, or else grant the slaves freedom, as in the NT model.

Not really, nor is it established that there must be freedom in the NT. You keep asserting that, but that's not what the text says.

What if the slave is unable to take care of himself for whatever reason? Freeing him would reduce him to absolute poverty (which is often what happened in the South).
 

Dachaser

Puritan Board Doctor
Not really, nor is it established that there must be freedom in the NT. You keep asserting that, but that's not what the text says.

What if the slave is unable to take care of himself for whatever reason? Freeing him would reduce him to absolute poverty (which is often what happened in the South).
Wouldn't the master then be required to help care for his slaves and set them up to be able to be independent, as i think George Washington did for His slaves after he died?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Wouldn't the master then be required to help care for his slaves and set them up to be able to be independent, as i think George Washington did for His slaves after he died?

Sure, but the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

I think one can say that Paul requires slave owners to care for their slaves (which is smart, economically; even when Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man that General Grant feared with all his heart, before Forrest was a Christian he was a fair and decent slave-master. He never broke up families--largely because that would make for bad conditions on the farm).

And I think Christian wisdom does intend for the gradual emancipation. But here is the problem: the Bible never really says that, unless we want to go theonomist and say Leviticus 25 applies today.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
You would have to either have the practice regulated, as God did under the OT economy, or else grant the slaves freedom, as in the NT model.

What New Testament Model do you have in mind? I can think of a 19th-century model, but not much before that.
 
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TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
Sure, but the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.

I think one can say that Paul requires slave owners to care for their slaves (which is smart, economically; even when Nathan Bedford Forrest, the man that General Grant feared with all his heart, before Forrest was a Christian he was a fair and decent slave-master. He never broke up families--largely because that would make for bad conditions on the farm).

And I think Christian wisdom does intend for the gradual emancipation. But here is the problem: the Bible never really says that, unless we want to go theonomist and say Leviticus 25 applies today.
I'm digging the Nash avatar.
:offtopic:
 
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