Freedom for Slaves
Synopsis: Paul’s teaching that there is no longer slave or free is part of an early baptismal rite. Slavery in the Roman Empire, as in the American South, was brutal and afforded slaves no legal rights. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to Philemon to do his duty and receive his former slave Onesimus back as a brother was a radical claim that slavery had no place in a fellowship where being one in Christ transforms all social relationships.
Paul’s response to slavery is rooted in his understanding that being in Christ initiates a new world coming. Last Sunday we looked at this as dying with Christ and then being raised with Christ. This was acted out in early Christian baptismal rites, where the person being baptized disrobed and stepped into the water naked and was then dressed in a new white robe when he or she emerged.
Galatians 3: 27-28 is an early baptism liturgy. Imagine the newly baptized person stepping out of the water and being clothed with a new robe as these words are being recited, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This dramatic spiritual and social rebirth is at the heart of following the way of Jesus. It reorients all human relationships.
For Paul, the first barrier that had to fall within the churches that he planted was the distinction between Jew and Greek that was symbolized by the rite of circumcision and the taboo against table fellowship between Jews and gentiles. We will discuss this more thoroughly in a future sermon. The struggle over this was intense and Paul was adamant that being in Christ meant that such unequal distinctions had to give way. This was radical stuff.
The same applied to socially and religiously sanctioned unequal relationships between masters and slaves, and men and women. They have also died and been raised into freedom with Christ’s resurrection. Remember, we’ve taken off our old clothes and we’re coming up out of those baptismal waters clothed in fresh new robes. That changes everything.
Slavery was brutal in the Roman Empire. Some suggest that slavery in the ancient world was not as bad as chattel slavery in the American South where slaves were bought and sold as property and a whole race was enslaved in perpetuity. There may be some truth in that but what I read about slavery in the Roman Empire, makes me think it was hardly better.
About a fourth of the whole population was enslaved in the Roman Empire. In contrast, in some areas of the American South, slaves outnumbered their white slaveholders. Roman slaves, however, were also bought and sold, and the child of a female slave would also be a slave regardless of who the father was. That’s like the six children of slave mistress Sally Hemings, who remained enslaved even though Thomas Jefferson was their father.
Most Roman slaves were taken as war captives in the endless fighting on the frontiers of the empire. Others were captured and sold through piracy and still other were the offspring of slaves. As in the American South, they were treated as property and had no legal rights. There was an avenue for obtaining freedom for a small minority through paying the slaveholder a ransom equal to the market price of a slave’s worth.
Jewish society was more egalitarian and had strict rules on holding slaves. Slaves had rights and could not be maimed or killed even though they might be beaten. Furthermore, slaves had to be released after six years. A slave woman taken as a wife acquired rights and did not remain a slave. All slaves were regarded as members of the commonwealth of Israel and, in that respect, were equal before God. Slavery in the Roman Empire was a moral outrage to a devout Jew like Paul. That, coupled with his understanding of the new humanity created through Christ crucified by Rome and then raised by God, informs his transformative response as seen in his letter to Philemon.
The background is that Paul was a prisoner in Ephesus. He begins the letter with the salutation, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” He’s literally saying that he was in chains. Prison was not punishment in the Roman empire. It was instead used to hold prisoners until their trial and sentencing. Being in chains meant being attached to a soldier in a military barracks as he waited for his trial that could lead to the death sentence. It was common for a prisoner’s family and friends to provide for him while he was being held. Various people, including Timothy were there helping Paul. Then Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus arrived and also offered his services.
One would think that a military barracks would be the last place to which a runaway slave would go. This, however, was not unheard of in the Roman Empire. There are other examples of a slave who was in trouble going to a friend or patron of their master to seek clemency. This is apparently what Onesimus was doing. He stayed and helped Paul for a time before returning to Philemon with Paul’s letter written on his behalf. In the letter, Paul first extols Philemon’s refreshing love and faith—he’s laying it on thick.
Then he gets down to the point, writing, “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Notice the way the word “duty” is at the center coupled by the words “command” and “appeal” on each side. If that isn’t enough, Paul appeals to Philemon “as an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
What choice did Philemon have? To make it even more compelling, Paul didn’t only address the letter to Philemon. It’s also addressed to mutual friends and to “the church in your house.” The appeal is to receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother. This is the position of the radical Paul. There’s no place for slavery in this fellowship.
That’s what being transformed looks like. This is where it gets instructive. As I had mentioned in an earlier sermon in this series, biblical scholars believe that some letters attributed to Paul were written by later writers who were writing in his name. As time went by, Paul’s radical teaching on transforming slavery gradually became more and more conformed to the unequal social patterns in the Roman Empire.
The beginning of this shift can be seen in the book of Colossians, most likely written a generation after Paul’s death, probably by someone who knew him. As these churches grew and became more established, there was increasing pressure to fit into the social norms of Roman society. The rules for Christian households in the books of Ephesians and Colossians were written for this purpose. They took established hierarchical Roman social norms and sought to fit them to more egalitarian Christian practices.
To this end, the book of Colossians instructs slaves to obey their masters in everything. This is followed by a list of ways in which they should obey. Then, at the very end, it also instructs masters to treat slaves justly and fairly because you also have a heavenly master. This basically accepts the institution of slavery but seeks to make it more just and equitable. We might say that being conformed takes precedence over being transformed. It’s a more moderate or conservative position that’s gradually losing its radical edge.
Then in the book of Titus, written half a century after Paul’s death, even this sop to being transformed is gone. Slaves are instructed “to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect” (2: 9). There’s no comparable instruction to masters about treating their slaves justly. Wow! It’s in stark contradiction to Paul’s radical instruction to Philemon to receive Onesimus back, no longer as a slave but as a dear brother.
Such Bible verses on obeying their masters in all things were drilled into African American slaves in the early centuries of our country, with perhaps an occasional nod toward telling masters to treat their slaves justly. No wonder that some African Americans like Howard Thurman’s devout mother even refused to read anything attributed to Paul. Though understandable, that’s unfortunate because there are so many things about following the radical way of Jesus that we can learn from Paul.
Given this background on slavery in Paul’s letters, what are the ways we’re tempted to be conformed to cruel and unjust social practices today? This kind of stuff is still very real. Consider the grief that NFL player Colin Kaepernick experienced by taking a knee during the national anthem to protest the unequal treatment of people of color. This drew the wrath of our president who accuses him of disrespecting our flag and our military veterans.
As a result every NFL team refuses to hire him, but Nike recently renewed its advertising contract with him using the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” What are we willing to sacrifice as followers of Jesus? Could it be that the most conservative American churches are actually the most conformed to our society? What’s the price we’re willing to pay to be transformed and to work for transformation? What do churches that practice being one in Christ look like in our day?
 Gehman, The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, 888-889.