Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018


The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.


Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

September 25, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #3

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery within the Roman Empire was not racially based. Slaves were primarily made up of people from conquered nations who were sold into the slave networks that supplied much of the labor that fueled the continued expansion of the empire. Piracy (through raiding and capturing) also added to the slave rolls. Claiming abandoned babies (unfortunately a rather common practice known as “exposure”) for the singular purpose of selling them (when of age) in the slave markets also contributed to the slave supply. And there were also generational slaves—the offspring of slaves who continued to belong to the house that owned their parents (slaves were by law not allowed to marry).

Slaves were a commodity within the Roman Empire. The empire depended upon the labor they provided to function. According to various estimates slaves made up approximately 30-35% of the population throughout the empire. They had no legal rights (until the latter stages of the empire—an important note); could not own prosperity; and belonged completely to their owners—considered nothing more than property by them. One historian noted:

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak…Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves. (Mark Cartwright; Slavery in the Roman World on the “Ancient History Encyclopedia” website.)

The circumstances of slaves varied according to their abilities and owners. Slaves who were educated and/or skilled in a craft would fare better than others. They would typically be owned by wealthier families in cities—serving as tutors or using their skills to earn money for their master (and even for themselves—slaves were allowed to earn money and could even purchase their own freedom, which was called “manumission”). Those without skills often would work in harsher conditions in rural areas on farms or used in brothels. The owners always dictated daily life for slaves—some could be kind; others could be cruel.

For the most part slaves accepted their lot in life in the Roman Empire. On occasion some would rebel. Perhaps the most famous such rebellion took place in 73 BC led by a gladiator slave named, Spartacus. It ended with the rebellion crushed by General Pompey; Spartacus dead; and 6000 of his fellow slaves rebels crucified along a 120 mile section of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Choosing between crucifixion and slavery—most chose slavery. Again the historian notes:

The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one. (see above reference.)

Neither Slave Nor Free

It was into this culture that Paul spoke these words to the Galatian churches—and quite revolutionary words they were. It was nothing short of a social revolution. As noted, slaves were property—not people. The idea that there was no difference between slave and owner; that owner and slave were somehow equals; that they would sit down as brothers and sisters—was outrageously scandalous—socially in every way. The socio-economic gap between slave and owner within the Roman Empire was just too vast; too culturally entrenched; even too politically significant to be bridged, but yet here is Paul saying, that in Christ, it can be. To understand and accomplish this took an entirely new and revolutionary way of ordering things. It took the kingdom way.

Paul and Slavery

It is quite notable that the apostle Paul never called for the end of slavery or for the emancipation of slaves. Certainly he recognized its unjust, cruel, dehumanizing, and exploitative nature, yet he was not divinely directed to end it. How could his words to the Galatians be reconciled to this? How could there truly be no slave or free if slavery continued to exist? In answering this question the true revolutionary nature of the kingdom is revealed.

Much like Christ—whose teaching, while not overtly political, deeply subverted the cultural norms—Paul subverted the accepted slave/owner relationship. He does so by calling upon slaves to see their work for their owners as working for the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), which was quite a revolutionary thought. Doing that would be a game-changer in that slaves would give full effort in their labor, not hold back, rebel, or steal from their owners (see also Titus 2:9-10). It would reorient the slave and redefine his purpose. His purpose now became a kingdom purpose. His owner now became someone to win for Christ and working for him as if he was working for the Lord was his venue to do it. This is why Paul concluded his Titus teaching to slaves by saying, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our savior attractive.” Slaves as evangelists to their owners? Subversive indeed. So much so that Paul could ask slaves to even reimagine themselves as free—free to serve God through the purchase price of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).

Interestingly enough he also asked those who were free to reimagine themselves as slaves in the same text—their purchase price being one into slavery to serve the higher cause of Jesus. Christ is the great equalizer in this situation. God is not respecter of persons in this regard. Being clothed with him changes identities—that of Christian slave owner as well. Paul commanded them to not mistreat, be harsh or threaten their slaves, but to be fair and just—treating them kindly—while reminding them that they too have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). And then there is the way he seeks to resolve the conflict between Onesimus, a runaway slave, and his Christian owner, Philemon. He appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother and reframes the value of Onesimus not in market terms, but in kingdom terms. If the institution of slavery was to change for the better within Rome or eventually end, this is the way it would. Not through rebellion would it happen. Rome would and did brutally crush those. It would change when slave owner and slave began relating to one another through the revolutionary teaching of the kingdom of God. Then and only then would everything change—and it did. While slavery did not end completely, slaves eventually gained more legal rights within the empire. Was this chance or did the growing influence of God’s kingdom have something to do with it? No where else would you see slave and owner sitting together as one—brought together in Christ Jesus. No longer wearing the clothes of a slave or owner, but of Christ.

“Class warfare” or “identity politics” only serve to heighten and further social divisions. The kingdom of God serves to help us overcome such social constraints and unite in the common cause of Christ; to understand that our value is not tied to our socio-economic status or political identity in our particular culture. If Christ can remake the slave/master relationship, there is no social barrier he cannot overcome. The kingdom is for all and welcomes all to unite in Christ.