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Paul and Slavery

slavery

slavery

Why did Paul not simply ask for Onesimus to be released from slavery? Why, for that matter, did he not order all Christian slave owners to release all their slaves, rather than profit from an unjust social structure? Slavery was one of the really great evils of the ancient world, under which a large proportion of the population belonged totally to another person, for better or (usually) for worse, with no rights, no prospects, the possibility of sexual abuse, the chance of torture or death for trivial offences. Some slaves were fortunate in having kind or generous masters, but for the majority, life was at best a drudgery and at worst merciless exploitation.  Why then did Paul not protest against the whole dehumanizing system?

What alternatives were actually open to him? He was committed to the life and the standards of the new age over against the old (Col. 3). But a loud protest at that moment in social history would have functioned simply on the level of the old age: it would have been heard only as a criticism by one part of society (Paul, not himself a slave-owner, had nothing to lose) against another. It would, without a doubt, have done more harm than good, making life harder for Christian slaves, and drawing upon the young church exactly the wrong sort of attention from the authorities

 

Protesting against slavery per se would have been totally ineffective: one might as well, in modern Western society, protest against the mortgage system. Even if all Christians of Paul’s day were suddenly to release their slaves, it is by no means clear that the slaves themselves, or society in general would benefit: a large body of people suddenly unemployed in the ancient world might not enjoy their freedom as much as they would imagine.

Paul’s method is subtler. He of course knows that in principle it is better to be free that to be a slave (1 Cor. 7:21-23), but like Jesus, his way of changing the world is to plant a grain of mustard seed, which, inconspicuous at first, grows into a spreading tree. In the meantime he teaches slaves and masters to treat themselves and each other as human beings. Like an artist or a poet, he does some of his finest work not by the clarity of a direct statement, but by veiled allusion and teasing suggestion.

(Extract from the TNTC series; Colossians & Philemon, by N.T. Wright, pages 173-174)     

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.*10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful* both to you and to me.12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel;14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever,16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Final Greetings and Benediction

23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,*24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.*

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