Thread ID: 1 At 4/1/2008 4:41:14 PM Alistair wrote:

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Your thoughts on Saint Paul returning Onesimus to his master, Philemon.

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Philemon

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving and Prayer

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6 I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

Pauls Plea for Onesimus

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[a] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

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

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

Footnotes:

Philemon 1:10 Onesimus means useful.


Mike Augros Answers
Someone might argue thus: "Saint Paul, upon meeting and converting in prison one Onesimus, slave of Philemon, does not, when Onesimus is released from prison, tell him 'You are free, now, no longer a slave,' nor does he say to Philemon in his letter 'You are a Christian, and should have no slaves,' but rather he sends Onesimus back to Philemon. Therefore it appears that Saint Paul approves of slavery--which also is plain from other passages, in which he says 'slaves obey your masters,' and not 'masters, free your slaves.' Accordingly, Christian morals and slavery are compatible."

But this reasoning presumes that what is ordinarily meant by "slavery" and what Saint Paul condones when he tells "slaves" to obey their masters is the same thing. It is much nearer the truth to say that Saint Paul commends the continuation of the relationship of master and slave in name only. If one considers anything that is morally objectionable about slavery, he explicitly condemns it. For example, should a master regard his slave as a piece of property, like cattle, which he may buy and sell and breed at will? Saint Paul hardly approves of that. He says instead "Receive him back . . . not now as a servant, but instead of a servant, as a most dear brother, especially to me." Unless Saint Paul also thinks it is acceptable to buy and sell and breed one's brother and sisters, he cannot be understood to be approving of Philemon ever selling Onesimus the way one sells a piece of property, or using Onesimus as a stud to breed more useful slaves, i.e., he cannot do anything with Onesimus without regard for the happiness and sanctity of Onesimus.

Whenever Paul commands that servants obey masters, he also commands masters to treat servants as fellow Christians, e.g., in Ephesians 6:9 "And you masters, do the same things to them, forbearing threatenings, knowing that the Lord both of them and you is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with him." In other words, "Don't forget that your 'slave' is above all your brother Christian, and you will be judged by how you treat him, and his goal is heaven, just like yours is, and you will not be given special treatment in your judgment because you are master, he is slave, and he might well be your superior in the heavenly kingdom."

What, then, is left of the "master" and "slave" relationship? Whatever remains, the weaker word "servant" is more apt. The "slave", as Paul is willing to admit in a Christian household, is a justly compensated servant, and nothing more. He is not a piece of property, and he is not (in any sense that matters in the kingdom of God) inferior to his master. If anything, the master, because he was given more in this world than the servant, will have more to answer for in his judgment, as regards his treatment of the servant, than the servant will have to answer for as regards his treatment of his master.

Saint Paul, in other words, while wisely retaining the names "master" and "slave," and wisely recommending that "slaves" serve their "masters," does not condone any of the injustices implied in those names, but repudiates them all. Why did he not, then, simply condemn slavery even in name? Because then he would be seen as a political agitator or as someone who is concerned primarily with establishing a new social order. He is no such person: his concern is for the kingdom of God, and not to rebuild the political order of his day except insofar as this concerns matters of justice before God.