The historic and contemporary reality of slavery is never far away from how we think about the Bible. Instead of a frontal attack on the culturally pervasive institution of slavery in his day, Paul took another approach, for example, in his letter to Philemon.
Onesimus was a slave. His master Philemon was a Christian. Onesimus had evidently run away from Colossae (Colossians 4:9) to Rome where Paul, in prison, had led him to faith in Jesus. Now he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This letter tells Philemon how to receive Onesimus.
In the process, Paul does at least 11 things that work together to undermine slavery.
1/. Paul draws attention to Philemon’s love for all the saints. “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (1:5). This puts Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus (now one of the saints) under the banner of love, not just commerce.
2/. Paul models for Philemon the superiority of appeals over commands when it comes to relationships governed by love. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9). This points Philemon to the new dynamics that will hold sway between him and Onesimus. Acting out of freedom from a heart of love is the goal in the relationship.
3/. Paul heightens the sense of Onesimus being in the family of God by calling him his child. “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (1:10). Remember, Philemon, however you deal with him, you are dealing with my child.
4/. Paul raises the stakes again by saying that Onesimus has become entwined around his own deep affections. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (1:12). The word for “heart” is “bowels.” This means, “I am deeply bound emotionally to this man.” Treat him that way.
5/. Paul again emphasizes that he wants to avoid force or coercion in his relationship with Philemon. “I would have been glad to keep him with me...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (1:13-14). This is pointing Philemon how to deal with Onesimus so that he too will act “of his own accord.”
6/. Paul raises the intensity of the relationship again with the word forever. “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (1:15). In other words, Onesimus is not coming back into any ordinary, secular relationship. It is forever.
7/. Paul says that Philemon’s relationship can no longer be the usual master-slave relationship. “[You have him back] no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (1:16). Whether he lets Onesimus go back free to serve Paul, or keeps him in his service, things cannot remain as they were. “No longer as a slave” does not lose its force when Paul adds, “more than a slave.”
8/. In that same verse (1:16), Paul refers to Onesimus as Philemon’s beloved brother. This is the relationship that takes the place of slave. “No longer as a slave...but as a beloved brother.” Onesimus now gets the “holy kiss” (1 Thessalonians 5:26) from Philemon and eats at his side at the Lord’s Table.
9/. Paul makes clear that Onesimus is with Philemon in the Lord. “[He is] a beloved brother...in the Lord” (1:16). Onesimus’s identity is now the same as Philemon’s. He is “in the Lord.”
10/. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus the way he would receive Paul. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (1:17). This is perhaps as strong as anything he has said: Philemon, how would you see me, treat me, relate to me, receive me? Treat your former slave and new brother that way.
11/. Paul says to Philemon that he will cover all Onesimus’s debts. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (1:18). Philemon would no doubt be shamed by this, if he had any thoughts of demanding repayment from his new brother, because Paul is in prison! He lives off the gifts of others. Philemon is the one who is to prepare a guest room for Paul! (1:22).
The upshot of all this is that, without explicitly prohibiting slavery, Paul has pointed the church away from slavery because it is an institution which is incompatible with the way the gospel works in people’s lives. Whether the slavery is economic, racial, sexual, mild, or brutal, Paul’s way of dealing with Philemon works to undermine the institution across its various manifestations. To walk “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) is to walk away from slavery.