We can now take this definition of evil and use it to get an answer to our question. And we can do it by asking this question: “What good thing is absent when slavery exists?”
When you rephrase the question like this, one answer becomes obvious. The good thing that’s missing from the practice of slavery is freedom. Freedom is good because it gives us the ability to make real choices. The ability to make choices is good because it allows us to experience real love. And love is good because it comes from God who is love (see 1 John 4:8). Taken together, these steps help us understand why the practice of slavery is inherently wrong.
Unfortunately, the problem is that people throughout most of human history have not viewed always slavery as something evil, immoral, or bad. You see, a great moral wrong like slavery can sometimes become established and accepted when people don’t follow the God of the Scriptures. Jesus illustrated this very clearly when He said to His followers, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants and officials lord it over the people beneath them” (Matthew 20:25 NLT).
Jesus also said something else that directly relates to this subject: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 NIV). With that statement from Jesus in mind, it shouldn’t surprise us to find examples of sinful human beings who express their own spiritual enslavement by trying to physically enslave others.
However, we should recognize that the fact that slavery exists does not mean that God approves of it. The Scriptures tell us that human beings are made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:27) and slavery is clearly the wrong expression of that image. The Scriptures also tell us that, “We are no longer Jews or Greeks or slaves or free men or even merely men or women, but we are all the same-we are Christians; we are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Now as you might imagine, the idea that everyone was equal in Christ regardless of his or her social position was revolutionary for the time. This radical teaching also brought about the potential for some unusual situations to come up within the early church.
For example, a situation began to develop where it was possible for a Christian slave and a Christian master to both end up going to church together. You might even have a situation where one man served as a slave during the week but at church on Sunday, that slave was the one who preached the sermon while the master looked to him for spiritual leadership.
So instead of mounting a direct assault on the practice of slavery through the pages of the Bible, we see that God instead chose to use a more subtle, but highly effective tactic. First, the Scriptures told Christian slaves that they should work for their owners just as if they were working for Christ and always give their best effort- even when their boss wasn’t watching. We saw this teaching in the Scriptures that we talked about last time.
Slave-owners were then told to treat those who worked for them in the same God-honoring manner. They were not allowed to threaten slaves and they also had to provide what was right and fair according to Colossians 4:1. These instructions, along with Jesus’ teaching to, “…treat people the same way you want them to treat you” in Matthew 7:12 meant that all Christians -slave or free- had the equal obligation to treat each other with mutual respect and dignity.
Over time, these principles began to slowly undermine the slave/owner mentality that had previously existed. As these values began to change people internally, they also began to influence an outward move away from the old master/slave model of working relationships. So instead of supporting the idea of master/slave relationship working relationships, the Biblical teaching on this subject actually had the opposite effect. The Biblical concept that both slaves and masters were equal in God’s sight laid the important groundwork that helped eliminate the once common practice of slavery and continues to do so today.
So that’s the cultural background for the book of Philemon. But even with this in mind, we should still recognize that Philemon is really not a book about slavery. Philemon is really more about how someone should respond in situations where the legal thing to do might not necessarily be the right thing to do.
Now when you read the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament, you’ll find that he often begins his letters by identifying himself as an Apostle right at the very beginning. For example, Paul began his letter to the Galatians by saying in chapter one, verse one, “Paul, an apostle– sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…”
In other words, Paul didn’t buy his position, he didn’t inherit it, and he wasn’t elected to it. The other apostles didn’t select him to do the job of an apostle. It wasn’t a career that he chose for himself. His position came through the will of God and that was the basis for the things that he wrote in Biblical letters like Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians and others.
However, notice that Paul begins his letter to Philemon in a very different way:
“This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy.
I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house. May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace” (Philemon 1:1-3 NLT).
The reason that Paul begins his message this way has to do with the informal nature of this letter. You see, Paul was not in a position where he had to establish his credentials first. Unlike his other Biblical letters. Paul is writing as a friend to a friend- and a friend doesn’t have anything to prove.