- The Bible's defense of slavery is very plain. St. Paul was inspired, and knew the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was only intent on obeying it. And who are we, that in our modern wisdom presume to set aside the Word of God... and invent for our selves a higher law than those holy Scriptures?... Paul sent back a fugitive slave [Onesimus], after the slave's hopeful conversion, to his Christian master [Philemon] again, and assigns as his reason for doing that master's right to the services of his slave -- John Hopkins (1864), an Episcopal pastor (excerpt taken from Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women, 1983)
- 15 For perhaps on account of this he [Onesimus] was separated (from you - Philemon) for the hour, in order that you might receive him as a receipt paid in full eternally -- 16 no longer as a slave, but above a slave, a beloved brother, very (beloved) to me, but how much more (beloved) to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 1:15-16; Eng. trans. my own)
So why does not Paul simply say: "Emancipate Onesimus! Free him!"? To quote Lloyd Lewis: "his [Paul's] ambiguity [over emancipation] may not be so much a matter of his indecision as his unwillingness to canonize the social roles found in his environment" (Stony the Road We Trod, 246). If Paul simply said, "emancipate Onesimus," Onesimus' newfound status as a freed slave would only be one step above the bottom rung of Greco-Roman society. The freed slave is not at the same social level as that of a free person, as the diagram below indicates.
|© 2014 Max Lee|
Notice that freed slaves are just above (unfreed) slaves but socially still below everyone else. Free persons were a higher and separate class but even among free people there was a very wide spectrum of privilege and position: some were manual laborers, others merchants, still others were magistrates, and even fewer were nobility who occupied the upper echelons of the Roman Empire .
Did Paul simply want to make Onesimus a freed person, canonizing Onesimus' social role for his time and ours, or did Paul have something much grander in mind?
A freed person would still require help from his former master to make a jumpstart in life. The freed person, just emancipated, would require a patron who could sponsor, write letters of recommendation, and provide the initial resources or raw materials to open a new business. The freed person would become entangled in a web of financial and personal obligation under the patronage-client system and never be truly free. At the festivals and banquets, when people sat by social class, the freed person could never recline and eat at the same table of his former master.
In contrast, only in the church were slaves treated as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The church was called to think creatively about how our new identity as members of God's family can be reflected in our social relationships in the wider world. Making Onesimus a freed slave would be too easy. Philemon was challenged by Paul to do more. Yes, emancipate Onesimus (make him a brother in the flesh), but more importantly treat your former slave as a brother in the Lord, beloved, for whom Christ died (1 Cor 6:20). Slave and free persons would share the same table and break the same bread at the Lord's Supper. Their communion would be nothing short of a revolution in a world where the privileged stayed on top of the pyramid at the expense of the masses.
The church was called to flip the patronage pyramid over on its heels and turn the world upside down with the Gospel. The good news is that in Christ a former Diaspora Jew (Paul), a wealthy patron (Philemon) and a freed slave (Onesimus) can be called brothers and share a common identity as members of God's family, paradoxically serving one another as "a slave of all" (πάντων δοῦλος; Mark 10:42; cf. 1 Cor 9:19).
Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about slaves/slavery in the Greco-Roman world (in Greek doulos/δοῦλος). 4) Interpret 1 Cor 7:20-23 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding the status and function of slaves in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 1 Cor 7:20-23? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.