Trajectory

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

By Chuck Griffin

A few years ago on television, there was a show where a fictional senator and president discussed their discomfort with Christianity. The senator, played by Alan Alda, said, “I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for slavery. The Bible has no problem with slavery at all.”

Like all good fiction, this show dealt with ideas that trouble real people. Why doesn’t God say in the Bible, “Followers of Christ, it is wrong to own another person!”

The Apostle Paul’s words to an early Christian named Philemon are worth examining if we’re concerned about how effectively the Bible influences society. Philemon was a slave owner. Onesimus, his slave, had run away to Paul, converting to Christianity in the process. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon. 

Paul’s decision to send a slave back to his master hardly seems to condemn slavery. But Paul also gave Onesimus a letter to take to Philemon. And the content of that subtle letter is so powerful that we now call it a book of the Bible.

The official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood.

Nowhere in the letter will you find Paul saying, “End slavery now!” There’s one obvious reason. Such a direct attack on a central feature of the society in which early Christians lived would have invited terrible punishment.

Instead, Paul uses gentle coercion to change the situation. First, he speaks lovingly of the slave owner’s faith, found under Paul’s pastoral guidance.

Then Paul speaks of the slave’s faith, calling him “my child” and asking the master to receive the slave as a brother. The implication is obvious—how do you enslave and punish a beloved brother or sister?

As the television senator noted, there is no outright rejection of slavery in the letter to Philemon or anywhere else in the Bible. But we must learn to think of the Bible as more than a rule book from ancient history. It often works like a launching pad for ideas, ideas that God has shot like rockets through time so people are changed.

Now, we do have to be careful; some people would take a concept like scriptural trajectory and use it to argue that the Bible says whatever they want it to say. We have to be certain that we go in the direction God first sent us. Otherwise, we will spin north, south, east and west until we finally hit the ground like an experimental missile.

God used Paul and his little letter to change the world dramatically over several centuries. Certainly, Paul wanted to free Onesimus from slavery. But more importantly, he wanted to free Philemon from any anger he might have been feeling toward his escaped slave and the wrongheaded notions that allowed the enslavement to occur.

If Paul had simply issued a rule for Philemon to follow, he never would have gotten to the heart of the matter. Was the Holy Spirit really changing Philemon? Could this slave owner find himself capable of loving Onesimus as a Christian brother?

And that brings us to the deepest lesson from the letter to Philemon. Christians change the world by changing hearts, not by rigorous rule making. Once hearts are changed, the rules for living become obvious and begin to fall in place.

Dear Lord, help us see the true trajectory of your great plan so we may conform ourselves to the holiness you offer your creation. Amen.

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