Welcome to the third-shortest book in the Bible by word count. It’s Paul’s letter to Philemon, a man who had come to faith through Paul’s missionary work. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, who had run away, encountered Paul, and been converted to Christianity. In the ancient world, fleeing as a slave was a capital offense, but Onesimus had tended to Paul’s needs while in prison and proven himself an enthusiastic and helpful follower of Christ. Paul found himself in a tight and complicated spot, and the letter gives us a look into his response to the problem at hand.
In what has got to be some kind of record, we’re still on Paul’s statements about slavery in 1 Timothy 6:1-2. Yesterday I made some introductory remarks on Biblical inerrancy and my own capacity for error, then took a look at the full scope of the Bible and its themes of liberation, concluding that the Biblical position is to oppose slavery. But we were left with the question: what do we do with Paul’s apparent condoning of slavery? If he’s positing that it’s God’s will for some people to own other people as property–what then?
As I promised yesterday, we’re returning to the final chapter of 1 Timothy to get some perspective on Paul’s views on slavery. The question’s on the table: is Paul condoning slavery? Is he justified in encouraging slaves to submit to their masters “so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against?” (1). I’m going to answer this question indirectly, by arguing Biblically that slavery is wrong and it’s wrong to condone it, and then by asking a follow-up question: what if Paul is wrong when it comes to slavery? But to introduce my points, I want to make a few prefatory comments on Biblical inerrancy.
Yesterday, I listened to a story on NPR’s Here & Now about the history of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and its role in contemporary Independence Day celebration. I was struck by National Parks Service Ranger Adam Duncan’s remarks on the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s early draft included a passage indicting King George III for fostering the slave trade in North America. The document’s editors removed the anti-slavery passage from the final Declaration of Independence, and it would not be until January 1, 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation would legally free American slaves. So today, as Americans celebrate their freedom and independence, what better topic for us to return to than the Apostle Paul’s views on slavery?
The bulk of this chapter is personal greetings from Paul to his friends and associates. I don’t have much to say about them, except that they provide an example for investing in other people’s lives. You (the reader) may not know Aristarchus, but if Aristarchus asks you (Paul) to send greetings to the Colossian church from him and Barnabas’s cousin Mark and Jesus who is called Justus, then you (still Paul) send those greetings. Keep in touch with the important people in your life. (Confession: I am mostly terrible at this.) But today I wanted to focus on the first verse of the chapter, which concludes Paul’s previous words on masters and slaves.
Welcome back to Colossians 3 again. Paul is kind of all over the place in this chapter, and so shall I likewise be. Remember, if there’s a single theme to this chapter, it is: “Hey, you! Don’t do that! Do this!”
On the whole, this All the Paul study has surprised me. I expected to encounter more friction between me and Paul; I’ve never been quite the Paul enthusiast that some of my church peers are. In my thirty-ish-year history with his writing, at times certain passages have struck me as too authoritarian, while others have seemed too theologically nebulous, too Greek, borderline pantheistic. But in tackling All the Paul here, while I’ve had to grapple with a few passages, on the whole I’ve been able to take something valuable away from each passage, dig up some good stuff and share it with you. And then Paul starts talking about slavery.