Paul and slavery in Philemon

My question is this: In the epistle, is Paul asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, or not? Some commentators say he isn’t, some say he is, though in the form of a heavy hint rather than an outright, clear-cut request. This is the key passage (verses 16-18):

15 Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.


Comments

  • Looks like a VERY heavy hint to me. Don't think you could get heavier without plainly stating an outright order, which would undermine what Paul was trying to do in mending the relationship.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    Wot she said!
  • Ray SunshineRay Sunshine Shipmate
    edited January 31
    @Lamb_Chopped and @BroJames, thank you both. What has aroused my suspicions is that any commentator, whether Catholic or Protestant, clearly has a vested interest, so to speak, in proving Paul not guilty of the charge of being soft on slavery as an institution. I wanted to make sure that the text does, in fact, support that verdict.
  • On the issue of slavery as on the issue of the role of women, Paul can be read as being reactionary, but in fact I think he helped sow the seeds of liberation for those with ears to hear.
  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    Why would the institution of slavery require subtle sowing of seeds, when Paul gives the institution of pederasty no quarter at all?
  • IMHO Paul wasn't intentionally taking on ANY institutions, as he believed he'd been sent to preach the gospel full stop. What the gospel did to various institutions over time could be left in God's hands. Nobody can take on every dragon.
  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    edited February 2
    Isn't challenging evil institutions part of preaching the gospel? What use is a gospel which leaves injustice carrying on? How does that proclaim freedom to captives?
  • IMHO Paul wasn't intentionally taking on ANY institutions, as he believed he'd been sent to preach the gospel full stop. What the gospel did to various institutions over time could be left in God's hands. Nobody can take on every dragon.
    KarlLB wrote: »
    Isn't challenging evil institutions part of preaching the gospel? What use is a gospel which leaves injustice carrying on? How does that proclaim freedom to captives?

    Some preachers see their mission as calling out converts from the world, others see it as changing the world. Most of the time it probably makes no difference, in practice. But here in this epistle, which of the two is Paul? Some Bible commentaries say he is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back in brotherly love, though without ending their owner/slave relationship, i.e. to treat him humanely but without manumitting him. I'm told that the Greek is unclear, that both readings are possible, not least because the term doulos covered quite a wide semantic range. There were several different forms of servitude/ serfdom/ slavery.
  • Paul's talking about himself personally, not about every Christian. Other Christians have other callings. Mine happens to be as a writer and backup in the Vietnamese mission of this city. A friend has a hospitality ministry. There are others who have anti-slavery callings. You figure out where you belong in the body of Christ, and you do your work--and help everybody else when the occasion comes along. But you don't try to do the work of the whole body singlehandedly. That's a recipe for burnout.
  • "Is Paul asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, or not?"

    I don't think he is.

    From the writings of Paul, it would seem that he rarely relied on subtle hints and preferred the more blunt approach to knotty questions. If Paul was asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom, I would expect such a request to be pretty explicit.

    What Paul IS doing is asking Philemon to accept Onesimus back without punishment. There would be a very real danger that even a Christian slave owner might inflict heavy punishment on a runaway slave and it is this possibility that Paul is quite clearly attempting to prevent.

    As uncomfortable as it may seem to us, Paul (and pretty much the whole of the early Church) seem to have had no real problems with slavery - certainly not to the extent of ever suggesting that

    For example, in Ephesians (yes - I know that Paul may not be author of this), we find:
    "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

    And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality."


    No suggestion there that masters should release their slaves.

    And in Titus, we read this:
    "Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour."

    In short, as far as I can see, Paul accepted the social structures of his time (including slavery). He certainly thought (to begin with at least) that the world was about to end and so probably saw no great need to address unjust structures.
  • KarlLBKarlLB Shipmate
    Worse, he doesn't seem to have recognised they were unjust.
  • He was a product of his time, as we all are. It's unlikely he spotted everything wrong with it, anymore than we identify everything wrong with ours.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    He was a product of his time, as we all are. It's unlikely he spotted everything wrong with it, anymore than we identify everything wrong with ours.

    I think this is exactly right. The problem comes in when people wish to claim that all he wrote is infallible because it is holy writ.
  • Martin54Martin54 Shipmate
    KarlLB wrote: »
    Isn't challenging evil institutions part of preaching the gospel? What use is a gospel which leaves injustice carrying on? How does that proclaim freedom to captives?

    Did Jesus do any better?
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    edited February 6
    What has aroused my suspicions is that any commentator, whether Catholic or Protestant, clearly has a vested interest, so to speak, in proving Paul not guilty of the charge of being soft on slavery as an institution. I wanted to make sure that the text does, in fact, support that verdict.

    I'm not sure the text supports that verdict. Take the bit just before your quote.
    I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.

    Paul is clearly very partial to Onesimus. Even if we agree that Paul is very heavy-handedly hinting that Philemon should grant Onesimus his freedom, that doesn't necessarily say anything about Paul's beliefs about slavery as an institution, just that it's something he'd rather not see inflicted on someone he calls his "son" and his "very heart".
  • I'm not getting the attacks on Paul because he hasn't condemned slavery in out-and-out terms. Do you expect Paul to condemn every evil in his time--in writing--in the surviving writings that we actually possess--in clear and unmistakable terms--or else it's just not acceptable?

    I mean, hold me to that standard, and you can go around saying I support basically every freaking evil on earth.
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    I'm not getting the attacks on Paul because he hasn't condemned slavery in out-and-out terms.

    Noting that Paul didn't condemn extracting labor from other people by force in "out-and-out terms" only constitutes an "attack" if you feel like that's something he should have done.
  • You see, that's the vibes I'm getting from certain posts on this thread--that Paul SHOULD HAVE done this. Which is just weird. Which was my point.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    It would be weird if Paul had stepped outside the worldview of the ME in the first century CE. The texts in the Bible need to be addressed as the historical texts they are; created in a specific time and place.
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    Caissa wrote: »
    It would be weird if Paul had stepped outside the worldview of the ME in the first century CE. The texts in the Bible need to be addressed as the historical texts they are; created in a specific time and place.

    Isn't the premise of the Bible that it represents eternal truths revealed by divine fiat? Arguing that it contains nothing new that wasn't already widely known/believed at the time of its composition is practically an argument that it can be ignored.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    No, it's an argument from an historian that it should be treated like other historical documents. I am not sure everyone accepts the premise you outline in your first sentence, Croesos.
  • I'm not quite sure what exactly it means, to be honest.

    The Bible is a witness to the dealings of God with humankind. As such, we would expect to find a great deal in it that is duplicated every-freaking-elsewhere, including in other religions. Who was it that said "People require more often to be reminded than taught"?
  • Crœsos wrote: »
    Caissa wrote: »
    It would be weird if Paul had stepped outside the worldview of the ME in the first century CE. The texts in the Bible need to be addressed as the historical texts they are; created in a specific time and place.

    Isn't the premise of the Bible that it represents eternal truths revealed by divine fiat?
    That’s not really how I’ve ever understood it; it seems like a fairly fundamentalist take, imo.
    I’m much closer to LC’s take that it’s a witness to God’s dealings with humankind.

  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    edited February 6
    Crœsos wrote: »
    <snip>
    Isn't the premise of the Bible that it represents eternal truths revealed by divine fiat? <snip>
    Not exactly, and even where it is, it is subject always to the caveat that humans may misunderstand, misinterpret, or misapply it.
  • EvangelineEvangeline Shipmate Posts: 27
    You see, that's the vibes I'm getting from certain posts on this thread--that Paul SHOULD HAVE done this. Which is just weird. Which was my point.

    I think this depends on your view of the Bible. The problem with Paul seemingly condoning slavery, "slaves submit to your masters..." etc is that so called CHristians used this to say that the Bible endorses slavery and justify the horrific institution of slavery. If you view the Bible as a literal guide to what is ok and what's not, it is very problematic that slavery wasn't expressly forbidden.
  • Truly, the use of ANY text in grossly ignorant and unthinking hands is a horror. The Bible is not unique in this. And it's really unfair to Paul, or to any Christian, to expect them to somehow prevent such idiocy. That's what winds me up--the sense that so many people out there EXPECT (fill in name here) to prevent any possible misuse of their words. Nothing is truly foolproof in the hands of a determined fool.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    KarlLB wrote: »
    Isn't challenging evil institutions part of preaching the gospel? What use is a gospel which leaves injustice carrying on? How does that proclaim freedom to captives?
    It may be now, in a country where there are Christians who have some access to power. It's of little relevance to the world of the Acts of the Apostles and St Paul's Epistles.

    It never ceases to amaze me, how unaware people are, and how unreflective they are, of a simple and glaring fact that ought to be obvious. The Christians of the 1st Century were a very small minority in still only part of a huge empire. To public eyes, they were an offshoot of what was already a small subculture largely without either influence or relevance outside a small strip of the eastern corner of the Mediterranean.

    If there was a boot, they were people who were at the receiving end of it, not the foot in the boot. Having a view on evil institutions, yet alone challenging them just was not on, and wasn't going to be for another 2-3 centuries at least.

    Paul was a realist. Some converts were slaves. In spite of being slaves, Jesus both loved and saved them. He spoke to them as much as he spoke to any aristocrat or Roman governor. Indeed, being called made a slave, though still stuck with being a slave, an aristocrat in the kingdom of heaven. The slave had something eternal that their master did not have. That in itself was a revolutionary message then, in a way which we, who theoretically take this for granted, cannot now perceive.

    It's that which is the context that the passage from Ephesians which @Rufus T Firefly cites in support of his claim that,
    Paul (and pretty much the whole of the early Church) seem to have had no real problems with slavery
    and
    as far as I can see, Paul accepted the social structures of his time (including slavery).
    .
    It's fairer to say that we have next to no idea what Paul thought about the sociological fundamentals of the ancient world, or even whether it was a question that either he or anyone else was considering. We don't even know whether he would have been interested in such questions or regarded them as relevant. He was giving very sensible advice to people who were in a world where, for good or ill, if they had asked those questions, they would have known they could not have done anything about them.

    As L.P. Hartley said,
    The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.


    @Crœsos I have a high view of scriptural authority, but I'm afraid I'm another voice to add to those who have recorded their disagreement with your statement/question,
    Isn't the premise of the Bible that it represents eternal truths revealed by divine fiat?
    That just isn't how the scriptures either work or should be read.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    edited March 4
    That's what winds me up--the sense that so many people out there EXPECT (fill in name here) to prevent any possible misuse of their words. Nothing is truly foolproof in the hands of a determined fool.
    Those using Paul's words to show his anti-homosexuality or paternalism or acceptance of slavery are not so much misusing his words as they are simply using them. ISTM that an honest faith ought to recognize that and treat it as the challenge that it is. How do we harvest the power of Paul's faith without incorporating the tares of his human prejudices? That is a serious issue for all of us determined fools.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    Yes. But first it behoves us to make sure we have correctly discerned Paul’s meaning as far as we can, not simply accepted what has been transmitted to us through the mindset and world view of the translators and commentators who have gone before us.

    IME people are sometimes rejecting Paul or Pauline teaching on the basis of things I don’t actually think he is saying.
  • edited March 4
    It is possible to save the bible as a divinely inspired, a never-wrong collection of writings, and to continue to explain how things as written are: nor meant as we read them, are mistranslated into English or some other. What I often perceive is move into vagueness where what is written is transmorgified into what someone wants to say the intent is, or a general reassurance that it must mean what we want it to mean because 'god is good' and other feeling-oriented faithful reinforcement of a world view. If you want to save Paul as a really good man and saint, and you dislike slavery, you explain things to save this view. If you're a 19th century cotton plantation owner, you read it to support that view and perhaps tell your slaves not to steal themselves from you. Thee are records of sermons given using Paul to tell slaves they'll go to hell if they engage in "theft of self". What is interesting re Paul is that he evidently considers slaves or this slave as a person, and not three-fifths of a person as American censuses of slaves did, and he wanted to send the slave back any way (it might be ¾ of a person, but you get the point).

    For interest, James Michener, author, wrote a fictionalized account of a minister, based on fact, giving such a "theft of self" sermon. Text here, do read it.
    I think what Christianity needs about some of these issues (also including misogny, racism, justification of violence, colonization) is to confront the evils it has perpetuated with clear discussion of its corporate sins, and requests for forgiveness. And critical examination of what truth is, and then consider reconciliation.
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    edited March 4
    Enoch wrote: »
    It's that which is the context that the passage from Ephesians which @Rufus T Firefly cites in support of his claim that,
    Paul (and pretty much the whole of the early Church) seem to have had no real problems with slavery
    and
    as far as I can see, Paul accepted the social structures of his time (including slavery).
    It's fairer to say that we have next to no idea what Paul thought about the sociological fundamentals of the ancient world, or even whether it was a question that either he or anyone else was considering.

    That's simply not true. Paul (and other authors of the Second Testament) had all kinds of thoughts about "the sociological fundamentals of the ancient world", from the role of women in religion (and broader society) to the charging of interest for loaned money to dietary habits. Even given their lack of political power in broader society they could have, if they wished, established a rule that was wrong for Christians to use violence (or the threat of violence) to extract labor from other people. They apparently saw the practice as non-problematic enough to endorse its continuation and advise any Christians on the receiving end to just suck it up and cope.
    If you're a 19th century cotton plantation owner, you read it to support that view and perhaps tell your slaves not to steal themselves from you. The[r]e are records of sermons given using Paul to tell slaves they'll go to hell if they engage in "theft of self". What is interesting re Paul is that he evidently considers slaves or this slave as a person, and not three-fifths of a person as American censuses of slaves did, and he wanted to send the slave back any way (it might be ¾ of a person, but you get the point).

    Paul wasn't trying to square the circle of counting slaves for the purpose of democratic representation without allowing them the vote, which was the prime driver behind the three-fifths clause. Paul, in fact, didn't seem to consider democracy at all from any perspective. At any rate according to American thinking on the subject a slave was three-fifths of a person for the purposes of calculating how many seats were apportioned in the House of Representatives to the state in which he or she resided (though slaves didn't get three-fifths of a vote to cast) and zero-fifths of a person in terms of their standing before courts and the law. They were considered "persons" in the vernacular and theological sense, though.
    For interest, James Michener, author, wrote a fictionalized account of a minister, based on fact, giving such a "theft of self" sermon. Text here, do read it.

    Non-fictional fugitive slave Frederick Douglass often took a similar tack, often starting addresses to his audiences with:
    I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.
  • Gramps49Gramps49 Shipmate
    Remember when Jesus told Peter because of his confession, he was given the keys of heaven and whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven? This comes from a rabbinical tradition where the rabbis would address something that was not quite clear in Jewish law. For instance: say you were walking along a path and you found a bag of gold. It isn't yours. Would it be stealing if you take it. The rabbis ruled you needed to ask everyone in so many paces from the bag if they lost something. If no one did, then it would be yours. Jesus himself did this in Matthew when he redefined adultry and divorce and setting aside property as korban.

    The Jerusalem Council did this when they discussed what to do with Gentiles who were converting to the faith, whether they should have to follow Jewish Law which would have meant the males would have to be circumcised. They concluded that was not a good idea but did come up with some minor conditions they wanted the Gentiles to follow.

    The same thing with slavery. While it was permissible during the early Church, by the time of the Reformation the reformers were beginning to question slavery. Then came the 1800's when slavery began to be banned. Now you will not find the Christian church officially promoting slavery.

    On the other hand the early church was dead set against women wearing any adornment because it made them look like prostitutes, nor were they to speak up in the assembly, and they were to have their heads covered in the assembly. Those rules have gradually been loosened---and we have Women clergy in some denominations.

    I could say the same with LGBTQA people. Paul may have been against such persons, but now the church is in ongoing discussions about how to minister to them.

    Divorce? Once a hard and fast rule against. but now not so much.

    As the times have changed so the church has the power to change as well with the office of the keys.
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