If you know someone who doesn’t trust the Bible because it seems to accept slavery (Paul told slaves to obey their masters and didn’t tell masters to free their slaves), here are thoughts that might help them.
● When we evaluate something, we look at the direction it is moving—toward or away from the ideal. The movement is what matters. And clearly Paul and the early church were moving away from slavery. We see Paul urging Philemon to treat the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother (Philem. 1:15-17). And Paul viewing slave and free as having equal worth: all are one in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11); masters are not higher in God’s eyes and should not threaten their slaves (Eph. 6:9). And this change Paul asked Philemon and the others to make was sufficient to, in the end, change everything. As F.F. Bruce said, in moving persons toward a master-slave relationship where the master does not threaten slaves and sees them as sisters and brothers, Paul was creating “an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die.”
● This analogy has helped me. Suppose a good friend moved into a rough neighborhood to befriend the people there. When I stop in to visit, I see ashtrays in the house. I wouldn’t conclude that my friend views smoking as good. Rather, I would assume that the ashtrays are part of a commitment to relate to neighbor, that my friend knew that some would stay away if they couldn’t smoke. In the same way, Paul did not advocate slavery’s elimination because then he would have become so far ahead of his culture that persons like Philemon might no longer relate to him and hear him. Highly regarded historians (such as Kyle Harper) say that not even the “enlightened observers” in that day “could imagine a world without slavery.” The friend was willing to sully his reputation with the ashtrays; Paul (the Spirit of God within Paul) was also willing to stoop to meet people where they were at, in hopes of moving them further. Wise coaches and mentors know that it’s not wise to confront everything that needs changing all at once, for that would overwhelm and alienate those they’re trying to help.
● From my (limited!) understanding of history, Paul had 2 options:
– Insist that Philemon and other Christian slave-owners measure up to the highest ideal (“free all your slaves immediately”), almost certainly straining his relationship with them beyond what it could bear, losing opportunity to continue to influence them; or
– Aim for the highest response he could realistically hope for (“treat your slaves as brothers and sisters”) so he can continue to relate to Philemon and the others, shaping how they relate to their slaves.
Historians give data that suggests that scenario as accurate. If so, it would have been wrong for Paul to choose to be the idealist who insisted on all or nothing and ended up with nothing. If Philemon had perceived Paul as too impractical, too radical, he would have rejected Paul’s letter with its revolutionary counsel about his runaway slave. Interestingly, Onesimus may have gone on to become bishop; at least one by that name followed Timothy as bishop at Ephesus.