Philemon: A Violation of TrustPart 3

Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery?

Philemon, a man of God, a ministry partner of the apostle Paul and leader of the church of Colossae, had a slave. This is incongruent to us, isn’t it? And rightly so. Slavery is wrong in any and all forms. It’s confusing to consider that the early Christians of the first century had slaves.  


I’m not going to justify Philemon or make excuses. But just like any book in the Bible, the context is important. When we read stories and passages written thousands of years ago from different cultures, we need to be careful to understand the setting of the writing and not impose our ‘current’ perspectives upon the text.  


Slavery was widespread in the Roman empire and considered a normal way of life. It has been estimated that up to one third of the population were slaves. Slaves were not considered citizens but tools and assets of their masters. Masters had all the rights to do with their slaves as they pleased. This was and is wrong at every level. 


Early in the first century as the church of Christ emerged under the leadership of the apostle, slavery in Rome had already taken a turn toward improvement. It was still wrong, of course, but the overall conditions for slaves began to improve significantly. In AD20, the Roman senate voted to allow slaves the right to be tried for accused crimes. Also, the right for slaves to be granted (or purchase) freedom was on the increase as well.  


In Paul’s day, slaves could have professional careers such as doctors, accountants and teachers. They also contributed to the cultural environment as artists and musicians. It became common for a master to apprentice their slave and teach them their trade. In many cases, slaves had much better lives than many of the freed individuals. Many newly freed slaves found themselves without food, shelter and an immediate source of income.


Once again, this does not in any way justify slavery. But it does add some context. 


The writings of the apostles did not condone or condemn slavery. Once again, this seems odd to us knowing that the immoral institute of slavery dominated the daily lives of Roman citizens. Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery, which was a dominating societal force in first century Rome? 


What could the apostles have done? 


  • The apostles could have appointed and set aside Christians to infiltrate the government in order to garner influence and make societal changes. 
  • The apostle could have circulated letters condemning slavery and require Christians to abandon the practice and set their slaves free.  
  • The apostle could have organized marches and peaceful protests condemning slavery and demand freedom for all slaves.  


There is no indication that the apostles did any of these things. Why? Once again, this is difficult to understand for those of us who believe that all citizens have the right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many Christians today believe that life and liberty are worth fighting for. However, the apostles didn’t approach societal change as activists or protestors.  


So, what did they do? What can we learn from them regarding societal change and influence? 


  • They preached the gospel. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I Corinthians 2:2. When Peter preached his first sermon in Acts 2, it was all about the gospel. When the people responded by saying, what shall we do? He replied, repent and be baptized … be saved from this perverse generation!  
  • The apostles were committed to changing the perverse generation through the transformation of the heart, one person at a time. They did not focus on the transformation of societal norms, government and legislature. They devoted themselves to the gospel which changes one’s heart. 
  • This is only my speculation … but if they had focused on societal change, specifically slavery, while also preaching the gospel, the entire structure of life and economics in Rome could have been disrupted with riots and rebellion. The distraction would limit the impact of the apostle’s gospel ministry and shift the focus off the spiritual impact of salvation. 
  • The apostle Paul sought to preach the gospel to the unsaved and THEN influence the way Christians interact and treat slaves. When Paul writes to the church about interpersonal relationships, the sentence structure overlays all relationships for Christians to be covered with this meaning; submit to one another.
  • Paul taught that Christian slaves were to submit to their masters with reverence and obey them from the heart as if they were obeying Jesus Himself. Masters were taught to submit themselves to their slaves with respect for them as fellow heirs of Jesus, knowing that in the kingdom of God, they are equal before God.  

NOTE: I’m not making a statement as to how you should handle your ministry and at what level God leads you to influence our government, our laws and our society. What is happening today in our country is frightening. But I am saying as you seek God regarding your daily ministry, realize that the gospel message – we are sinners, Jesus died for us, turn to Jesus and embrace Him by faith – is our first and highest calling among our family, friends, community and nation. 


One last consideration: Paul calls us to lead a quiet life, especially toward and around unbelievers. If you are a fighter by nature, this may be hard to accept. Paul wrote … indeed you do practice (love) toward all the brethren … but we urge you, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands … so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. I Thessalonians 4:9-11. 


Paul also called us to pray for our governmental leaders and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved I Timothy 2:1-4. 


Father, the apostles focused on the gospel and the transformation of the hearts of people. Do we really believe that the gospel of Jesus is the key to saving our nation? I hope that we do because You and You alone are the true and eternal Savior of the world. Help us to speak the gospel with our lips and live out the gospel with our actions.