Dan Savage stated that, “The shortest book in the New Testament [called Philemon] is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesn’t say Christians don’t own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people.” To the contrary, Philemon was one of the key biblical texts used by the abolitionists in their argument against slavery.
The letter tells the story of a man named Onesimus who had been Philemon’s slave before escaping and then meeting the apostle Paul, who was at that time a prisoner of Rome. Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ and then wrote to Philemon urging him to receive Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
What a concept! This man was your slave, he ran away and has now become a Christian, so receive him back as your brother and no longer as a slave. Savage really got this one wrong.
As for the larger question of slavery and the New Testament, the Church in its infancy could hardly challenge the entire economic and social structure of Greece and Rome, so it worked within the system, setting in motion principles of liberation and equality, encouraging masters not to threaten their slaves but to provide them “with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9). And, to the shock of many readers, Paul taught that, in Jesus, there was neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 12:13), while Jesus himself declared that he came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18). And then there’s that letter to Philemon.
That’s why Christians like William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison were at the forefront of the abolition movement.
As for the Old Testament, slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient Near East, but the biblical system was much more humane. It was primarily a system of voluntary, indentured servitude lasting for six years unless the slave wanted to serve his master for life. Even then, both master and slave would rest on the Sabbath, if the slave was mistreated he would go free, and there was even a periodic declaration of amnesty when lifetimes slaves would be liberated.
It is only a gross misuse of the Bible that could possibly justify the American slave trade, marked by kidnapping, the murderous and merciless transatlantic middle passage, and then the selling of chained human beings like chattel – just for starts. Each of these acts is strictly forbidden by Old Testament ethics.
Added to all this was the overarching biblical principle of “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to follow this principle means to put an end to slavery. But it does not mean affirming something (homosexual practice) that the Bible explicitly forbids.
What about Old Testament laws that called for the stoning of women who had premarital sex? There’s one more article to come.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.