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The following is an excerpt from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Philemon.
Christianity and Slavery
Slavery forms the backdrop to Philemon, and it is impossible to fully appreciate the book without some understanding of slavery in the Roman Empire.
Slavery was taken for granted as a normal part of life in the ancient world. Indeed, the whole structure of Roman society was based on it. “Slavery grew with the growth of the Roman state until it changed the economic basis of society, doing away with free labor, and transferring nearly all industries to the hands of slaves” (Marvin R. Vincent, The Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon, International Critical Commentary [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979], p. 162). During the period of the wars of conquest, most slaves were war captives. By the time of the New Testament, however, most slaves were born into slavery. The number of slaves was enormous, making up as much as one third of the population of the Empire.
Slaves were not actually considered persons under the law, but the chattel property of their owners. They could be sold, exchanged, given away, or seized to pay their master’s debt. A slave had no legal right to marriage, and slave cohabitation was regulated by their masters. As already noted, masters had almost unlimited power to punish their slaves. The Roman writer Juvenal told of a wealthy woman who ordered the crucifixion of a slave and refused to give any reason except her own good pleasure.
By the New Testament era, however, slavery was changing. Treatment of slaves was improving, in part because masters came to realize that contented slaves worked better. Although not legally recognized as persons, slaves began to acquire some legal rights. In A.D. 20, the Roman senate decreed that slaves accused of crimes were to be tried in the same manner as free men (A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977], 5:459). In some cases, their wills were recognized as valid. They were often permitted to own property.
Slaves were often better off than freemen. They were assured of food, clothing, and shelter, while poor freemen often slept in the streets, or in cheap housing. Freemen had no job security and could lose their livelihood in times of economic duress. Many slaves ate and dressed as well as freemen.
Slaves could be doctors, musicians, teachers, artists, librarians, and accountants. It was not uncommon for a Roman to train a slave at his own trade. They had opportunities for education and training in almost all disciplines.
By the first century, freedom was a real possibility for many slaves. Owners often held out the hope of freedom to inspire their slaves to work better. Many shared deep friendships with their masters and were loved and cared for with generosity. Many slaves would not have taken their freedom if it had been offered because their employment was happy and beneficial. Slaves could also purchase their own freedom. Masters often designated in their wills that their slaves were to be freed or receive part of their estate after the master’s death. Manumission was thus widespread. One study indicated that in the period 81–49 b.c., five hundred thousand slaves were freed (Rupprecht, 5:458). By the time of Augustus Caesar, so many slaves were being freed upon the death of their owners that a law had to be passed restricting that practice (Rupprecht, 5:459). Estimates of the average length of time a slave had to wait for his freedom range from seven to twenty years.
It is significant that the New Testament nowhere attacks slavery directly. Had Jesus and the apostles done so, the result would have been chaos. Any slave insurrection would have been brutally crushed, and the slaves massacred. The gospel would have been swallowed up by the message of social reform. Further, right relations between slaves and masters made it a workable social institution, if not an ideal one.
Christianity, however, sowed the seeds of the destruction of slavery. It would be destroyed not by social upheaval, but by changed hearts. The book of Philemon illustrates that principle. Paul does not order Philemon to free Onesimus, or teach that slavery is evil. But by ordering Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother (Philem. 16; cf. Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1), Paul eliminated the abuses of slavery. Marvin Vincent comments, “The principles of the gospel not only curtailed [slavery’s] abuses, but destroyed the thing itself; for it could not exist without its abuses. To destroy its abuses was to destroy it” (Vincent, Philemon, p. 167).
One writer summed up the importance of Philemon in relation to slavery in these words:
The Epistle brings into vivid focus the whole problem of slavery in the Christian Church. There is no thought of denunciation even in principle. The apostle deals with the situation as it then exists. He takes it for granted that Philemon has a claim of ownership on Onesimus and leaves the position unchallenged. Yet in one significant phrase Paul transforms the character of the masterslave relationship. Onesimus is returning no longer as a slave but as a brother beloved (Verse 16). It is clearly incongruous for a Christian master to “own” a brother in Christ in the contemporary sense of the word, and although the existing order of society could not be immediately changed by Christianity without a political revolution (Which was clearly contrary to Christian principles), the Christian master-slave relationship was so transformed from within that it was bound to lead ultimately to the abolition of the system. (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1970], p. 640)