“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me” (Phile. 21-22).
Although Paul never explicitly tells Philemon to free Onesimus, Philemon 21 is the clearest evidence that freedom is what the apostle finally sought. Having encouraged reconciliation between the two men and a restoration of their relationship (Philem. 8–20), Paul says in verse 21 that Philemon will surely go beyond what has been asked. How can Philemon go further than receiving his runaway slave without punishment, fellowshiping with him as a Christian brother, and enduring any negative social consequences? He can free Onesimus, of course.
This verse, along with the broader apostolic teaching about the new family God has created in Christ Jesus, shows us that while Scripture never explicitly commands believers to free their slaves, it does create an environment in which owning slaves eventually becomes unthinkable. If we truly understand that other Christians are joint heirs with us in Christ Jesus, full members of the household of God and as valuable as we are in His sight (John 9:1–13; Eph. 3:6), how can we put them below us through buying and selling them as if they were some kind of disposable commodity? Philemon, perhaps more clearly than any other epistle, shows us the radical implications of what it means to live as the community of God’s children in this world.
Are we then more ethically advanced than the apostles, since they did not end slavery but we have? The answer, of course, is no. Remember that each epistle was directed to a community and read aloud to many individuals even when the primary addressee was a single person. None of the master-slave relationships in these churches were identical, and as we have seen, life in the first century was such that a blanket command for every master in those communities to manumit their slaves could have made life worse for many of those slaves. The Holy Spirit inspired the apostles, but He did not give them personal knowledge of every situation in the churches they addressed. Without personally knowing every slavemaster and slave, they could not tell each individual specifically what to do. What they could and did do, however, was lay out principles of humane treatment that could apply across the board, principles that could be followed in any master-slave situation even when a slave could not be freed because it would condemn him to a life of poverty and danger.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Though the Bible allowed provisions for indentured servitude, which was a humane alternative to such harsh punishments for failure to pay one’s debts, such as debtor prisons, nevertheless the seeds for the abolishment for all forms of slavery were clearly sown in the New Testament. Church history evidences the impact of Christianity on the abolition of slavery as believers live out these implications of the gospel message.