“For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phile. 7).
After reading Philemon in its entirety, it is clear that Paul regarded Philemon as a true brother in Christ and as one who exercised a profound ministry in the church at Colossae. We saw in verse 5 that Philemon had a great love for “all the saints.” In today’s passage, the apostle expands upon this thought, referring to Philemon as one who “refreshed” the hearts of all the saints in the Colossian church. This expression indicates that Philemon’s love was not merely superficial but deep and long lasting, refreshing to other believers at the most significant levels, perhaps through encouragement, discipleship, financial support, and prayer.
Reading such descriptions, however, forces us to deal with the fact that Philemon owned slaves, which may seem to deny the good things Paul says about his friend in this letter. Honestly, reconciling Philemon’s godly character with his slave ownership is not easy, and that Paul elsewhere calls Christians to treat their slaves humanely but not to manumit them complicates the matter (Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 4:1). It is a significant issue for Christian apologetics, especially as society grows more intolerant of those who believe homosexual acts violate God’s moral order. How, an unbelieving culture asks, can Christians say that the slavery not condemned in Scripture is outmoded but affirm Scripture’s equally time-bound prohibitions of homosexuality? For an example from America’s highest office, the current president, who professes Christianity, questions whether the Bible should influence public policy since it does not outlaw slavery. The implication is that Scripture is untrustworthy in modern political matters because it does not abolish what modern people believe to be wrong.
Addressing the issue will take time, but first note that the slavery described in Scripture is not the same type of slavery practiced in America’s Antebellum Era. Slavery in ancient Israel and first-century Rome often resulted when debtors could not repay a loan. Unlike the ethnocentric slavery once practiced in the United States, the slavery Scripture knows of was not based, at least primarily, on biblically abhorrent ideas such as racial inferiority and kidnapping (Gen. 1:27; Ex. 21:16). God’s condemnation of these foundational principles of American slavery renders that system wholly ungodly; thus, the attempt to justify the system biblically in days past was gross Scripture-twisting.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
As we think about the believers in days gone by, it is always important that we acknowledge the truth about the things that they did. We do these believers no favors if we pretend that participation in ungodly systems of kidnapping and racism was not so bad simply because they may have been exemplary in other matters. At the same time, we should beware of judging them too harshly, for none of us lives out the gospel’s implications perfectly.