Welcome back to week three in our study of Philemon! So far, we’ve covered the power of a loving approach in confrontation, the issue of forgiveness, and in last week’s post, I told you that we’d be talking about slavery…but hold on to your seats because my approach to this topic is not going to be what you might think. I am so glad that you all are still with me in this!
I have been reading and studying just about everything I can get my hands on about the book of Philemon. A few weeks ago, I felt that I had just about uncovered everything there was to find (silly me), but when I sat down to write this post and pulled out my most frequented study materials, I was amazed at a small but significant oversight that I had almost made.
In one of my study Bibles, the description under “Title” in the introduction notes of Philemon all but leapt off the page at me, and I’m going to share it with you here:
“Philemon, the recipient of this letter, was a prominent member of the church at Colosse, which met in his house.”
At first glance, nothing really stood out as significant in that sentence. In fact, over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve read it numerous times. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this week’s post that it hit me.
“…a prominent member of the church…which met in his house.”
Ok, before the reveal of my wow moment, let me back up just a bit. In Philemon’s day, slavery was common. It wasn’t illegal to own slaves, and many people had them. Some struggle with the fact that the Bible doesn’t outright condemn slavery as evil. It was an accepted element of their society in that time, and although it wasn’t always fair treatment of other human beings, it’s important to note that slavery then was very different than pre-Civil War slavery in American or especially the horrific expressions of modern-day slavery (i.e. human trafficking). First, ancient Roman slavery was not associated with ethnicity. Anyone from any race could be a slave. Second, slavery was rarely a permanent condition. Many slaves were able to gain their freedom with 10 years. Third, slavery acted as bankruptcy. If you owed a debt that you couldn’t pay, you could sell yourself as a slave and thus eliminate any obligations to creditors. Fourth, many slaves lived far more comfortably than freemen who were poor, so often times, slaves chose to remain slaves in order to avoid poverty.
Please hear me: I am NOT condoning slavery. I am utterly appalled and disgusted by the institution of it. My point in sharing the differences above is that slavery in Paul’s time was far more humane, and thus socially and politically acceptable, by and large, even among believers. Now, translate that thinking to today. There are many things that could fit those two categories in our world today: socially and politically acceptable…but does acceptance by the world make it right?
Now onto my wow moment. Philemon, a prominent member in the church which met in his home…Y’all, he was a pastor! He was a leader in his community of faith. How he lived and led his life was on display for all, and his example was more than likely imitated by others because of his influence. If there’s one thing that has been surfacing within me these past several weeks with much Church scandal of Christian leaders falling in the news and all over social media, it’s simply this:
Believer, you are called to a higher standard than just “acceptable.” Holiness is our standard.
I think Paul knew exactly what was at stake. I think Paul abhorred the institution of slavery as much as we do. I think Paul was wise in his words and example, and he was desirous for Philemon to be the same. The world around Philemon would not think twice if he required Onesimus to return to his position of slave. It would have been expected. He was being called to a higher standard, the standard Jesus Himself calls us to, and make no mistake, it doesn’t even compare to the standards of this world.
If we claim the name of Jesus Christ, there is a rightful expectation that comes with that—to represent Jesus well, even if in doing so, you go against the grain of this world. Our convictions need not be steeped in what this world says is OK because to be quite frank, this world is going to hell in a hand basket, and we are the ones with the Hope that they need that can rescue their lost souls. Friend, this is not something to take lightly. Let’s rise up and live like Christ-followers.
Eternity is at stake. More on that next week…