Paul Epistle to Philemon provides a valuable historical context into the early church’s relationship to the institution of slavery. Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire (according to some estimates, slaves constituted one third, perhaps more, of the population) and it was an accepted part of life. In Paul’s day, slavery had virtually overcome free labor. Slaves could be doctors, musicians, teachers, artists, librarians, or accountants; in short, almost all jobs could be and were filled by slaves.
Dr. John MacArthur writes, “Slaves were not legally considered persons, but were the tools of their masters. As such, they could be bought, sold, inherited, exchanged, or seized to pay their master’s debt. Their masters had virtually unlimited power to punish them, and sometimes did so severely for the slightest infractions.”
By the time of the New Testament, slavery was beginning to change. Realizing that contented slaves were more productive, masters tended to treat them more leniently. It was not uncommon for a master to teach a slave his own trade, and some masters and slaves became close friends. Even more so when both master and slave were believers in Christ.
Dr. MacArthur writes, “While still not recognizing them as persons under the law, the Roman Senate in A.D. 20 granted slaves accused of crimes the right to a trial. It also became more common for slaves to be granted (or to purchase) their freedom. Some slaves enjoyed very favorable and profitable service under their masters and were better off than many freemen because they were assured of care and provision. Many freemen struggled in poverty.”
The NT nowhere directly attacks slavery. However, Christianity undermined the evils of slavery by changing the hearts of slaves and masters. By stressing the spiritual equality of both master and slave (v. 16; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2), the Bible did away with slavery’s abuses.
The rich theological theme that dominates Philemon is forgiveness, a featured theme throughout NT Scripture (cf. Matt. 6:12–15; 18:21–35; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Paul’s instruction here provides the biblical definition of forgiveness, without ever once using the word.
Soli deo Gloria!