The question of slavery
Slavery was woven so deeply into the social fabric of the Roman Empire that its economy depended heavily on the enforced contribution of some 60 million domestic slaves worldwide, many of whom were treated as mere machines.
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome around AD 57, before he had visited the Capital, he commented that in Christ ‘there is no distinction between [circumcised] Jews and [uncircumcised] Greeks’ (Romans 10:12). Some three years later, he mentioned it again in a letter from Rome, adding: ‘there is not … barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, free; but Christ is all and in all’ (Colossians 3:10-11). The letter was being carried by a run-away slave, now converted to Christ through Paul, who was returning from Rome to his home city and the church that met in his master’s large house in inland Turkey (known then as Asia Minor). In it Paul also pleaded with Christian ‘masters, treat your bondservants … fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven’; and ‘Bondservants, obey … your earthly masters, not as … people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart … as for the Lord’ (Colossians 3:22 – 4:1). Onesimus (a name often given to a slave, meaning ‘Useful One’) also carried a personal letter from Paul to his master Philemon, himself a convert to Christ through Paul seven years earlier.
The letter of appeal to Philemon the slave owner
Paul wrote in the conventional style of a letter of appeal of those days. It began with greetings to the reader and his family (Colossians 3:1-3), ending with greetings from the sender and his co-workers (Colossians 3:22-25). The main text followed the customary order: (i) a relational foundation of mutual trust, to create rapport (Colossians 3:4-9) – only after that was the slave’s name mentioned (Colossians 3:10); (ii) a mental exercise, to think through the issue (Colossians 3:10-16); (iii) and an emotional appeal to the reader’s feelings in dealing with the problem (Colossians 3:17-21). We should learn to use such a style of letter writing again in this age of fast texting and emails!
Under Roman law Philemon had the right to call for capital punishment on Onesimus. Alternatively he could brand him with the letter F on his forehead (fugitivus = run-away).
In the custom of the day a mediator (from Latin medium = middle) could arbitrate between two estranged parties; he was known in Latin as a precator (precatorius = a petition; our word precarious = dangerously unstable, depending on prayer!). Paul was an ideal mediator: as a ‘partner’ of Philemon the owner (Colossians 3: 17) who pays him for such costs as hired labourers (Colossians 3:18-19), he thus re-enacts the historic event of the cross of Christ. We, the rebellious fugitives, have robbed our Master of services due and cannot repay the debt; the Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1 Peter 3:18), God’s co-equal Son (Philippians 2:6), stood in for us at Calvary (2 Corinthians 5:19-20) like the dying mother with an offending son holding her one hand while his angry father on the other side of her bed held her other, who with her final gasp pulled their hands together in reconciliation – which they each then had to work through in honesty. Interestingly, Paul in offering to take on the slave’s debts used his favourite verb (‘charge that to my account’) for the work of Christ for us at Calvary (‘count’, Romans 4:6,8,11,22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:19). *Re-read those Scriptures in the light of this very touching story and worship the Saviour.