How shall we feel about slavery?
It is an important question dealing with Philemon because the letter contains the story of a slave, Onesimus, who met Paul while the apostle was imprisoned in Rome. Paul led Onesimus to become a Christian. Then, learning he was the former slave of another Christian whom Paul knew (Philemon), Paul sent Onesimus back to the former master from whom he had once fled.
How could Paul do that? I heard a preacher say a few years ago: “That is advice we would no longer give.”
Old Testament law forbade an Israelite to sell another Israelite into slavery. It did not, however, prohibit an Israelite from selling himself into slavery. Typically, such indenture would only last seven years, but under special circumstances, it could be (voluntary on the part of the slave) for life (Exodus 21:5ff). Israelites were allowed to own slaves and buy slaves – as long as they were not Hebrews. If a slave ran away from his master and took refuge with a Hebrew, the Hebrew was not to return the slave to his master. In the New Testament, trading in human flesh was forbidden (1 Timothy 1:10).
But there is something more important than just slavery going on in Philemon. It is respect for authority. All men are not equal. Some have position and power that requires obedience and obeisance. Respect must be given. It’s why children must respect parents, citizens must respect and obey civil authorities, and Christians must submit to their Bishops. Philemon held such a position over Onesimus, and it was why Onesimus had to return.
When rebellion and disrespect for authority, shrouded under a veil of self-determinism, is characteristic of a people, it will eventually lead to anarchy. But more dangerous is how that attitude infects our relationship with God, separating us from Him by a desire for self-will instead of submission to His will.