How Paul moves from reality to ideal (part 1)

Derek Ouellette —  November 18, 2012

Slavery is a reality of history.

In the New Testament the apostle Paul accepted slavery as a reality of his day. He didn’t condone it. In his mind any partition wall dividing people into classes and subclasses was taken down through the work of Christ on the cross primarily because all who are “in Christ” become family members:

“For all of you are God’s children through faith in the Messiah Jesus… Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female.” (Galatians 3:26-28, ISV)

The three groups in vs. 28 underscore that social, cultural, and gender distinctions do not affect unity with Christ.” (Women in the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal, p.137.) It bears repeating that the distinctions that exist do not affect unity with Christ, which is Paul’s primary point.

Yet he did exhorted Christians who were slaves to obey their masters with exuberance. This is how he writes it:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear, trembling, and sincerity, as when you obey the Messiah. Do not do this only while you’re being watched in order to please them, but be like slaves of the Messiah, who are determined to obey God’s will. Serve willingly, as if you were serving the Lord and not merely people, because you know that everyone will receive a reward from the Lord for whatever good he has done, whether he is a slave or free.”

Often I hear people pit biblical instructions against “sincerity” of heart. As if, to seek to follow scriptural instruction is somehow impossible with a willing heart. As if, to seek to follow scriptural instruction automatically denotes legalism. And it’s amazing that some people find themselves in the place of judges.

I love this line, “be like slaves of the Messiah, who are determined to obey God’s will.” Determined to obey. Obey God. Be determined. But out of “sincerity” and with integrity (“not only while you’re being watched”).

Now here’s what’s really interesting. Paul may not have condoned slavery, but neither does he explicitly seek to abolish it, which kind of surprises me.

In light of what Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, I thought Paul would have taken an approach that a) instructed Christian slaves to serve their earthly masters as “unto the Lord” (which he does) and b) instructed Christian slave-owners to release their slaves (which he does not). Instead he writes,

“Masters, treat your slaves the same way. Do not threaten them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

Rather than instruct masters to set their slaves free, he instructs masters to serve their slaves! And he exhorts them to treat them fairly. In other words, slaves are to be just like one of the family. And yet how this plays out in real life, in their social context, is unclear. Paul seems to allow for masters and slaves to exist in the church in some fashion. Serving one another while maintaining certain social roles.


But when we step away from a general letter written to a particular community with circular intent, and move on into a personal letter dealing with very intimate situations, we see Paul make a more direct plea, a plea to the good senses of a Christian slave-owner.

The slave Onesimus runs away from Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, and runs into Paul, a slave of the Messiah. That encounter results in Onesimus joining the family of God, thus becoming a sibling to Philemon, his master. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter that Paul personally crafts in which he writes that perhaps Onesimus’ running away was so that he might return to Philemon,

“no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” (Philemon 16)

How that dynamic played out, I’m not quite sure. The text doesn’t follow up. Assuming that Philemon accepted Paul’s word does not necessarily mean that Onesimus stopped being a slave to Philemon in some fashion. Paul says that Onesimus is coming back to Philemon as “more than a slave,” as a family member. Paul also was willing to pay Philemon for whatever Onesimus owed him. It is conceivable that Onesimus became a hired hand of Philemon; sort of like giving your little brother a job and letting him live with you until he gets on his feet.

But I want to be careful not to impose twenty-first century ideologies back on to the first century culture – even the Christian culture.

What I do see from comparing Paul’s comments on slavery throughout his writings is that:

1. Paul seemed to understand the reality of his day and instructed Christians to live in that reality as unto the Lord.

2. Paul saw a greater ideal for Christians that was rooted in the New Creation and the one new family in Christ.

3. As Paul moved from generic instructions to particular instructions he subtly moved from reality to ideal.


In our culture slavery is something of the past, legally. But let’s conduct an experiment in which we go off to some place in the world where the culture still sees slavery as the norm and where the gospel message has already been accepted. In other words, put yourself today, in Paul’s first century shoes.

How would you, a trained arm-chair theologian who comes from a culture where slavery is no longer a reality, instruct the budding new Church in a slavery induced culture on slavery?

In other words, would you preach to the church, as Paul did in his letter to the Ephesians, on how Christian slaves and Christian masters are to conduct themselves in their culture? Or would you preach to have slavery abolished?

To put this message another way, in light of the ideal (Galatians 3:28), would you preach “Paul to Philemon” or “Paul to Ephesus” in our scenario?

If you’d preach hard abolishment in that context, then do you believe Paul was not being radical enough? Would you have gone further than Paul? If so, then how does that make you feel about Paul’s “soft” message to Christian slaves and slave masters in Ephesians? If you don’t believe Paul, in a new covenant, new creation theological dispensation, went far enough, and that you’d go farther, how does that reflect in your understanding of biblical authority?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.