Be Not So Proud
Philemon was a slave-owner; that did not make him a wicked man. I write this at a time in our nation’s history when saying such is deemed the most insensitive thing a person can say. I have written in other places that the early Church accommodated a terrible evil while moving the world away from it. Servitude was a fact of life in the ancient world into which people were born; it was the same for our country up until just over 160 years ago. It’s extremely difficult for people such as ourselves to accept that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, godly kings and prophets of the Old Testament, saints in the New and long after, owned slaves. This kind of thinking leads us to commit the following sin—in sum, that we are better people than they were because we have “progressed” beyond such a degrading institution. I respond to that as I have in other places: Our acceptance of sexual immorality in all its perverse forms renders us unfit to judge anyone else or any other culture—and that’s only one example. I grant that the world is a more humane place than it was two thousand years ago, and I credit that to the preaching of the gospel and spread of the Church around the globe during that time. But I also know that sinful man is sinful man in every and all times. Studying history gives one a sense of humility of one’s own time and culture, and I refuse to stand in judgment over previous generations who were as immersed in their culture as we are in ours. Our task as Christians is to rise above our culture to be a godly people, and frankly few of us ever rise very high in the course of our lives. All of this said, I will strive to look upon previous generations with the grace which I hope my descendents will one day look upon ours and our obvious shortcomings.
In verses four through seven, Paul informs us that Philemon loved the Lord and the saints and was a kind and generous man, “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” He prays that this generosity “may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” No, I don’t think Paul was lying about Philemon’s character for the sake of “buttering him up” to release Onesimus. I do think that Paul was not so subtly appealing to Philemon’s virtues so that he would willingly free Onesimus—so that Onesimus might freely and willingly serve the Lord with Paul—a petition which we think Philemon granted.
There are many things hard to understand about how God has worked in a world full of human sin. Through it all, He has saved and forgiven His people: Paul (former church persecutor), Philemon, and, yes, even us.