As Dr Torley recently highlighted here at UD, Mr Dan Savage, an activist for homosexuality, recently tried to trash Bible-based Christian ethics (at a conference on bullying) by accusing the Bible of advocating slavery.
(We need not elaborate on his publicly displayed ignorance on issues linked to the general, historic, NT-based Christian view on the ceremonial law in the Pentateuch, and his conflation of topics under that head with, say, relevant issues in sexual ethics and principles of core morality. Let’s just say that on ethics, I highly recommend Dr Torley’s discussion here.)
When several dozen high school students walked away in protest at the tone and substance of his diatribe, he then proceeded to mock them.
In response to Dr Torley’s remarks on the incident, Mr Matzke (late publicist of the US-based NCSE) proceeded to try to support Mr Savage’s contention, dismissing any and all correctives.
The significance of all this for UD, of course, is that the incident, the tone and tactics used by defenders of Mr Savage, and the underlying significance of ethics are all quite relevant to the way major, worldviews-tinged issues are now commonly debated. Namely, by using polarisation and appeal to hot button issues presented to sow discord and contempt, as a primary response.
So, while Mr Matzke has studiously avoided the following annotated citation of the Epistle of Paul to Philemon (the whole is a one-page letter of twenty-five verses), I think it is important to headline it here at UD, to correct the polarisation tactics that are being used.
In addition, I think the epistle is fundamental in helping us understand Christian social ethics and the concept of amelioration and reform of evils as hearts are softened and minds enlightened by gospel ethics. Such a discussion also throws a stark light on the dynamics of willful, angry, even violent resistance to correction and reform (whether by those who name the name of Christ, or who sit on Judge’s benches or in parliaments, or even who wear the holy lab coat).
Namely: there is none so blind as he who WILL not see.
And so, let us look at the markup of Philemon that, regrettably, Mr Matzke has so far refused to respond to. It will help to recall that, per tradition, Onesimus later became Bishop at Ephesus.
Let’s roll the tape (with slight adjustments):
>> Philemon 1
English Standard Version (ESV)
1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
[a –> Establishes a context of fraternity, mutuality and fundamental equality in the image of God, in the redemptive grace of God.]
Philemon’s Love and Faith
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.[a] 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
[b –> Reminds Philemon of the good path that he began, and now is going to need to build on.]
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus,[b] whose father I became in my imprisonment.
[c –> I have power to command, based on personal obligations you hold and loyalties, but that will not deal with the heart issue, so I move to the platform of love and the brotherhood of men in God by creation and redemption.]
[d –> Onesimus, BTW, means, useful or beneficial, so Paul is about to use the issue of a prophetic name as a rhetorical pivot.]
11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
[e –> He is going to the heart of the issue: do you see that this is one who is of like flesh and blood, family and redemption with us? How, then can you stand on the legal points of that which was regulated because of the hardness of men’s hearts, lest it be even worse? Recall: I hate divorce, but for the hardness of men’s hearts, regulate it lest it be even worse. Then, as hearts are softened by the gospel, I call for a different level.]
[f –> Remember, too, this is going to have to pass the censors, for a prisoner who is perpetually chained to a soldier, and is on trial for his life, before those who would pounce on any excuse of promoting slave uprising or harbouring runaways to gleefully pronounce a death penalty.]
13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
[g –> Paul goes for the heart.]
15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant[c] but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
[h –> He asks for manumission, and sets it in the context of fundamental equality in God by both creation and redemption.]
[i –> Remember, this is the apostle to the gentiles, dealing with a field problem when he judged the time ripe to do so; a kairos of God where he had the hearts softened enough to address the issue, even hampered by the watching censors for a prisoner on trial for his life. And at this pivot of history he speaks in the name of fundamental equality and directly implies that liberty is the right of those who are equals in God.]
[j –> No show of learning and/or of alleged theological erudition and/or of clever rhetoric and legalistic point scoring can ever suffice to erase this. And, given that it is self-evidently true that en are equal by creation and thus nature, this principle extends without limit to the human race. The problem is not the principle, but the hardness of our hearts.]
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
[k –> Remember, the one to whom Philemon in ANE culture, owes his all.]
18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
[l –> Paul offers compensation for any losses.]
19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
[m –> Paul explicitly appeals to the cultural norm of a debt of honour of Philemon to Paul. And, multiplies it by the principles of brotherhood and redemption plus duties of mutual support and encouragement in Christ.]
[n –> To reinforce this, he does not use an amanuensis at this point, but as the one who holds authority, writes in his own hand. One can see Timothy coming over and handing the pen to a man manacled to a Roman soldier in armour, sword at his side. This is a statement of Paul’s theological will and legal stance.]
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
[o –> Paul here hints that his confidence is that Philemon’s heart has been softened through the gospel allowing him to see the light of the message of brotherhood, equality and right to be free.]
22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
[p –> Paul thus implicitly dates this letter as being of his first imprisonment in Rome, and that this is c 62 AD. In this context, he is saying that he expects to be set free and he is coming, expecting to follow his son Onesimus, and expects that his heart will be refreshed. Indeed, Onesimus is clearly the messenger sent with the letter, which obviously is also a subtle announcement that the trial before Burrus is expected to go well. Which, evidently, it did.]
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philemon 1:6 Or for Christ’s service
Philemon 1:10 Onesimus means useful (see verse 11) or beneficial (see verse 20)
Philemon 1:16 Or slave; twice in this verse (for the contextual rendering of the Greek word doulos, see Preface)
[–> Cf. pastoral reflection, from an Orthodox perspective, here. This in effect informal commentary, here, is also useful.] >>
In short, we here see a case study on how genuine reform and enlightenment work, through moral enlightenment and yielding to the good. We also find how, in the providence of God, a reformation strategy that works in the teeth of even brutal dictatorships — and that is just what Imperial Rome had become — can work, so long as there is a modicum of respect for law, order and fairness.
(Remember, this is a letter that passed the censors, in a context where “anything you say or do can and will be used against you.” As in: off with your head. Literally.)
We also see how genuine reforms move towards the ethically sound and the sort of appeals that genuine reformers make, as well as how they earn their stripes to make such appeals.
Of course, this exposition was in the context of the accusation that the Bible supports or even advocates slavery. Leaving off for the moment discussion on just what varieties of meanings, circumstances and realistic alternatives lurk in the terms being used in the original and in translation, we can see that in Biblical ethics, slavery is plainly an evil, to be ameliorated at minimum, and to be removed if and when possible. If someone is unwilling to acknowledge this, there is but little hope for reasonable dialogue, so we can only correct for record. Similarly, no amount of snipping out and quoting of verses to make debate talking points or erudition can remove the impact of this specific, concrete case and the principles it lays out.
Indeed, where some insist on brushing this sort of caution and balancing remark aside, they need to hear one of the grimmest warnings in the Bible:
2 Peter 3:15 . . . count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.
There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.
18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. [ESV]
We are warned that there are things in the scriptures that are not for novices, so we should take care in how we handle the text.
In addition, we are warned against the error of the evil which are what in my native parlance would be called: own-way [they refuse to be governed by sound principles and insist on doing as they please and denigrating those who would differ or correct], who are apt to quote and wrench in ways that mislead the unwary.
It is in that general context that I went on to say:
Do you see how this is the plain pivot of the NT teaching on slavery, and how this extends immediately to any number of real abuses in times and places?
Do you understand why reform based on softened hearts is the better path to abolition of grave social injustices, and that in the meantime, if ameliorative and restraining measures can be got through, they should?
Also, do you see why any attempted justification of this particular abuse as supported by the Bible MUST be fallacious and will founder on the many pivotal principles of Christian theology that it must ignore or pervert?
Do you also see why I am incensed to see the sort of toxic rubbish that Mr Savage stood up to spew out in the name of objecting to bullying in schools?
Yes, I am incensed. Mr Savage is a public spokesperson, who was speaking to the young in an educational context. He therefore had a special duty of care to be fair, balanced, respectful and truthful. Instead, he took occasion to vent his spleen, spewing out his hostility to the Christian faith, the gospel, the Scriptures and the God of the Bible on what was essentially a captive audience. And when some took the only act of protest they could, walking out, he took occasion to verbally assault them.
Sorry, I am not going to make excuses for Mr Savage: that pattern of angry, bullying public behaviour in the name of correcting bullying tells us all we need to know about what would happen were the Dan Savages to hold real power over people’s academic results, career prospects or even court cases.
It also brings to mind a caution from the apostle James that highlights themes we all struggle with:
James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.
4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell . . . .
11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. [ESV]
So, let us never forget the out-of-control conflagration we can so easily set off with that little member in our mouths that is so powerful and so potentially destructive. But, which can also be used to bless and build.
But, that is a secondary (though important) point.
The main point remains: Christian, gospel based biblical ethics sees that there are many abuses and evils in society at any given time. Given the moral dilemmas of being all too human — finite, fallible, fallen, too often ill-willed and stubborn — they cannot all be swept away at once. Sometimes, the worst are going to be backed up by overwhelming force.
So, reform should proceed by the gentle path of enlightenment and heart softening.
First, at personal levels and through relationships in which we have the sort of gentle influence we see Paul exerting on both Onesimus and Philemon — just think, of how it must have been to be an escaped slave sent back home with a cover letter!
Then, reform proceeds in the church and family, then as a critical mass builds up and a chain reaction of renewal of life and institutions proceeds, reformation and transformation of the society as a whole become possible.
But, such genuine reformation will show itself ethically sound.
Which — as the slavery case shows (if you know the history, as opposed to the myths) — is usually not a trivial challenge.
Though, it may seem that way in retrospect.
So, let us take a leaf from Paul’s letter to Philemon, conveyed by Onesimus. END
F/N: This video, sadly, has to bring the issues right up to date, as in one form or another slavery and the like are still with us, so let us renew our determination to rid our world of this shame: