How To Tackle: Philemon
As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in the church office where I work. That office is in Holy Trinity Clapham, an amazing church, (ok, I’m biased, I work for it…) with a very inspiring past. Holy Trinity was home to a group of friends known to history as ‘The Clapham Sect’, amazing men and women of God who spearheaded the abolition of the slave trade.
Their most famous member was William Wilberforce who led the campaign in Parliament which would eventually get the 1807 Act to Abolish the Slave Trade passed. Slavery was an established practice in the eighteenth century and between 1450 and 1850 at least 9-12 million individuals were sold as slaves.
Wilberforce and his friends loved the Bible (they also founded what is known today as The Bible Society) and their love of God’s Word was part of what made them want to fight for justice. They were interested in what the Bible says about slavery and what God thinks about it.
Despite their amazing work, there are still 21 million slaves in our world today – 26% of those are children. So this is still an important question and one it’s worth taking some time to think about.
If you’ve ever read any of the books of the Old Testament, you’ll notice that slavery is mentioned a fair bit. God’s people, the Israelites, were slaves in Egypt, Moses led them out of slavery to freedom in the promised land.
In the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there are lots of laws about slavery including the idea of ‘jubilee’ (Leviticus 25). In the year of jubilee anyone who was in debt to someone else (including slaves) was released from that debt and able to have a completely fresh start. And in the New Testament, there is a whole book called Philemon (it’s a small one between Titus and Hebrews) that is about the relationship between a slave, Onesimus, and his master, Philemon.
So, if the Bible includes stories about slaves and has laws about slavery, does that mean God is okay with it? To answer that question we need to think about three things – all beginning with ‘C’!
When we read about slavery in the Bible, we need to remember we are reading it in the context of the fall – when things fell apart in Genesis 3. After the fall, there was a broken relationship between God and us and between each of us. Broken relationships between humans means we often don’t reflect God’s love to each other and do things that hurt, break and exploit each other, this is on a personal scale (bullying someone at school) and a global scale (slavery).
Due to the fall, things have happened in history that have not reflected God’s wisdom or love – they are not the best that God would choose for us but they have, and do, exist. Slavery is an example of this – it happened (and continues to) and so the Bible records it.
Jesus is our jubilee! In sending Jesus, God was showing his love for the whole world and that everyone could be released from their debt of sin and have new life in him. Jesus described his mission as the one who was sent ‘to proclaim release to the captives and to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). He also said that, as his disciples, we should do what he did – and even greater things.
Therefore, when we read the Bible we see that not only is slavery not what God wants but that, like the Clapham Sect, he wants us to fight to end it!
I love the Bible for lots of different reasons but one of those is that I think it shines a light into the dark places of our world. The Bible speaks of justice and it encourages us to be those who have the same heart as the prophet Amos who cried out:
Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
(Amos 5: 24, MSG)
Vicky lives in London and is the Operations Director at Holy Trinity Clapham. (We forget to collect her bio but know she is passionate about encouraging girls and women in their leadership and faith! Thank you for a fantastic post, Vicky!)