Spring Valley
Presbyterian Church

How to Read Paul on Slavery




What, if anything, did you learn last week about Paul that was new?


One question was what happened to Paul in the period between the Damascus Road transformation and his missionary work. 


Paul says in Galatians 1:17-18, “I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but went away at once to Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus.  Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem.” 


We are not told what Paul did in Arabia and scholars differ on this.  Some believe he went to the desert to meditate and prepare for his missionary work.  N.T. Wright suggests that this was a time when a confused and zealous persecutor was reoriented.  Wright and others suggest the significant comment is that that appears in Gal. 1:11-12 where Paul says he received the gospel message not from human sources but “from a revelation from Jesus Christ” – they suggest that this clarification came during this three year period while Paul was in Arabia.  Others (Borg and Crossan) questioned this interpretation because very few prophets acted that way.  These scholars argue that Paul was a man of action not one to sit and think about what he was going to do.  They think Paul went to Arabia as part of his first mission to the Gentiles.  If this is so, this was a mission trip that goes unreported causing some to believe it was unsuccessful. 


The bottom line is that it is a blank period in Paul’s life that we know little about.




There are three foundational statements that form the basis for these mainstream NT scholars’ understanding of Paul. 


1.    Not all letters attributed to Paul were written by him – there is more than one Paul in the NT


2.    It is essential to place Paul’s letters in their historical context


3.    His genuine message is grounded in his transforming experience with the risen Christ


Who can name the three Pauls?


1.     Radical Paul is evident in the seven books of the Bible everyone agrees that he wrote. 



2.     Conservative (PSEUDO) Paul who can be found in three books (EPHESIANS, COLOSSIANS, 2 THESSALONIANS) which are thought by some to be written after his death by other church leaders. These post-Pauline letters represent a taming or “deradicalization” of Paul, a domestication of Paul’s passion and begin to accommodate to the world. 


3.     Reactionary (ANTI) Paul found in the three books (1 TIMOTHY & 2 TIMOTHY and TITUS) which all mainline scholars agree were written long after his death (early 100’s AD) and these later author(s) are not simply developing Paul’s message, but countering it at important points.  What we find here is a strong accommodation of Paul’s thoughts to the conventional mores of his contemporary time. 


Today, I want to review one theme – slavery - to demonstrate these different views of Paul.



Who was Paul?  A contemporary of Jesus - 100% Jew – a transformed Pharisee whose ministry began in early 30’s AD – schooled by the OT.


Who was Paul writing to?  Jews and Gentiles he knew (except for Romans) living in small communities as followers of the Way. 


Where were they?  They were living for the most part in larger cities outside the Jewish homeland – in Asia Minor – still part of Roman Empire.


When were these letters written?  In 50’s and possibly early 60’s AD.


What was he writing about?  Explaining Jesus’ teaching to Jews and Gentiles. 







(1-7) “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon (a leader of the Colossian home church) our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife) our sister, to Archippus (possibly Philemon’s son) our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.”   Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I always thank God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.  I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”


Paul’s calls himself a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”


Authors say Paul writes this letter while in prison in Ephesus (Paul spends 3 years in Ephesus 52-55 AD - 9 months of that time is unaccounted for – probably in prison - probably same place he wrote to the Philippians). 


Another source says Paul wrote Philemon while in prison in Rome about 63 AD


In referring to himself as a prisoner, he uses a term which literally in Greek means “in chains”. 


What was prison like?


We know from other writings of the time that prisoners were chained to their guards.  While this was a dangerous situation because all actions were closely observed and any violations could result in severe punishment or death, Paul is free enough to write (or dictate) letters and was able to visit with and get support from friends (Timothy may be the actual scribe – a common custom for friends to pay soldiers for access and special privileges). 


Paul calls Philemon his “dear friend and co-worker” and then praises him for “your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus” and finally calls him “my brother”.  Then says “your love has given me great joy and encouragement”


Martin Luther labelled these praises “holy flattery”.


What do we learn from this next passage?


(4-7) “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward Lord Jesus.  I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.  I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother”


Paul was transformed by his encountered with Jesus.  He was sustained by his interactions with “followers of the way”. 

The same in the church today – we are all sustained by love we encounter in our church communities.


He follows these accolades with verses (8-9)


“For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love – and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 


What does Philemon hear here? 


Then, Philemon hears that he can be COMMANDED but is APPEALED to do his DUTY as a follower of Christ.    


HARD SALE:  How can you, dear Philemon, refuse me whom am not only a prisoner of Christ, but also an old man?


The meat of the letter comes in verses 10-11:


“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.  Formerly, he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”


Who is Onesimus? 


Onesimus – in Greek means “useful” – was a common slave name.  Paul uses the name to pun delicately about something Onesimus did that rendered him temporarily “useless” to his owner, Philemon. 


(Father and child – a metaphor for the apostle and convert.) 


What’s going on here? 


Apparently Onesimus has come to Paul without Philemon’s permission.  On the one hand, Onesimus is clearly a runaway slave.  In coming to Paul, he has fled to the most dangerous place imaginable – a Roman prison – not only endangered his own life but Paul’s as well. 


Why would Onesimus do something like this? 


When severe punishment or even death was imminent, Roman law allowed a slave to flee to certain temples for refuge, or “to a friend” of the owner to beg for intercession and mercy.  It was also important for this “friend” slave to be someone in authority over the owner.


Paul tells Philemon that this once useless “pagan” slave is now a Christian and should be forgiven.


Now the most Radical Paul speaks in verses 12-14


“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”


What is Paul asking Philemon when he mentions Philemon’s “good deed” being “voluntary and not something forced”?


What Paul is saying is that Philemon must free Onesimus freely as a response proceeding intrinsically from faith and not as works proceeding extrinsically from enforced obedience to Paul. 


Paul goes on to explain in verses 15 and 16


“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me but now much more to you, both in flesh and in the Lord.” 


Philemon is to accept Onesimus as a Christian brother – not as one separated as a slave to a master but as one voluntarily liberated and truly freed Christian


What does Paul mean when he said “both in flesh and in the Lord”? 


The phase “both in flesh and in the Lord” is crucial in understanding Paul. 


Philemon cannot keep Onesimus as a “Christian slave” by claiming that – inside, spiritually, in our souls – we are all equal before God but on the outside he still belongs to his owner.  The equality of liberation must be both physical and social as well as spiritual and theological. 


Paul continues to push this point in versus 17-19.


“So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.  I say nothing about you owing me even your own self.”


Is there a bit of sarcasm here? 


Paul in prison is saying, here is a sworn letter, if you need a legal statement to base a judgment of my sincerity. 



There are many more nuances to this letter to Philemon than we have time for this morning, but the primary point is that Paul believes that Christians should free Christian slavesnot because they feel they ought to but because all Christians are free both in body and in spirit.




Imagine the response to Onesimus bringing Paul’s letter to Philemon.  


If, as we suspect, Philemon (a wealthy slave owner) freed Onesimus as Paul requests, the news would spread like wildfire – both within the slave community and the ruling community.


What rumours would have been unleashed?  


Slavery is a perfectly acceptable practice in the established community.  Philemon’s associates would accuse him and other Christians of advising slaves to flee their masters – think of the economic and social consequences - maybe even murdering them in their beds! 






In Colossians and Ephesians (disputed authorship), a deradicalized Paul addresses these communities:


(Col. 3:22-41)  “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.  Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.  For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partially.  Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”


In Ephesians 6:5-9, we have essentially the same message. 


What is the problem with these two passages? 


Basically, the admonition on behaviour is four times more corrective on the slaves than the owner.  If slaves will be good, they will ultimately be rewarded after they die and go to heaven.  And bad masters will end up in hell. 


Where these modifications to the radical Paul designed to pacific the Christian slave holders and help keep their slaves in line? 




Titus 2:9 (written well after Paul death)


“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.”


How is this ANTI-Paul message different from the conservative message? 


It is totally a one sided message addressed only to the slaves.  Possibly it was designed to satisfy the greater control requirements of the Romans.  The Christians didn’t want to be considered different from and possibly persecuted by the Romans.


If Borg and Crossan are correct, the radical message of Jesus is being tamed to the point it is socially acceptable.   


The Radical Paul gives the authentic and radical message of Christ – all people are equal in the sight of God and, therefore, must be in the sight of man – both in flesh and in the spirit – this is how it is in the Kingdom. 


What is the universal message(s) here?


Love your enemy – pray for those that persecute you – forgiven 7 x 70 - turn the other cheek – neither slave or free - 

Paul:  Appealing or Appalling




Paul is second only to Jesus as the most important person in the origin of Christianity.  Some find him appealing, and others find him appalling; some aren’t sure what to think of him, and others know little about him


This book – The First Paul; Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, by Marcus Borg and John Crossan – tackles this dilemma.  


What does this title suggest? There are several Pauls in the NT.  


Why is Paul considered so important?


1.     13 or 14/27 books of NT are attributed to Paul

2.     Add to this the book of Acts where Paul is the main character in 16/28 chapters - therefore, over half of the NT is about Paul and his teachings

3.     more than any other figure in the NT, Paul was responsible for the emergence of Christianity as a new religion – becoming increasingly separated from Judaism.

4.     profound effects on theologians – St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), and John Wesley (1703-1791) all claim Paul had revolutionary impact on their theology

5.     Catholics and Protestants see importance quite differentlyProtestants see the interpretation of Paul’s theology and language as “foundational” for understanding Christianity.  Catholics regard Paul as a saint and his letters as part of sacred scripture, but not in the central way Protestants do.  According to Borg (Lutheran) and Crossan (Catholic), the Catholics place as much emphasis and importance on Peter.     

So, if Paul is such an important figure, what are some of the problems with Paul’s writings?


THE PROBLEM AREAS:  Passages attributed to Paul have been used in support of slavery, support of authoritative governments, anti-Semitism, subjugation of women, and anti-homosexualism. 


I.  Pro-Slavery:


Ephesians 6:5  “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart as you obey Christ.”


Colossians 3:22  Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.


Timothy 6:1  All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered.


Titus 2:9  Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them,


II.       Anti-Semitism: 


1 Thessalonians 2:15  … the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets”.  


III.  Subjugation of Women: 


1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches … If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”


IV.      Anti-homosexual: 


Romans 1:26-27Because they do this, God has given them over to shameful passions.  Even the women pervert the natural use of their sex by unnatural acts.  In the same way the men give up natural sexual relations with women and burn with passion for each other.  Men do shameful things with each other, and as a result they bring upon themselves the punishment they deserve for their wrong doing.


V.         Support of Authoritarian Government: 


Romans 13:1-7 “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” 


Many German Christians used this to justify obedience to the third Reich. More recently, many Christians used this to oppose the civil rights movement and in support of the American government’s decision to invade Iraq.


So what does all this mean?

What do we know about Paul? 

How did his ministry differ from Jesus’?


1.     Paul and Jesus were contemporaries – Paul was possibly slightly younger

2.     Both Jewish – Paul described himself as a Pharisee of Pharisees

3.     Different environments – Jesus grew up in small, backwater Jewish village and most of his ministry was in small villages and the countryside – Paul grew up in major city – Tarsus in what is now Turkey and most of his ministry was in the big cities.  Jesus lived his life in the Jewish homeland – Paul was a product of the Jewish “Diaspora” – displaced Jewish community outside the homeland.

4.     Paul’s public life begins as persecutor of early Christians

5.     Paul has a life changing experience on road to Damascus, 3-5 years after Jesus’ death

6.     Paul spends next 25 years traveling the eastern Roman empire finally ending up in Rome where he is executed.

7.     during his life time the gospels did not exist

8.     Paul’s letters (all written in the 50’s and early 60’s) were the earliest writings in the NT


Mainstream NT Scholarship:  Most of what is presented in this book comes from what the authors call “Mainstream NT Scholarship” – by this they mean what is taught in both nonsectarian universities/colleges and in seminaries of the mainline denominations


“What differentiates mainstream scholars from fundamentalist and many conservative scholars is that the mainstream scholars do not begin with the presumption that the Bible is unlike other books in that it has a divine guarantee to be inerrant and infallibleRather, mainline scholars see the Bible as a historical product that can be studied as other historical documents are, without specifically Christian theological convictions shaping the outcome.”  


What does this mean to you? 

Is Scripture inerrant and infallible? 


What it means to me is that scripture contains the inspired Word of God – the great truths.  BUT, this truth is presented by men who were affected by the constraints of their time and the limits of their minds.  They are INSPIRED, sincerely, thoughtfully and prayerfully trying to describe the INDESCRIBABLE”. 


There are three foundational statements that form the basis for these mainstream NT scholars’ understanding of Paul. 


1.    Not all letters attributed to Paul were written by him – there is more than one Paul in the NT


2.    It is essential to place Paul’s letters in their historical context


3.    His genuine message is grounded in his transforming experience with the risen Christ




1.     letters he wrote – GENUINE (7) – all agree

2.     letters of uncertain originDISPUTED  (3)

3.     letters he didn’t write – CLEARLY NOT (3)


Damascus Road – 33 AD and his ministry lasted the next 25 years


1.  Paul’s genuine letters – 50’s early 60’s AD



2.  Disputed Letterswritten in the first generation after his death


3.  NOT his letters – written 100+ AD – called “pastoral” letters

1 TIMOTHY & 2 TIMOTHY and TITUS - 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are not believe to be Paul’s because they include references to a much later historical setting and not Paul’s style of writing.  While writing under someone else’s name seems fraudulent to us, it was accepted practice in the ancient Jewish world – not to be considered dishonest or fraudulent. 

These different letters distinguish THREE DIFFERENT PAULS


1.    Radical Paul – as revealed by the seven genuine letters – in these letters he most closely parallels the radical teachings of Jesus


2.    Conservative Paul - The Paul in the disputed letters.    These post-Pauline letters represent a taming or “deradicalization” of Paul, a domestication of Paul’s passion and a beginning to accommodate to the Roman world in which his followers in the early church lived. 


3.    Reactionary Paul – as revealed by the three “pastoral” letters (1&2 Timothy and Titus) which were clearly not written by Paul – because the author(s) of these letters is/are not simply developing Paul’s message, but countering it at important points.  What we find here is a strong accommodation of Paul’s thoughts to the conventional mores of his contemporary time. 




What was going on at the time?


What were the circumstances the author addressed?


What did the author’s words mean in their ancient historical and literary setting? 


Without historical context, one can imagine that the text means almost anything.


The context is in three concentric circles


1.   innermost – communities addressed in the early Jesus movement

2.   middle – Judaism

3.   outer - Roman empire




The Inner circle


1.     while most letters carry city names BUT they were written to very small communities of early followers of Jesus

2.     except for Romans, Paul was writing to communities he had visited and knew firsthand

3.     the primary purpose of these letters was to address questions and problems that had arisen in these small communities of believers – they were “conversations in context” – must know the context to understand the letter

4.     these communities were part of the early Jesus movement during the first several decades after his death

5.     these people were called people of the “Way” – the way of Jesus

6.     while Paul was transformed on the Damascus Road, he was sustained by his involvement with the Christian community

7.     Paul’s aim is to describe what the Jesus movement means to Jews and Gentiles in the larger Mediterranean community


The middle circle – Judaism


-  Paul was passionately Jewish – his understanding profoundly affected by his Jewish foundation

-  His scripture was the OT

-  Jewish practices shaped his life and thought before and after transformation

-  Paul thought himself Jewish – his intent was to modify, amplify and correct the Jewish religion not as a convert to a new religion


The outer circleRoman Empire


-  Paul and all his contemporaries lived under and were strongly affected by Roman rule

-  Roman rule had profound impacts of religious thought

-  For example, the Emperor was proclaimed as the “Son of God”, “Saviour of the World”, “the one who brought peace to the world”

-  Paul’s claim that “Jesus is Lord” was highest treason


Recognizing these interacting contextual issues help explain much of what Paul had to say. 


What does it mean to call Paul a radical?


The first Paul, the Radical Paul, the Paul revealed in his genuine letters describe a faithful follower of Jesus in challenging the normalcy of civilization – then and now. 


The early church followers who followed Paul and wrote in his name and were more constrained by their Jewish and Roman surroundings. 


Next week we will look at the impact of Jewish and Roman influences on the supposedly evolution of Paul’s views on slavery.