Letters to Phil #5 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I could almost hear you shouting from my study. “What the hell you do you mean – they used my letter to support enslavement! Can’t those people read a simple Greek sentence?” Well, first, they (we) read it (mostly) in English, not Greek. Second, they read what they wanted to hear, not necessarily what was on the page.

Phil, I should have gone into some detail on this. I apologize for just tossing in that throw-away line. You’re certainly entitled to wonder how later Christians could use your experience to justify a practice that you appear to reject. I’ll give you a well-known example of how Paul’s letter to you was used, and the responses that generated among enslaved audiences.

In 1833, an itinerant circuit-rider named Charles Colcock Jones preached on Paul’s letter to you to a congregation of enslaved Black people. He reported that in his sermon he “insisted on fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants.” Jones “condemned the practice of running away,” he continued, “upon the authority of Paul.”

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In response to this message, Jones wrote, “one-half of my audience deliberately walked off with themselves; and those who remained looked anything but satisfied with the preacher or his doctrine.” I wonder if Jones was as understated in his preaching as he was in his reporting. I doubt it.

This incident, Phil, was not an exception. It was a typical Christian sermon delivered by a white clergy person to a Black, enslaved congregation. In fact, such preachers and writers referred to Paul’s letter to you as the “Pauline Mandate”.  This supposed mandate was used to support and underwrite our national laws that required the return of escaped enslaved persons, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. 

Harboring escaped enslaved persons was a state and federal crime.  Your little letter is referenced specifically in political debates and legal documents of the time as a support for the institution of enslavement. The white preachers read in the text what served their interests and the interests of those white slaveholders who supported the preachers financially.

Many of those preachers were themselves slaveholders. They mined the texts of Christian and Hebrew scriptures for pro-enslavement nuggets. They used those nuggets to undergird their messages. Their messages underwrote the institutions and practices of the enslavement of Black people.

Jones’ listeners evaluated and analyzed the messages from their own locations and perspectives. He notes that of those who remained in the pews, “some solemnly declared that there was no such Epistle in the Bible.” Others in the crowd objected that what Jones declared was not the Gospel. Still others asserted that Jones “preached to please the masters.”

Some suggested that they did not care if they ever heard Jones preach again – a fact Jones apparently found quite surprising.

It was this collision of perspectives, Phil, that drove and continues to drive critical study of Paul’s letter to you. From the vantage of two millennia later, it is not crystal clear (at least to some) what Paul wanted you to do. That ambiguity left a gap in the text that pro-enslavement preachers and theologians have exploited for much of those two millennia.

It certainly doesn’t help that other letters attributed to Paul urge slaves to obey their masters and endure punishment. Other places in our Christian scriptures have similar words that seem to give aid and comfort to enslavers and white supremacists.

So, the burden of proof from Christian scriptures was typically on those who argued that enslavement was and is contrary to the Gospel. If we relied on the literal sense and sheer number of verses, then the case for enslavement seemed strong. Therefore, it was and is necessary to test the texts we have with a critical eye.

You can hear some of that critical perspective in the responses to Jones’ sermon. Half of the listeners voted with their feet. People are still doing that in our time and society. White Christian churches are still having a terrible time getting this “race” business right. People of all backgrounds are weary of this moral foot-dragging for the sake of preserving white supremacy and privilege in the Church and the society. So, they just leave.

The remainder of Jones’ congregation questioned the legitimacy of the text. We continue that debate as we try to read letters directed to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus. We’re uncertain whether those letters come directly from Paul or not. One of the arguments against Pauline authorship of those letters is their affirmations that enslaved persons should remain obedient to slaveholders. The argument is that such a perspective is certainly a degraded interpretation of Paul’s original preaching. Perhaps we can pursue that in the future.

Some of Jones’ listeners viewed the sermon through a particular interpretive lens. It just didn’t sound like Jesus to them. I think that’s right, and we continue to apply that interpretive lens in our own reading. But that puts us on a slippery slope of subjective interpretation which some find untenable. After all, in our time there are nearly as many interpretive “lenses,” nearly as many descriptions of the “real” Jesus as there are interpreters. Of course, that’s not news to you.

Still others analyzed the social position and economic interests of Jones and his sermon. He was beholden to the masters and was a master himself. His livelihood was tied to a particular interpretation and application of the text. This social, cultural, and economic analysis based on interests is a useful tool then and now. But it is sometimes associated with so-called radical politics and discounted for that reason.

I apologize for that digression. I am sure, my friend, that this must all seem like nonsense to you. After all, you know how things turned out. I am quite sure that Paul wanted you to release Onesimus from enslavement, and that you were compelled by the love of Christ to do precisely that.

Of course, dear Phil, you still haven’t told me directly that this is what happened. From our historical vantage, there is room to debate that outcome. That debate continues.

You might think we have more than enough words from blessed Paul to make up our minds. But, as you know, he could be infuriatingly indirect when he chose to be. For example, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, he speaks to enslaved persons in that church. I know it’s unlikely that you’ve read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, so I’ll walk through a bit of it with you.

I failed to mention earlier the stuff about chapters and verses. For greater ease of reading and study, we’ve broken Paul’s letters (and our other Christian and Hebrew scriptures) into “chapters” and “verses.” Yes, even Paul’s letter to you is divided into twenty-five “verses” (too short, I guess, for multiple chapters).

At any rate, in verse twenty-one of chapter seven of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes a sentence that has fueled centuries of scholarly debate. By the way, we would note that verse as “1 Corinthians 7:21,” just so I don’t confuse you.

This verse might give us some insight—if only translators could agree on what the verse says. “Were you a slave when called?” Paul asks, “Do not be concerned about it,” a translation called the “New Revised Standard Version,” (abbreviated as NRSV) continues. “Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” What, precisely, does he mean by this statement? It is at least as ambiguous (to us) in the Greek as it is in English.

You certainly can see that it is possible to translate precisely the same words with a quite different meaning. For example, in a translation called the “English Standard Version” (abbreviated ESV) we read the verse this way: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) A translation called “The New International Version” (abbreviated NIV) has a similar rendering.

Given the Greek grammar Paul uses, either translation is possible. Is Paul saying that enslaved persons should remain as they are? Or is Paul saying that enslaved persons should take their freedom if they can get it? Commentators have come to opposite conclusions based on the New Testament Greek behind the text.

In the NRSV translation, Paul seems to encourage enslaved persons to remain in their current situation. After all, Paul may be saying, the Lord Jesus is returning soon, so don’t bother with any big changes. Focus instead, he may be saying, on leading others into community with Christ and his church in the limited time left. This interpretation assumes that Paul puts everything into a brief time frame and assumes that the second coming of Christ is imminent.

However, many scholars and commentators these days believe that the alternative translation in, for example, the ESV and the NIV is the correct one. That would mean that Paul encourages enslaved Christians to escape from their enslavement if the opportunity prevents itself (presumably without doing violence or committing a crime).

Regardless of which translation we might believe is correct, it is still advice only to individual enslaved persons. Nowhere in his letters or in any other letters attributed to Paul is there a blanket condemnation of the institution and practice of human enslavement in general. Paul appears to encourage manumission and some forms of escape in individual cases. However, he is not in a position to advocate the overturn of the imperial domination system—at least not in this life.

Phil, that’s a lot of background in answer to a simple and justifiably indignant question. I want to pause to give you a chance to respond. Suffice it to say for now that there’s more in the Christian scriptures to create problems for the enslaved for centuries. I’ll be glad to share more of that with you if you have the interest.

I haven’t yet shared greetings with Lady Apphia and blessed Aristarchus and the other saints who gather in your house. Nor have I extended by prayers and best wishes to our brother, Onesimus. He is “our” brother, isn’t he? (Nudge, nudge)…

Yours in Christ,


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