The Epistle to Philemon is a personal letter written by Paul to a slave owner named Philemon. The purpose of the letter was to appeal to Philemon to see a particular slave named Onesimus in his possession as more than a slave, and more of a brother in Christ. Paul reminds Philemon that he owes his very life to him, and if Onesimus has taken anything from him in his running away, he should put it to Paul’s account.
Theology: The theology of Philemon holds many assumptions that Philemon is presumed to understand given Pauline teaching elsewhere. For instance, the gospel of Christ has made new creatures of everyone who believes, and has united them to Christ. As such, all Christians are a part of the new eternal family. Whatever station in life in which they are found, their relationship to Christ and to other Christians is to be considered above any other. This does not mean that all stations in life are replaced by their newfound position in Christ, but rather that their stations in life are informed and transformed to be glorifying to God rather than just existing for the “good” of fallen society.
Notice that there is no Christless Christianity here that one finds in the social justice of liberal Christianity. Paul is not arguing for the abolition of slavery or any other cultural institution. Instead, he is arguing that all individuals in Christ must now consider one another in love. Paul himself could command Philemon, as an authority over him, but instead appeals to him in love in the same way he wishes Philemon to deal with Onesimus and his sin against him. This does not mean that the abolitionists were wrong in saying the Bible condemns modern slavery (see note below).
Paul is also not arguing that love is how everyone should treat everyone in general. It is centered on one’s relationship to Christ. He is arguing that Christians specifically are brothers in Christ, and are therefore, to see one another as brothers and to have a disposition of love toward one another. There is no call to change Roman society, only a call to change the Christian’s mind and works with good theology.
Ethics: Since all Christians are brothers, it is immoral to treat a fellow Christian poorly in any way simply because their station in life may be lower than another. Christians in power have an obligation to treat Christians under their power with familial love. This is due to the fact that one has been placed in Christ through faith, and now is now regenerated by the Spirit of God to create and transform all existing relationships between believers. The child should become a more obedient child for the glory of God, the parent a more loving parent for the glory of God, the wife a more submissive wife, and the husband a more loving husband, and the slave should become more obedient for the glory of God. Likewise, the master should treat his slaves as brothers in Christ, and not merely as personal possessions to be used and abused at will.
Note on Slavery: Slavery was used as a type of work program in the ancient Near East and the Bible. If one became impoverished, he could save himself and his family by becoming a slave. According to the Bible, if he was an Israelite, he was to be offered his freedom after seven years in what was called the Year of Jubilee. He could decide to stay or leave at that time. For the rest, it was a lifetime of slavery if one was not an Israelite, was born into it, or was captured in war unless his or her master decided to set them free. Even in war, however, slavery was used by God as a mercy upon those who would now slowly starve to death or die of exposure due to the family being killed and resources plundered or destroyed. This all took a horrible turn in the African slave trade, where only a particular people were viewed as inferior creatures and somehow alone worthy to be made slaves, as opposed to any other race. This was not a mercy, but a savage evil where people were murdered and families destroyed for the sake of financial gain. This slavery corrupted the world and was an abomination that Christians had the obligation to eradicate from their own homes, as well as to advise their nations to rid themselves of this kind of slavery that had corrupted and debased their societies. It is important to make the distinction between this kind of racist slavery and the slavery of the Bible that was often used to save the lives of the poor who did not wish to be beggars and risk their lives relying on the kindness of others or the abundance of crops. In other words, the reason why the Bible does not have a problem with slavery is because it can be used to be creational and preservational toward God’s people. The reason why it would have a problem with the racist slavery of the past four hundred years is because it was anticreational and antipreservational. This does not mean that slavery in the Bible was desirable any more than being a poor factory worker is desirable (hence, Paul argues that if one can be freed, that is much better). It just means that it is not seen as an evil, and therefore, not condemned. Instead, Christians who are slaves are told to work hard and to be submissive to their masters as though they are working for God, and Christian masters are told to treat their slaves with dignity and love for those who are in Christ, so that an avenue of welfare was redeemed and glorifying to God. It is important to understand this because many people will argue that the gospel demands that we condemn even the slavery of the Bible, whereas it is clear that the gospel demands no such thing. Instead, the gospel demands that slaves in biblical slavery are treated right, and that the anticreational/chaotic activity that was modern slavery be completely condemned.