Paul the slave-master: how early Christians leveraged slaves and their households

The Classical world of Jesus and Paul was decidedly hierarchical. Individuals depended upon the benevolence of socially-superior benefactors—fathers, husbands, masters, patrons, rulers, and gods—both to meet physical needs and to secure social status. To threaten this order by rebellion or abandonment of one’s post meant certain disaster—punishment, shame, exposure. Few could therefore transcend the duties and obligations into which fate delivered them.

This sociological background must be kept in mind when we examine early Christian views on institutions such as slavery. Essentially everyone in the Roman world assumed human communities naturally (and beneficially) conformed to hierarchical patterns.1 The egalitarian Jesus and the abolitionist Paul are therefore more likely than not modern inventions of an egalitarian and liberal society.

Let’s here consider the case of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.

Slavery and utility in Paul

In his letter to Philemon Paul advocates on behalf of a runaway-slave-turned-Christian named Onesimus. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his Christian master, Philemon, letter in hand, so as to reconcile slave-owner and slave through brotherly affection in Christ.

For many readers, Paul’s appeal intimates not only fraternal reconciliation but also manumission: Philemon must free Onesimus and treat him as a person of equal status (cf. Galatians 3:28). Spiritual reconciliation and equality must produce, according to this reading of Paul, social and political equality as well.

The main problem with this interpretation is that it relies on implication rather than what is explicit in the text. Paul never commands or even suggests Philemon liberate his slave(s). He hopes instead that Philemon will receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (16). Though this line is perhaps purposefully vague, Paul’s main concern appears to be Onesimus’ fate upon arrival home, not his continuing social status. Paul’s desire is to quench Philemon’s wrath, not convince him to release all of his [Christian] slaves (cf. 12, 17-19).

Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 all but confirms this. For the Apostle, freedom is valuable only in that it can be used for the sake of Christian ministry. A slave anchored to a master, like a woman anchored to a husband, can contribute to Paul’s work only in certain limited ways, especially if the master and husband remain pagan. A freedman and a single person, on the other hand, can, with their lack of obligations, devote more to the cause (7:21-23). So as in the case of marriage, Paul does not prefer that his followers maintain [relative] freedom because he opposes hierarchical institutions on moral grounds, nor because he believes being a wife or a slave is intrinsically undesirable, but because certain social positions offer certain advantages to the gospel. In the same vein, Paul considers spending time and energy on separation from either spouse or master as both imprudent in light of the impending eschaton (7:28-31) as well as antithetical to the Lord’s wise [hierarchical] ordering of the world (7:17-24). For Paul, all believers have a part to play in Christ’s victory over the nations, irrespective of one’s seemingly-fixed social rank: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called… Even if you can gain your freedom make use of your present condition now more than ever.”

With this utilitarian approach in mind, Onesimus’ position is in many ways enviable and useful. Through service to his faithful master, he can contribute to Paul’s mission as part of an elite Greek household (cf. Colossians 3:22-24, Acts 10:1-2).2 Within the clutches of a dangerous pagan world, such a household might provide Paul and his churches with lodging, funds, protection, transportation, and means of communication—all essential to the maintenance and growth of the Christian community as the day of the Lord draws near. As the writer of 1 Timothy advises: “Those who have believing masters… must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved” (6:2).

Onesimus as Paul’s slave

While it does not appear likely then that Paul requested or desired the emancipation of Onesimus, the Apostle does take care to realign the priorities of Onesimus’ enslavement. Paul does this by encroaching upon Philemon’s authority over his slave in the following ways.

  • Paul has adopted Onesimus as his son (10). As a son Onesimus has an obligation to obey his father (cf. 1 Cor 4:14-21, Colossians 3:20, Ephesians 6:1).
  • Paul writes that Onesimus has become “useful” to him and implies that he would be of better use under the authority and direction of Paul than of Philemon. Onesimus was “useless” to both Philemon and Paul when he remained at home (11).3
  • Paul says he wants to “possess” (κατέχω) Onesimus so that Onesimus might “serve” him as an extension of Philemon’s household (13). Paul then pressures Philemon regarding his outstanding debt (19). Philemon owes Paul his “own self,” presumably in exchange for the message of salvation brought to his house. The offering of Onesimus in place of his master would have therefore constituted an obvious and sufficient repayment. 
  • Paul has recruited Onesimus as his agent (17). Paul has authority to send Onesimus and Onesimus has authority to represent Paul (12). Onesimus now embodies Paul’s own “heart” or “guts” and therefore must be treated as if he were the Apostle himself.

So, rather than setting Onesimus free from his master, Paul seems interested in borrowing Onesimus as a gift from Philemon. If Philemon consents to this arrangement (8, 14, 20-21), Onesimus will remain a member of Philemon’s household but work as a slave directly under Paul, Philemon’s friend and coworker. In this way Philemon’s house will more fully satisfy the needs of Paul’s gospel.

1—Everyone was in some sense a slave to those above them; some slaves were under the authority of higher-ranking slaves (cf. Matthew 24:45, 18:23-34).

2—A slave that was not so fortunate to have a Christian master at least had the opportunity to impress upon his owner the virtue of Paul’s message (cf. 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Christians needed wealthy benefactors such as slave-holders in order to influence pagan power structures.

3—Paul seems to jab Philemon for his lukewarm dedication to Paul’s ministry. His household is not effectively managed for the sake of the gospel.

2 thoughts on “Paul the slave-master: how early Christians leveraged slaves and their households

  1. I’ve got a post coming out in Jan that piggybacks on a recent episode of the New Testament Review covering African American receptions of Paul and I mention in that piece how Paul seems to want Philemon to bequeath him Onesimus as his slave. Now I have this piece to include in the notes for further reference. Timely!


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