Paul and the runaway slave

It was about the year 60 A.D. The apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome, his first imprisonment there, living under house arrest. A slave named Onesimus came to Paul. Onesimus belonged to a Christian named Philemon who lived in Colossae. The slave had run away from his master, apparently stealing some things in the process. (money? his master’s signet ring to facilitate travel? food and clothing?)

Paul meets with Onesimus, converts him to the Christian faith, then sends him back to Colossae (along with Tychicus) bearing at least two letters: Colossians and Philemon. The letter of Philemon requests (orders) Philemon to pardon Onesimus and to send him back to Rome to help Paul. (Note Paul’s mention of “obedience” in Philemon 21, which lets us know this was more than just a suggestion)

A few points and a hypothetical or two:

  • Under Roman law, harboring a runaway slave was illegal. If someone found a runaway slave, they had an obligation to return them to their master.
  • Paul didn’t turn Onesimus over to the authorities. Being under house arrest, he had easy access to Roman law enforcement officials. Paul did not have Onesimus arrested.
  • Paul’s priority was on teaching Onesimus the gospel. Paul didn’t say, “Return to your master, make amends for what you stole, then we can talk about Jesus.” It’s also reasonable to think that Paul waited until he had finished the Colossian letter before sending Onesimus back to his master.
  • Would Paul have sent Onesimus back to a non-Christian master? We don’t know the answer to that one, but it’s interesting to think about. Runaway slaves could be punished rather severely under Roman law, especially those that had stolen something.
  • What would Paul have done had Onesimus chosen not to return? Again, we don’t know. Had Onesimus rejected the gospel, it’s possible that he wouldn’t have agreed to return. Even as a Christian, he might have said, “I don’t think it fair for me to have to return to my master, so I’m not going to.”
  • Onesimus may not have been a runaway. Frank Bellizi makes this interesting point on his blog. It’s possible that Onesimus was exercising a right to appeal to a third party (Paul) and had always intended to return to his master. I’m not convinced, but I thought I’d include that for those who’d like to study the possibility.

Lots of things to think about with Paul and the slave. What are your thoughts? Since we’ve been talking immigration, does any of this shed any light on how we should respond to that issue?

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11 thoughts on “Paul and the runaway slave

  1. In this example and others, we see that even though Onesimus had recieved the Gospel and Salvation, he was still under the obligation of the civil law of the time. We must remember today that we are obligated as well to be under the “laws of the land” so long as they do not directly oppose God’s Law or cause us to sin. Paul therefore rightfully instructed Onesimus to return to his lawful master (in my opinion Paul would have told him to return to a non-Christian master as well). Paul twice writes:

    Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, (Ephesians 6:5 ESV)
    Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
    (Colossians 3:22 ESV)

    Today, should we not look to our employers and elected official as our “earthly masters”? In being good citizens (slaves) we do the will of the Father and in turn please Him.

  2. I think it is important that we remember that Paul’s first obligation was the gospel and in this case, teaching Onesimus the gospel. As this pertains to the issue of immigration and illegal immigration (since I know that is what’s on your mind :}), it seems like we have too many American Christians whose primal concern is the well-being of America rather than the gospel. So this is an important reminder…as Christians, the gospel is always our priority.

  3. Doug,

    I have a problem with the statement “we are obligated as well to be under the “laws of the land” so long as they do not directly oppose God’s Law or cause us to sin.” I hear that a lot, but don’t see it in Scripture. An important thing to note is that Paul NEVER makes such a statement, not even in this case where it would make sense.

    I’m not advocating law breaking nor anything of the sort. But I know that many things that Christians should not have supported were supported because they were “the law of the land.” Think genocide of native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.

    Laws can be unjust without seeming to “directly oppose God’s Law.” When the Nazis required Jews to wear a star, that didn’t seem to oppose God’s Law. When the U.S. rounded up people of Japanese descent during World War II, Christians didn’t see it as violating God’s Law. I’m afraid that relying too heavily on “the laws of the land” leaves us overly passive regarding the oppression of others.

    Grace and peace,

  4. Tim,

    All the cases you cite are in opposition to God’s law. His Son Jesus cited 3 Commandments, Love God, Love each other, and be willing to die as He did.

    Because Christians in those times, misguided as they were did not see it; all the acts you use as examples ARE IN DIRECT opposition to God’s Laws as given by Christ.

    This is where they missed to message, and we must be careful not to do likewise.

    Hope this clarifies my earlier statement.

    Yours in Christian brotherhood,

  5. Atop the other great comments, I think it’s important that Paul admits to considering keeping Philemon in verse 13. This means he likely would have personally paid for either Onesimus’ citizenship or as personal property – either of which would have also put the servant in good legal standing alongside his new spiritual citizenship. If this is the case, the implications for us are wide.

    As to the point about obligated to the “laws of the land” and Doug’s great follow-up, I think the danger there is when we allow our entho-pomorphic (I think I made that word up) view of the scriptures fool us into justifying laws that may run contrary to the spirit of God’s word while appealing to our sense of national pride and/or security.

    If you don’t mind me shamelessly plugging my own blog here, I wrote a rather lengthy piece on the book of Philemon a few years ago that you might like:

  6. Tim,

    What do you think about Paul harboring a slave in light of what he writes in Romans 13 about submitting to governing authorities?


  7. Guy,

    I’ve written quite a bit about Romans 13 on this blog. I think the passage is seriously misused and overused. I don’t think Paul took those teachings the way American Christians took them. If we dare try to prioritize them, I think Paul would take the law of Christ first, the Mosaic law second, and Roman law a distant third. Romans 13 seems to have much more to do with rebellion and insurrection than doing something that would harm your neighbor just to follow a manmade law.

  8. Of course, when it comes to the genocide of Native American Indians, Jim Crow Laws, etc…, we have the benefit of hindsight to see that those policies were clearly a violation of God’s will (even though many at the time thought they we in concert with God’s will). The question regarding immigration policies and Christianity is whether or not fifty years from now another generation of Christians will look back on those policies, which many Christians support, and see them as an injustice…a violation of God’s will.

  9. Rex,

    That’s what I’ve been wrestling with. It seems that we’re rarely on the front end of these things. I think part of it is almost a continuation of the old divine right of kings outlook. Instead of applying it to kings, we apply it (selectively) to our government. Instead of viewing our government with distrust, we tend to see it as an extension of the church, leading us toward justice.

    In some ways, it was easier in the first century when you knew that the government was promoting a totally different value system. With the pretense of a “Christian nation,” it’s hard to get people to take a hard look at the justice of our laws.

  10. And it gets all the fuzzier when those who push the “Christian Nation” thing push those same ideals, attitudes, and potentially laws that may run contrary to Christ’s teachings…which opens a whole new can of worms: When certain people are in power, many Christians inherently view them with distrust and will not stand anything that runs contrary to God’s will; when others are in power, we’ve had a tendency to defend, even adopt, some of their less-than-scriptural views and attitudes.

  11. At my church they teach us that what Paul and Onesimos did was right; but I am sorry I would neither send a runaway back to hi s”owner” nor obay by going back ; Christian or non believer. The least one can expect from a slave is for him to stay out of the reach of his so called “master”

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