no longer as a slave, but as something much better than a slave; especially dear to me … I make no mention of a further debt, that you owe your very self to me! … I am writing with complete confidence in your compliance, sure that you will do even more than I ask. – Philemon verses 16, 19, 21
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With the early church already persecuted for its attacks on the practices of Roman rule, Paul dared not add abolition of slavery to the list.
But in his brief letter to Philemon, he couches a subtle argument that no Christian can hold another believer as personal property. Paul proclaims that the crucifixion of Jesus bought our own release from the bondage of sin, in effect freeing each believer from enslavement to evil. And since Paul brought the salvation of the Cross to Philemon, a special debt exists to the messenger. (Please don’t make me mention it again, he says by way of emphasis.) Besides, Christ also makes all believers brothers and sisters in practice. (How dare you own your own family as your slave?) In the midst of playing puns on the name of Onesimus, “profitable,” Paul even argues that the slave’s previous debts be forgiven. Sound familiar?
Admittedly, Paul has his own motive: he is asking that Onesimus might be liberated to travel in ministry as a companion and partner.
The question remains: how could this book be ignored so completely by slaveholding Christians? What else was kept distant from their teaching?
For that matter, what kept the Society of Friends so long from abolishing slavery in our own ranks?
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And for this Cause he is the Mediator of the New Testament … Thus ’tis confest, that in Christ Jesus we are elected, called, reconciled to God, sanctified, justified, adopted; by him we obtain Pardon and Redemption from all Sin through Faith in his Name we find Access to God, and Acceptance with him, in him we are made Victors over Satan, and Heirs of Life eternal. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)