I am an ordinary white man and the book of Philemon gives me some angst. I cannot fully imagine how I would feel if I was an African American whose ancestors were abducted and unceremoniously forced into slavery. Much of my anxiety over this book and other things that I wished the NT addressed more fully stems from the reality that the NT was written to address the situations the church faced in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Christ. Awareness of American history leaves me with sympathy for how others might wrestle with Philemon and other portions of the Bible.
Paul was not addressing the future problems of America. There are major differences between slavery at the time of the early church and the slavery that existed in the Americas. The early church was born at a time when slavery was rampant. Individuals were slaves because of debts, crimes, or defeat in war. The early church began as a small minority of the Jewish community in a culture where the Jews were subordinate to the dominant Romans. Jesus and the apostles were not advocating an overthrow of the government. Christianity taught people to obey civil authority. When the church began no slave holders were Christians. Christianity spread rapidly among the disenfranchised. Many Christian converts were people like Onesimus and few were like Philemon.
Most of the slave holders in the USA claimed to be Christians. They had to purchase slaves that had been kidnapped. The NT condemns slave abduction, therefore the slave system of the Americas could not have existed without the violation of good Christian conduct The abolitionist movement had its beginning in the Quaker church. Devout Christians saw the inhumanity of the American slave system and fought hard and long for the emancipation of slaves. The American Christians that were major slave holders tended to be nominal Christians who were more interested in profits than humanity and they misused the Bible to justify their actions.
Polygamy and slavery are not ordained by the OT but are acknowledged and the law gives rules to mitigate their severity. The NT does not directly condemn polygamy but it is easy for us to preach against it because there are no examples of it in the NT and no allowance for it. When Jesus teaches against divorce He stresses that from the beginning there was one man and one woman who became one flesh. It would have been much better for American history if slavery was presented in the NT the way that polygamy was, but the NT was not written with the thought of the problems of people in the distant future.
Why was Paul not more direct in telling Philemon to free Onesimus instead of using the tactics that he used? Why did Paul not come out and condemn slavery in his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians? First, Paul felt that Jesus was coming very soon. He advised the Corinthians that if they were single stay single and if they were slaves stay slaves. Everyone today knows that we are not under a command to stay single which would mean that a slave today would not be under a command to stay a slave. This instruction was given in the context of a time and belief that Jesus would come so quickly that there was no reason to plan a vacation, honeymoon or change of employment. Second, Christians were not advocating political revolution. They were being persecuted for not participating in idolatry but this was something that the Jews had resisted since the giving of the law. Overt preaching against slavery at the time of Christ would have been tantamount to a revolution. Finally, the position of a slave was symbolic of our servitude to God. Christianity presented all people as equals and Onesimus was sent back not just as a slave but as a brother. Under Christianity the slave was God’s freeman and the slave owner was now a slave to God. Paul knew that the best thing that could happen to a slave would be for the slave’s owner to be converted and grow spiritually.