It was Gaius, a renowned legal expert in ancient Rome, who said that slavery was a human institution not found in nature and that another human institution, war, brought the bulk of the slaves into the Roman Empire. Slavery is a vile evil that has existed throughout history in spite of many attempts to eradicate it. The practice so permeated Rome that Senators there quickly shot down an idea of forcing slaves to wear an identifying mark that would allow people to see who were slaves and who were Romans for fear that the slaves would see safety in numbers and seek to revolt. Some Romans sought to deal with the slavery issue by freeing their slaves, but manumission was a double-edged sword for those brought up in slavery – they often had not learned any skills that would allow them to make a living as a freedman. Still so many sought to manumit their slaves that the Romans eventually passed a law to limit the number of slaves that could be freed in a slave owner’s will.
Slavery was always a double-edged sword for people with a conscience: they didn’t like it, but they couldn’t live without it. In ancient Rome, some slaves were highly skilled and became doctors and accountants, so they did have some measure of social mobility, but even that didn’t excuse the practice. As Paul dealt with the issue of slavery, he dealt with the situation as it was. When talking with slaves, he talked about being the best slave Christians could be so that slave owners could be won to Christ. When talking to slave owners, though, he talked about fair treatment and even suggested the radical idea that slave owners should consider freeing their slaves at that immediate time. When Paul wrote to Philemon, this was his cause. “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” (Philemon 8-10)
Paul understood human nature. He let Philemon know that he could order Philemon to release Onesimus to him. Imagine the ripple effects if he were to have done that. It could have caused chaos as slaves sought to tell their masters they should be free, and masters might forbid their slaves from following Christ or even going to church for fear that this teaching of Paul might overturn Roman society. No, Paul instead focused on his relationship with Philemon and on his relationship with Onesimus. I don’t know whether Onesimus was sent by Philemon in the first place or if he ran away so that he could be with Paul. In either case, Paul noted that Onesimus had been useful to Paul – acting as if he were free, but useless to Philemon as a slave. Paul didn’t seek to change Roman Law with a new Christian law that would cause resentment; he sought to make Philemon examine himself and respond out of love for what Jesus had done for him.
Society has tried to force a lot of changes in the way things are done. To be fair, laws that allowed these evils needed to be changed. At the same time, even more important than a legal change, is the change that needs to come in the hearts and minds of the people who are involved with these evils. They have been brought up to accept behaviors that are evil and will often resent attempts to make them change by means of law. If we don’t bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to these people, they may change their outward practices, but in their hearts, and in secret, they may continue. In fact, slavery continues today. The key to eradicating slavery, or any societal evil, lies in the grace of God to change people.
Lord, I am a man of unclean hands amongst a people of unclean hands. Change us through Your grace.