Paul’s letter to Philemon carries a strong message of breaking down social barriers and establishing new realities of conduct and fellowship. It is also a disturbing text that has been used to justify slavery. Though brief, Philemon requires close scrutiny.
In this commentary Scot McKnight offers careful textual analysis of Philemon and brings the practice of modern slavery into conversation with the ancient text. Too often, McKnight says, studies of this short letter gloss over the issue of slavery—an issue that must be recognized and dealt with if Christians are to read Philemon faithfully. Pastors and scholars will find in this volume the insight they need to preach and teach this controversial book in meaningful new ways.
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“My response is terse: if he did, Christians did not listen well and neither did Paul for he simply does not see slavery in itself as a moral problem.” (Page 27)
“What can Philemon say to the modern versions of slavery? What would Paul say in our world to our churches? I repeat what I already stated: the apostle Paul held a vision where the powers of redemption were shattering the status and power symbols of the Roman Empire. Paul’s kingdom reality was to take root in a local ekklēsia beginning in the household. From there a new form of primary socialization could take root that would, could or should work its way into the whole of society. What Philemon begins to say already then is that the assault on modern slavery needs to begin with justice in the church that spreads into justice for all.” (Page 36)
“The evidence of the harsher realities of slaves must not be minimized: slaves were slaves, and the slave’s body belonged to the master. The only way to alter the demeaning realities of slavery is to treat the slave as a human being, to create a culture where each person has integrity, respect, and equal standing. No matter how ‘normal’ slavery might be in the Roman Empire, slavery is slavery.” (Page 18)
“What is clear is that in a letter (1 Corinthians) dated to the approximate time of Philemon Paul is not pressing for manumission as the inevitable conclusion of liberation in Christ but urging slave-Christians to pursue manumission if possible. This, I would contend, is as close as Paul gets to the modern notion of abolitionism. But abolitionism it is not.” (Page 29)