Reading: Part Three: The Main Theme of the Book
The issue of slavery
I hope this book/Bible study has helped you rethink, refocus, and perhaps even revamp your approach to the important relationships in your life; in other words, it helps you deal with friends and tactfully get along with people.
The approach of this book/Bible study has been that of a case study. We studied together how Paul dealt with his friends and tactfully got along with his people. Specifically, we examined his approach to resolving a relationship problem with Philemon concerning his runaway slave, Onesimus. We broke the problem down into its various parts. Next, we tried to figure out why Paul wrote what he wrote to fix the problem. We then attempted to extract relationship principles from the whole process that Paul went through. And finally, we tried to apply these principles to resolving our relationship problems.
However, when Paul wrote the letter toPhilemon, he probably was not just attempting to show us how to deal with friends and more tactfully get along with the people around us.
He wrote the letter because the Philemon/Onesimus problem was an example of a growing clash between Christianity and the rest of the culture of that day in regard to how people were to be treated - especially as it related to the institution of slavery.
How were Christianssupposed to deal with the issue of slavery?
If you read what Paul says about slavery in the rest of the Bible, it can be quite confusing.
For example, in 1 Timothy 6:1, Paul seems to tolerate slavery.
(NIV) All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered.
Roman law allowed for slavery. Paul could not set slaves free. But many slaves were responding to the gospel - the good news that all men are sinners, all men need to be saved by the cross of Christ, and that all men are to be prized, cherished children of the living God. This was good news to slaves.
This good news did two things. It gave slaves, not only hope that this life could be better, but it also gave them a sense of meaning and purpose that extended into eternity.
But, as often is the case, as the hope for change increased, patience for the change decreased. Slaves, especially newly-come-to-the-Lord slaves, wanted to be treated as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
But if a non-Christian master owned a slave, what could Christians do about it?
Paul goes on to say in 1 Timothy 6:2-3 (NIV):
Those (slaves) who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.
Okay, you can sense the growing tension, especially when both the master and the slave become Christians.
As is almost always the case, the party that is suffering sees the implication of the new hope in Christ before those that are doing well - i.e. the Christian slaves see the consequences of the gospel in terms of their status before the Christian masters do. And we probably can infer from these two verses that some of the Christian slaves were starting to press their cause.
So Paul reminds the slaves that, though they may be in the right, they still must show respect to their Christian masters.
And I think Paul, in the end, is saying that the Christian masters are in the wrong though he doesn't come right out and say this.
Why do I think this way? Listen to what Paul says to Philemon.
Philemon 1:15-16Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you (Philemon) for a while so that you might have him back forever-- no longer as a slave but more than a slave--that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!
Paul seems pretty explicit here. Well, sort of. He does qualify his statement a little by starting with the word, "Maybe.”
There are other passages where Paul is challenging the status quo of ranking some people as less and some people as more important based on status, race, religion, and gender.
Colossians 3:1-3,11 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.... 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Galatians 3:26-28 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.At first glance, these two passages seem to eliminate slavery completely. But if slavery is being eliminated, so is freedom, not to mention male and female.
So what is Paul trying to say?
At the very least, I think he is saying that the status identifiers of that day, like male and female, Jew and Greek, and slave and free do not count in the Christian world. They still may exist, but none of them make you more or less valuable, more or less necessary, more or less loved, or more or less Christian.
So what do you think Paul is ultimately doing?
I think Paul has a gospel strategy to change the culture, and I think it is a strategy that we can learn from today.
Let me tell you a story.
My brother, Jim, and my friend, Henry Reyenga (who happens to be the president of Christian Leaders Institute), and I had just finished a round of golf. It was the first time my brother and Henry had met. Henry learned in our round of golf that Jim and his wife were not, as of then, able to have children.
Henry's phone rang. It was the Pastor whom Henry had mentored into pastoring a church Henry had planted in Oregon. This pastor had a problem. There was a young girl that had just started coming to his church, a girl in trouble. She made a living in the strip bars. She got pregnant. She had thought about abortion, but having started going to the church, figured out that life was sacred. She wanted to find a good Christian home for her baby, and so this young pastor was calling Henry, his mentor, to ask if he knew of a good Christian home for this unborn child.
It has been 17 years since that day, and my brother and sister-in-law have a delightful, beautiful, God-loving daughter.
Why? Because there was a church and a pastor that chose not to condemn a young mother who had all kinds of sin in her life. The pastor and his church instead strategically did three things: One, they loved her with the love of God, a love demonstrated by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Two, they got her into a habit of reading the Word of God. Three, they gave her and the Holy Spirit time to work the love and the Word of God into her life.
Historically, this is what Christianity has done all over the world for the last 2,000 years. Christians would share Christ in some part of the world that was without Christ and His Church, and gradually the culture would be transformed into the image of Christ and His Church.
This seems to be Paul's strategy with Philemon, with the broader Christian community, and with the pagan culture around him.
He preached the need for Christ for all people. He preached freedom through Christ for all people who wanted it. He preached the gifts of the Spirit given to all who believe in Christ. And finally, he preached the truth that all who gave their lives to Christ and His Church were brothers and sisters in the Lord, without regard to status, wealth, gender, race, or country.
The end result of this strategy? Slavery, as an institution, would disappear.
Paul makes one more argument - a more philosophical argument. One that turns words like "slavery” and "freedom” on their heads.
1 Corinthians 7:21-23Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you--although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord's freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ's slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.
According to these verses Paul seems to be saying that though, according to Roman law a person might be a slave, that same person might at the same time be free according to God's way of thinking. And conversely, though you may be free according to Roman law, you might be slave according to God's way of thinking.
How does this work?
Slavery and freedom in the big picture are about your status with God and His Kingdom, not about your relationship to the government of the day. Slavery and freedom come down to a choice between two options.
Option One: If you freely choose to follow Christ, you become a slave to Him and you reap the rewardfor your slavery to Him- that is freedom from the grip of sin and death.
Options Two: If you freely chose to follow anything else, you become a slave to whatever it is that you are following, and you then reap the reward of that slavery.
2 Peter 2:19 (NIV) They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity--for "people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”
Freedom is not a state of being. Freedom is only a choice between one master or another.
So why not choose a master who has your best interest at heart?
Endnotes and Questions:
It has been a privilege to lead you through this amazing book of the Bible. What it lacks in volume, it makes up for with incredible principles that apply to the issues we deal with in everyday life.
I hope this study has lived up to the title, How to Influence Friends and Tactfully Get Along with People.
The following questions are here to help you think about the book as a whole. They are optional. You can skip them. You can answer them for yourself. Or you can schedule one more meeting for your small group.
Which one of the relationship principles in this book was new to you? Why?
Which one of the relationship principles in this book do you struggle to apply to your life the most? Why?
Before reading this book, which of the relationship principles found in this book did you ignore or violate the most in dealing with friends and influencing people? Why?
After reading this book, which of the relationship principles found in this book will you try to apply to your relationships the most? Why?
Which verse in the book of Philemon do you still not quite understand?
How has this study made a difference in your marriage, in your family, with your friendships, among your workmates or your schoolmates or your churchmates?
If you happened to do this study with a small group, how has this study changed how people treat each other in the Bible study group itself?