Sermon: Slavery and Biblical Literalism

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
8th of September 2019

Philemon 1-21

Over the past couple of years, with the marriage equality debate; the Instagram posts of rugby star Israel Folau; and most recently the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, the issue of what Christians believe has become newsworthy. (It’s a little sad that civil society is only interested in what Christians believe when we’re talking about marriage and sexuality, rather than when we’re condemning both major political parties’ treatment of asylum seekers, but so it goes.) One of the questions that the Israel Folau case, in particular, has raised, has been the status of the Bible. Folau shared a meme on his Instagram post that he said was based on a verse in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Various other people responded by arguing that the meme was a distortion; that Folau wasn’t actually quoting from the biblical text. My response is that that doesn’t matter. Christians don’t have to affirm something just because it’s ‘biblical’.

In the sixteenth century, when the Western Church was splitting into Protestant and Catholic, some radicals accused Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther of turning the Bible into a ‘paper pope’. The Protestant Reformers might have freed Christians from the authority of Rome but according to the radicals they had set up a book in the Pope’s place; trusting in another human creation instead of in God.[1]

That may have been true of the sixteenth century Reformers, but in the twentieth century the authors of the Basis of Union tried to ensure that the Bible wouldn’t become a paper Pope for the new Uniting Church. According to the Basis of Union we find in the Scriptures ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’ to the Word of God, who is of course a person, Jesus, and not a book.

The Basis of Union reflects the understanding of 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who described the Bible as giving us the Word of God in human words. The Word of God, Barth said, is a gift placed in human hands that becomes ours through the reading, interpreting and understanding of the Scriptures.[2] Accessing the Word of God through the humans words of the Bible demands work; it is not a matter of simple quotation. As the Basis of Union puts it: ‘God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith’. (Paragraph 11)

If we ever wonder why it is so important for us as Christians not to limit ourselves to – the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it – today’s epistle reading is a good answer. If Christians were satisfied with simply ‘believing in the Bible’ we might still be approving slavery.

At the end of today’s gospel reading Jesus says: ‘none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions’. Giving up a possession is what Paul’s letter to Philemon is asking him to do. Most commentators agree that Onesimus, about whom Paul is writing, is a slave.[3] Paul asks Philemon to change the way he relates to Onesimus – not as a possession, but as a beloved brother. But Paul does not ask Philemon to set Onesimus free, or suggest that slavery in itself is wrong.

Paul’s letter tells us that Onesimus is the slave of Philemon, a Christian who has a church meeting in his house. It appears that Onesimus has run away from Philemon, met Paul, and under Paul’s influence become a Christian himself. Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon, with the request that Philemon will receive Onesimus kindly, as a brother. Beyond these few details, many questions remain, of which the biggest is: why does Paul, the man who wrote ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,’ (Galatians 3:28) not challenge the very institution of slavery?

Paul is seeking to persuade Philemon to do the right thing, to welcome Onesimus as a brother rather than punishing him as a slave. Paul’s challenge to Philemon is to go beyond convention and the rules of society and see in a runaway slave an equal, a cherished member of the family, and welcome him home. What Paul is doing is radical – to an extent. Paul is asking for forgiveness for a slave from a master who had every right to arrest and brutally punish him, potentially even to kill him. Paul wants Philemon to go beyond legality; to replace the demands of the law with the new demands of Christian love. This is not a simple request. The issues involved include ‘shame, reputation, sense of control, status, social expectations, the stability of law and order in household and governance and much more’. But Paul doesn’t condemn slavery. Paul tries to change the status of slavery within one small group, the church that meets in the house of Philemon, while ignoring the question of whether slavery should exist at all.

Is that because Paul simply was not worried about the rest of society; he saw his role as limited to pastoring two Christians? Did he want to keep the tiny Christian community free of the rebellion and violence that open opposition to slavery might bring? Or was Paul so embedded in his society that he just didn’t see that slavery was wrong? I don’t know.

Later Biblical writers, the authors of the First Letter of Peter andthe Letter to the Ephesians, went further than Paul does here by telling slaves to obey their masters, even if their masters mistreated them. (1 Peter 2:18-19; Ephesians 6:5,9) Given these biblical injunctions, it’s not so surprising that the second-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote to his fellow bishop Polycarp of Smyrna that Christian slaves should live as better slaves to the glory of God, rather than seeking their freedom. Ignatius’ opinion was that it would be inappropriate to use church funds to help slaves buy their freedom.[4]

It’s hard to imagine now, but for centuries Christians believed that slavery was perfectly compatible with Christianity, and they were able to turn to parts of the Bible to justify their belief. Those justifications included this very letter; according to Eric D. Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminary the Letter to Philemon was used in the United States to justify slavery because in it Paul showed himself willing to return a runaway slave to his owner and unwilling to challenge the laws of imperial Rome. Thus, it was argued, American Christians should also be willing to return runaway slaves to their owners, following Paul’s example by obeying the laws of the ‘democratic’ United States.

The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch says that: ‘It took original minds to kick against the authority of sacred scripture. What was needed was a prior conviction in one’s conscience of the wrongness of slavery, which one might then decide to justify by a purposeful re-examination of the biblical text.’[5] It was only when people were already convinced that slavery was wrong that they went back to the Bible to find ways of justifying their belief. And they found them. If you are convinced that slavery is wrong it isn’t hard to argue that Jesus’ teaching: ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 7:12) takes precedence over ‘Slaves, obey your masters’. But it was a hard journey for some. Sticking to biblical literalism would have been much easier than overturning centuries of biblically-supported Christian tradition. But adhering to biblical literalism would leave people still enslaved.


Bill Loader suggests that what Paul is doing in this letter is deeply radical, even if it’s not the over-turning of slavery that our twenty-first century sensibilities would prefer. In his writing to Philemon, Paul constructs Onesimus as a person, not as property.  Loader writes that: ‘Paul is not trying to abolish slavery … But he does embody values, which if let loose will transform society. Onesimus is now Philemon’s brother, not just his slave. As a person Onesimus is as deserving of as much respect as Paul, himself. It is not just a case of doing a favour for someone who has become Paul’s buddy. It is a matter of how we view other human beings.’ I suspect that it was that change in values, that willingness to see slaves as human beings, that ultimately, many centuries later, gave Christians the ability to reinterpret the biblical text and condemn slavery.

The Scriptures are, as we say every week, a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Everything that any Uniting Church preacher says in a pulpit is, according to the Basis of Union, to be ‘controlled by the Biblical witnesses’. (Paragraph 5) But the words of the Bible must be continually reinterpreted by the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Uniting Church is not a ‘Bible-believing’ church. And so we can say with absolute certainty that slavery is wrong.


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 208.

[2] Karl Barth, God here and now (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 64-5.

[3] One exception is Eric D. Barreto.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London: Allen Lane, p. 116

[5] Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, London: Allen Lane, p. 868.

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4 Responses to Sermon: Slavery and Biblical Literalism

  1. Delia Quigley says:


    Thank you for sharing your Sermon. It is nice to have you back and to once again have your sermons as part of my reading list.

    Kind Regards,



  2. Yes, I agree with Delia. Welcome back, Avril, and thanks for your words!

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