Posts Tagged With: slavery

Philemon: A Slave Set Free

In the ancient Roman world, if a person were placed in house arrest as Paul had been he could still receive visitors.  Think of it like a modern prisoner who wears an ankle bracelet that would alert the authorities if he were to leave his house; visitors can still come to your house, bring you things, and even stay awhile but you aren’t going to the movies, on that family vacation, or — in Paul’s case — to Spain to spread the gospel as he wished.

One day while the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, a slave from Colossae (Col. 4:9) showed up at Paul’s front door.  Maybe he had run away from his master Philemon, or more likely he had been sent by his master to Paul with a message, supplies or money.  His name was Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” but ironically as a slave he was anything but (c.f., Phlm 10-11).

While Onesimus was in Paul’s house, the great apostle did what he did best: he shared the gospel with Onesimus and the slave became a Christian.  Now, in the new humanity, in Christ, where God does not see gender, race or social position (Col. 3:11), Onesimus was Philemon’s brother not his slave (Phlm 16).

I love how Paul’s point is driven home by the words he chose to use in this short letter (word frequency cloud done at Wordle.net in which larger words occur more often)

What would Philemon do now?  Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon and it is clear that Paul thinks his friend should release his slave from slavery and send Onesimus back to Paul to become one of the many missionaries that worked with Paul:

Because of all this I could be very bold in the king, and order you to do the right thing. . . . That way, when you did the splendid thing that the situation requires, it wouldn’t be under compulsion, but of your own free will. (Phlm 8, 14)

We don’t know how this situation turned out.  But Philemon is an excellent example of how the theological belief in a new creation was intended to have a significant effect on everyday relationships, as discussed yesterday.

One further historical question: how in the world did Bible-believing slave-owners and slave-traders in the nineteenth century ever read Philemon and think the institution of slavery was defensible?

What caught your eye in this tiny letter?

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Romans 6: Free at Last!

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed all slaves living in America.  He was the president, he said they were free, and that is that.

Well, it wasn’t really that easy.  The Confederates were no longer acknowledging Lincoln as their president so his words weren’t worth much to them anymore.  At least until the Union won the Civil War and asserted their power and laws.

So at the point of the Emancipation Proclamation were the slaves free or not?

You are only free to the degree people (including yourself) let you be free.

There were pockets of slave owners in Texas that got together and conspired to keep the word of the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  Many slaves could not read.  The slave owners would also run abolitionists out of town or even in rare cases kill them lest they stir up the slaves into dissension.  When rumors of freedom did get through to the slaves, all the slave owners had to do was tell them to look at their situation.  How could these rumors be true?  They don’t appear to be free, do they?  In the end, in these pockets of Texas, even though slavery had been abolished, freedom was denied to the slaves for another two years.

The Roman Christians were at a crossroads.  Theologically they had to decide how free they would allow themselves to be.  Their slave masters were not flesh and blood though.  They had to decide how free from law and sin they would be.

Paul has been painting a picture of Law that is not pretty.  There is within fallen humanity a propensity to sin (5:12-13), but until a command comes along declaring what we should and should not do the sinful desires inside of us do not know how to tempt us (3:20).  Think of children: as soon as you say don’t do something, what do they want to do?  The very thing prohibited.  Likewise our sinful desires.  The law was not intended to be a way to salvation, rather it showed us how depraved we truly are (5:20).  To hang on to law as a way to get right with God is nonsensical.  Law leads to sin which produces guilt and ultimately death (6:23), whether spiritual death or the metaphorical death of hope and love and goodness.

In this chapter, Paul sketches out an alternative.  He tells the Roman Christians: “you have been freed from sin” (6:7, 18, 22). Sin is no longer their master, because they have been freed from an obligation to follow the Jewish Law.  Law played its role and now it is time for another option: the cross and the grace that is freely offered there.  As we identify ourselves with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through baptism (6:3-5) we choose a new cycle.  The cross brings freedom which produces gratitude and ultimately life.

The wages paid by sin, you see, are death; but God’s free gift is the life of the age to come, in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. (6:23)

Paul, though, leaves these two opposing options as exactly that: choices.  The Roman Christians can choose to go the way of law or the way of the cross.  He argues one will lead to death and one to life.  They have been freed from sin by the power of the cross.  Through Christ’s resurrection God showed this truly is His world and life and death, freedom and slavery truly are His to determine.  But they still have to choose to not let sin have that power over them by going the way of grace through the cross, not the way of law and sin (6:12-14).  They would only be as free in the Roman church as they allowed themselves to be.

Nobody is encouraging us to follow the Jewish Law these days, but we can still give our freedom away to a works-oriented religion.  Again, this only leads to inevitable failure, overwhelming guilt, and the death of hope.  But the cross still stands before us today offering grace and freedom, propelling us into a grateful and abundant life of service to God and others.

The choice is ours.  How free will we allow ourselves to be?

What struck you in this chapter?

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Galatians 4: Children of Freedom

However, at that stage [before coming to Christ] you didn’t know God, and so you were enslaved to beings that, in their proper nature, are not gods.  But now that you’ve come to know God — or, better, to be known by God — how can you turn back again to that weak and poverty-stricken lineup of elements that you want to serve all over again? (4:8-9)

Most who study the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians agree that the Christians addressed in this book were originally Roman pagans.  Before Christ they “didn’t know God.”  They worshiped “beings that . . . are not gods,” though the Galatians would have thought they were.  They worshiped “elemental spirits,” some translations say, that is supposed spiritual powers that were tied to the elements of nature.  These Galatians were likely those converted in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium.  Remember, when Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra they were first thought to be Zeus and Hermes respectively (Acts 14:8-20), a reaction that makes sense when we consider their paganism.

Now, at the behest of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were adopting a form of Christianity that practiced Jewish ritualism.  In fact, the Jewish laws and customs had become their real source of confidence, not the grace of God made available through Jesus.  Though this passage above says the Galatians were turning “back,” almost all agree they were not returning to paganism and that Paul is saying that their adoption of Jewish ritualism is really just turning back to a system that is akin to paganism is fundamental ways.

We could diagram it this way:

How was Jewish ritualism so akin to Roman paganism that Paul would see this as turning back, as if we have a boomerang effect like in the diagram above?  How could Jewish ritualism be closer to Roman paganism than to the gospel of Jesus?

The answer in one word was slavery.  In Paul’s mind both Roman paganism and Jewish ritualism enslaved a person.  Yes, they did this in different ways and their rituals and beliefs were radically different, but they ended up enslaving the worshipper just the same.  Whether one was offering a long line of seasonal sacrifices to the deities of Rome or one was doing the same to God, the result was the same.  The worshipper always had to do more, always had to curry favor with the gods or God, always paid off a debt, and always had to keep the angry gods or God happy.  There is no end to that “weak and poverty-stricken” system of slavery, whether done in Rome or Jerusalem.  On the other hand, true freedom could only be found in the grace of Jesus.  In Christ there is no more slavery (3:28).

I would like to assert that this same dynamic happens in Christian circles today.  We too have the boomerang of legalism.

It is easy to point out religious legalism when you see it.  This would be a legalism that says there is a highly religious routine or ritual that has to be done in order to achieve acceptance with God.  Religion is the way to salvation.  One is right with God because they have done particular religious rituals, as if the communion elements or baptismal waters have magical powers to cleanse.  One earns brownie points with God as he attends the prescribed worship services, serves in a public way in the correctly-performed church service, and gives a set amount of money to the church.  In religious legalism there is a correct set of beliefs and pattern for worship, and it is of utmost importance to discover and conform to these if one wants to be considered a true Christian.  Of course, the problem with religious legalism is the attitude with which these things are done, not the actions themselves.  Religion legalism trusts in human action.  It says the power of salvation rests in the efforts of the person to think and act correctly.  As futile as it is, religious legalism only leads to slavery.

For many of us religious legalism was an early trap we were able to escape from long ago.  It was our first religion, so to say.  But I see another legalism, though, that develops later that is just as enslaving.  For lack of a better term, let’s call this one progressive legalism (can you think of a better name?).  Let me stipulate that I would describe myself (and many would agree) as a progressive Christian, though I try to avoid legalism.  Nonetheless, I have seen how the practice of spiritual disciplines can become another list of things that must be done by good Christians in order to curry favor with God.  I have seen in others and experienced in myself a sense of self-satisfaction (or guilt and despair) in a list of benevolent efforts done for the poor.  There is within some progressives a set of required beliefs too, and those who do not hold these are considered inferior.  And that is when the slavery begins — to lists, earned favor, human actions, an expected way of thinking, an air of superiority, and the never-ending need to keep doing.

Though we might be tempted to place religious legalism and progressive legalism on the opposite ends of a continuum, in reality they are too alike for that.  This is the boomerang effect again, as we realize they are plagued by the same flaws.  Both are ritualistic.  Both rely on human actions.  Both are impotent and cannot change human beings.  Both rob us of freedom.

As Paul reminds us at the end of chapter four using Abraham and the mothers of his two sons as examples,

We are not children of the slave-girl, but of the free. (4:31)

Freedom is only found in Christ.

Where else have you seen this dynamic?

Categories: Galatians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Galatians 1: No Other Gospel

“Good news,” she said.  “You’ve qualified for twice as much as you are asking for!”

“She” was the woman at the bank where my wife and I applied for a mortgage loan to buy the house in which we presently live.

Naturally, thoughts of a bigger house, a better zip code, second and third bathrooms, a guest room, a workshop in the garage, and more modern amenities flew through our minds.

I am very thankful today that we had enough sense to balk at her suggestion and proceed with the modest amount we had originally been seeking.  I can’t imagine how we could have afforded the monthly note had we listened to her “good news.”  I still wonder what she was thinking, but then the word “predatory” comes to mind.  It was the early 2000s after all.

Not all “good news” is really all that good.

Slavery is a perfect word to describe what my wife and I would be experiencing had we taken on a mortgage payment twice what we pay right now.  Working long hours and extra jobs to pay the mortgage company.  We would be truly house-poor.  Feel free to sit in the corner over there where a couch should be, had we the money!  In fact, I have noticed that any time I do something largely or completely for money, I end up regretting it.  It is never worth it.  Anything but good news.

The resounding theme of Galatians 1 is “gospel.”  The word is used six times in this short chapter, and the phrase “good news” — the literal meaning of the word “gospel” — is used twice more.  But back then as much as now, not all good news is really all that good.

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace, and are going after another gospel — not that it is another gospel. (1:6-7a)

Bear in mind the context of Galatians (see the bonus post below).  The Galatians are new Christians, some of the first converts of Paul’s first missionary journey.  But just as quick as they accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ laced all the way through with grace as it should be, they were being told by a group of hardline Jewish Christians — typically called the Judaizers — that good Christians are good Jews as well.  If you really want to follow God, you have to follow the Jewish law and customs.  Step right up for your circumcision, sir.  Stop cooking that filthy swine, madam.  Family, stop, it’s the Sabbath.  This was the new “gospel” they were hearing, and it seems from this verse above that some of the Galatian Christians were persuaded.  Jesus was a Jew after all.  God did come first to the Jews, didn’t he?  Paul himself was a Jew.

In no uncertain terms, Paul made it clear that not all gospels are truly good news:

If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (1:9)

Paul will tell us more later about why all gospels are not equal.  Simply put, some “good news” enslaves.  Well, that’s no good news after all.  Are we made right with God by grace or by law?  Because if it is by grace, you are free.  All debts are paid.  No obligations are in place.  One obeys out of gratitude and love.  But if it is by law that we are made righteous, then we are enslaved to a system of our own best efforts, which sadly always come up short.  There is always more to do.  We can always be better.  And we are obligated, for sure.

That’s slavery.  And that’s no good news!

What modern day “good news” isn’t really as good as it sounds?

Categories: Galatians | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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