In past posts about teaching difficult Scriptures to children, I’ve been concentrating on Old Testament books. But there is a book in the New Testament which is consistently passed over in most children’s curriculum. Paul’s letter to Philemon brings up the question of slavery, an emotionally-charged and controversial subject that most are not willing or able to tackle in a Sunday School class, or in any other forum I suppose. I propose that the difficultly many have in presenting this book lies in a lack of historical knowledge in placing this scripture in proper context. Here is my attempt at teaching this problematic book to children with a simple history lesson to aid in a proper understanding of it.
Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches, but four of the books Paul wrote he addressed to individual people. Can you name them? (I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon) These books are really short; Philemon is only one chapter!
When this letter was written, Paul was in prison in Rome waiting to see Caesar. Paul was allowed to live in a house which he rented there in Rome, but he was constantly under Roman guard and in chains, not allowed to leave the house. He could not go out into the streets and preach to the unbelievers of Rome. He depended on his friends to bring people to him so that he could teach them in his home. One day, a run-away slave named Onesimus found his way to Paul’s house. We don’t know if he sought Paul out or if someone brought Onesimus to Paul. But we do know that after talking with Paul, Onesimus became a believer in the Messiah. Paul calls his new friend “my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.”
Now Onesimus had a problem, though. He had run away from his master. In Rome at that time, slaves who ran away were considered a great threat to the government. You see, about 100 years earlier there had been a great slave uprising. A slave named Spartacus had run away and had become a great leader among other runaway slaves. He had managed to gather an army of tens of thousands of slaves, who marched against the Roman army to gain their freedom and end slavery. This slave army was defeated and 7,000 of the leaders, including Spartacus himself, were crucified–hung on crosses that lined the road leading into Rome for miles. This was done as a warning for the slaves to never rise up against their masters again! Since that time, any slave who ran away was sentenced to die, unless his master would take him back and protect him.
What was Onesimus to do? His life was in danger every day that he was separated from his master. Fortunately, God is a good God! It so happened that Onesimus’ master was a good friend of Paul’s! His name was Philemon, and a church met in his home in Colossae. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon for Onesimus to carry with him on his journey back to Colossae. In it, Paul says of Philemon, “your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because, you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
You might ask yourself, if Philemon was such a good man and a Christian, why did he own slaves? It’s hard for us in America to understand how different slavery was in ancient times and in other countries because our own American system of slavery was so horrible. In America, slaves were kidnaped from their homes in Africa and sold. They were treated as if they were property and not really human beings. But slavery in ancient times worked differently. Most of the time, it was an arrangement made between the slave and master. Perhaps you owe some money to someone and can’t pay it back. Or perhaps you have for some reason lost your home and your land and have no means to feed and clothe your family. How would you get money? You could sell yourself to someone and work off your debt. You would agree to work for someone for a certain amount of time and then when that time had passed, you would be free to go. In the meantime, you could be saving up your money so that when you were free you could buy a home and maybe even start your own business.
Here’s another way to become a slave: perhaps your family is very poor and cannot afford to send you to school. They could give you to someone as an apprentice. This means you would be learning a trade from your master, like carpentry or iron-making. Your parents would have an agreement with this master–he would give you food and clothes and a place to live while he taught you all you needed to know about his business. In return, you would have to work for him for a certain number of years.
Now, there were also slaves who were from other countries whom Rome had defeated. These people had not made an agreement with their masters! However, since they were a conquered people, they had no home to go back to. If they were to be freed, they would be poor and homeless with no means of supporting themselves and their families. This was a big problem with no easy solution. Simply freeing all the slaves would not solve anything. It would just put a lot of people out on the streets with no place to live and no way to earn a living. I’m not saying that this was a good system. Owning people against their will is wrong. But it was the system that Christians had to deal with at that time as best they could. Protecting their slaves and treating them well was one solution. Giving them their freedom along with land and money to help them start out on their own was another, if you had the land and the money to do this.
We don’t know if Onesimus was a slave by his own agreement with Philemon, an agreement with Onesimus’ parents, or because his country had been conquered by Rome. We do know that it was not safe for Onesimus to wander around without his master’s protection! Any Roman soldier who caught him could put him to death. Onesimus knew he needed to go back to his master. Paul asks Philemon to take the run-away slave back as a brother in Christ, not just as a slave. The name Onesimus means “Useful”. Paul makes a joke of that name when he tells Philemon, “He was Useless to you before, but now he is Useful to you and to me.” In fact, Paul says, he really wanted Onesimus to stay with him in Rome and help him, but he knew he couldn’t do this without Philemon’s permission. “He is more useful to you as a brother in Christ,” Paul tells his friend. I believe he is hinting to Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom and help him find a way to live on his own. “Remember that you owe me your very life,” Paul added. “I’m certain you’ll do as I ask.” Paul was being a little forceful, wasn’t he?
We don’t know what Philemon did. But we do know that 30 years or so later there was a Bishop, a church leader, in Ephesus named Onesimus. Ephesus is not very far away from Colossae. What do you think happened?