Paul does three things with slavery: (1) He acknowledges its pervasive practice without comment about its morality; (2) he urges slaves to radical loyalty as an expression of faith in God’s sovereign will; (3) he attacks the inequities of the system by insisting that masters and slaves become like brothers, an unprecedented notion (Philemon 16). In this passage, he wants slaves to excel in their service. Paul’s apparent social conservatism has been the subject of much misunderstanding. He would appear to give biblical sanction to
the much discredited experience of the African slave trade, for example. Nothing could be further from biblical teaching, however. Nowhere does the Bible advocate slavery or present a vision of the human person or culture that gives a pro-slavery position any credence. Neither does the Bible advocate social or political revolution as a corrective. Rather, the Bible’s revolutionary language is always a matter of heart. Change begins with the human spirit in response to God’s law, energized by the Holy Spirit, and affected by the presence of the living Christ in the believer’s life. That change replaces greed with love, changing the face of slavery entirely and eroding its cultural foundations. Slavery, which requires human exploitation in the interest of accumulating wealth, cannot survive the loss of greed enacted by God’s Spirit in the heart of the believer. As Christian love always seeks to enable others, emancipation is the only possible result of the change of heart experienced in Christian conversion and discipleship.