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Slavery & Christianity by John W. Robbins
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Slavery & Christianity

by John W. Robbins

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Slavery & Christianity
John W. Robbins
Unicoi: The Trinity Foundation, 2007.

As the author sets out he observes that “commentators...have tended to slight” the book of Philemon (7). He assumes this is by reason of the shortness of the book. Though his speculation is questionable, there are certainly no slights of any portion of God’s Word to be found in the 49 pages that make up the comments of this small treasure, virtuous in its “Brevity, clarity, and profundity” (7).
It is noted that “many inexplicably think the letter condones slavery” (14). But this is hardly the purpose Paul had in writing to Philemon:

Philemon is a goldmine of doctrine—obviously about slavery and freedom, but also about discipline, civil government, civil disobedience, and tact. (7)

Paul’s letter comprises only 25 verses, 335 words in [the original language of Koine] Greek, the shortest of his 13 epistles. (8)

An insightful observation made early on—found in many of Dr. Robbins books—is that of the great damage done to the cause of God and truth by the false religion of Roman Catholicism:

For centuries one of the biggest impediments to preaching and understanding both the Gospel and the whole counsel of God has been the Roman Catholic Church-State. (9)

To avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding, Robbins includes a lengthy explanation on pages 10 and 11:

...the Roman Church...claim to be a Christian church, which was almost universally accepted in the decadent and endarkened twentieth century, has also created a completely false impression of Christianity in the minds of billions. It has rendered them incapable of understanding, let alone believing, the Gospel.
For the past two centuries, Protestants have been partly to blame for this situation, for they have failed, through their many philosophical, theological, and organizational compromises with Romanism and Romanists to make it clear to the world that the Roman Church-State is not a Christian church, and that Romanism is not Christianity. Rome has offended many people and deluded many more, and for those reasons billions of souls will not listen to the Gospel. The entire Muslim world of one billion souls thinks Romanism is Christianity. The entire Romanist world of one billion souls thinks Romanism is Christianity and that they are Christians. People like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and J. I. Packer agree. But Romanism is not Christianity; it is an entirely different religion. Romanism is a stew of idolatry, superstition, paganism, and tyranny, yet so widely regarded as Christian by the world that the world will not give Biblical Christianity a hearing because of the sins of Rome. The world has accepted the pope’s preposterous claim to speak for Christians, and consequently Christians have been marginalized and silenced.

Robbins goes on to mention “another impediment to preaching the Gospel in America...the corruption of Christianity by Southern nationalism.” (11)
Answering those who represent Christianity as being friendly to slavery, Robbins asserts this vile institution was (as it still is in portions of the world) a violation of the Eighth Commandment. Robbins points out that even today there are “many professed conservative American Christians who think it fashionable and even Biblical to defend slavery and the feudal South.” (12)
Contrary to these erroneous opinions,

The Bible supports freedom—spiritual, religious, political, and economic—not slavery; and those who support slavery either do not understand or do not believe the Bible. (13)

Because the enemies of Christianity—particularly fanatical atheists—often cite slavery as a hindrance to their acceptance of Christianity (which belies their honesty and their discernment) we continue with more of Dr. Robbins words concerning slavery, in its relation to the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

It is the law of the Lord Jesus Christ that governs in Philemon’s situation, not Caesar’s. Philemon’s ownership of Onesimus was perfectly legal under the pagan laws of the Roman [E]mpire, but Paul says that it was not morally proper, that is, it was sinful. Implicit in Paul’s doctrine is that legality and morality are two different things...Christians must be governed by Biblical law, not pagan law, when the two differ. So even though slavery was legal in the Roman Empire and acceptable to many people, including Christians such as Philemon, it was not fitting.
In Romans 13 Paul makes it clear that the proper role of civil government is the enforcement of the so-called second table of the Ten Commandments: Romans 13:9 explicitly mentions adultery, murder, theft, false witness, and covetousness. Civil governments have no power over the mind, and so they have no authority to enforce the first table of the law. (29)
Why does Paul, why do all the men with Paul—Timothy, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke—protect a fugitive slave? By doing so they have become complicit in his crime. Under Roman law of the first century after Christ, anyone who harbored a fugitive slave was not only liable for reimbursing the slave-owner for all the income lost because of the slave’s flight...but was also subject to severe criminal penalties. Yet Paul did not report Onesimus to the Roman authorities. (33)

Robbins goes on to say that submission to the governing authorities does not always mean we must obey them.

...the Romans 13 injunction forbids armed resistance to governors; it does not prohibit peaceful disobedience to sinful laws. (35)

We may peacefully resist that which is sinful, men or laws. This raises the question, How are we to determine which laws are just and those which are not? The answer is always the same for the biblical Christian: God’s Word is sufficient.

The reason the Roman Empire’s fugitive slave law was not just is Deuteronomy 23:15-16: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.” (35)
Exodus 20:15...the Eighth Commandment...forbids...manstealing, and it is a capital crime: “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). (36)

Robbins then cites Exodus 22:21, 23:9, and Leviticus 19:33-34. The interested reader will look these verses up.
Importantly, Robbins emphasizes that these verses are to be observed by all men through all of time. Isn’t it certain that the contention of the enemies if Christianity that God commands slavery is a gross error?
Philemon is to receive Onesimus back as himself, that is, as a man who is free.

Paul clearly favors freedom, consent, and voluntarism, and opposes compulsion. That is Paul opposes slavery. (39)

Those who substitute God’s Word for their own opinions may oppose slavery for various reasons, usually appealing to “the brotherhood of all men.”

The notion of the brotherhood of all mankind is rooted in the Bible; in fact the Bible, as the only true history of the world, is its only root. Other religions—pantheism, polytheism, atheism—cannot give an accurate account of the origin of man. Advocates of evolution have no basis—biological or otherwise—for asserting the brotherhood of all men. If men evolved once, there is no reason why they may not have evolved twice. But biological brotherhood requires a common parentage, and no evolutionist can plausibly argue that the entire human race has the same two parents; in fact, they deny it. But God, as Genesis clearly teaches, made all men of one blood, one man, Adam. Long before he wrote to Philemon, while he was preaching in Athens, Paul had directly denied the polytheism, idolatry, and racism of the Greeks in his sermon on Mars Hill: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since he is Lord of Heaven and Earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is he worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, since he gives to all life, breath, and all things. And he made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the Earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:24-26). (41, 42)
Paul is teaching...some of the social implications of Christianity, in which no man is naturally a slave, nothing should be done without consent, compulsion should be used only against criminals, all men are brothers in the flesh, and some men are also brothers in the Lord. (42)

The letter of Philemon is rich in the teaching that Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus are brothers in Adam and in Jesus. Paul’s appeal is based not in

the fiction of inalienable human rights...[but] the principles of Christian ethics...The theory of natural rights, or inalienable rights, is not found in the Bible; it is logically incompatible with retributive justice; and it was developed as an alternative to God’s law. In the seventeenth century men no longer wished to say that murder, for example, violated God’s law and was therefore to be outlawed and punished by civil government. They did not wish to invoke God’s name, so they imbued human nature with inalienable human rights. Murder became a violation of those natural rights, not a violation of the supernatural law of God. But Paul makes no such argument. Everything he wants Philemon to do is to be done “in the Lord”—by or according to the law of Christ [the law of love].
Paul is not inventing some new social doctrine regarding slavery; he is making clear to Philemon and his readers what the law of Christ, not the law of Paul, requires. (47, 48)

Philemon may be a short letter, yet such a wonderful yield of truth it bears. Robbins commentary is a gem to be commended to those who value freedom, for it is for freedom that Christ came.

Did Philemon do all that Paul said? Scripture does not say, but archeologists have found an ancient inscription in Laodicea, near Colosse, dedicated by a slave to the master who freed him. The master’s name was Marcus Sestius Philemon. (49)

Roman Catholics and Southerners will likely be offended at this work, but such is the case when bias precedes the strict application of logic and rationality. One should purchase as many copies as possible and spread them throughout Vatican City and the American South. ( )
  Ron_Gilbert | Mar 24, 2014 |
John Robbins' book is more like the ramblings of a bitter old man then good academic scholarship. His anti-Catholic perspective is obnoxious and unwarranted. ( )
  erikssonfamily | Jan 13, 2009 |
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