A Politically Correct Letter to Philemon

Reference: Letter to Philemon

St. Paul is often in trouble with moderns for taking inappropriate socio-political stances. That is often unfair, as a closer examination of what he is saying and the context of it usually shows. But one can only imagine the uproar which would follow if the Letter to Philemon were released in a contemporary situation. Many would expect Paul to write a letter roundly condemning Philemon, threatening him with excommunication if he did not immediately release his slaves. They would expect a strong statement against slavery, saying that it was incompatible with Christianity and apologizing for any Christian involvement.

Paul, of course, does not make that statement. He takes a completely different approach. Those who are already suspicious of Paul as a thoroughly politically incorrect man will be taking further aim, with the Letter to Philemon as evidence. This document, they say, is final proof that either;

a. Scripture is not infallible, but rather the often erroneous allegations of misguided religious nuts, or

b. Paul should be disregarded as an authority and rather seen as the man who powerfully twisted the politically-correct teachings of Jesus into an expression of the macho cult notions of the day, which we should denounce, or

c. At the very least, the Letter to Philemon should be removed from the Canon of Scripture.

The churches of today frequently speak out about social and political issues. Despite the wide variation in viewpoints among these “prophecies,” they are almost universally negative. When the Church speaks, it is generally to say “no.” Churches tending to a more liberal view of society typically condemn guns, immigration policy, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, sexual slavery, wars, investment in enterprises with politically or socially questionable ethics, racism, and similar issues. More conservative churches focus strongly on opposing abortion, but can also condemn drinking, drugs, liberal sexual ethics and homosexual behavior, and similar issues of personal behavior.

Sometimes, an internally consistent position within a church leads to condemnations that cross the liberal/conservative political divide, as when the Roman Catholic bishops oppose both abortion and the death penalty. Self-appointed “prophets” often explain various disasters as being caused by moral failures of the populace or its leaders. Earlier in the Twentieth Century, liberal and conservative churches often agreed in condemning drinking and gambling (this being more a catholic/protestant divide, with catholic churches generally uninterested in these matters). At the same time, liberal churches frequently attacked social and economic inequities. In the Nineteenth Century, churches split on the issue of slavery itself. And through the entire time, there have been a few churches, from both liberal and conservative theological bents, which have opposed war as an absolute prohibition to their members.

The cumulative result of all this has created an image of church and clergy as a negative millstone on society. Many of the church pronouncements may have great merit. By now, though, the weight of all that has been denounced means few listen seriously when the “church” thunders. Politicians manipulate church viewpoints when they are helpful to a particular party or candidate and even strive to organize cadres of church members to support them. We have seen the Pro-Life movement, for example, morph from a fairly popular demonstration of protest against abortion to a routine expectation of political support for the Republican party, whether deserved or not. A century ago, similar manipulation was active in the Prohibition controversies. At a time when the Democratic Party had solid support from both Roman Catholics and Southerners, and a weak commitment to prohibition, the slogan used against it was that it was the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” a clear appeal to a Protestant majority which no longer exists. Today, with most Southerners supporting the GOP, along with the staunch backing of the Roman hierarchy, and prohibition a dead issue, the slogan is ironic.

The Gospel easily gets lost in all this. The point is not which party is right, but rather how easy it is to be manipulated into mission drift on some issue you feel strongly about, no doubt rightfully so. We must speak out against this evil! We must elect those who will act against it! Alas, there are several problems in this which are destructive.

1. First, while we are busy rightly denouncing the latest evil du jour, another church is taking the opposite stand, cancelling any value in our denouncing

2. Second, clever people in the public forum are often able to manipulate our good intentions to their own purposes, so that we become pawns in others’ political games.

3. Third, and most important, even if we win the battle at hand, the real war is lost. The Church has nothing to say to non-Christians beyond basic Gospel. Anything else is
counter-productive to our message, indeed it prevents evangelism.

So, let us reconsider poor Paul. His message for non-Christians is pure Gospel: whether you are Jew or Gentile, you are wandering in spiritual helplessness, trying to find godly and heavenly life by bootstrapping your way. It won’t work. Instead, God, who may be unknown to you but who you suspect is out there somewhere, has a message of total love for you. You cannot earn that love, but you can accept and return it. It is the story of Jesus Christ and what he has done for you. That is our message to the world. It is an immensely and profoundly positive message: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). It is the only message the Church has for the world. Until the world, and the people therein, accept that reality, it is mission drift to discuss anything else.

Once they have accepted it, as Philemon had, the discussion shifts from the basics to a conversation between brothers as to what it means to carry the love of Christ in your heart. It is a positive discussion regarding people who are no longer slaves to sin but instead are free to be slaves to the liberating love of Jesus. As such, it is a family matter, in which the slave is now honored as a brother, and the master is likewise served as a brother, and then it is concurrently reversed and the master serves the slave as a brother and the slave honors the master. In short, the family love relationship in Christ now defines things. The ending is a happy one, without any resolutions being passed at Synod or pronouncements issued to the media. It is the only way it can work. The continual negative pounding on society by the churches erodes the openness of spiritually hungry people to hearing the Gospel. Only when we speak together in the family can we take the next steps to ethical consistency. We can’t do it in the public forum.

Thank you, St. Paul, for showing us how to do this right.