Neither Slave nor Free: Notes

Discussion Guide


ONE Message Series


Neither Slave nor Free

“He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (v.16).


The way the NIV translates Philemon 16 seems designed to say something emphatic about Paul’s view of Onesimus – and, by extension, of slaves generally. Although pagans regarded slaves merely as “living tools” or – in Aristotle’s term – “ensouled property,” Paul urges us to see a believer from the lowest of circumstances “as a fellow man” (i.e., a person, someone in God’s image) and “as a brother in the Lord” (i.e., a peer in Christ, a spiritual equal). Why is this such a powerful statement? (Note: This is a fully reasonable translation of the Greek sentence. If you have other translations, why not check a few?)


Set the circumstances of the following relationships from this short letter: Philemon and Apphia, Philemon and Paul, Philemon and Onesimus, Onesimus and Paul.

Read Colossians 4:7-9. What does this text add to your background understanding of the Letter to Philemon?

People are sometimes critical of Paul and other NT writers for not condemning slavery and calling enslaved people to claim their freedom. Both biblical scholars and historians point out that the Christian approach to the issue of slavery was to be “subtly subversive by teaching agapē.” What do you understand that claim to mean? Do you grasp the wisdom of it? What would have happened to the church if it had attempted a social-political revolution against slavery?

Last week’s study of Jew and Gentile emphasized that the gospel “does not erase distinctions among people but simply means they don’t matter anymore.” What are some of the implications of this statement to masters and slaves in the first-century world? Read 1 Peter 2:18-25. Why does this counsel sound so harsh to modern ears? Why would it make perfect sense in the first century?

What are some vestiges of slavery in the world today? What should Christians be doing to combat slavery, human trafficking, and the like? How can we make a meaningful difference?

What are some of the implications of the master-slave discussion for the issues of wealth-poverty and hoarding-sharing in cultures such as ours?


As you end this week’s study, pray for God to give you insight into breaking down the social barriers that keep Christians from connecting with and influencing others for Christ. Can you identify a specific barrier situation you should ask God to help you address in the coming week?

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