The book of Philemon is not really about the ethics of New Testament slavery; it is about usefulness in Christian ministry in spite of potential personal conflict (listen to the sermon on Philemon here). Yet, the book of Philemon does show how the Apostle Paul addressed a significant ethical conundrum that he was faced with. He had been influential in a young man’s salvation, only to discover that as useful as that young man was to his ministry, he was a slave of another Christian brother. By law Paul could therefore not keep the young man for his own ministry – as much as he might have had some spiritual right to do so. Instead Paul sent the young man back to his master, and in the letter of Philemon we find Paul’s reasoning behind it all.
When you are faced with an ethical dilemma, here is an example to imitate to ensure your actions are pleasing to the Lord.
1. Remember that you are a slave to righteousness
As Christians we have an obligation to act in a manner that is righteous not only in a common sense manner, but more important, that is righteous in God’s eyes. Do not only do as little as would be acceptable, but do what would be considered love in God’s eyes (Read Philemon 1:8-11).
2. Obey the laws of your country
We never obey the government at the expense of obeying the Lord (Acts 5:29). But for the most part, our obedience to God will demand of us to obey our country’s laws. As a missionary, Paul could have kept the young man with him because of his usefulness to Paul, but in keeping with what the law of the land required, Paul sent the man back to Philemon so Philemon, as his master, could make the appropriate decision regarding the young man’s usefulness (Read Philemon 1:12-14).
3. Be thankful for God’s sovereign providence
When Paul considered all the many things that worked together to produce this ethical conundrum, he couldn’t help but see the Divine thread connecting it all. Ethical matters might be difficult to evaluate, but at the very least they prove to us that God’s plan is much greater than what we are aware of. Look for God’s hand in the details, and even the most difficult matters will have occasion for praise (Read Philemon 1:15-16).
4. Submit to your spiritual leaders
Paul was in many ways Philemon’s pastor. As such he had to consider seriously the counsel from Paul. Even as Philemon would struggle with the ethical issues of receiving back a ex-criminal-now-converted slave, he couldn’t just do as the law of the land required or as he himself wished. He also had to consider the advice from his spiritual leaders. In matters that are not clearly addressed in the written Word of God, God guides us through the wisdom of the mature (READ Philemon 1:17-21).
5. Consider your Christian testimony and the larger work of ministry
This is a wonderful final check on ethical problems. Look not only at the problem and how it affects you, but look to how this can be turned into a testimony for the Lord. Your own Christian reputation and the testimony of other Christians are observed by others – especially so when difficult decisions need to be made. Prove yourself to be faithful to the Lord in all things (Read Philemon 1:1-7 and Philemon 1:22-25).
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.—1 Corinthians 10:31