The text for today’s message is Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
Paul has a problem. As with people both ancient and modern, Paul was conflicted and contradictory. But rather than overlook such unpleasantness it is helpful to confront human imperfections. We are reminded that Paul, like other humans, is a beautifully imperfect mosaic.
Before diving into the Galatians verses we must first take a peculiar detour to the book of Philemon, where Paul writes a Christian slave owner named Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul accepts the institution of slavery while imploring Philemon to welcome back his runaway slave, who could receive a life-threatening beating or death.
Paul realized that Onesimus had violated the law by fleeing his owner/master. Yet instead of helping overturn the horrendous institution of legal slavery, Paul accepted it. Many people believe that Paul’s condoning of slavery contradicts the gospel as much as the plain, literal sense of some of his other writings.
Consider the following verse, perhaps penned during one of Paul’s more enlightened moments: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2a). Slavery was certainly the pattern of the world during Paul’s time and long after.
Also consider another Pauline verse: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Paul spoke smoothly about freedom and equality but he wasn’t prepared to help people practice these social virtues by doing anything to replace slavery with humanitarianism or sexism with equality. Talk and words are cheap but costly action is what’s necessary.
Onesimus and many other slaves heard Jesus’ gospel and Paul’s references to faith, freedom and equality. Perhaps many slaves realized that they should not be held captive in light of such teachings. Why? Because God was setting them free. Sadly, Onesimus and legions of other slaves were not really free. How this could be reflects poorly upon all those who have defended slavery and who continue to defend Paul’s acceptance of it.
Legend has it that Paul was executed in Rome. Once condemned to death, Paul could have spoken out against slavery and other social evils without adding to his troubles. After all, in facing his demise Paul was freer than ever to speak the truth. Paul might have used his fame and infamy to help Christians such as the slave owner Philemon realize that followers of God must not own and trade humans. Surely Paul’s failure remains one of history’s greatest missed opportunities.
It has been a plague upon humanity that slavery was the pattern of the world up until recent times. Think of the millions of imprisoned mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, all the abused, beaten and owned souls. Even America was tainted by slavery and the United States fought a bloody civil war 1861=65, claiming about 1.5 million military and civilian casualties, over the legal right of a state to allow its white citizens to buy and sell captive Africans.
In his writing to the church of Galatia, the “liberated” version of Paul implored his people to not conform to earthly norms, values, and customs but rather to supersede and replace reprehensible behavior with compassionate gospel love: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ “ (Galatians 5:14). Again, loving your neighbor means that you will not enslave them.
How ironic that Paul would mention love and freedom without detecting the hypocrisy of his own position, that he could preach oneness in Christ, liberation, and freedom from the Old Testament sacred law and still not help overturn real world slavery. People of good conscience—Christian and atheist—realize Paul was wrong in upholding slavery.
Folks concerned about picking on the great Saint Paul must understand that besides Jesus, no man has shaped the Christian religion as has he. Given the power and authority that people have given Paul’s writings, it is irresponsible to not place his teachings under intense scrutiny, lest we blindly idolize a mere mortal and possibly be led astray in the process. The imperative is that followers of God must not support slavery or the racism that feeds it. God’s children mustn’t enslave or be prejudicial against others.
It would have been best for Paul to follow his own advice rather than perpetuate slavery. It’s worth repeating that loving neighbor as self means not enslaving that neighbor. Paul was like all of us in that he was totally fallible and for that we may forgive him. Paul had character problems but that does not render all of his teachings invalid. As with every other area of life, we must prepare ourselves to separate the good from the bad, the true from the false.
In his book of Galatians, Paul recites the virtues of freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). How painfully ironic are these words. You cannot fault Onesimus for taking to heart Paul’s liberating message and then fleeing his owner Philemon. Apparently Onesimus wasn’t aware that Paul was making only a rhetorical point rather than actually helping overturn slavery.
For all his imperfections, Paul shared wonderfully encouraging words that still inspire. His mention of the quintessential fruits of the spirit still help the faithful rise to a higher level of personal morality and spiritual consciousness. Consider Paul’s uplifting characterization of a healthy spiritual life: “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .” (Galatians 5:22).
Being an ethical person and practicing the list of virtues is a great step in the right direction. All the love, joy and the other traits are beneficial for humanity. If more people practiced the virtues written by Paul then there could be far fewer laws (religious or otherwise). If we thought of the best interests of other people then slavery might have been less prevalent.
Realize that if we hear the best version of Paul, then loving people first and foremost will help deter enslaving them. Or being prejudice against them. Or being hateful and in any way harmful to them. Paul was right in that if we truly embrace the spirit of the Almighty then we will set aside the shameful, sinful works of the flesh and instead embrace the fruits of the spirit. Embrace God and your neighbor, and help set yourself and others free from both literal and spiritual captivity.