A few weeks ago my Sunday School class went through the book of Philemon and, after three weeks of debate, could not come to a clear understanding whether Paul endorsed or opposed the institution of slavery. Others in our nation’s history would no doubt have been dismayed by our failure. In 1839, Rev. Theodore Clapp of New Orleans said this in a sermon:
“Paul did not suggest to Philemon the duty of emancipating Onesimus, but encouraged him to restore the slave to his former condition, with the hope that, acting under the influence of the holy principles of Christianity, he would in the future serve his master “not with eye service,” as formerly, “but in singleness of heart, fearing God.”
He obviously thought the answer was perfectly clear.
On the other side (And more recently) Dominic Crossan is also sure that the message of Philemon on slavery is perfectly clear when he said:
“Delicately and carefully, but relentlessly and implacably, Paul presses home his point. Philemon should free Onesimus…Paul sees an impossible or intolerable opposition between a Christian master owning a Christian slave. How can they be equal in Christ, but unequal in society? How can they be equal and unequal at the same time? He does not and would never accept the idea that they could be equal spiritually…in the assembly, but unequal physically…in the world.”
It seems to me that the only thing perfectly clear is that two men, both well-meaning to be sure, were quite able, after careful study, to come to opposite conclusions about the same text. As it happens, history has decided, correctly, that slavery is wrong so we can declare Clapp the loser if we wish. We can accuse him of faulty exegesis where he inserted his personal belief into Scripture. We can make that accusation in sorrow or in anger as we see fit. Case closed.
But the key question is this: How do we know, when we are involved in a dispute, even a hostile dispute, with another Christian that we can be 100% sure that we are the one reading the text correctly? How do we know that, 100 years from now, people won’t see us as we see Clapp? How do we know that we aren’t engaged in a dispute where, 100 years from now, people will still be on two sides of the issue?
Answer: We don’t.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that we can’t ever understand the Bible. Neither am I advocating that any old opinion on what it teaches is good enough. I am just cautioning about the arrogant certainty that poor Rev. Clapp showed.
Maybe we should express our opinions, and share our understanding of Scripture, with utmost grace. In that way we can be hopeful that the quotes we leave behind won’t make us look horrible.