I’ve been marinating in Gordon Fee’s chapter on “Male and Female in the New Creation” (from “Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy” by Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, General Editors; Contributing Editor: Gordon Fee) the last several days. I wanna take time to recommend this book again to all who need something good to read on the debate. I’ve called this book “The Compendium of the Complementarian/Egalitarian Debate” and I stick by my words—this book is a heavy-hitter when it comes to knowing the real issues in the debate…
I’m still tackling Fee’s “New Creation Theology,” so I’m still digging through the theological implications of Galatians 3:28. Just so you can follow, I’ll post this verse here once more:
28(A) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave[a] nor free,(B) there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28, ESV)
For those who need to see the proof for our “New Creation” Rule, I’ll post these verses here, too:
15For(A) neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but(B) a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule,(C) peace and mercy be upon them, and upon(D) the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:15-16, ESV)
As I’ve stated in the last several posts on New Creation, this rule (or canon) tells us that the distinctions we have as individuals (whether it be gender, socio-economic status, or ethnicity) no longer determine our worth; what determines our worth is the fact that we are a NEW CREATION because we are “IN CHRIST,” and, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man be in Christ, NEW CREATION; OLD things have passed away…behold, all things have become NEW.”
Today in our post we’re gonna continue our discussion of “slave” and “free.” I wrote on this a bit in my journey through 1 Corinthians 7, but we will also look at it here. Paul says things here that he doesn’t say anywhere else in his letters. This letter, as personal as it was, shows us that Paul lived by the New Creation rule. Fee writes regarding Paul’s letter to Philemon:
“So when Onesimus is returned to his owner Philemon, Paul DELICATELY URGES Philemon to take him back into the household to reassume his role as a slave. But with consummate spiritual wisdom he says far more, by adding: ‘NO LONGER AS A SLAVE, BUT BETTER THAN A SLAVE, AS A DEAR BROTHER’ (Philem 16). THIS DOES NOT ABOLISH THE SYSTEM, BUT CARRIED THROUGH BY PHILEMON, IT DISMANTLES THE SIGNIFICANCE GIVEN TO IT (and in this indirect way, of course, heads toward the dismantling of the system itself!)” (“Discovering Biblical Equality,” page 183).
Paul writes Philemon in love about receiving back Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. However, Paul makes it clear that receiving Onesimus back as a slave is mandatory:
8Accordingly,(M) though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do(N) what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you… (Philemon 8, ESV)
He says that it is “required” for Philemon to accept Onesimus back. In other words, because Onesimus is now one in the faith, he is not to be treated as any common slave; for now, he is a brother in Christ, ON THE SAME LEVEL AS PHILEMON IN THE EYES OF THE LORD! Look at what Paul writes of Onesimus:
For this perhaps is why(V) he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16(W) no longer as a slave[c] but more than a slave, as(X) a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you,(Y) both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 15-16, ESV)
Here he says that Philemon was to have Onesimus (his slave) back FOREVER. This meant that Onesimus would be Philemon’s slave for a long time. Yet Paul shows his “New Creation Rule” when he says, “No longer as a SLAVE, but MORE THAN A SLAVE, A BELOVED BROTHER…” (verse 16). To think of Onesimus as a BROTHER would be a FAR HIGHER PERSPECTIVE from which to think of Onesimus, not as his old-slave. This is what New Creation does: it looks BEYOND the distinctions, whether male or female, and sees that we’re all brothers and sisters in CHRIST!
Notice that Paul addresses both Onesimus’s earthly state and spiritual state all at once:
“especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
Here Paul first acknowledges Onesimus’s current state as slave—“in the flesh.” And then he also acknowledges the spiritual side: “in the Lord.” So, while Onesimus is a SLAVE (a division ACCORDING TO THE FLESH), by virtue of his salvation, he became a BROTHER in Christ to Philemon and would serve him well. He is a NEW CREATION, and, although bound in the flesh, he is THE LORD’S FREEDMAN (to borrow Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 7).
Paul writes in verse 17:
17So if you consider me(Z) your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
Paul told Philemon to “receive him AS YOU WOULD RECEIVE ME” (v. 17). Philemon would receive Paul as a dear friend; and Paul wouldn't have Philemon receive Onesimus back ANY DIFFERENTLY! Paul even told Philemon that if Onesimus owed anything, he [Paul] would cover the cost…
Keeping in mind Gordon Fee’s words about Paul and his NEW CREATION OUTLOOK, I wanna backtrack some to verse 11:
11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
Paul contrasts Onesimus’ earlier behavior with his behavior now (as a brother in Christ). The name “Onesimus” means USEFUL, and Paul tells Philemon that now, Onesimus is ready to live up to his name—he’s ready to be productive and cooperative as a slave. Although Onesimus once ran off and served as a rebel, he would no longer rebel as a result of the TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE GOSPEL.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon is not that long, but it’s a letter that shows us what the Gospel can do in others—and what the Gospel can do IN OURSELVES. Onesimus was coming back to Philemon to work as a slave should—but Philemon should receive him back and treat him as a brother. The BIGGER EMPHASIS was not on his socio-economic status, but his FAITH STATUS: he was a brother in Christ, a slave on equal footing with his master (in the Lord), and he should be treated as such.
Stay tuned…there’s more on Galatians 3:28 to come…