Slavery and Christianity: Paul’s Letter to Philemon, John W. Robbins. Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2007. $6.95 Paper, 59 pages. ISBN: 1891777173
John Robbins is an elder in a Reformed congregation. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He founded The Trinity Foundation in 1977 as a Christian think tank. Other writings include Christ and Civilization, Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth, Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church, Freedom and Capitalism: Essays on Christian Politics and Economics, and Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System.
When I read Slavery and Christianity I wrote in my journal, "A pretty good commentary with some rather unique observations." A couple of months later, I still feel the same way.
Mr. Robbins' approach is uncommon. The direction of this commentary can be found in a paragraph from the TF web site: "Paul's letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of divinely inspired political philosophy. It provides the basis for the non-violent abolition of slavery wherever the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and believed." He sees the letter to Philemon as a Christian treatise against slavery.
John W. Robbins is often at odds with other commentators. It is a common idea that early Christianity generally accepted slavery without criticism. Robbins writes, "The Bible supports freedom -- spiritual, religious, political and economic -- not slavery; and those who favor slavery either do not understand or do not believe the Bible." (p. 13) He also believes the letter relates to church government and was "written as a form and model of church discipline." He further states, "Philemon is a goldmine of doctrine – obviously about slavery and freedom, but also about church discipline, civil government, civil disobedience, and tact.” (p. 7)
Robbins challenges the way many Bible students interpret Paul's instructions to masters and servants (Cf. Col. 3:22-4:1 with Eph. 6:5-9; I Tim. 6:1-3; Tit. 2:9-10). I was disappointed that he did not take up a harmonization of Paul's instructions and his interpretation of Philemon. Perhaps he will take up the subject in another format.
Also, his comments on "Race and Christianity" (pp. 14-17), while good in themselves, may cause confusion related to racially-based slavery. Though the letter mentions Jews (e.g. Paul) and Gentiles (e.g. Philemon, Luke, Onesimus), there seems to be no basis for understanding Onesimus' servitude to Philemon as racially-based.
A reviewer on The Domain for Truth blog writes, "'Slavery and Christianity' is what you would expect from a Reformed and Presuppositional teacher of the Word of God: logically sharp, fascinating insight from the Biblical text, lay-man friendly and more importantly, spiritually edifying." In addition to the commentary, appended is a short treatise by Robbins entitled The Crisis of our Time, as well as a list of books available from The Trinity Foundation -- bringing the total number of pages to 84.
John W. Robbins challenges the "status quo". His book Slavery and Christianity is a good addition to conservative commentaries on Philemon. It will force you to think. I don't agree with all he wrote. But he made me study some things to see whether they were so. I recommend this book as well worth the cost. Anyone studying the relationship of Christianity and slavery should read Robbins' words.