8.12 Colossians -- Slavery
Despite the fact that slaves had equal status with free men within the Christian community, Paul does not extend that equality to the outside world. Indeed, he adds to the slave's burden by exhorting him to serve his master wholeheartedly (Col 3:23). This passage no doubt was a favorite of the antebellum Southern plantation owners. Paul tacks on a warning to slaveowners to remember that they too had a Master in heaven. This passage is a copy of Eph 6:5-9.
It would have been very hard to uphold unity of spirit in the church meeting while practicing forced labor in the home. The freedom from bondage that Christ gives cannot be restricted to spiritual matters, it must overflow into all of life. Either liberty will prevail by the transformation of the relationship between slave and owner, or the perpetuation of slavery will extinguish the fellowship of the Spirit in the church. The two cannot long co-exist.
Paul not only realized this, but practiced it. This letter was delivered to the Colossians by Tychicus, who was accompanied by Onesimus, the runaway slave ("our faithful and dear brother") (Col 4:9). Onesimus' owner was Philemon, and Paul wrote a personal letter to this man, pleading the case of Onesimus:
He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me (Philemon 16-17).
So we see that Paul's concern for loving relationships within the fellowship takes precedence over Roman law and the rights of slaveholders, even to the extent of offering to pay Onesimus' debts:
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me (Philemon 18).