8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,
Justice and moral engagement therewith are not appealed to in a vacuum. Justice and morality are developed most fully in the context of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the subsequent relationship that develops with Him. So, Paul begins his direct exhortation with, “accordingly.” According to the gospel that has been so evident in Philemon’s life already. According to the love that Philemon has shown to all the saints. According to what has occurred in Philemon’s life. Paul sees an injustice in keeping a slave and the answer to that injustice is in the “accordingly.”
Justice and morality can be appealed to in two different senses. The first and most common in modern society is the concept of a social contract. (Feel free to look up social contract and see what it means. For the purpose of this blog, I am defining it as – that which society views as just or unjust based on how it affects others in society.) This is the appeal that says, we do what is just because it is best for society. This is the appeal that most modern movements are based on. Social activism is practically a way of standing up with many people and saying, “See, we all agree!” If society agrees that something is good, then it must be…. Maybe? The social contract method of appeal can be a powerful motivator toward justice. Usually, these kinds of justice movements that are based on society’s accumulated view are generational and often short-lived. Telling someone, “Everyone believes this to be wrong!” Does not offer any actual authority because “everyone” could be wrong. Further, a social contract may work for the benefit of all people on occasion, but, more often than not, social contracts work in favor of the loudest and most prominent group in the debate.
However, Paul does not appeal to Philemon on the basis of society or even a social contract. He does not state that Philemon needs to do what is right because “everyone knows slavery is wrong.” Of course, in Paul’s time, almost no one confessed slavery as wrong. Though we could be tempted to think that we have now grown and now live in some evolved society of a greater morality, the truth is we have merely relegated slavery to positions acceptable in society. Between pornography/sex trafficking and general educational disparities of rural/urban versus suburban areas, we have managed to relegate slavery to acceptable areas of society – the profane or economic. If we appeal to the social contract in order to engage in justice or morality, we inevitably neglect justice for the sake of compromise with society. This is effectively what society has done. Yet, it is not the champions of social contracts that inspire nations to justice. It is those who stand on a higher ground of principle or authority that change the world and see justice exalted. It is those who lay down their lives for a greater message that are venerated as heroes.
The second and less common appeal to justice or morality is the appeal to a higher morality or deeper truth. This is an appeal that is based on a much deeper reality than a social contract can provide. That is to say, there is no one in society that is going to agree with this source. The call to justice here sets a man apart from society. Though all the world tells Philemon that slavery is ok and Onesimus should be punished and placed back in servitude, the gospel sets Onesimus free and demands the same of those who claim to follow the gospel! This appeal to the gospel is more than just a call to believe in Jesus. It is a call to Philemon to BE a Christian.
It is easy to minimize the difficulty of what Philemon is called to do. However, a simple survey of anti-slavery writing will easily uncover the difficulty of those who are convicted by the societal injustice but feel entrapped by the system they live in. Thomas Jefferson is, debatably, the most obvious example of this conflict. He argued that slavery was wrong, but that it must be left up to a future generation to abolish it… because it would be too hard. This is the result of a man who sees injustice through the lens of a social contract. Injustice may still be noted and appalling. Yet still, it will remain in light of other considerations. Not so with those who profess that justice is answered from a higher morality or deeper truth. Those who believe in a higher morality must live in that higher morality. They must fight for justice because it is just. They stand up for life because murder is wrong. They call from freedom because slavery is wrong. So the gospel demands a pursuit of freedom for the lowest of society because all who trust in Jesus have been redeemed from the lowest place. The message of the gospel demands justice and morality that may or may not be agreed on by society. It demands that those who have been forgiven by Jesus must also forgive those who wrong them. The gospel calls a man to spread justice across the earth because it is the gospel. In short: the gospel demands that adherents act “accordingly.”
So Paul pleads with Philemon: “Accordingly…”