Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother (Philemon 15-16, NIV).
Anachronism — “a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, especially: one from a former age that is incongruous in the present” (Merriam-Webster).
There is a lot of discussion in our day concerning the founding of America, especially that it was flawed because the men and women who founded the nation were owners of slaves, and that the Constitution initially recognized black slaves as only three-fifths of a person. This part of the US Constitution (historians call it the Great Compromise) that was ratified in 1787 is abhorrent (properly) to most Americans today who recognize that God does not diminish a person’s worth on the basis of either race or economics and neither should we. Historically, however, it is important to see the issue from the perspective of the late Eighteenth Century. To question the legitimacy of this nation based upon values that we hold today, that were not held then, is an “anachronism.”
This nation has legalized abortion today. I hope for and work for a day when the unborn children of this nation will be fully valued. When that happens and the future generation looks back at the early Twenty-First Century, will all of our decisions be considered as illegitimate because we de-valued human life in this way? I hope not; I hope that future generations will study the history of our generation to see that many good people worked hard to oppose this form of human sacrifice.
When we today look into the debates that took place to establish the governing documents of our nation, we will see a similar debate in that day over slavery. It was an evil that was already present, and abolishing it by decree was not possible. On the other hand, the debate focussed on the human worth of black men and women. At stake was the balance of representation in the newly formed House of Representatives. For the first 90 years of our country’s existence there were many who worked tirelessly to end this injustice, just as many are working tirelessly today to end the sin of abortion. Both issues centered on the worth of human beings.
But there is a deeper logical flaw to the anachronism that says that our Founders should have eliminated slavery from the very beginning. That flaw is embraced by some in the Church who claim to believe in the authority of Scripture. If we can attribute today’s understanding of slavery to the Founding Fathers in the Eighteenth Century, then we must do the same to the history of every generation. Moses surely should have known the evils of slavery — he led the Hebrew nation from it — yet he gave permission for the Hebrew people to own slaves themselves (Lev. 25:44, et. al.). The Apostle Paul also sent the slave, Onesimus, back to his owner — Philemon.
Onesimus was a slave of Philemon who, for reasons that are unknown to us today, ran away from his duties. Whether the personal offense to Philemon was merely that he was financially inconvenienced because he lost the labor a slave would provide for him for a period of time or, more, that Onesimus had actually stolen from him before escaping, we cannot know. But Onesimus ran from Philemon and tried to get lost in the city of Rome. In God’s providence, he met Paul and was converted to Christ. According to the laws of his day, Onesimus was the property of Philemon, until Philemon himself should free him. Paul “leans” on Philemon, but never requires that he free Onesimus, although he might have used his apostolic authority to do so.
If the values that we hold today concerning slavery are binding upon the Founding Fathers of the Eighteenth Century, then how much more should the writers of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have been bound by this universal value. Yet some in the Church today attribute authority to Scripture while asserting that the writings of the leaders in the Eighteenth Century are invalid. To be consistent, if we hold these values as binding upon our ancestors, then neither Moses’ writings nor Paul’s should be considered authoritative. Adopting an anachronistic perspective destroys Biblical authority. This is why Scripture must be read and interpreted from a grammatical and HISTORICAL perspective.