Neil Shusterman and the Unwinding of the World

If you aren’t reading Neil Shusterman, you should be. His Unwind series may be one of the best current YA stories addressing 51jfK5ckM8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_significant moral and social issues in a way that leads readers toward the truth. This post will focus primarily on the final book, Undivided. If you are not familiar with the series, it may be helpful to read some observations about the previous books. Here are the links (along with a brief overview) for Unwind, UnWholly, and UnSouled.


Unwind is compelling. It’s disturbing. It makes the moral heart of our culture’s debate about the aforementioned issues unavoidable. It’s one thing to write academic papers about post-birth abortion; it’s quite another to vicariously experience the murder of innocent people deemed unworthy of life. The reader can’t help but cringe at the empty deception in defense of Unwinding while cheering those who fight to stop it. Though Shusterman intended to take a neutral approach by highlighting hypocrisy on all sides, the story sends a clear message about the value of human life.” 


“There was far more to UnWholly than its discussion of the soul and personal identity. Risa and Conner show maturity and respect in their relationship. An ongoing story about rescued Tithes gives plenty of opportunity to analyze both the proper use and improper abuse of religion. And there is an achingly beautiful moment of forgiveness between two teens who have been horribly damaged by life. It may have been the best moment in a great book. But as much as I like his series for all those things, I am more impressed with Shusterman’s ability to starkly reveal the implications of living in a culture that has forgotten what it means to be human.”


Once again, Mr. Shusterman has reminded us of a number of issues that are just too important to ignore.  When does life begin? What does it means to be human? What happens when we view people as property or things? Are we just parts, or is there a unifying soulishness to our nature? Should scientists do things just because they can, or is there a should that needs to be part of the discussion? In a world that increasingly traffics in flesh (in areas such as pornography, the sex slave tradesavior siblings, and medical experiments on aborted babies), any reminder of the value of humanity is a good one.” 


In Undivided, Mr. Shusterman brings this series to a close. Once again, he addresses serious issues in a thought-provoking and accessible way.

  • Consequentialist Ethics. There is a Greater Good Divisional Option promoting a law that allows the police to identify incorrigible youth and Unwind them against their will. Is Unwinding genuinely offering the greatest good for the greatest number? And even if it were, is there any possible way that killing children and youth could be justified?
  • Just War Theory. Starkey keeps taking down Unwind camps, but public sentiment actually turns in favor of Unwinding because of the brutal nature of his campaign. He’s hoping to draw public attention to their plight by freeing kids awaiting Unwinding. He gets the public’s attention, but not in the way he wanted. He becomes so mercilessly brutal in his killing of the workers that public sentiment actually turns against him, and the push for more Unwinding escalates.  I’ve written elsewhere about how Just War Theory helps us analyze whether or not violence on this scale is justified (“The Hunger Games and Just War Theory”). In short, Starkey’s approach is not, and Shusterman does a great job showing this.
  • Human Nature. If people are Unwound they clearly die and lose their “self”; what would happen if they were Rewound? If all the separated parts were rejoined, would the original “self” be there or would it be someone new? What is the conscience? The soul? Our sense of self? Is Connor fully human at the end of the story – and why or why not? The way in which Shusterman presents these issues points strongly toward a dualistic view of human nature.
  • The Nature of Heroism. What do you call someone who hangs employees of Unwinding camps, or who executes the doctors who do the Unwinding? Is that person a hero or a monster? Considering the strong pro-life message in the series, it was a great way to show why pro-life advocates do not promote violence against abortion clinics or doctors.
  • Bioengineering. Undivided features the 3-D printing of human organs from adult pluripotent stem cells, not embryonic cells (the book is very clear on this point). Considering how the entire series has dealt with the horror of treating children as if they were simply something to be harvested for parts, there is no way they would use fetal stem cells.
  • The Soul/The Afterlife. (Spoiler alert!) After Conner is Rewound, Lev asks him, “Did you go into the light? Did you see the face of God?” Conner replies, “I think you have to get through the door before you see that.” After Lev thinks about it for a bit, he says,” Interesting. I believe the door would have opened if the master of the house knew you were there to stay.”

The Unwind series is not without its flaws.* However, considering the way in which Mr. Shusterman develops a pretty complicated story with plenty of tie-ins to current events (all the books feature actual news stories), I highly recommend this series. It’s disturbing and brutal at times, but it’s also full of hope.  Buy it. Read it. Then buy more for your friends. It’s the kind of story that could change a culture’s perspective on the value and nature of human life.


*In Undivided, one of the teenage couples sleeps together. Not only did it feel like an entirely unnecessary plot point, it felt…forced, as if it was included to satisfy reader expectations. There were other sexual situations that were integral to establishing the character of certain people (and placed in the proper perspective by Mr. Shusterman), but this incident felt different. I’m not commenting on this because I think it nullifies the overwhelmingly solid way in which the series addressed the many issues I mentioned above. I highly recommend all of the books. This is just a reminder that, as with all stories, you should be prepared to add a different perspective on certain issues as needed.

Paul's Household Codes: Repressive or Redemptive?

“Wives: be submitted to your husbands as is appropriate in the Lord. Husbands: love your wives, and don’t treat them harshly or respond with bitterness toward them.

Children: obey your parents in every way. The Lord is well pleased by it. Fathers: don’t infuriate your children, so their hearts won’t harbor resentment and become discouraged.

Slaves: obey your earthly masters in all things. Don’t just act earnest in your service only when they are watching. Serve with a sincere heart , fearing the Lord who is always watching! So no matter what your task is, work hard. Always do your best as the Lord’s servant, not as man’s, because you know your reward is the Lord’s inheritance. You serve Christ the Lord, and anyone who does wrong will be paid his due because He doesn’t play favorites. Masters: treat your slaves fairly and do what is right, knowing that you, too, have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 3: 18- 4:1, The Voice)

This passage (as well as similar ones in Ephesians and 1 Peter) is often cited as a confirmation that the Bible is pro-slavery and anti-woman. At first glance, that certainly appears to be the case. I believe a deeper look at what’s going on in this letter ( and in the letter to Philemon, which was written about the same time and addressed to a member of the Colossian church) will help us understand what is truly happening here.

First, we need to know something about life in first century Colossae.

As far back as the fourth century BC, there is a record that the Greeks viewed the household to be a miniature version of the order found in society, the realm of the gods, and ultimately the universe. Aristotle even identified the three key relationships within the household that mattered: “The smallest and primary parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” Aristotle believed free men were by nature intended to rule over their wives, children, and slaves because they were created by the gods to be better. His writing is pretty clear on this point, noting that “the one gender is far superior to the other in just about every sphere,” and that “the slave has not deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.” Considering this type of philosophical background, it’s worth understanding how life looked like for women, children, and slaves in the Greco-Roman world before we look at Paul’s Christianized household code.


Marriages were typically based on economic considerations. Wives were often young teens who married much older men. They were the property of their husbands. Marriage was not meant to join two lovers; it was a union for the raising of legitimate children to keep the family line going (Demosthenes noted: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children”). Women existed to please the men around them, and a husband could do with his wife (or wives) whatever he wanted. Women had almost no voice in the home or in the city. They could not testify in court because they were considered unreliable (that was true in Judaism as well). Some were educated; most were not. They rarely joined their husband and his friends for meals, which was where all the important conversations happened.


The father also had authority over his children no matter their age. They were to submit to his will even after they had families of their own. Once again, his children existed to serve and please him. He could set them outside the city to die when they were babies if he didn’t like what he saw. He had absolute control over their lives. They were meant to bring him honor and perhaps wealth. It was all about him, not them.


Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ akin to animals. They were by nature created to serve. The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona,”  or no personality. They were seen empty shells, blank slates with no identity or status apart from what their master granted them. In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the slave was considered representative of the master’s character. When we read the dramas and poetry that have survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed household slaves as skilled and productive  (the were often highly educated, and many were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen), but assumed they were con artists who acted nice while planning devious things.

Second, Christians were already at odds with both the culture and the law as they came to grips with what it meant to follow Christ.

They were now part of what Paul called a “new humanity” in which the divisions of race, gender and freedom were meant to dissolve in mutual love toward Christ and each other. Of course, that was a work in progress. There were at least four ways in which the early followers of Christ began pushing back against the commonly accepted social norms as they sought to embody this reality.

This was not necessarily sitting well with Rome. The early Christians were called “haters of humanity” because they so willingly broke down the structures that the Greeks and Romans believed brought stability to the nation and honor to the gods. When the husband/father of a household became a follower of Christ, his conversion brought him and his household shame and suspicion in the eyes of the Romans and Greeks. They were pretty sure this man and his family were on the verge of becoming traitors to their country, the gods and the order of the universe.

Paul was trying to show a fledgling church how Christ would transform a culture beginning with the households in the church. It wasn’t going to help if those households were eliminated before the message took hold. HIs approach needed to be full of both truth and tact.

Third, we need to know the Biblical explanation of what has gone wrong with the world – and how to fix it.

The Bible presents the power struggle between people as having entered the world as a result of sin. We read of women in in Genesis 3:16 that, as a result of sin, “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you” (NET Bible). I saw a website for wives that posted this verse with the comments: “Could your desire for your husband be a little stronger? Could you let him rule over you a little more than you did last week?”

They are missing the point badly. This verse is not a promise of blessing; it’s an observation about how life will now look in a fallen world. Rebellion broke the world. Genesis 3 is not a list of how things ought to be; it’s an explanation of how things have become. One thing we learn right away: The fallen nature craves domination and hates servanthood.

Christianity claims that Jesus Christ came to redeem not just people but the ways in which people have grown comfortable in their fallen state. As we ponder questions about leadership and submission, we see that Jesus did not seek the position His power offered him. Instead, he became a servant and gave his very life for those he loved as an example for how we are to live. Three examples from Scripture:

  • Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).
  • In speaking about authority Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
  • When his disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

In Colossians, Paul is showing how redemption looks in relationships. For those who had been raised in submissive roles, he offers a new motivation as they move toward honor and equality. For those who have perpetrated an unjust use of power, he demands an entire makeover.

Men – the culturally privileged and powerful –  have to care for the people within their household for their own sakes with the same level of committed, self-sacrifice that Christ himself showed for us all.  Men who mistreat anyone in their household will  eventually answer to God. In fact, the New Testament writers use figurative language to show men that they are spiritually in the same position as everyone in their household is literally: men are part of the bride of Christ; men are children of God; men are slaves to God. As God treats men in these roles spiritually, so men should treat those around them who have those roles physically. In a radical departure from what most of the people reading this letter would have been raised to believe, men must learn to genuinely love and serve those whom their culture said they could use and control. The redeemed nature chooses service over power.

This was unprecedented in the history of household codes. No one is told that they are better. No is told they have a right to rule. No one is told what their rights are or what is owed to them. They are all told what their responsibilities are to those around them: mutual service to honor Christ. The language used to describe each relationship is different, but the principle remains the same.

A careful reading of the book of Philemon will show that Paul wanted Philemon (who also received the letter to the Colossian church) to view Onesimus as a human being, a brother in Christ, a man of intrinsic value and worth. If Paul could accomplish that, all forms of injustice and inequality would fade away. The best way to change a cultural mindset that accepts inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it in all its forms.

The wary eye of Rome would see the Christian household codes and look elsewhere for subterfuge; meanwhile, the voice of truth within the church began to spread a message honor, worth, and dignity to those who has spent their lives on the margins of society.



N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)

Aristotle and the Household Codes

Aristotle vs. Jesus: What Makes the New Testament Household Codes So Different

Entertainment and Worldviews (Summer, 2014)

For those who would like to be familiar with the worldviews and messages in the books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily Young Adult audience, I offer the following excerpts from some recent reviews. Keep in mind that my main goal is to look at how the story reflects and shapes the readers’ worldview. Click on the links for the full review. Your feedback is welcome!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

“In places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East, we see this allegory unfold in the real world. People on both sides have stories to tell that explain their fear and hatred. Peace seems like the obvious answer, but if the other side sees overtures of peace as a weakness that lets them wage war, those who seek peace bring destruction on themselves and everyone they love.”

True Detective

 “I’ve heard it said that the reason we can portray evil with such depth and nuance is that we understand it. We don’t know how to portray goodness with the same clarity because we don’t understand it. We know what it’s like to give in to the worst angels of our nature; the better angels seem to hover just off our shoulder. True Detective understands evil both horrific and ordinary. What True Detective fails to provide is an equally compelling look at the goodness needed to counter it.”

Maleficent: A Fairy Tale for our Times

“The closing narration describes Maleficent as both hero and villain. Isn’t that true of all of us? King David was an adulterer and a “man after God’s own heart”; Peter was Christ’s most blatant betrayer before he became one of his most ardent defenders. Paul killed Christians before he became one himself.  Boromir gave his life to make up for his lust for the Ring. Is this not the human condition? Maleficent is neither an apostle nor a warrior of Rohan, but she is one in whom the battle between good and evil rages. She faltered, but she finished well.”

X-Men:Days of Future Past

“The war within the characters rages more intensely than the war around them. Magneto can choose a better path if he so desires. The goodness in Raven can overcome the anger in Mystique. The cavalier, young, self-centered Xavier can choose to become a better man.  And the Wolverine we saw in Origins and First Class can, in fact, cage the animal. People may not choose their nature, but on any given day they can choose whom – or what – they will serve.”

Edge of Tomorrow (All You Need Is Kill)

“The movie is pretty good in it’s own right. However, the screenwriters should have stuck with the book when they wrote the ending. True, the book does not have a happy ending, but the sense of nobility, sacrifice and commitment is much deeper. And check out J.W. Wartick’s post on both the book and the movie: ‘Truth, Human Nature and Sacrifice.'”

Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery (Part 2)

I ended the first post on this topic by noting that Paul wanted something better than freedom for Onesimus: he wanted Philemon to view Onesimus as a human being, a brother in Christ, a man of intrinsic value and worth. And if Paul could accomplish that, all forms of injustice and inequality would fade away. The best way to change a cultural mindset that accepts inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it in all its forms.

A cursory reading of the book of Philemon can leave the impression that the focus is all on Onesimus, who needed to return to Philemon, repent for having stolen, and resubmit himself to his responsibilities as a doulos. While Paul certainly does that, a closer reading reveals Paul was not about to let Philemon off the tool. Philemon had a good reputation as a kind and generous man, but Paul is not content with settling for a certain kind of conformity on the outside. He wants to get to Philemon’s heart. And if he get’s to Philemon’s heart, all the things about freedom and inequality that Paul didn’t say will fall into place.

Philemon seems to have accepted a deeply entrenched Greco-Roman view of all doulos in which they were perceived as an inferior, almost sub-human element of society. Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which Philemon was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening in the church – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He may have been generous and upstanding within his culture, but he was still fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:

  • The Greeks so valued their freedom that they scorned anyone who did not have any. One writer has noted,  “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.”  In this case, even if Onesimus, the doulos, was treated well, it didn’t mean he was viewed well.
  •  Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ akin to animals. They were by nature created to serve. The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona,”  or no personality. They were seen empty shells, blank slates with no identity or status apart from what their master granted them. In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the doulos was considered representative of the master’s character.
  •  When we read the dramas and poetry that has survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed people like Onesimus as skilled and productive, but assumed they were con artists who acted nice but planned devious things.

Philemon was raised as one of the free Greek citizens whose worth and dignity was defined by freedom (except his doulos to the civil law – that was the only way that word was used for free Greek citizens). He likely accepted his culture’s perspective, probably without thought. That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. Though he had given his life to follow Christ and entered into a church community in which everyone had equal worth and dignity in the eyes of God, how easy it must have been for him to default to his former perspective:

  • “Onesimus has no rights; he’s not my equal.”
  • “Onesimus is by nature meant to serve me.”
  • “Onesimus betrayed me – he is a con artist.”

Paul wrote to Philemon, “So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me.” When Paul talks about partnership in a mission, he uses the word koinonos – having common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17).  It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive or solo.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community.  It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply to refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem. We can even adhere to a good moral code on the outside while harboring a sinful mindset that will eventually manifest. Paul understands human nature; that’s why he is trying to get to the heart of the problem.

Philemon has to “receive [Onesimus]” (v.17) – literally, to welcome him as a member of the household. Onesimus is Philemon’s “brother,” a term the Greeks NEVER applied to anyone other than a blood brother – until now.  Paul said Philemon was a doulos to God – an idea which the Greeks NEVER applied to someone’s relationship to the gods – until now. 

Paul was saying (and I paraphrase), “Philemon – your view of people is deeply wrong. You think others aren’t as good or deserving or useful as you are. You and Onesimus are brothers, so you should protect, defend and honor him. You are both doulos to God, so your character needs to match your master – forgive and receive Onesimus as Christ has forgiven and accepted you. Your true and free desire should lead you to love and grace.”

If Philemon takes Paul seriously, there is no way Onesimus – or Philemon’s other servants – will be treated as “living tools” lacking intrinsic value or worth. In fact, if the early Christians reading this letter took Paul seriously, any system of slavery, exploitive servitude or arrogant elitism would only whither and die. A community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God’s spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth.

Paul’s approach seems to have worked. His letter to Philemon was widely circulated, and the fact that it was included in the canon of Scripture indicates that his audience believed it to be a reflection of the heart of Jesus Christ. As a result, the early Christian church developed into a community that provided a counter-cultural place of love and hope not only within their own church, but to marginalized and oppressed in Greco-Roman culture as well.

From “The Epistle to Diognetes”, 130 A.D.: “They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh…They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all….They are poor yet make many rich… they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… They are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers… To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

From “The Apology of Tertullian” 197 A.D.: “[They] pray… for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of [Christ’s return]… On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they [minister to them].But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…”

Historian Rodney Stark offers an insightful summary in The Rise of Christianity:

“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.”

When we look at the last 2,000 years of church history, Christians have clearly not lived up to the standard embraced by the early church. This failure, however, does not change the foundation laid by the life and teaching of Christ and writers of the New Testament.



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

“New Testament: Philemon,” (

“Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline,” (

“The Epistle to Philemon,” (

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (

“Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli,

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

“Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians,” by Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (

“Women, Children, and Slaves,”


Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery

Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presented a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery. 

Does that seem like a bold claim? Perhaps it is. But I believe an honest reading of the text within the context of 1st Century Greco-Roman culture leads us to this conclusion.

The term “slave” finds its origins in 13th century France; linguistically, it’s only fair to acknowledge that any discussion of 1st century conditions will be distorted if we use the word “slave” indiscriminately. The Greeks used many different words to describe people in servitude or slavery. Doulous, the word Paul uses throughout the New Testament to reference someone who is not free, cannot be indiscriminately translated as “slave” without poisoning the well.  Doulos could mean slavery, servitude, or simply self-sacrificial commitment. Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7); all people are either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18); Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19). In order to do justice to Paul’s message in Philemon, we must be honest about the intricacies of the language.

When the writers of the ESV sought to translate both the Hebrew and Greek words that had been commonly translated as “slave,” they ran into some problems:

“A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America.

For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed’ and ‘doulos’ has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.”    “The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

Doulos made up about 40% of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but doulos in some fashion formed the backbone of the economy. There were absolutely brutal forms of doulos (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but other forms that bore little resemblance to what we think of today. Many were what we would think of as indentured servants (similar to what happened in the early days of American settlement). Greek and Roman doulos were often highly educated, and many were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen.

There were a number of ways people could become doulos. Ancient cultures commonly forces captured soldiers and hardened criminals into the most brutal forms of slavery. The poor would sometimes volunteer; others were born into a life of doulos. There were no bankruptcy laws, so this was also a way in which the bankrupt found work and worked off debt. “If a man be enslaved his debts cease to bind him, and his liability does not revive if he is manumitted.” Digesta Justiniana 28. 8. 1. pr.

Household doulos were much better off than even the free-born poor. The poor were often day laborers competing for jobs that went to the well-conected doulos. Slaves like Onesimus were paid for their work, which provided them the means to eventually buy their freedom. Some owned other doulos themselves (think of the parable of unforgiving servant, who owed his master, but was in turn owed by another worse off than he was).

In Greek and Roman culture, doulos such as Onesimus often earned their freedom by the age of 30 or were granted freedom in their owner’s will. In the city of Rome, freed doulos enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership but also active political freedom, including the right to vote. They even had a title: “the free ones.”

This system was the way for someone like Onesimus to move up in society and become a relatively successful free man. Even nobleman were known to sell themselves into the service of greater noblemen so they could move up in the Greco-Roman world. Onesimus himself probably did not ask Paul to abolish the institution of slavery, since what most likely had awaited him on the other side of his service to Philemon was a decent life and reputation. For a doulos who was a bondservant or household servant, their story often ended well.

There were, however, at least three ways the story could end poorly.

A freed doulos needed the patronage and favor of his owner,or  buying his freedom was not necessarily helpful. A doulos had to be, above all things, useful (which is the meaning of “Onesimus,” a title probably given him by Philemon). The doulos were commodities, investments. It’s not as if the owners were educating them and giving them responsibility out of the goodness of their heart. The useful doulos earned the master’s “stamp of approval.” The lazy ones did not. For those that did not, their eventual freedom would not necessarily be a good thing. They would become one of the working poor who scrabbled to survive and lost the day jobs to the doulos with patronage. If their former master chose to retain them, they would serve in a reduced status with only a taste of freedom and a portion of the master’s provision.

A runaway doulos was a nobody, useless to his master and the state. As much as a doulos could gain honor, privilege and status when he was useful, he lost it all immediately and usually irretrievably when he ran away. Runaway doulos forfeited all their ties and privileges. They were a lost cause. Their owners could pretty much do with them what they wanted. Typically, a captured runaway was either sent to hard labor (which was a death sentence), branded (the Latin word for fugitive began with an “F,” which was burned on their forehead), crucified, or whipped to death.

A revolutionary doulos could only hope for a swift death. The Romans brutally crushed the individuals involved and slaughtered the groups with which they associated. Spartacus (70 BC) had more than 70,000 in his rebellion; Rome eventually smashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 slaves.

Assuming that the biblical portrayal of Philemon is accurate, Onesimus was probably not running away from abuse and poverty; he had most likely stolen from a man who invested time, money and trust in him, and whose patronage was giving him access to a better life than many around him had. That’s not to say Philemon was off the hook (more on this in my next post), but in that culture, at that time, this was Onesimus’s ticket to freedom and respect. But now he was in trouble. Captured and awaiting impending judgment, Onesimus sought out a new person to serve. His choice of Paul – himself a prisoner – shows the level of desperation.


So what should Paul do?

He could write a blistering missive that condemned the whole system. He could command Philemon to free Onesimus and his other doulos, spread the word of freedom and inequality, and basically take on Rome. But Rome tended to view any shaking of the social order as potentially seditious. A Roman guard would certainly have read Paul’s letter, and if it looked like Paul was encouraging revolution, Paul and the letter’s recipients would most likely be killed. Nothing would change.

Even if Paul could start the overthrow of Rome’s existing social order, history suggests that the people would just substitute one form of injustice for another (I’m talking to you, French Revolution!). We even see this frustrating cycle of tyranny and corruption in popular stories like The Hunger Games and Captain America. If you change the laws on an issue but don’t change the hearts of the people effected by the issue, the same problem will just keep coming up.

Paul cared about the lives and reputation of the doulos in Rome (more on this in the next post), but he knew that to truly change a cultural of slavery and serventhood, he had to get to the root of the problem in Philemon: sin, which resides in the human heart, which in this case was expressed through injustice and discrimination, and could only be resolved through the transformation that Christ brings. As important as cultural transformation is, the message of the Gospel neither starts nor ends with external behavior modification. Paul  goes for something much bigger than merely Onesimus’s freedom. His goal is to change the source of the problem: Philemon’s heart.

Mark 7:20-22: “Jesus went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “

Luke 6:45: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

If Philemon’s heart was changed, he would help to usher in a church community in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:23). Paul was challenging the hearts of society’s gatekeepers, the ones who stood to benefit from the inequality inherent in the Greco-Roman economic and social system.  Paul was challenging those who demanded that people be useful above all else, or they were worth nothing. Paul was challenging the way in which we can all see people as things that exist to serve us and make us happy, not image bearers of God for whom Christ gave his life.

Paul wanted something better than freedom for Onesimus: he wanted Philemon to view Onesimus as a human being, a brother in Christ, a man of intrinsic value and worth. And if Paul could accomplish that – well, all forms of injustice and inequality would fade away. A transformation inside – if it’s genuine – will inevitably result in a change outside. In this case, the best way to change a culture of inequality, dehumanization, and injustice was to change the hearts of those who perpetuated it.

There’s more to say on this topic. As generous as he apparently was in the context of his culture, Philemon seems to have accepted a deeply entrenched Greco-Roman view of all doulos in which they were perceived as an inferior, almost sub-human element of society. Paul’s letter has more to say to Philemon – but that’s a topic for the next post.



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo

Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

“New Testament: Philemon,” (

“Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline,”

“The Epistle to Philemon,” 

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” Eric McKiddie (

“Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” Andy Naselli (

“What Were Early Christians Like?”

“Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians,” Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome,”

“Women, Children and Slaves,”

“Slavery in Ancient Greece,”