Church as Defender of Dignity
By: Rubel Shelly

The early church pursued Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God and affirmed human dignity in a way unique to its time. Much of its impact and effectiveness in evangelism surely traces to the fact that marginalized persons were included in its life. Thus the scholars of religion at Jerusalem initially were inclined to dismiss the whole phenomenon of Christianity because its leaders were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). The same was true in the larger Roman Empire. Paul mentioned that the church of God at Corinth had a minimum of wealthy, educated, and powerful members (1 Cor. 1:26). Part of the scandal of the cross that kept some of the rich and powerful at a distance was unquestionably its elimination of class and privilege barriers.

One of the most interesting of Paul’s letters – although it is the shortest of them – is his Epistle to Philemon. Written from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment there, it reflects a personal ethical dilemma the apostle faced. One of the people Paul contacted during his house arrest and helped either to convert or disciple was Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave who had made his way to Rome. Now, consistent with his status as a Christian, he was trying to make restitution for any harm he had caused others. Somehow in the course of their many conversations, it dawned on Paul that he knew Onesimus’ former owner-master!

Thus Paul had the dilemma of encouraging Onesimus to return property and money he had stolen from Philemon – including his own person – on the one hand and leading the Christian Philemon to act in a way more Christ-like than merely legal in hearing his slave’s confession of sin and receiving the restitution he was prepared to offer. One doesn’t have to be creative at all to “read between the lines” of what he proposes:

While here in jail, I've fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter – Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he's useful to both of us. I'm sending him back to you, but it feels like I'm cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I'm in jail for the Message. But I didn't want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn't willingly agreed to.

Maybe it's all for the best that you lost him for a while. You're getting him back now for good – and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That's what he was to me – he'll be even more than that to you.

So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature – Paul – and I stand behind it. (I don't need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You'll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.

I know you well enough to know you will. You'll probably go far beyond what I've written (Phile. 10-21).
The doctrine of the fundamental dignity of every human being is indivisible from the gospel itself. Yet human dignity is not a “doctrine” so much as it is a lived reality that is either present or absent from any community of people that offers itself as Christ’s church.