I have been reading A Disputation on Holy Scripture by William Whitaker. Whitaker was a 16th century Protestant and the book was published in 1588. While addressing the matter of whether the epistle to Philemon belongs in the biblical canon, Whitaker makes some interesting comments about the letter’s teaching on slavery, in which he cites and affirms John Chrysostom’s (4th century) view against Christian abolitionism:
“Chrysostom and Jerome, in the preface to the epistle of Paul to Philemon, testify that it was by some not received as canonical; which consideration they were led into by considering that human frailty could not bear the continual uninterrupted action of the Holy Ghost, and that the apostles must have spoken some things by a mere human spirit. Amongst these they classed this epistle, as containing in it nothing worthy of an apostolic and divine authority, or useful to us. Chrysostom refutes this opinion, with much truth and beauty, in the argument of this epistle, and teaches us that many noble and necessary lessons may be learned from it: first, that we should extend our solicitude to the meanest [i.e., lowest] persons; secondly, that we should not despair of slaves (and therefore, still less of freemen) however wicked and abandoned; thirdly, that it is not lawful for anyone to withdraw a slave from his master under pretense of religion; fourthly, that it is our duty not to be ashamed of slaves, if they be honest men. Who now will say that this epistle is useless to us, from which we may learn so many and such distinguished lessons?
The value of this statement of Whitaker’s is that it clearly expresses both the view of the early church and the view of the Protestants, and shows that both were in agreement — not in opposition to slavery, as is almost the entirety of the modern professing church, but in opposition to abolitionism: “that it is not lawful for anyone to withdraw a slave from his master under pretense of religion.”