I had the privilege of getting to teach on St. Paul’s epistle to Philemon at my local church this past weekend. While this letter is very short (Paul’s shortest writing, in fact), it requires a lot of cultural context to fully grasp the importance of its message — making it quite a challenge to teach in less than one hour!
The epistle touches on the troubling topic of slavery in the ancient world. Paul is writing to Philemon because he has recently come into contact with the latter’s runaway slave, Onesimus. As a result of Paul’s teaching, the fugitive slave has become a convert to the Christian faith, and even served for a while as Paul’s assistant.
Yet Paul now sends Onesimus on a dangerous venture. He is to return to his master and, in light of the newfound koinonia (or common sharing; traditionally translated “fellowship”) they share because of the gospel, he is to seek reconciliation and a new relationship. In hopes of averting the socially-expected consequences of Onesimus’s actions (severe punishment, perhaps even death — all of which would be well within Philemon’s rights as a Roman slaveowner), Paul sends this letter with him, containing a very diplomatically-worded appeal to Philemon to do the right thing.
The right thing, that is, according to the new social obligations created by the gospel of Christ.
Paul communicates his expectation that Philemon not only receive Onesimus back and forgive him, but elevate him to the status of an equal: “…no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (verse 16, NRSV).
Paul’s wording could imply that he wants Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom. While this is possible, perhaps even likely, we can’t be certain. After all, as commentators point out, in that society it wasn’t always beneficial for a slave to be manumitted. Slaves who left their master’s employ without any other means of work lined up could go into extreme poverty. Meanwhile, those who had benevolent masters could enjoy a very stable and secure life.
In Paul’s mind, it may be enough for Onesimus to enjoy the benefit of working in the household of a believing master rather than depart into the unknown. I wonder, though, if perhaps it wasn’t even originally Paul’s idea for Onesimus to go back. What if Onesimus himself came to understand, in light of his new allegiance to Christ, how important it was for him to at least try to make things right with Philemon?
We can only speculate. Either way, a positive outcome would depend entirely upon Philemon’s willingness to live up to the gospel and to Paul’s instruction by reconciling with Onesimus and treating him as a spiritual brother. Such a stark relational change would have been countercultural, indeed.
And keep in mind that Paul’s epistle was going to be read not only by Philemon, but by the entire church community that met within his home (verse 2). The same church community that was undoubtedly fully aware of the situation caused by Onesimus. Here this community would be gathered to behold the spectacle of the fugitive slave returning to his offended master, carrying instructions from the apostle Paul to welcome him back as if he were Paul himself (verse 17) and instate him to full fellowship. Quite an occasion for town gossip there in Colossae that week!
I strongly suspect that this is part of the reason we have this short, very personal little document in our canon of Scripture. While it may not explicitly discuss any technical matters of theology or ecclesiology, Philemon nonetheless furnishes the church at large with a powerful example of how the principles of the gospel utterly transform the norms and expectations of society when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It no doubt sent shockwaves through the community that originally received it.
So did Paul and Onesimus’ gambit work? Almost certainly. Again, the fact that this letter survived and was not only preserved but acknowledged as holy Scripture indicates how well it was received. And, quite curiously, it just so happens that Ignatius of Antioch several decades later mentions a certain praiseworthy bishop of Ephesus named… Onesimus.
The gospel calls us to humble ourselves and elevate the lowly. The koinonia created by our family bond in Christ is expressed through believers finding creative and life-giving ways to level the social playing field, as it were. Not necessarily by overthrowing all instances of authority or social order — a step none of the apostles take, and one which is not likely to be possible for a functioning human society — but rather by transforming the dynamics within those relationships to express the new way of Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). The social relationship of master-slave may or may not have been altogether removed in Onesimus’s case, but the loving treatment Philemon was to show him from then on out would render it practically irrelevant — the two men were equal before the cross.
It sometimes troubles readers that neither Paul nor any other biblical writer ever overtly labels the institution of slavery “evil” or calls for it to be overthrown. But, as many interpreters have rightly pointed out, the relational principles Paul proposes do serve to undermine the fabric of slavery, and laid the seeds for its eventual demise. It is regrettable that it took us so many centuries to truly apply those redemptive principles to their full extent, but we are a dense species, so perhaps it’s no surprise.
Still, it was through meditating on such biblical ideals as we see in Philemon, Exodus, and Galatians 3:28 that courageous Christians like William Wilberforce and John Wesley spearheaded the movement toward abolition. They realized that each person’s status as God’s image-bearers was irreconcilable with their being seen as another’s property.
(Interestingly, in all the ancient Western world, both Christian and non-Christian, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the late 300s AD was the only writer progressive-minded enough to explicitly denounce slavery and call for its overthrow, based on these principles. At least to my knowledge he was the only one. So I feel I have to give him a very well-deserved shout-out.)
Much more can be said about this epistle and the ethics it illustrates. For one thing, I’m still chewing on the fact that while Paul at a surface level continues to uphold the normal social institutions of Jewish and Roman culture, especially in his instructions to husbands/wives and masters/slaves, the instructions he gives in his epistles actually serve to shift the focus off of the whole issue of expected “roles” and onto radically new relational dynamics and behaviors that reflect the gospel and the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. In a paradoxical sense, he assumes the continuance of cultural hierarchies while also completely relativizing their importance in clever (and often underappreciated) ways.
While the early Christians were powerless to attempt to overturn the institutions of the mighty Roman empire without risking being crushed for sedition, they continued Christ’s mission of turning the world upside-down by granting a new level of moral agency to women, slaves, and outcasts and by calling those in power to sacrificial service on behalf of others. In so doing, they began a trajectory that we are called to continue pursuing in our day, with our unprecedented social opportunities.
Fleshing all of this out in detail would take volumes of posts. For now, I’ll wrap this one up with an invitation to consider whether your own life is reflecting the radical and self-giving love that the gospel ought to produce. Just as Philemon was called on to practice what he preached, we too are called by the same Master to lay aside our pride, to love and serve our neighbor, and to lift up the lowly.