For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Paul’s short (25 verses) letter to Philemon is quite interesting. It is primarily a personal letter to Philemon dealing with one specific issue, rather than a general letter to an entire church community which addresses a number of practical and doctrinal concerns. With a little reading between the lines, we can probably infer that Philemon lived in Colossae, for a couple of the people he mentions in Philemon are also mentioned in Colossians. He was probably wealthy, for he owned at least one slave, and in the salutation of the letter, Paul mentions “the church that meets in your house“, meaning he was a property owner. He was likely a respected leader in that church community, because Paul refers to him as “a dear friend and coworker”.
Paul and Philemon faced a bit of a thorny problem in that Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had run away and had probably stolen from Philemon before he took off. At some point the fugitive crossed paths with Paul, became convinced that the message Paul preached was true, and became a Christian. Onesimus became close to and of great help to Paul, providing assistance that Paul found particularly invaluable during his imprisonment. At some point, the fact that Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave became known to Paul. This presented a moral dilemma for all three persons involved, one that didn’t have an easy answer according to Jewish, Greek, or Roman law, and one that needed to be dealt with wisely.
Slavery was an established fact of life in first century society, and they were essential to its functioning. The idea of eliminating slavery would have been about as popular as the idea of eliminating fossil fuels today, and might have had similar economic repercussions. The slave owner had the right of life and death over his slaves, and runaway slaves were often punished harshly as a deterrent to others who might want to try doing the same. Crucifixion was a fairly common choice of penalty, although if the owner really found a particular slave useful, he might opt for branding on the forehead instead. Philemon would have faced a good deal of social pressure to punish Onesimus from fellow citizens who didn’t want their own slaves to get any ideas. Failure to punish Onesimus might also result in increased persecution for Christians in general. In the time of Nero, there were already plenty of untrue and ugly rumors flying around about Christians. (The use of fake news for political purposes is not new) Onesimus would have known that returning to his master might prove extremely hazardous to his health. What should Philemon do? What should Onesimus do? What should Paul do? Does the good of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?
Paul was well educated not only in not only Jewish, but Roman law. There is no chapter-and-verse quote he can give that he can pull out to support doing what in his heart he knows is right. In fact, trying to apply the letter of the law in this case would be very likely have the opposite effect. So he appeals to Philemon, and to Onesimus, on the basis of not law, but a principle that is quite novel: the principle of equality before, because of, and in Christ. As a well-known Christmas carol proclaims, ” Truly, he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease!” Enslavement cannot long continue when this principle is taken to heart and applied and lived, rather than merely mouthed as a pious platitude.
What the letter to Philemon says to me is that, when it is practiced and lived out, Christianity is a game-changer. If we are all equal before and beloved by God, how can we think of, or treat anyone as superior or inferior? The highest law is the law of love, and that should be the principle that governs our moral choices. That can be risky, and it might get us in trouble with those who understand life to be a zero-sum game. But I think that’s what Jesus taught, and Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus tried to apply, and if more people followed their example the world would be a much better place.
And that’s good news to me.