Only one book of the New Testament is shorter than Philemon (not to be confused with Philippians) and that is John III. Jude is about the same length, but all three are rarely looked at. We get one Sunday in Philemon out of a three year cycle of readings!
There are several possible reasons for this. (Click here to read it.) First, it is short. Second, just a matter of personal business between Paul and Philemon with no clear doctrinal point or practical lesson for Christian life. Third, it appears to condone slavery, so we really aren’t sure what to do with it. Sadly, the letter to Philemon was often used in the antebellum south to defend slavery.
No doubt, Paul wrote any number of letters conducting personal business which we are not part of Scripture. The early church apparently saw important principles in this letter that were worthy of enshrining in Scripture.
Paul writes to Philemon regarding Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Onesimus had run away, and in the course of fleeing slavery, came across Paul, became a Christian believer and eventually a trusted aid to Paul. We are not told how, but Paul learned of Onesimus’ history and that he, in fact, belonged to Philemon. So, the right thing to do is to send him back to Philemon. The letter is to accompany Onesimus on his return to Philemon, and Paul is asking that Philemon release Onesimus and allow him to return to Paul, freed and forgiven.
Typically, a runaway slave would be arrested and returned to the owner in chains, and it would be the owner’s prerogative to beat him, send him to the lions, sell him like a bad used car, or, rather less likely, receive him back into service. Manumission would have been inconceivable in that culture. Onesimus could not have thought this venture would end well, yet his new Christian faith taught him to do the honest thing. We can only imagine all the ways this must have played out in his head as he traveled.
We want Paul to condemn slavery and demand that Philemon release not only Onesimus but all his slaves. He does not. Rather, Paul accepted the reality of slavery and simply seeks faithfulness within that structure. He asks Philemon to willingly release Onesimus.
So, what are we to learn from the letter to Philemon? First, as Christians, we live within the structure of the culture in which we live. The question for us is, “How can I glorify God in this situation,” not “How can I be assured of my rights and freedoms?” One does not need to live in a “Christian nation” (a questionable term anyway) in order to be a good Christian. Can one honor God as a slave? Apparently, the answer is, “Yes.” Of course, there are times when faithfulness to God demands that we refuse to obey the state, for example, to worship the emperor. But honoring God in our situation is more important that our personal rights.
Second, Christian fellowship can bridge any gulf created by human structures. “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.” Paul assumes that in Christ, human distinctions are overcome. This may not always be easy, but it is always possible.
In the final analysis, this may be where the letter, and indeed Paul’s thinking, is going. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28) Ultimately, slavery will be gone.
Let me be clear that we are in a different time and place in human history and as Christians, I believe we should oppose and combat slavery in whatever place or form we find it. I believe this is where the Christian vision and, indeed, Paul’s teaching, goes.
One final note: Paul assumes any debt that Onesimus may have incurred in running away. As Christians, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” and that means far more than a pat on the shoulder or a prayer. It means we actually see the burdens of a brother or sister as our own. We identify with one another, just as Jesus identifies with us, and we willingly pick up the burden, share the load and sacrifice for one another.
Can we become the kind of Christian community that Paul assumes in his letter to Philemon?
This column appeared in the September 8, 2019 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.