During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).
Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.
The “Traditional” Reading
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.
If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. After all, Paul was no stranger to contravening Roman legal authority when he thought the gospel required it; he landed in Roman prisons on several occasions (e.g., Acts 16:16-40 and Acts 22:22-29). According to the traditional interpretation, on the occasion of his encounter with Onesimus, Paul saw no ethical or religious reason to contravene Roman law; rather, he took himself to have a legitimate legal obligation to return the slave to his master. And so he did. So much the worse for the New Testament ethic of slavery.
An Alternative Explanation: Reconciling Two Brothers in Christ
Fortunately for Christians who think slavery is wrong (at this point all of them, I hope), this is a bad reading of Philemon. It is better to think Paul was motivated not by a Roman legal obligation, but rather by an obligation of his Christian faith to reconcile two estranged brothers in Christ.
In verses 8 and 9, Paul states, “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.” From this verse, we can see that Paul thinks Philemon has a duty to welcome Onesimus back gently, and that Paul could command him to fulfill it (though he’d rather that Philemon do it voluntarily, out of love).
But, why would Paul think this was Philemon’s duty? The most obvious reason, to my mind, derives from Jesus’s teaching to forgive those you perceive to have wronged you, which shows up multiple places in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4).
That this teaching was on Paul’s mind seems corroborated by Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which he writes, “if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Colossians is addressed to a similar cast of characters as the letter to Philemon, so many scholars think the letters were written and sent at the same time to the church at Colossae, which met in Philemon’s home.
That Paul has this teaching of Jesus in mind seems further supported by the fact that he says he could command Philemon to do his duty. Typically, Paul thinks he has the authority to command people to do things only when his command is justified by a teaching of Jesus. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul states, “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband.” Here, Paul commands the Corinthian church, but he is careful to cite the authority of the command—Jesus himself (possibly the teaching of Matthew 19:3-6).
Then, shortly after in 1 Corinthians 7:25, Paul writes, “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” This verse suggests that Paul only feels comfortable commanding when the command is backed by a teaching of Jesus. In this case, Paul suggests that Jesus has not commanded anything on the topic, and so he humbly offers his mere “trustworthy opinion” instead.
Together, these two verses in 1 Corinthians 7 suggest that Paul typically only thinks he has the authority to command when his teaching is justified by a teaching of Jesus. So, if Paul thinks he has the authority to command Philemon to do something, that thing is most likely something taught by Jesus. In this case, the most obvious candidate would be the teaching to forgive one another, which Philemon would presumably need to do if he were to welcome Onesimus gently.
Has Onesimus Done Something Wrong?
But, if Paul thinks Philemon must forgive Onesimus, it seems implied that Paul thinks Onesimus has wronged Philemon. And is that wrong simply running away from his master? If so, then Paul’s view of slavery still seems worrying. If Paul thinks a slave running from his master is wrong, then it would seem he thinks slavery is legitimate.
Again, fortunately, I don’t think we need to read the letter that way. In verses 18-19, Paul writes, “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.” The language of “owing,” “charging,” “accounts,” and “repayment” suggests to many scholars that Onesimus has done something to cost Philemon money (e.g., stealing from him). If so, then we can imagine that act is the wrong that needs forgiving—not running away. This seems to be the best view.
However, even if the “wrong” in question is Onesimus’s flight, we need not suppose that Paul thinks it is an actual wrong, particularly since he uses conditional language in the way he puts it (“If he has wronged you…”). Rather, it could simply be that Paul is assuming Philemon’s point of view as a rhetorical strategy. Paul might think there is a better chance of Philemon welcoming Onesimus gently if Paul assumes, for the sake of argument, Philemon’s viewpoint that Onesimus has wronged him by fleeing. If this is what Paul is up to, the letter need not entail that Paul actually thinks Onesimus has wronged Philemon by fleeing.
The upshot of all this, then, is that Paul’s motivation in sending Onesimus back to Philemon was not a desire to fulfill a legal obligation to return a disobedient slave to his master. Rather, Paul’s motivation was to reconcile two estranged brothers in Christ, in fulfillment of Jesus’s teaching to forgive one another.
Does Paul Ask Philemon to Free Onesimus?
Of course, my reading still leaves us with questions. Chief among them, isn’t it still bad news that Paul sends a slave back to his master at all, regardless of his motives? Doing so is clearly risky for Onesimus: Philemon may or may not respond well to the letter. And, would Paul expect Onesimus simply to slip back into his role as slave? If so, this also seems pretty bad.
There is some indication in the letter that Paul did not expect Onesimus simply to resume his role as Philemon’s slave. In verses 15-16, Paul says, “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.” The phrase, “no longer as a slave,” may indicate Paul’s hope that Philemon would manumit (or free) Onesimus upon his return. However, Paul’s meaning is admittedly ambiguous since the subsequent phrase, “more than a slave,” could imply that Onesimus would remain a slave and add the role of brother.
In verse 21, though—the concluding verse of his appeal to Philemon—Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” What is this “even more than I say” that Paul has in mind? It makes most sense to me (and some scholars) to think Paul is referring, here, to Onesimus’s manumission, though the issue is, again, not crystal clear.
If I’m right that Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus in vv. 15-16 and 21, the vagueness of his request could be explained by its high stakes and by the risk it poses to Onesimus. As Onesimus’s master, Philemon clearly has a considerable financial interest in Onesimus, which Paul would be asking Philemon to abandon. Further, if Paul is pushy here, it could result in harm to Onesimus, which Paul would want to avoid.
Paul might also keep the request for manumission vague if he thought his request was not backed by an explicit teaching of Jesus. And, in fact, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus pronounce on the ethical status of slavery or the freeing of slaves—much as we might wish he had. (The interesting and difficult question of the New Testament‘s teaching about slavery as a whole emerges here. Although it is tempting to try, I can’t properly address that question in this context. Future posts!)
Reconciliation as a (the?) Central Gospel Value
Even if Paul did not intend for Onesimus to resume his role as Philemon’s slave, you might still think sending Onesimus back to Philemon was too risky, and something Paul should not have done. What if Philemon did not free Onesimus? And what if Paul’s letter had the opposite effect, stirring Philemon’s anger and endangering Onesimus? Why would Paul take these risks when so much was at stake?
The answer, I think, lies in the centrality of reconciliation to the gospel message. At its core, the message of the gospel is a message of reconciliation. God’s vision for humanity is one in which people love God and one another in beautiful harmony. However, the Bible depicts humans as estranged from God and each other due to human sin. Jesus’s work, then, was to announce and make possible the reconciliation of these rifts. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Forgiveness—both God’s forgiveness of people, and people’s forgiveness of one another—therefore figures centrally in the gospel message, since forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation.
Given this central (supreme?) role of forgiveness and reconciliation in the gospel, it is unsurprising that Paul would be willing to take the risk he does in sending Onesimus back to Philemon. For Paul, it is simply unacceptable that two followers of Jesus would be estranged in the way that Onesimus and Philemon were at the time the letter was written.
The modern Western mind tends to elevate a certain kind of freedom (often called “autonomy”) and security from bodily harm above most other values. This, I think, is the source of lingering worries about what Paul did. And I’m inclined to think that Paul also prized these values to some extent—hence his veiled request that Philemon free Onesimus, and his hope that Philemon would treat Onesimus gently. However, there is no getting around the fact that, in Paul’s mind, reconciliation between two estranged Christian brothers is more important than personal autonomy or security from bodily harm.
And, in the end, I think this elevation of the value of reconciliation—even above these other important values—is the reason that the forgotten little letter to Philemon is part of the New Testament at all: it shows the gospel message of reconciliation in all its radical glory.