Freed to lead - Philemon

Philemon is, at first sight, an odd little book. Sitting at the fag end of Paul’s letters, it is an obviously personal letter about a personal matter, that appears to be without much relevance to the wider Christian community. Certainly there is nothing to immediately suggest it deserves a place alongside the dense theology of Romans, Galatians or Colossians, or the pastoral importance of Corinthians or Timothy. How, one might ask, did Philemon’s measly twenty-two verses make it into the canon of scripture?

Yet despite these first impression, Philemon it has attracted some grandiose claims. It has been variously described as “the most intriguing and beguiling of all Paul’s letters”, “a ticking time bomb”, a “revolutionary tract”.

So which is it? Irrelevance or importance? Insignificance or consequence?

The traditional reading of Philemon goes something like this:

Paul was writing from prison (perhaps in Rome, perhaps in Ephesus) to Philemon, a wealthy man, living in the region of Laodicea. Philemon is a slave owner, one of whose slaves, Onesimus, has run away, probably having stolen something. Onesimus has found his way to Paul in prison and, under Paul’s influence, has become a Christian (the improbability of Onesimus finding Paul in the Roman penal system is explained by the widespread practice of slaves deliberately seeking out someone to intercede on their behalf).

So far, so clear.

But the waters become slightly muddier when we try and figure out what Paul was actually asking Philemon to do. It is obvious that Paul is using every rhetorical trick in the book to induce Philemon to do ‘a good deed’ (v.12): recalling Philemon’s past good deeds (v7), asserting his authority (v8), appealing to their relationship of love (v9), describing himself as an old man and prisoner of Christ (v9), identifying Onesimus as his child (v10) and his own heart (v12), expressing his confidence Philemon will do the right thing (v21) and finally stating that he will be visiting soon (v22). But what was the right thing that Paul wants Philemon to do? We’re left with the peculiar paradox of a letter which is framed with consummate skill to induce Philemon to act in the way Paul wants and yet leaves us extraordinarily unclear about what, exactly, is being requested.

Into this fog, most have assumed that Paul was asking Philemon to either a) release Onesimus from slavery on account of his new found faith or b) receive him back into the wider household without killing him, as was his right.

The controlling assumption is that the slavery is the elephant in the room. Paul is assumed to be wrestling with the social implications of Christianity. Given the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, together with our modern obsession with freedom and the rights of the individual, it is perhaps not surprising that this is the frame of reference for most readers.

So the question becomes: was Paul intentionally undermining the undermining the practice of slavery and suggesting it has no place in Christian community; or was he simply urging leniency without tackling the rights and wrongs of slavery itself?

I want to argue that he was doing neither.

Why? Well both positions have inherent flaws, which make them - while not impossible - improbable.

Firstly, nowhere else does Paul give even a hint of advocating the release of slaves who have become Christians; quite the opposite. In Colossians, which was written and sent at about the same time as Philemon, Paul actively tells slaves to submit to their masters. So unless we are dealing with a schizophrenic, it seems improbable that Paul was asking Onesimus to be freed on account of his Christianity.

Secondly, if Paul was simply asking Philemon not to kill or harm Onesimus why on earth would this letter have been kept for posterity. This is admittedly an argument from silence, but it makes little sense that such an occasional, personal letter would be kept when it does no more than confirm the many household codes that Paul has already penned.

So if neither of these readings are probable, what is Paul actually arguing for?

I suggest that Paul is indeed asking Philemon to release Onesimus but not on account on his new found faith, but on the basis of his ‘usefulness’ to Paul and to Philemon (v16). The issue is not Onesimus’ Christianity but his calling as one of Paul’s co-workers in the gospel. Onesimus’ status as a slave is not incompatible with being a Christian, it is incompatible with his being one of Paul’s traveling band of co-workers.

This sheds new light on v17; Paul is trying to make the link between Philemon’s ministry as Paul’s partner and, by identifying himself with Onesimus, Onesimus’ status as a partner as well. It would also clarify what Paul means in v21; Paul is hoping that Philemon will not only recognise Onesimus’ new status as a partner in Paul’s work and free him, but also send him back to Paul, as was alluded to in v13. Paul’s use of the word ‘partner’ here has the connotation of being a co-worker. Co-workers were not simply Paul’s assistants but people commissioned by God for the task of missionary preaching. Status as a fellow worker appears to be a theme in the letter. Two out of eight occurrences of the Greek word for co-worker in Paul’s letters are found in Philemon (v1,24). Paul uses the term at the beginning and end of the letter to reinforce a sense of solidarity between himself and Philemon and to reinforce the point that Onesimus should be accepted as a fellow-worker.

This understanding gives a plausible reason why this obviously private letter to Philemon would be saved and find its way in the canon; Onesimus’ ministry as one of Paul’s co-workers had obvious relevance for the wider church in Asia minor. And there is the intriguing appearance of Onesimus as Bishop of Ephesus in the early 1st century. Early church tradition has long held that this Onesimus and the Onesimus of Philemon are one and the same and it would not be surprising that one of Paul’s co-workers would eventually rise to a significant leadership position.

So, where does this leave us? I think in one sense this reading is far more radical than if Paul was simply asking Philemon to free Onesimus because he had become a Christian. Not only were slaves welcome in the new community, but they were able to become leaders in the new community. Slaves could be called and set apart to be leaders. Vocation was no longer the preserve of the privileged but was truly egalitarian.

Of course, we would want Paul to rail against the inhumanity of slavery, and develop a fully orbed social ethic. But he doesn’t. What he does give us is a tantalizing glimpse of the coming kingdom where things are turned upside down.

In these days of economic turmoil, while protesters still occupy St Paul’s, perhaps that is a lesson for us all. We may not be able to successfully challenge great systems of injustice. But we may be able to faithfully bear witness in small, seemingly inconsequential acts to a coming time of peace and justice.