by Paul McQuien
When N.T. Wright, the highly respected conservative British theologian and historian, wrote his monumental two-volume work, “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” (2013), he began surprisingly with an introductory chapter on the Apostle’s shortest epistle, “Philemon”, which often gets neglected or even ignored. Wright did this because he considered this little one-chapter letter to be important to ideas and themes he would develop in subsequent sections of his own book.
More recently, Wright has published a biography of Paul simply titled “Paul: A Biography” (2017), which is directed more at the general reader than at the specialist. And it too devotes special attention to “Philemon.” What is it about this seemingly less significant little epistle that has earned the attention of Wright–and should of us?
One thing to keep in mind is that slavery was a way of life in Rome during the life-time of Paul and had been for centuries. This was true not only of Roman society but of the entire ancient Mediterranean-based civilization. The enslavement of defeated and other vulnerable groups dates all the way back to the Mosaic era and the period of the Patriarchs. Slavery is mentioned numerous times in the Hebrew Old Testament, as well as in the Christian New Testament.
Unlike the enslavement of black Africans in the American colonies and states, which led up to the Civil War in the 1860’s, Roman slavery was not specifically race-based. Defeated survivors of Roman conquests were enslaved by their Roman masters, regardless of their racial or ethnic identity.
Fortunately, Roman slaves often earned their freedom by age 30, and many went on to fill important roles in society; some even owned property. For example, Governor Felix, who wanted a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26), had formerly been a slave, and the modern word “pedagogy” comes from the Greek word for the household slave in charge of mentoring his master’s son(s).
From a 21st-century perspective Paul’s attitude toward slavery may seem complicit. After all, he commanded the slaves addressed in Ephesians 6:5 to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear” (NIV), and he made similar demands of slaves in Colossians 3: 22-25. On the other hand, in 1 Corinthians 7:21 he encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could. Also, he was taking a risk by protecting a runaway slave who may have defrauded his master (Philem. 18-19) and who was potentially subject to death by crucifixion.
Remarkably, or providentially, Onesimus (which means “useful”) had made his way from Colossae to Paul, a prisoner most likely in Rome, or possibly Ephesus, and had made himself useful to the Apostle after being converted to Christ. At this point Onesimus was willing to return to Philemon, at the recommendation of Paul, and be reconciled, which N.T. Wright considers the major teaching point of the entire episode. Wright sees the imprisoned Paul as a Christ-like figure, standing between Philemon and Onesimus to reconcile them to each other, as well as reconciling Philemon to Paul, who had harbored Onesimus.
To affirm that reconciliation is one of the key doctrines of the New Testament, another conservative English theologian, John Stott, included it as one of the four major achievements of the cross of Christ, along with propitiation (sacrifice), justification, and redemption. Paul himself, writing in 2 Corinthians 5:19, asserted that God “was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins [including those of the converted slave Onesimus] against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (NIV).
That’s why Paul could tell the Galatian Christians, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (3:27-28). This emphasis in the Epistle to Philemon on the importance of reconciliation in Jesus Christ shows that strong medicine can come in small doses.