What a strange book. Sometimes I wonder at the selection of Paul’s letters to be included in the Biblical cannon. This little note is rife with power dynamics. Since a huge theme of the Bible is the LORD reforming natural, fallen power dynamics, maybe this book is important.
First off, here’s the dynamic in play: One esteemed upper class guy (Paul), asks another esteemed upper class guy (Philemon), if he can have permission to keep his runaway slave (Onesimus). In their respective social circles, Paul has the upper hand.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”
Paul goes on and makes a case that Onesimus should be considered as a peer to them, now, but he still plays by the rules. Then he makes a sort of cheeky move and says,
“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.”
All at once, Paul is putting the ball in Philemon’s court, but also setting the stage for compliance. We never get Philemon’s response to this letter. Isn’t that interesting? This request is canon for us and we don’t know what ended up happening to Onesimus!
This little book has probably been used on both sides of the slavery isle. On one hand, it could be said, “slavery is a fact of life, and there is a request for a transaction over this man, his usefulness in conversation”. On the other hand, Paul is pleading for this man to be elevated to their “brotherhood” status.
Anyway, I think the point I tend to glean from this, is that no matter our stations in life: customer service rep, CEO, pastor, instagram influencer, retail associate, receptionist, neurosurgeon, etc. In the Kingdom of God we are brothers and all things must addressed on the basis of love.
I don’t know what Paul means when he throws out his authority over Philemon “in Christ”, but we can save that nugget for another time.