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Paul and Philemon

Perhaps the central interest in Paul’s short letter to Philemon is the relationship between the two leaders, and the way that circumstances place that relationship under a magnifying glass. Paul’s letter, written from a prison cell to a leader of the Colossian church,1 explains that he is returning a runaway slave to Philemon whose owner he is. Paul pleads for consideration for the escapee, since the salve, Onesimus, has now become a Christian and in fact has served Paul well. The delicacy of the situation is matched by Paul’s nuanced language, as he leverages the various relationship roles inherent in the situation—the master and his slave, the missionary and the convert, the apostle and the elder, and the brotherhood that all three share in God’s grace—to prompt an appropriate reconciliation.

The care of Paul’s language, and the fact that he doesn’t need to go into circumstantial details with Philemon, mean that many aspects of this situation are not transparent to us. We don’t know how or why Onesimus escaped. We don’t know how Onesimus came to know Paul, although apparently Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s influence and tutelage (“my child, Onesimus, whom I have begotten my imprisonment,” v. 10, NASB), as, apparently, did Philemon (“you owe to me even your own self as well,” v. 19, NASB). There is even a disagreement as to what Paul was asking Philemon to do; was he asking Philemon to free Onesimus, or simply receive him back into good standing as a slave, or was his deepest desire to have Onesimus as his own assistant (v. 13)?2 Paul is not only subtle in his request but obscure as well; he expects his friend to do “even more than I say” (v. 21). If Philemon would have grasped Paul’s request intuitively, it is not clear to us in the same way.

But what is clear is Paul’s sense of urgency that the right thing be done, and his willingness to play upon all the organ stops so that it would happen. Intervening in the master-slave relationship, a relationship fully entrenched in the culture of the day, Paul undercuts the culture itself at the outset by making it clear that he himself is writing “in chains of Christ Jesus.” His theological reflection on his own imprisonment speaks to the Christian reality that there is really only one master and lord, and we all are slaves and servants by nature (cf. Rom. 6:15-22). Paul’s “chains” set a context for Philemon’s response.

Further, Paul as a prisoner of Rome is not shy about reminding Philemon of his full authority as apostle. This is the effect of the elaborate opening of the letter, much more expansive than a merely personal letter would be. It establishes the letter as a public and ecclesiastical communication not only in the apostolic blessings of “grace and peace,” but especially in naming Timothy as a fellow-writer, and Apphia, Archippus, and the entire “church in your house” as recipients (vv. 1-3). Even though Paul continues the letter in the singular “you” (e.g., vv. 4-7), as apostle he is ensuring that the decision regarding Onesimus be made in community.3 

And as noted above, Paul is perfectly willing to layer that connection with another more personal one: Philemon, like Onesimus after him, is also a personal convert of Paul. Not only does this bind him to consider Paul’s wishes, but it also places him alongside Onesimus in undeniable equality. But Paul does not allow this potentially manipulative implication to stand for long; he subsumes all these connections in the brotherhood in Christ that levels all three at the same time as it enriches all three (vv. 16, 19, 20). Finally Paul is appealing simply as one Christian to another.4 

Martin Luther recognized the saving role of the relationships that Paul invoked—that in binding himself to Philemon on the one hand and to Onesimus on the other, he himself personalized the renewed relationship and the reconciliation. Luther glimpses in Paul’s mediation the mediation of the cross itself.5 N. T. Wright affirms that in an ecclesiastical key: as Paul identifies himself with both parties, “the church, instead of fragmenting, grows ‘into Christ.’”6 

In a discussion of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”) Sandra Hack Polaski makes the point that whereas Galatians, and indeed Paul’s calling as apostle to the Gentiles, had everything to do with addressing the relationship of “Jew and Greek,” “his commitment to ‘no slave or free’ and ‘no male and female’ is more ambiguously expressed in his writings because it was less in his theological focus.”7 She reminds us that the tasks implied by Paul, in relation to racial and gender inequalities, have this been left open to be addressed in each generation as God so calls. It was not Paul’s calling to fight the Roman institution of slavery. But it was his calling as a leader to explore every real advantage on behalf of the gospel, as it was his calling as a “mere” Christian to goad other “mere” Christians into living more and more consistently in the grace of Christ.




1 The similarity between the letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, especially in the persons mentioned in both as companions of Paul (Col. 4:9-14; 17; Phlm. 2, 23), convince most scholars that Philemon is a leader in the Colossian church. Many now hold that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus, some 100 miles away, a distance Onesimus could easily have traveled, whether as a runaway to Ephesus or as an emissary back to Colossae. Although there is no clear account of an Ephesian imprisonment in the NT, Paul mentions numerous imprisonments in 2 Cor. 11:23, more than Acts or his epistles record in detail; and 1 Cor. 11:32 mentions hardships in Ephesus in particular. See the discussion of Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), pp. 165-167.

2 See the convenient discussion in N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (TNTC. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 166-170.

3 Paul’s confidence in Philemon’s “obedience,” v. 21, may also echo an apostolic perspective; Paul “received grace and apostleship to bring about obedience of faith among all the Gentiles,” Rom. 1:5.

4 N. T. Wright, p. 168, identifies Paul’s prayer for fellowship, “koinonia,” in v. 6 as “the driving force of the whole letter.”

5 Lohse gives Luther’s long comment, p. 188.

6 N. T. Wright, p. 168.

7 Sandra Hack Polaski, A Feminist Introduction to Paul (St. Louis: Chalice, 2005), p. 75.