PHILEMON 04 - Interpreting & Applying the wider Context

Other Let’s assume for a moment that Paul’s letter reached its goal: Philemon forgives Onesimus. He takes him back, no longer as a slave but as a brother. The bad story is worked up and Onesimus is free! Wonderful … but:

  • So far we haven’t looked at the wider implications of this letter yet, we have only looked at the main three characters, Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
  • But there are many other persons who will be affected by this letter in one way of another. For example:
    • Other slaves in Philemon‘s household                                    … often well-to-do families held multiple slaves, so this is very likely.
    • Other believing slave owners of the Colossian church        … Philemon’s peer group.
    • Other believing slaves in the Colossian church                     … their masters could be believers or unbelievers.
    • Other non-believing slave owners in the city of Colossae    … they are not part of the church, but maybe suspicious of the church.


  • Think yourself into every of these 4 groups’ situation: If you were them, how would you feel about Paul’s letter? What questions arise for you? What problems do you have with what Paul is saying? With Philemon freeing his slave?
  • This is not the moment to be too polite or too spiritual, think realistically about the questions and conflicts that would arise.

thoughts to consider

1 Other slaves in Philemon’s household

  • ‘It might be nice to hear that a slave got freed, but how about us?’
  • ‘We have worked faithfully for Philemon, we have picked up the workload of Onesimus when he fled, but why are we not being freed?’
  • Why are we not being treated better? Why is Paul not thinking of us? Why is he not writing a letter on our behalf?’
  • ‘Do we have to also run away and become ‘a favorite’ of uncle Paul to get our freedom?’
  • ‘Why is unfaithfulness rewarded over faithfulness? Where is the justice in this?’

2 Other slave owners in the church

  • ‘We understand that after a letter like this that Philemon has to act on it.’
  • But really, this creates a lot of trouble: If he frees one slave, shouldn’t he free others? If word spreads that he is freeing slaves, then our slaves will hear this and create trouble on us.’
  • ‘This is a problem, who will then be able to control their slaves? Who will work if not the slaves?’
  • ‘If runaway slaves are being rewarded with freedom, what will this do to discipline?’
  • ‘We should talk to Philemon and make sure he doesn’t upset the whole church, not to speak of outsider’s comments.’

3 Other slaves in the church

  • ‘It’s nice to hear that Onesimus was freed an is treated well. It’s nice to hear that Philemon may release all his slaves, but how about us? Can we also ask for our freedom?’
  • ‘Maybe we should quote Paul’s letters to our master and pressure him to release us as well!’
  • ‘But how about those of us who have unbelieving masters? Our masters won’t listen to anything Paul says, actually they will be annoyed at the upsetting influence he has. But what is our guilt that we work for unbelieving masters? How is it just that some slaves get freedom but we are not?’

4 Other non-believing slave owners in Colossae

  • ‘We heard that this new Christian sect in creating trouble: one of their people has started releasing slaves!’
  • ‘That is crazy, besides being dangerous. What if word spreads? What if other slaves start getting unruly? What if other masters follow his example?’
  • ‘We have got to do something. We already knew this group was weird, but now they are getting totally out of control. We’ve got to inform the city government of this madness and make sure they take appropriate steps to bring things back in order.’
A further dimension to the letter of Philemon

thoughts to consider

  • Thinking about the wider repercussions Paul’s letter might have opens totally new thinking – and problematics – to this seemingly so simple letter.
  • Paul well knows Roman law, he well knows the situation, he knows very well what Philemon may face if he starts treating slaves differently or starts releasing this slave (Onesimus) and releasing slaves in general: This will get him in trouble, tensions will rise, this will ferment, this will affect the reputation of the church of Colossae and in a worst case scenario lead to rioting.
  • Now Paul is aware of all this, but still he requests Philemon. Basically he asks Philemon to model an attitude, a different behavior. This will necessitate Philemon to talk, to explain, to justify, to stand up for this, to become a champion of change, to stand firm when the backlash comes from within the church and possibly from without.
  • Remember the cuckoo bird? This bird lays his eggs into other birds’ nests and has them breed it out. To a degree this is what Paul is doing. Paul put’s a cuckoo’s egg in Philemon’s lap, and asks him to breed it out, well knowing that this will mean a degree of trouble.
  • Maybe Paul writes this letter so strongly, border-line manipulatively, not because he has to convince Philemon to treat Onesimus well, but because the strength of the letter may act as a back-up for Philemon when he pulls though with this problematic slave release business.
  • Maybe Philemon is more than willing, probably he truly is the outstanding and trustworthy elder that Paul describes him at in Phm 4-7.
  • Maybe the letter wasn’t manipulation after all. Maybe Paul is simply putting his weight and authority behind Philemon, requesting him, even obliging him strongly, so that people can’t attack Philemon for complying with the letter.
  • Paul seems to be convinced that Philemon can take on this ‘cuckoo’s egg’, that he can carry this weight, that Philemon is mature enough, has a good enough reputation that he can pull this one off. He trusts
  • Philemon with spearheading this very delicate and potentially explosive issue and change
  • Maybe he makes Appia, Archippus (the pastor?) and the church itself co-fighters with Philemon (Phm 2), to bring about social change, holding them accountable as well, making them supporters for Philemon.
  • Maybe this is why the house church is mentioned as well, so they would understand, rally around Philemon and support him in dealing with the tensions.
  • Maybe this is why Paul is so committed to coming to visit, to be a further back-up, one to take responsibility if things should not go well or prove divisive.
  • This scenario also makes it clear that now both Philemon, and even more so Onesimus’ behavior are absolutely crucial to championing the release of slaves: Just think!
    • If Onesimus in any way displays pride or arrogance towards other slaves, if he is disrespectful in even the slightest way to Philemon, that will completely undermine Paul’s efforts for a different attitude towards slaves.
    • Then the message sent would be nepotism: “if you are in the good books with the big shots, than you can do as you please”.
    • Paul must have really instructed Onesimus well to make sure his attitude was one of excellence, humility and fairness precisely because he is the ‘model’ now.
    • He will either open doors or close doors for others with his behavior, it will be “make or break”.
    • In a sense Paul pairs up Philemon and Onesimus into a model for what should and can be done if Christ reigns in our hearts.
  • All this would make Philemon not only a letter about personal forgiveness, but a Biblical writing answering a very important question:
How do I bring about social change?
  • Some people reading Philemon get upset at Paul for using such strong language or for downright manipulating Philemon.
  • Other people reading Philemon get upset that Paul says so little to condemn slavery itself.
  • Rather he actively sends back a person to potential slavery (though with a nice recommendation letter)!
    • Why does he not outright condemn slavery?
    • Why does he not challenge Philemon for having slaves at all?
    • Why does he respect Philemon’s “right” over his slave? Is Paul for slavery?
  • The same question could be asked – even more foundationally – of Jesus: Does Jesus speak up against slavery? Does he fight against this great social evil of his time?
  • What do Jesus and Paul do? What do they not do?


  • Think about the following What does Jesus or Paul say about slavery?
  • Make a list of all mention of slaves or slavery you can think of, whether in the gospels or in the New Testament letters, whether in parables or in straight teaching.

Some basic points

  • being a slave is a person’s appropriate position towards God (Luk 1:54. 2:29, 17:7-10, Rom 1:1)
  • Jesus himself is described as slave: “Jesus being found in human likeness took the form of a slave” (Php 2:7)
  • Being a servant is used as a model for leadership “Not so with you; rather the leader must become like one who serves” (Luk 22:26) or “The son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mth 20:28). Jesus is the ultimate model for a slave, and therefore ultimate model for a leader .
  • Jesus – as does God – rightfully claims his slaves’ complete obedience: “no slave is greater than master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (Jhn 15:20)
  • But Jesus doesn’t leave slaves to be slaves: “I do not call you slaves any longer … but I call you friends” (Jhn 15:15). Or as expressed by Paul “so you are no longer a slave but a child, … also and heir” (Gal 4:7)
  • Slavery is a concept used for everybody. Jesus shows the reality of slavery to sin of all people “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jhn 8:34). “Do you not know that you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin (> death) or of obedience?” (Rom 6:16). “For people are slaves to whatever masters them” (2 Pet 2:19). “No slave can serve two masters” (Luk 16:13).
  • Jesus interacts with slaves and masters. Example: healing centurion’s slave in Mth 8:6.
  • Jesus tells many parables mentioning slaves.
  • But he is not addressing slavery as a social evil of his day!
Do the New Testament letters address slavery?
  • Yes, but not exactly in the way we think:
  • Command for slaves to be faithful in their situation: “Slaves, obey your masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ … not only while being watched … but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord, not to men.” (Eph 6:5-6, Col 3:22).
  • “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed” (1 Tim 6:1)
  • “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters … they are not to talk back … but to show perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit 2:9-10).
  • “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference not only those who are kind but also those who are harsh … if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’ approval. For to this you have been called, …Christ also suffered for you” (1 Pet 2:18-21).
  • “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person … just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ … In whatever condition you were called, there remain with God.” (1 Cor 7:21-24)
  • Is God then for slavery?? We need to also look at the balancing commands to masters: “And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality” (Eph 6:9). “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly … you also have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1).
  • But also: Jesus and Paul both teach a view of man that in the long run is incompatible with slavery. Both teach foundational truths that will undercut slavery: “There is no longer Jew or Greek there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11).
  • It is significant that in Colossians, the companion letter of Philemon, both slaves and masters are addressed.
Summary: Principles from the New Testament
  • Neither Jesus nor Paul:
    • directly speak against slavery
    • agitate or take action directly
    • encourage slaves to disobey or run
  • Jesus and Paul rather:
    • affirm a slave’s equal value
    • command to submit to masters and be faithful workers
    • encourage to use their situation for God
    • do not think situation as more important than attitude
    • hold masters accountable also
  • Also Paul – on a personal level – works actively against slavery in the letter of Philemon: “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother … let me have this benefit from you in the Lord” (Phm 16, 20).
  • But Paul respects Philemon’s right to his slave as per Roman law, though he appeals to his free will.
  • So in summary:
    • No stirring discontentment, agitation, revolution or change by force is not God’s way.
    • Injustice does not give me the right to act outside the law (Example: bombing abortion clinics).
    • God’s focus is not so much on ‘situation’ as on ‘right attitude within situation’.
    • Do not blame the situation, use whatever situation faithfully.
    • Do not agree with a false view: slaves have equal value, all humans of whatever race, gender or status are equal.
    • We must believe, live, model and teach God’s view:
    • Social change is slow! Patience is needed.
    • Actively lay foundations of truth in a society through teaching and modelling > change will come.
    • Change does not come by outside pressure and force but by inside transformation and free will.
  • Wonderful modern examples (around 1800 AD) of Christians working lawfully for social change:
    • William Carey abolition of widow burning (Sati or Shottidaho) and child marriage in India.
    • William Wilberforce abolition of slave trade and slavery


  • Watch the movie “Amazing Grace”, about William Wilberforce’s fight against slave trade and slavery.
  • Be careful to notice the answer William Wilberforce gives to Thomas Clarkson, when he suggests considering revolution as an alternative pathway.
  • Some historical events mentioned in the movie:
    • 1776 AD                        US independence from England
    • 1789 AD                        French Revolution
    • 1793-1812 AD              Napoleon’s wars (also with Britain)
    • 1807 AD                        Abolition of slave trade
    • 1833 AD                        Abolition of slavery
  • Some of the main figures of the movie:
    • William Wilberforce     believer, MP, abolitionist
    • William Pitt                    William Wilberforce’s friend, MP, later Prime Minister
    • Barbara Spooner          political activist, abolitionist, later marries Wilberforce
    • John Newton                former slave ship captain, later Wilberforce’s pastor, writer of the hymn “Amazing grace”.
    • Charles Fox                   important MP, eventually joins the abolitionists
    • Duke of Clarence         MP, son of the King of England, pro-slavery
    • Lord Tarlton                  Important MP, pro-slavery
    • Clapham                       A group of believers first convincing and then supporting William Wilberforce
    • Equiano                         African, former slave
    • Thomas Clarkson        Clapham group, embraces revolution
    • Hannah Moore             Clapham group
    • Reverend Ramsay       Clapham group
    • James Stephen           Clapham group, lawyer, travels to Jamaica, secretary of the abolitionists