Philemon: making a difference?

This is the sermon I preached today at Barnes Methodist Church. I was not using the lectionary but preached on Paul’s letter to Philemon.



The earliest known fragment of Philemon, (late 2nd / early 3rd century)

In June, we studied the book of Colossians together as part of the Bible Month initiative. I have had many positive responses from people about the benefits of looking at one whole book of the Bible sequentially and in-depth. Well, today we’re going to do something similar. The good news is that we’re looking at the third shortest book of the Bible: Philemon. (3 John and 2 John are the shortest, if you’re interested! See here for details.)

In part, we are looking at Philemon because it neatly rounds off our study of Colossians. The two books are connected in that the slave Onesimus who forms the subject of this short letter is directly referred to at the end of the letter to the Colossians (4:9).

The exact background to the letter has recently been the subject of some revision. The author is undoubtedly the apostle Paul. The recipient is a man named Philemon, whom Paul describes as a “co-worker” (Philemon 1), and the church that meets in his house, which is generally thought to be in Colossae. The letter is, therefore, both a very private one but also concerns a matter of public interest. The date of writing is uncertain but there are numerous references to prison (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23), which most commentators still identify as referring to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. This would date the letter to around 60-62 AD – possibly around the same time as the letter to the Colossians.

file22-saint_paul_writing_his_epistles22_by_valentin_de_boulogneThe letter is primarily concerned with the slave Onesimus, who seems to belong to Philemon but who is now resident with Paul (Col. 4:9). Paul is now sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon (Philemon 12). The generally understood thesis until recently was that Onesimus had run away from Philemon, possibly taking some of his master’s money and possessions too (Philemon 18), and Paul writes to reconcile him to his owner. There are problems with this interpretation, though. Onesimus is never referred to as a runaway slave in text nor a thief (you need to read verse 18 carefully). It is also unclear how he could have got to Rome as a runaway slave or why he would have been in the same prison as Paul, who was of course a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-26). Finally, there are similar letters from classical literature (e.g. Pliny the Younger, Ep. 9:21, 24) dealing with runaway slaves but all include a plea for forgiveness and evidence of the slave’s repentance, which this one does not.

A more plausible explanation seems to be that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul to help him during his imprisonment. We know that this was perfectly possible under the sort of loose house arrest that existed in Roman times. The more relevant parallels with other ancient sources – notably Ignatius’ letter to Ephesians (Eph. 2:1-2) and certain letters from Cicero (Fam. 9.3, Att. 11.2-3) – make references to similar arrangements of ‘borrowing’ a slave. What the truth of the matter is, though, I leave you to decide as we read the text together.


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

One of the biggest questions we arguably face when reading the letter to Philemon is, ‘why is it in the Bible’? It seems to be a deeply personal letter set in a very specific time and place, with very little wider relevance. As one commentator indeed noted:

few ideas in New Testament studies produce higher levels of agreement than the notion that Paul’s letter to Philemon has little or no theological substance. (Marion L. Soards*)

Indeed, much of the debate about Philemon has arguably been about what it excludes rather than what it includes. Most notably, the absence of any significant comment about the institution and practice of slavery.

Asia MinorThis is a subject that we have already touched upon when studying the third chapter of Colossians (Col. 3:18-4:1). Its author also seems to accept slavery unquestioningly, urging slaves to, “obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22).

As was said then, our understanding of slavery in the ancient world is complicated by the differences in terminology and treatment over time. Most notably, slavery in modern North America was very different from ancient slavery. Slaves included prisoners of war, agricultural and industrial slaves, who often worked in appalling conditions, and domestic slaves, working in households. This latter group may have had a better time of it, and a significant number received their freedom in time. Recent scholarship has also highlighted how freedom, or manumission, was often not actually very freeing, with ‘freedmen’ often required to remain in some sort of client-patron relationship with their former owners in order to survive.

Bearing these caveats in mind, though, we know that slavery was a terrible institution that forced millions to lead lives of unimaginable pain and humiliation. In this letter, therefore, which remains, as one commentator observed, the “lengthiest and most nuanced discussion on the relationship between a slave and his master in the New Testament” (Pao, 352), we arguably should be surprised to find no reference to a more general condemnation of slavery. Not only was this wrong at the time, arguably, but it has continued to cause harm ever since. The Christian historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote in his excellent history of Christian silence about the controversial legacy of this epistle:

Philemon … is a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery. There are very many modern Christians who would vehemently disagree with that assessment, and they should be given credit for their generous wish to absolve the text and affirm its value for the modern age, but their case is not strong. In fact, it can be argued that early Christians were rather better at inventing theological reasons for accepting slavery than the non-Christians around them. Slave-owners in the Deep South in 19th century America were perfectly entitled to look to the Bible to justify their slave-owning and they were rightly surprised that other Christians disagreed with them. It is only in less than three out of twenty Christian centuries that Churches have come round to saying that slavery is bad in all circumstances.” [Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History, 213-14]

official_medallion_of_the_british_anti-slavery_society_28179529We can arguably see the sort of legacy that MacCulloch is talking about in the history of our own denomination, Methodism. We are rightly proud of the fact that Charles and John Wesley were fierce abolitionists in the 18th Century. Both had had first-hand experience of slavery in Georgia and were appalled at what they had seen, and John in particular had remarkably modern notions about racial equality. The early Methodist movement shared these views by and large, but as the church spread in the newly-independent USA, things changed. In 1784, the US Methodist Conference echoed Wesley’s call to emancipate slaves, and preachers were explicitly called to liberate their own slaves. However, in the face of massive opposition – especially in the South – by 1824 this had been moderated to the simple expectation that slave owners would provide Christian education for their slaves. A certain Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (a plantation owner) speaking in 1824, urged his fellow slave owners to allow such teaching because he argued that “nothing is better calculated to render man satisfied with his destiny in this world” than religion. He maintained that Christianity, with its offer of eternal life, could substitute the slaves’ dreams of emancipation in this world, and there is indeed some evidence that this approach actually worked, helping making slaves more submissive. It was indeed only after the Methodist Conference had split into north and south in 1844 that a full abolitionist position was finally taken. [For more information, see this recent excellent article in Holiness from Dr Morris-Chapman.]

The most relevant fact for us today, though, is that slave owners could and did point to passages like those in Colossians and Philemon to justify the notion that slavery was ‘Biblical’.

Given this shoddy reception history, therefore, should we excise this unhelpful text from our scriptures? Should we remove this strangely personal, ‘theology-lite’ book from our Bible?

There is certainly much to ponder here, and the silence of such texts as Philemon about slavery calls for us all to reflect upon our understanding of scripture. However, in some respects, Philemon speaks to me deeply at this present time about our calling to be a disciple of Christ in difficult times.

Slavery was a fact of life for Paul’s generation, as it would be for many years to come. It was an omnipresent institution that supported the entire life and economy of the Roman Empire; a dictatorship that paid scant heed to public opinion or the niceties of moral philosophy. A denunciation of slavery by Paul would undoubtedly have been useful for later generations of his readers but would have had absolutely no impact on his contemporary audience. In the face of an utterly overwhelming power, what could one man like Paul do? What difference could he make?

The answer is that he could make a difference to one man’s life: Onesimus’. And that is what he tried to do. In this particular case, Paul urges a slave owner to see his slave – his possession, as the law made clear – as more than simply another thing. He sends him back to Philemon, “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). He urges Philemon to live out the high calling he expressed famously in 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 all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

eustache_le_sueur_-_the_preaching_of_st_paul_at_ephesus_-_wga12613He appeals to Philemon to regard his slave as an equal, a brother even. In all of this Paul himself seeks to emulate Christ’s role as a reconciler, bringing people back together, even when that involves paying the price for such reconciliation himself. As he writes in verse 18: “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” We do not know anything authoritatively about Philemon’s fate but the fact that the letter was retained so tenaciously by the Early Church suggests that Onesimus went on to play a full part in the life of his community.

All of this reminded me of a story that I first heard as part of an Alpha Course. I later learned that it was adapted from a story called ‘The Star Thrower’ by Loren C. Eiseley:

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

starfishI often feel overwhelmed by some of the problems that we face as a nation and as a global community at present, and I should imagine some of you may feel the same occasionally. In the face of the climate crisis, the plight of millions of refugees, of the seemingly unstoppable rise of nationalism and racism, and so many other problems, what can one person do? Like Paul and the evil of slavery it seems an impossible task to face. Much better to bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening. The call of the letter to Philemon is for us to make a difference in our daily lives; to do what we can, not what we can’t. Not all of us are called to be William Wilberforces or Greta Thunbers. But all of us have the opportunity to make some difference. To make the world a better place for one person – and perhaps many more than that.

Crucially, this letter reminds us of our calling to be Christ in every situation we encounter. To be the voice that speaks for reconciliation, for hope, for the possibility of change. To witness to the power of good, in the face of overwhelming evil. It calls each one of us to be a glimpse of the Kingdom of God come close, showing others an alternative to the ways of hatred and greed that seem omnipresent and omnipotent in our world so often. Let Paul’s wish in his letter to Philemon be our prayer: “Refresh my heart in Christ” (Philemon 20). As we share in our remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper, let the same power that filled his apostle Paul’s heart, fill ours. Let us depart from the communion table renewed in body, soul and mind, ready to face the challenges of our own world, wanting to be Christ’s ambassadors and presence in a world that so desperately needs both. Let us be the light of Christ wherever we are sent. Amen.


* “Some Neglected Theological Dimensions of Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 17 (1990), 209

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