…and then the apostle Paul sent the slave back to his master

Paul writing from prison

Image credit: Dr. Jeffrey and Angie Goh

During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).

Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.

The “Traditional” Reading

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.

If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. After all, Paul was no stranger to contravening Roman legal authority when he thought the gospel required it; he landed in Roman prisons on several occasions (e.g., Acts 16:16-40 and Acts 22:22-29). According to the traditional interpretation, on the occasion of his encounter with Onesimus, Paul saw no ethical or religious reason to contravene Roman law; rather, he took himself to have a legitimate legal obligation to return the slave to his master. And so he did. So much the worse for the New Testament ethic of slavery.

An Alternative Explanation: Reconciling Two Brothers in Christ

Fortunately for Christians who think slavery is wrong (at this point all of them, I hope), this is a bad reading of Philemon. It is better to think Paul was motivated not by a Roman legal obligation, but rather by an obligation of his Christian faith to reconcile two estranged brothers in Christ.

In verses 8 and 9, Paul states, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” From this verse, we can see that Paul thinks Philemon has a duty to welcome Onesimus back gently, and that Paul could command him to fulfill it (though he’d rather that Philemon do it voluntarily, out of love).

But, why would Paul think this was Philemon’s duty? The most obvious reason, to my mind, derives from Jesus’s teaching to forgive those you perceive to have wronged you, which shows up multiple places in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 11:25Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4).

That this teaching was on Paul’s mind seems corroborated by Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which he writes, “if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Colossians is addressed to a similar cast of characters as the letter to Philemon, so many scholars think the letters were written and sent at the same time to the church at Colossae, which met in Philemon’s home.

That Paul has this teaching of Jesus in mind seems further supported by the fact that he says he could command Philemon to do his duty. Typically, Paul thinks he has the authority to command people to do things only when his command is justified by a teaching of Jesus. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:10 Paul states, “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband.” Here, Paul commands the Corinthian church, but he is careful to cite the authority of the command—Jesus himself (possibly the teaching of Matthew 19:3-6).

Then, shortly after in 1 Corinthians 7:25, Paul writes, “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” This verse suggests that Paul only feels comfortable commanding when the command is backed by a teaching of Jesus. In this case, Paul suggests that Jesus has not commanded anything on the topic, and so he humbly offers his mere “trustworthy opinion” instead.

Together, these two verses in 1 Corinthians 7 suggest that Paul typically only thinks he has the authority to command when his teaching is justified by a teaching of Jesus. So, if Paul thinks he has the authority to command Philemon to do something, that thing is most likely something taught by Jesus. In this case, the most obvious candidate would be the teaching to forgive one another, which Philemon would presumably need to do if he were to welcome Onesimus gently.

Has Onesimus Done Something Wrong?

But, if Paul thinks Philemon must forgive Onesimus, it seems implied that Paul thinks Onesimus has wronged Philemon. And is that wrong simply running away from his master? If so, then Paul’s view of slavery still seems worrying. If Paul thinks a slave running from his master is wrong, then it would seem he thinks slavery is legitimate.

Again, fortunately, I don’t think we need to read the letter that way. In verses 18-19, Paul writes, “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” The language of “owing,” “charging,” “accounts,” and “repayment” suggests to many scholars that Onesimus has done something to cost Philemon money (e.g., stealing from him). If so, then we can imagine that act is the wrong that needs forgiving—not running away. This seems to be the best view.

However, even if the “wrong” in question is Onesimus’s flight, we need not suppose that Paul thinks it is an actual wrong, particularly since he uses conditional language in the way he puts it (“If he has wronged you…”). Rather, it could simply be that Paul is assuming Philemon’s point of view as a rhetorical strategy. Paul might think there is a better chance of Philemon welcoming Onesimus gently if Paul assumes, for the sake of argument, Philemon’s viewpoint that Onesimus has wronged him by fleeing. If this is what Paul is up to, the letter need not entail that Paul actually thinks Onesimus has wronged Philemon by fleeing.

The upshot of all this, then, is that Paul’s motivation in sending Onesimus back to Philemon was not a desire to fulfill a legal obligation to return a disobedient slave to his master. Rather, Paul’s motivation was to reconcile two estranged brothers in Christ, in fulfillment of Jesus’s teaching to forgive one another.

Does Paul Ask Philemon to Free Onesimus?

Of course, my reading still leaves us with questions. Chief among them, isn’t it still bad news that Paul sends a slave back to his master at all, regardless of his motives? Doing so is clearly risky for Onesimus: Philemon may or may not respond well to the letter. And, would Paul expect Onesimus simply to slip back into his role as slave? If so, this also seems pretty bad.

There is some indication in the letter that Paul did not expect Onesimus simply to resume his role as Philemon’s slave. In verses 15-16, Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” The phrase, “no longer as a slave,” may indicate Paul’s hope that Philemon would manumit (or free) Onesimus upon his return. However, Paul’s meaning is admittedly ambiguous since the subsequent phrase, “more than a slave,” could imply that Onesimus would remain a slave and add the role of brother.

In verse 21, though—the concluding verse of his appeal to Philemon—Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” What is this “even more than I say” that Paul has in mind? It makes most sense to me (and some scholars) to think Paul is referring, here, to Onesimus’s manumission, though the issue is, again, not crystal clear.

If I’m right that Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus in vv. 15-16 and 21, the vagueness of his request could be explained by its high stakes and by the risk it poses to Onesimus. As Onesimus’s master, Philemon clearly has a considerable financial interest in Onesimus, which Paul would be asking Philemon to abandon. Further, if Paul is pushy here, it could result in harm to Onesimus, which Paul would want to avoid.

Paul might also keep the request for manumission vague if he thought his request was not backed by an explicit teaching of Jesus. And, in fact, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus pronounce on the ethical status of slavery or the freeing of slaves—much as we might wish he had. (The interesting and difficult question of the New Testament‘s teaching about slavery as a whole emerges here. Although it is tempting to try, I can’t properly address that question in this context. Future posts!)

Reconciliation as a (the?) Central Gospel Value

Even if Paul did not intend for Onesimus to resume his role as Philemon’s slave, you might still think sending Onesimus back to Philemon was too risky, and something Paul should not have done. What if Philemon did not free Onesimus? And what if Paul’s letter had the opposite effect, stirring Philemon’s anger and endangering Onesimus? Why would Paul take these risks when so much was at stake?

The answer, I think, lies in the centrality of reconciliation to the gospel message. At its core, the message of the gospel is a message of reconciliation. God’s vision for humanity is one in which people love God and one another in beautiful harmony. However, the Bible depicts humans as estranged from God and each other due to human sin. Jesus’s work, then, was to announce and make possible the reconciliation of these rifts. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Forgiveness—both God’s forgiveness of people, and people’s forgiveness of one another—therefore figures centrally in the gospel message, since forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation.

Given this central (supreme?) role of forgiveness and reconciliation in the gospel, it is unsurprising that Paul would be willing to take the risk he does in sending Onesimus back to Philemon. For Paul, it is simply unacceptable that two followers of Jesus would be estranged in the way that Onesimus and Philemon were at the time the letter was written.

The modern Western mind tends to elevate a certain kind of freedom (often called “autonomy”) and security from bodily harm above most other values. This, I think, is the source of lingering worries about what Paul did. And I’m inclined to think that Paul also prized these values to some extent—hence his veiled request that Philemon free Onesimus, and his hope that Philemon would treat Onesimus gently. However, there is no getting around the fact that, in Paul’s mind, reconciliation between two estranged Christian brothers is more important than personal autonomy or security from bodily harm.

And, in the end, I think this elevation of the value of reconciliation—even above these other important values—is the reason that the forgotten little letter to Philemon is part of the New Testament at all: it shows the gospel message of reconciliation in all its radical glory.

4 thoughts on “…and then the apostle Paul sent the slave back to his master

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  2. Big mistake is thinking Paul is infallible. He is not a divine being but a disciple. Even Moses, David and Abraham made mistakes. Christians following Paul rather than Christ is worrying.

    In addition, it is against Jewish Law (Deuteronomy) to return a slave to its master. Paulk cannot be possibly be perfect, so we have to assume he isn’t always right.

    • Thanks for the comment, tmg. You make some excellent points here. You are right that Paul is not infallible, and that Christians ought not to follow him “rather than Christ,” as you say. However, to be clear, in what I’ve written I have neither assumed that Paul is infallible, nor suggested that Christians should follow him rather than Christ. If anything, I’ve tried to show that we should value what Paul teaches us in Philemon because it is consistent with the teaching of Christ to forgive one another.

      I readily acknowledge that Paul made some (probably many) mistakes in his life, just like the rest of us. For example, to take an example from the New Testament, perhaps he sinned in his unwillingness to give John Mark another chance of traveling with him in his missionary work (Acts 15:36-41). However, I think we need to be careful when evaluating Paul’s teachings in scripture. If we are to hold on to a view of scripture as divinely inspired (per 2 Timothy 3:16), then I think we need to understand Paul’s teachings in scripture as infallible (a standard we need not hold for the man himself, or his other writings, some of which are mentioned in the New Testament but not collected there). If we hold this view of scripture, then, of course, we need to figure out what Paul was teaching in the letter to Philemon, which is what I’ve tried to do in my post. My suggestion is that, in Philemon, Paul is teaching that reconciliation between Christian disciples is extremely important and worth risking freedom and safety for. What he teaches about the compatibility of Christian discipleship and slavery is a more complicated proposition. I think he suggests that Philemon should free Onesimus, and from that we might infer that he thinks Christian discipleship is, strictly speaking, inconsistent with owning slaves. However, this doesn’t seem to be his central point in the letter, so I think we need to tread carefully. It’s probably better to see Paul’s writing here (and elsewhere in the New Testament) as the first step on a trajectory toward viewing slavery as flat-out inconsistent with Christian discipleship, rather than viewing it as a proclamation that slavery is wrong. Regardless, as I’ve argued, I don’t think Paul teaches in the letter that slavery is acceptable or worth upholding. That much seems clear to me. The assumption that the teaching of scripture is infallible plays some role in my view (as I think it should), but the main reason I hold the view is that I think it just makes better sense of the epistle. What plays no role in my view is the infallibility of Paul himself.

      You are also quite right that returning a slave to his or her master was contrary to Jewish law (Deuteronomy 23.15-16). And I think that fact would have been clear to Paul, and probably gave him pause before writing the letter. Indeed, the central event of Jewish identity–the Exodus, being freed from slavery in Egypt–likely loomed large in his mind as he considered what to do in this case. Paul was no dummy, and he was steeped in Jewish tradition and scripture. As a result, I assume that he nevertheless decided to return Onesimus to Philemon because he thought the reconciliation of two Christian brothers was just more important than following this particular Jewish law. And, of course, the adaptation and reinterpretation of Torah in light of Christ was a huge part of Paul’s controversial ministry and the formation of early Christianity. So, it is not surprising that he would not feel bound by that particular Jewish law, especially if (as I’ve contended) the central value of his Messianic faith–reconciliation–would be compromised if he followed the law.

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