Tucked into the quiet pages of the New Testament is a book that takes up just two-thirds of one page in my NIV. This very brief personal letter is the key that has unlocked and continues to break the chains of slavery (of any kind). The book was written by Paul to a good friend named Philemon. The short letter is so personal and unassuming that its latent liberating energies may be totally missed.
What do the words of Jesus recorded in Mark 10:43-45 look like when taken very seriously and actually become incarnate in the relationship between two Christian friends? Mark 10:43-45 reads “… Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ironically, it is the master-slave culture in which Paul and Philemon live that created a correspondence, with its “come at it slant” message, that is heard around the world. The book offers no new doctrine, no church direction and reckons with no theological concerns. One writer says the book in the 4th century was ignored by church leaders because it offered “…such trivialities… of a single insignificant slave” (Lightfoot quoted in David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon, NIV Application Commentary: 1998, 308). By the way, Garland’s commentary on Philemon is accessible, invigorating and instructive, especially as he contrasts first century slavery with the history of USAmerican slavery.
The book concerns three people. Paul, the apostle, who is in prison in Rome. Paul is writing to Philemon who is a well-to-do businessman in Colosse and host to a local church. The subject of the letter is a run-away slave name Onesimus who fled to Rome, met Paul, and was converted to the Way of Christ. On the surface the book looks like a quick memo about some financial issues between Paul and Philemon: “If he [Onesimus] has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v 18). The memo is actually a massive bundle of dynamite with the fuse on fire and it explodes in very generation where dehumanizing slavery destroys Eikons of God.Without hitting the institution of slavery head on in his own Roman world, how did Paul’s letter to Philemon foster slave-liberating endeavors throughout history? The institution of slavery is not the subject; one human being who is a slave is the focus. The subversion of the institution of slavery centers on Paul’s view of Onesimus, a child of God within a slave/master culture.
The energies in this slave-liberating letter are evident. First, the entire exchange is driven by love, not power. “…I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love…” (v 9). Second, Onesimus is now Paul’s “son” and is Philemon’s “dear brother” (vv 10, 16). A new family is created by the Gospel of Messiah Jesus. Third, Philemon is instructed by Paul that Onesimus was considered as one who “could take your [Philemon’s] place” (v 13). What, a slave on equal standing with his master in Paul’s view? Amazing! Even more, fourth, Paul instructs Philemon “to welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me” (v 17). Onesimus, the slave, is viewed as Paul’s equal as well!
Packed into the tiny letter of Philemon is history-changing power. John Coffey, a Cambridge historian, wrote, “Ideas mattered, and the leading abolitionists cannot be understood without reference to their Christianity. They believed that all people are God’s offspring and bearers of the divine image; they believed that you must love your neighbour as yourself and do to others as you would have them do to you; they believed in a God who heard the cry of the oppressed, and a Messiah who had come to bring deliverance to captives; and they believed that sooner or later, God would punish a nation that failed to repent of its iniquitous exploitation of another race. These simple religious convictions lent a special intensity to the campaign against the slave trade, turning it into a sacred cause. If we doubt the power and promise of Christian beliefs, we should remember the abolitionists.” All Coffey describes permeates the Philemon memo.