The Implications of Philemon on the Process of Cultural Change

[Note:  The book of Philemon is one of my favorites, a book I have written a play, a long essay, and numerous short essays about, including this one.]

Introduction

Does the Bible provide a blueprint on how to engage in necessary cultural change, or does it merely rubber stamp the corrupt cultural traits and institutions that are present in a given culture at a given time? Does the Bible itself demonstrate and exhibit authoritarian means of effecting desired cultural changes with regards to believers or does it demonstrate a more gentle way of dealing with brethren? Does the Bible legitimize rebellious actions towards unjust laws, or does it enjoin obedience even to laws that are unfair with a greater purpose in mind. The book of Philemon provides answers to all of these questions in its treatment of an apostle writing to a slave-owning member in the city of Colosse about a runaway slave named Onesimus who had been converted by Paul in Rome after running away.

It is my hope, if I am able, to write a brief essay (meaning, shorter than my book-length essay on the books of Philemon and Third John) on the particular implications of Philemon on the process of cultural change. The book of Philemon, though it is exceedingly short and relatively obscure, is a key text in examining the biblical context of cultural change, providing a practical application of the progressive nature of conversion in helping to correct longstanding and serious negative cultural practices, such as the wicked institution of slavery, without either granting legitimacy to those institutions or engaging in authoritarian top-down change, by an inside-out and bottom-up conversion process. It is the purpose of this paper to briefly examine how.

Personal Comments on Philemon

Before getting into Philemon in depth, I would like to introduce my longstanding interest in and deep study of the book of Philemon. Since my preteen years I have avidly read and written about this particular book of the Bible, even publishing a play based off of the letter, called “Onesimus,” which itself was a dramatization of a historical novel adapted from the book of Philemon. Additionally, in essays such as “Slavery In The Bible” and “A Comparative Analysis of Philemon and 3 John,” I have sought to examine the social context of Philemon as a model for how the Bible views matters such as the slavery dispute before the American Civil War as well as slavery in the Roman Empire itself during the 1st century AD. Having already examined these subjects in greater depth elsewhere, I propose only to examine them briefly today before detailing the biblical model of progressive cultural change that Philemon exhibits, which presents noteworthy implications for ourselves.

The Social Context of Philemon

During the first century AD, slaves made up about 10% of the Roman Empire other than Italy, and about a third of the population of Italy [1]. Despite the ethnic and cultural difference between slaves in the antebellum South, though, slaves in the Roman Empire were not considered very different from their masters in terms of culture and religion, and could not be judged as being of inferior status merely on looks alone [2]. The ancient world did not question the morality of the institution of slavery, and even the New Testament itself never condemns it outright, but neither does the Bible in any way view slaves as inferior to those who are free. Since slaves in the ancient world could purchase their own freedom and own slaves themselves freely, there was less pressure holding them down, and allowing upward mobility reduced some of the frustrations slaves felt at their status [3]. It should be noted that the lack of upward mobility in the antebellum world of the South did make American slavery a harsher and more immoral practice than the slavery of the Roman world, which was harsh enough.

From this context, we can see that while the Roman world accepted slavery as a “natural” institution, slaves themselves were not seen as being a lesser order of being than their masters or free men, but were seen simply as being of a lower position due to the accident of circumstance. As slaves were able to save up money for their own freedom (and judging from the Roman records, it appears many slaves were able to purchase freedom at around the age of 30 or so), slavery itself gave no particular or permanent stigma. It should also be noted, as this is of considerable importance, that the role of Christianity in considering slaves to be the brethren of freemen (and even their masters) rather than a separate order of humanity was influential in ending slavery in the Roman Empire, as the example of the apostles in avoiding owning slaves and in the transformation of the relationship between slaves and masters to one of equality became ingrained in the hearts and minds of believers, leading the late Roman Empire eventually to ban slavery outright [4].

A Passage Analysis of Philemon

Having briefly examined the social context of slavery in the Roman Empire, let us now examine the book of Philemon passage by passage. Philemon was one of two personal letters of the New Testament (the other indisputable one is 3rd John), and it deals with the situation of a runaway slave named Onesimus who is being asked to return to his master, Philemon. But Paul has requests of Philemon as well to avoid making an example of Onesimus and to receive him back with love, and not to change the terms of his original freedom. In examining the book of Philemon, let us look at how Paul chooses to talk to both Philemon and Onesimus, and what example he sets for us with regards to the controversial social issues that we must face.

The first passage of Philemon is the introductory greeting in verses one through three, which reads (all of the following quotations are, per my custom, in the NKJV): “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These verses are a standard greeting in Paul’s letters, gracious but not particularly remarkable.

Even in the second passage, made up of verses four through seven, the purpose of the book of Philemon has not yet begun to become clear: “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” Here more than a quarter of the book of Philemon has gone by and the purpose of the letter has not even been mentioned. Nonetheless, the graciousness of Paul’s words here cannot be neglected. Philemon is praised for his generosity and hospitality to the brethren, a sign of his conversion and a joy to Paul and his fellow workers. By praising Philemon, and by calling him a brother, Paul is gently setting Philemon up to graciously respond to the serious and startling request he is about to make to the hospitable Colossian slave-owner.

It is in the third passage, made up of verses eight through eleven, where Paul begins to state his case: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you waht is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you–being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in chains who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to both you and me.” Here we see a remarkable thing–an apostle of God who does not command a member to get his way in a matter, but rather appeals to him gently, seeking to rely on the sympathies of Philemon for an old prisoner of Jesus Christ rather than rely on a stern order for Philemon to do what Paul wants. It is the graciousness of making a humble request, rather sternly ordering someone to do something, which we might expect from someone who claims apostolic authority, that commands our respect and appreciation. Paul further, and perhaps characteristically, makes a clever pun in contrasting the meaning of Onesimus (a common slave name meaning useful) with the former uselessness of the slave named Onesimus (who proved himself useless by running away, but now proves himself useful by coming back as a brother and not merely as a slave). Likewise, by calling Onesimus his son, Paul seeks to gently remind Philemon of his filial concern for Onesimus’ well-being, both physical and (more importantly) spiritual.

Paul then compounds the shock of the initial request, by his comments in the next passage, from verses twelve through sixteen: “I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave–a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Let us pause for a moment and reflect just on what a shocking set of comments Paul is making here. For one, he is asking Onesimus to return to the master he ran away from. To put it very mildly, this is an extremely difficult request to make of Onesimus, and of Philemon. For the one, it is the humbling of the pride of having freed himself by running away from slavery (because he must now put himself back under the authority of his master, whom he has acted rebelliously towards), and for the other, it is the removal of the possibility of vengefulness by treating a runaway slave as a beloved brother (which would preclude the mutilation and torture that normally followed the capture of a rebellious slave). Paul was asking both to forebear their pride and vindictiveness and act towards each other in Christian love. We may also see here that the Bible does not allow us to run away from our problems, but rather wishes for us to deal with them in love, face to face, and does not provide an escape from our difficulties, but rather an escape through them. For another, Paul is insistent that any good deed Philemon could give to him should be done voluntarily (that is, consensually) rather than being forced to do so. Paul refuses to abuse his authority by forcing Philemon to be generous in allowing Onesimus to serve him in Philemon’s stead, and so shows admirable (and, sadly, rare) restraint in letting Philemon choose how he may be of service to Paul. Finally, this passage also shows a providential reason for Onesimus running away, showing the fact that God often does work in mysterious ways, but that the providential care of God in ordering events cannot be neglected by brethren who puzzle over the will of God.

In the following passage, which closes the request section of the letter of Philemon, consisting of verses seventeen through twenty-two, Paul makes even more daring requests of Philemon: “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay–not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord, refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I will soon be granted to you.” If the previous passages were not shocking enough, this passage provides a very striking example of pastoral behavior. For one, Paul commands Philemon to treat his (returned) runaway slave as he would treat Paul himself. This would require a great deal of friendliness and warmth and hospitality, which would require full forgiveness, and the withholding of any grudge, against Onesimus. However, Paul also promises to fully repay whatever Onesimus has stolen of Philemon’s property. Instead of commanding Philemon to forgive the debt in light of the debt he owes Paul for salvation, Paul himself (no rich man) takes the debt on himself, writing it in his own hand and making it a legal obligation. Paul here acts in a Christ-like way by substituting his own payment of what Onesimus stole for the debt that Onesimus owes to his master. How many pastors would pay the debts of their members to other members today? Paul then asks for Philemon’s hospitality (again) by providing a guest room for Paul, in light of his hopes for a speedy release. This would allow Paul to see the reconciliation between slave and master himself, and ensure the payment of the debt he took upon himself towards Philemon.

Finally, Paul closes this remarkable letter with a standard closing in verses twenty-three through twenty-five: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. It seems fitting, therefore, that a letter filled with such graciousness as Philemon is should end with a request that the same grace exhibited in the words of Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, would fill the life of Philemon as well.

The Relevance of Philemon to the Antebellum Slavery Dispute

While it is not my purpose to discuss here something I have written about at such length elsewhere, it would be remiss to entirely ignore the relevance of the book of Philemon to the antebellum slavery dispute, if only because Philemon deals with the issue of slavery very pointedly and because the slavery dispute (and the civil rights disputes of the 1960’s, a related phenomenon) often serve as placeholders for one’s view of the biblical role in challenging or justifying the social order. Despite the fact that, to my knowledge, the book of Philemon was barely (if that) recognized in the slavery dispute, the book itself is useful in challenging the false assumptions of both Southern traditionalists and Northern radicals. Let us briefly examine how.

The quixotic Southern traditionalists who sought to justify the barbaric and cruel practice of chattel slavery often noted, correctly, that the Bible did allow for slavery, though they did not practice the form of slavery that finds (limited) acceptance in the Bible, and that saw no permanent barrier to advance for slaves or their descendants as was practiced in the South. Likewise, their exegesis (and I am using that word politely) of scripture to justify their position fell far short of an acceptable standard. Two examples will suffice. Jefferson Davis’ view of scripture to support slavery was both bold and false. In his farewell to the Senate just before the Civil War, he stated that the “higher law” defended by the abolitionists was first supported in the Garden of Eden by Satan the Devil [5]. Elsewhere, in an address to the Democratic State Convention in Mississippi in 1859, Jefferson Davis showed a similarly maladroit and yet typically traditionalist view of Genesis 9:18-28, considering the sin of the Spanish in putting the sons of Shem (the Native American Indian population) to slavery instead of those naturally fitted for slavery (the descendants of Canaan, among whom supposedly were the black African slaves), twisting the scripture considerably to justify the wicked and abusive traditions of his people [6]. Likewise, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made another bogus traditionalist interpretation of the scripture in his “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he openly admitted that the Confederacy was founded on the cornerstone of racial inequality (a reference to Psalm 118:22) and that, furthermore, racial equality (as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that considers all mankind equal in certain unalienable right) was a sandy foundation destined to fail when the storm blew upon it [7]. In all of these cases traditionalists twisted the scripture to justify the continued existence of their flawed cultural traditions, rather than be progressively converted by the scriptures.

In the face of scriptures showing slavery in the Bible as a tolerated and accepted practice within limitations, it is equally striking that abolitionists did not choose to emphasize the restrictions provided in the Bible but instead railed against all compromises and pragmatic concerns and considered themselves pure in conscience by appealing to a higher law that countenanced no grappling with human weaknesses or the powerful hold of tradition on the minds of unenlightened people. In so saying and doing they themselves did violence to the scriptures that must be recognized and Philemon provides a good opportunity to examine this serious failing. For one, abolitionists were not concerned with the consent of slave owners (which Paul was scrupulous to seek in the case of Philemon concerning Onesimus). Likewise, abolitionists were often desirous of the use of coercion to achieve their aims, and were not interested in the more gradual, but less violent and more lasting, gradual conversion of people through progressive means–starting with transforming relationships to that of greater equality, then allowing those transformed relationships to be reflected in laws that change to meet the new reality. The Bible supports bottom-up and inside-out change, the exact opposite of the top-down authoritarian policies the abolitionists sought for the South. In so doing, they erred greatly as well. The resulting tragedy remains painful 150 years later.

The Relevance of Philemon to the Limitations of Ministerial Authority

At this time it is worthwhile to examine briefly what the book of Philemon says about the limits of ministerial authority on at least prudential levels. Let us not fail to examine the reasons for Paul’s self-appointed limitations either, as they may be of use for ministers today.

We see these limitations most particularly in Paul’s refusal to force Philemon to grant the service of Onesimus to Paul. Despite being in prison and in the position to use all the help possible, he refused to force someone else to help him without their consent. This is admirable restraint. Likewise, Paul insists on paying the debt of Onesimus to Philemon for what was stolen, which serves two simultaneous goals: providing the new convert Onesimus with a graphic reminder of the substitutionary price Jesus Christ paid for his sins and that of all mankind, and a reminder to Philemon of the need for him to be merciful to Onesimus and not take retribution on him because of the willingness of Paul to pay the price for Onesimus. By Paul showing such faith in the goodness of both Onesimus and Philemon, each of them was allowed to develop the appropriate spiritual growth by being encouraged strongly and lovingly to do what was right, rather than being ordered around like children.

What lessons can we take from this? For one, it may often be wise, if the goal of a minister is to develop the spiritual growth of the brethren, to avoid ordering when gentle encouraging may work. A command may be obeyed sullenly, but witnessing a minister act in Christ-like self-sacrifice for their benefit is a much greater encouragement than merely being commanded to act in a loving and generous manner. Leading by example is more useful than leading by command, and this places prudential limitations on the power of a minister. If the goal of a minister is to rule, then to command is natural, but if the goal of a minister is to help develop the moral sensibilities of the brethren under his charge, then it is sometimes necessary to encourage and cease commanding. Philemon gives an example of how this may be done, and what it means.

Philemon as a Case Study on the Biblical Model of Cultural Change

Philemon serves as an exemplar of the biblical model of cultural change. Neither does the Bible blindly support the powers that be in holding on to the power and prestige they possess nor does the bible blindly support the efforts of radicals to harness the power of government for coercive social change. Rather, the biblical model of cultural change exhibited in Philemon is that cultural change be the result of an inside-out, bottom-up process of internal conversion that leads to changed behaviors and transformed relationships that spreads through a society and leads to changes in the legal and social structure of a society that is ever more closely approximating the ways of God in their day-to-day lives.

In the book of Philemon the actions of Paul towards both Philemon and Onesimus can be seen a the way in which a godly leader follows the biblical model of cultural change as opposed to both the traditionalist and radical tendencies that Philemon and Onesimus would be most susceptible to. As the representative of the powerful, wealthy, and slave-owning aristocracy of Colosse, Philemon would be most susceptible to a model of cultural change that opposes any change of status between himself and his slaves. Like the slave owning aristocracy of the South, he had a well-earned reputation for hospitality towards elites (like Paul) but may not have been as diligent in helping his slave household learn the precious truths of scripture that had been shown by Paul to him. To Philemon, Paul presents the challenge of a leader willing to pay the price for someone else’s sins (in this case, that of theft) and the challenge to his manhood and prestige of having to accept a runaway slave into his household as a beloved brother and not as a renegade to be harshly punished as an example. Philemon could therefore learn the Christian virtues of forbearance and mercy, and humility as well.

Onesimus presents a different problem, that of the potential radical. As Onesimus was motivated to strive for freedom by stealing himself (literally) and presumably the money to travel to Rome, it would appear the chief temptation for him is the radicalism that looks upon personally suffered injustices as being unacceptable, with illegal means proper due to the corruption and injustice of the legal and social system. Paul, and the Bible, speak as eloquently and consistently against this tendency to break the law, even when it is unjust, as they do against the tendency to set up unjust laws by corrupt elites. To Onesimus, Paul gives the command for him to return to slavery (at least, for a little while) with Philemon, which must have been a humbling experience for him. To return as a slave to a master one has run away with would have required a great deal of trust that Philemon would not punish and torture him as was the custom of slave owners to caught runaways. Likewise, it would have meant repudiating his own efforts to change his social standing through coercive means, and would have required him to show longsuffering and patience in dealing with the injustice of being a slave when one has the burning desire to be free. Learning how to live with injustice is part of the potential burden that the Bible places on all believers, and the Bible does not endorse rebellion as the model of social change.

Rather, for both Philemon and Onesimus, the gentle and gracious words and actions of Paul present a wholly different model for cultural change than either would know from their own human tendencies. If one treats ones slaves as brothers, and withholds torture and harsh punishment for runaways who return (as Onesimus did) as Christian brethren, then why hold them as slaves at all? If they are equals in spiritual value, why not treat them as equals politically and socially as well? The only barriers to that are barriers of tradition, which are mighty barriers indeed, but which are gradually eliminated by the consistent realization of the spiritual equality of all souls, of any gender, race, or social status, before the Father of All, who created all human beings in His own likeness and image. Likewise, if we are to refrain from impatient and coercive changing of the corrupt social structures that we find all around us throughout the entire expanse and history of the globe, what does that mean? Does it not mean that we all have within us some mixture of good and evil and that violent social change will only result in more injustice and more injury and the imposition by force of a new social system that itself represents some mixture of good and evil, just like the one it replaces? When we see ourselves as well as our adversaries as a mixture of good and evil, we then see the wisdom of the biblical model in first changing the internal man so that it conforms to God’s ways and then, gradually and peacefully and organically, changes the relationships and behavior of individuals so that they may consensually (and, maybe even “democratically”) change their own laws to reflect their own transformed and godly character. Only in that way can a society or organization of any kind reflect the laws and principles of God’s word, by the freely given informed consent to follow God’s way in its entirety.

The Application of Philemon to Contemporary Cultural Change Within the Church of God

What does this mean for the Church of God community today? Are there necessary changes that need to be made in our own conduct and practice so that our ways may more closely approximate, or even meet the lofty standard of, the laws and commandments of God? Are there corrupt and unjust social structures that come from our acceptance of worldly standards of behavior from either the past or the present, from one human culture or another, and that do not conform with the biblical culture we are to adopt and practice consistently around the world as the children of God? Are we more concerned with justifying and defending our positions and power and the human cultures we come from than we are with progressively developing within us the cultural worldview of the Bible, so that we need not anymore be divided by national origin, ethnicity, gender, generation, or social class?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we have a responsibility as Christians to mend our ways. However, we do not have the right to force the ways of God on anyone else, for that is itself an abusive form of using power that is itself ungodly and unbiblical. If we truly wish to model the biblical way of behavior within us, we must not merely seek to change leaders but we must first change ourselves so that we reflect the ways of God in love, in mercy, in wisdom, and so that our transformed relationships within the Family of God will gradually transform the corrupt social structures around us into a godly and biblical community of believers who are freed from the slavery to human ways of thinking and behaving. In the end, we must not only reject corrupt leaders, but we must avoid even seeking to use corrupt means for good ends, for we will only corrupt ourselves and our institutions by such means.

Conclusion

I apologize for going on at such length about such a short letter in the Bible, if I have tried the patience of those few people who can be expected to read so long a note as this. Nonetheless, if we seek to apply the Bible in all walks of life, and in its entirety, as is our responsibility as Christians in training to become kings and priests in the Kingdom of God that is to come, we have an obligation to take seriously our obligations to act according to the principles of the Bible, and not merely to pay lip service to the scriptures while we act according to the corrupt ways of man, as was the manner of the traditionalists in the period before the Civil War. We cannot either blindly follow the traditions that have been passed down to us nor change them violently and in a coercive fashion, for both of these are ways of Satan. Rather, if we wish to follow the ways of God, we must ourselves reflect the standard by which we seek the world to be judged, and must be dedicated to the gradual and bottom-up transformation of our societies according to God’s Holy Spirit. We must first be free to see others as they are–as fellow Children of God created in His image, and then we can change the laws and rules by which we are governed to the extent that those rules reflect corrupt human authoritarian tendencies and not the freedom God gives us in His word. Let us therefore strive to be the best exemplars in our words and conduct of God’s way, so that we may gradually and thoroughly change our institutions from within, if we are given the time to do so according to His will.

It has been my intention in this note to examine how the book of Philemon provides an example of the model of biblical cultural change in action, dealing with the still controversial issue of slavery as well as the social relationships between members. By looking at what Philemon itself has to say about the process of social change, in rejecting both blind adherence to existing social structures or the equally blind hostility to existing social structures, it presents a way out of the dilemma between uninformed traditionalism and uninformed radicalism to present a sound and gradual and progressive model of social and cultural change. Such a model encourages us to develop within us the character of God so that we may avoid becoming the authoritarians we hate, and that we may be worthy proponents of God’s ways both in this life and in the world to come.

[1] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 221.
[2] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 223.
[3] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 227.
[4] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 235.
[5] Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 225.
[6] Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 156-158.
[7] Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 216-217.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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