[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the UCG Portland congregation on Sabbath, May 16, 2020.]
The problem of coercion and consent are important ones in our times. Whether we examine the continuing debate over the role of slavery in our nation’s history, deal with the question of the legitimacy of the behavior of national, state, and local governments in public health crises like the current Coronavirus concerns, or struggle with what consent means in a world where frequent arguments exist over the way that people in authority sometimes abuse that power to exploit other people, these are problems we struggle with in the world around us. But these are not new problems. It is not as if our generation was the first to figure out that restraining both tyranny and anarchy was important and a challenge to test the maturity of people. Today, I would like to look at a part of the Bible that gives us a lot of practical guidance in how it is that we are to respect the consent of other people when we are dealing with uncomfortable problems in personal relationships over matters of social justice.
Let us now turn to the Book of Philemon. We will focus on one of the verses in this letter, but read the whole book because it is short and gives context. The book of Philemon reads: “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. 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. Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what 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 my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. 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. 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 that 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 shall be granted to you. 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.”
Let us note in particular that all three of these men are being put in a situation that require a high degree of humility and graciousness in dealing with awkwardness. The basic story itself can be easily understood. Onesimus was a runaway slave who had apparently stolen some money from his master and fled to Rome. While in Rome he was converted to Christianity through the preaching of Paul, repented of his sins, and was baptized. Helping out Paul while he had been in chains, he told his story to Paul and put Paul in a dilemma. While Paul wished to have Onesimus continue to serve him loyally, he did not wish to do so without the consent of Philemon. And so Paul graciously writes a letter to the slaveowner and host of the Colosse Church seeking to gently persuade him to manumit Onesimus and to prepare for Paul’s own release from prison and his return to Asia Minor. Each of the three men is being asked to do something that is difficult.
For Onesimus, it is easy to see what is being asked of him. He had been free, had escaped from the unjust state of slavery, and was being asked to return to a man he had stolen from and had run away from and who happened to be a fellow believer and convert to God’s ways through Paul’s preaching. Even before Philemon read the letter, the presence of Onesimus would be startling and surprising, as it would be to any of Onesimus’ fellow slaves who he might have confided his plans to escape to, or who might have suffered as a result of Onesimus’ theft and departure. We can easily understand how uncomfortable it might be to return to someone we had stolen from and wronged to offer our repentance and to seek reconciliation, especially given the sort of power that Philemon held when it came to punishing runaway slaves, who could be branded, put to death, or sold to brutal and back-breaking labor in various quarries.
Our present age is not likely to be particularly sympathetic to the awkwardness that Philemon himself had to deal with. After all, our contemporary culture views slaveowners as a class of wicked men and evildoers whose dignity and honor and feelings are of no concern whatsoever, who are beneath contempt, in a class with racists and sexists and pedophiles as the lowest scum of the earth who can place no demands upon us. Yet Paul is extremely gracious to Philemon, offering to repay for the losses that Philemon suffered, and refusing to command him to do that which we would consider to be the obviously right thing to do, namely setting his brother in Christ free from slavery. While Paul offers subtle pressure by reminding Philemon of the freedom from sin he received through conversion, and by reminding him that he was planning to come to Colosse, presumably to make sure that Philemon had done what Paul asked him, this is a very mild form of behavior compared to the sort of ringing command that Paul could have given that we have read Paul give to other people in books like Galatians and 1 Corinthians. Yet what Paul asks is awkward to Philemon as well. A slaveowner, even a Christian one, would be sorely tempted to use all the power given to him by the Roman law of slaves–laws which were later copied by slaveowning societies in the New World–to ensure that his slaves obeyed his will and had a sense of fear. A master who showed mercy to a runaway slave was running the risk that other slaves would view this graciousness as weakness and would no longer respect his authority. Likewise, being merciful to a runaway slave and repentant thief might be seen by other slaveowners as undermining the legitimacy of their ownership of potentially rebellious human property, as was the case in the antebellum South and other slaveowning cultures. We might not sympathize with these concerns, but Paul did.
It is also deeply relevant to us that Paul is putting himself in an awkward and complex position. He is asking both Onesimus and Philemon to put aside their own pride and to humbly come before each other as brothers in Christ. Both of these men have reason to consider themselves to be wronged and to be in danger of great loss and harm. Onesimus might be concerned about shame, beating, disfiguring, and other mistreatment that was regularly meted out to slaves who rebelled against their place at the bottom of Roman society. Likewise, Philemon would be deeply concerned about the threat to his own authority and reputation and even safety if his slaves ceased to view him with respect. And Paul himself is seeking for both of these people to do what he wishes without coercing either of them, but rather seeking to encourage their moral growth by urging them both to reconcile with each other. Our best evidence that this is in fact what happened is that this letter exists for us to read today. The book of Philemon is a personal letter and there is no reason why it would be preserved for us to read it and reflect on it unless its advice had been heeded by its messenger first and then by its recipient.
Even if none of us today are slaveowners, there is still a great deal of relevance that this letter holds for us today as believers. As was the case for Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon, grace and peace within the body of Christ has always required the sacrifice of our own pride and required us to deal lovingly and honorably towards people against whom we have grievances. Although all of us, regardless of age, or sex, or social class or educational background or ethnicity, have had times where other people, and other believers, have not treated us with the love and respect which we are due. And similarly, all of us have been in the position of having wronged others through something we have thought, said, or done. Our heavenly father desires to transform us insight and out through the workings of His Spirit, and this requires us to do what is right willingly and not by coercion. Just as Paul sought to urge Onesimus and Philemon to reconcile as brothers without bossing them and commanding them to do what they ought to do, so too God wishes us all to be at one with each other by our own free will and not by coercion. There is no shortage of opportunities that we all have to be gracious and loving to others who have wronged us. Let us make use of them while there is time to do so.