Paul approaches Philemon in a very wise manner. Paul states that he, in Christ, could command Philemon to receive Onesimus, a runaway slave, but he would rather appeal to Philemon. If we read between the lines, there is much more than meets the eye.
First, in a genuine slave society, such as Rome, runaway slaves could be punished severely. In the least they could have been branded and beaten. In the worst case scenario torture and death could have been the result. We even have archaeological evidence of a slave collar with these abbreviations: T.M.Q.F. Tene me quia fugio, which is translated as: “Hold me, because I flee.” From this cultural perspective, Philemon had no reason to deal kindly with Onesimus.
Second, Paul makes it clear that in Christ there are new relationships. The brotherhood in Christ supersedes all other social relations. There is newness is Christ. To use the theory of the political theorist, James Scott, there is a hidden transcript here. Paul may not have spoken out against slavery outrightly, but those in the in-group, know that slavery of the Roman stripe is incompatible for the household of God. Being in Christ is revolutionary when it comes to our relationships with people. Onesimus is Philemon’s brother in Christ.
Third, Paul appeals to Philemon as an old man and a prisoner. The implication is that Paul, too, is a slave. He is a slave of Christ. He, therefore, puts himself in Onesimus’ position and by implication puts Philemon under a slave, namely himself. The point is that we are all slaves of Christ. There is one who did not live for himself, but for the joy set before him endured the cross to procure the forgiveness of sins. Hence, to appeal to Philemon in view of the work of Christ is powerful. This should give us insight. Appealing to people to do the “right thing” in view of the grace of Christ is to take a step in the right direction. In fact, if anything is going to be sustained, it will have to be through, in, and for Christ. Devotion to Christ precedes great actions for Christ.Tags: Philemon, relationships