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Philemon's Relationship to Onesimus (1:12-16)

Paul claims that Onesimus's conversion has resulted not only in his personal transformation but in his usefulness to Philemon. This new situation could not have been immediately clear to Philemon; after all, Onesimus's apparent uselessness has caused him to seek Paul's help, and he is still a slave who is the likely object of Philemon's displeasure (see introduction). In this light, the next section of Paul's letter answers Philemon's unspoken but rather practical question: How is the believer Onesimus now useful to me? Why should Paul send him back to me?

Several recent commentators have argued that Paul is probably not motivated to send Onesimus back to Philemon for legal or financial reasons. Onesimus was probably not a fugitive slave; Philemon was probably not a Roman citizen; and in either case Roman law is unclear on what Paul's responsibilities were in this triangular relationship (see introduction). Clearly, Paul steadfastly resists thinking of Philemon as Onesimus's legal owner. The story behind Paul's appeal is a profoundly religious one and has social implications: Philemon is to regard Onesimus as his Christian "brother" (v. 16) and "partner" in the faith (v. 17), which makes their owner-slave relationship no longer possible. So Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon for their reconciliation; they are both his spiritual sons, and he is the religious patron and responsible for the nurture of both. In my view, under these new and revolutionary circumstances Philemon's only real option is Onesimus's manumission.

Against this religious background, Paul describes Onesimus's twofold usefulness to Philemon: first, he has been Philemon's effective substitute in serving Paul's needs in prison (vv. 12-13), and second, he will be an effective stimulus to Philemon's spiritual growth as his brother in Christ and his partner in the life of the congregation (vv. 14-17). Both benefits are finally understood and appreciated in terms of Paul's paternal and patronal relationship with his two spiritual "sons" and clients; both benefits intend to redefine Philemon's relationship with Onesimus so that Philemon will see Paul's request for their rapprochement (and no doubt for Onesimus's manumission) as in his best interests. In fact, once this particular slave-owner relationship is skillfully redefined by Paul, Onesimus's newly perceived usefulness to Philemon may be rewarded with manumission on more common grounds: a slave's effective service to his master.

The biblical story of Philemon and Onesimus tells its current hearers that our common status in Christ is more than simply a spiritual or eschatological reality. When Paul writes that there is neither a slave nor a master class in Christ, since all are equal (see commentary on Col 3:11), he is articulating a principle that is sociological as well as christological (compare Gal 3:28; Eph 2:11-22). While the social dimension of the gospel should not replace the call to a saving relationship with the Lord, we must understand that God's grace rearranges the various conventions and hierarchies that order society's status quo (that is, "the present evil age"; see Rom 12:2; Gal 1:4). Biblical believers, then, are not surprised that the great majority of the social-transformative movements, such as the nineteenth-century women's suffrage and abolitionist movements and the twentieth-century human rights and prolife movements, are deeply rooted in Christian teaching and indebted to the work of faithful Christians (see Dayton 1990). In my view, the importance of Philemon within the New Testament collection of Pauline letters is that it provides a concrete illustration of this important element of Pauline teaching. So we need to preach and teach Philemon, to remind each other that Christian discipleship includes both a personal and a public praxis.

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