No one likes conflict. When we are at odds with those we love, it can create a lot of stress. Sometimes, we’re not the one at odds, but we are stuck in the middle between two friends or family members who are at odds with each other. Negotiating that kind of relationship can often feel like a high wire act—one wrong step and you’ll go crashing down.
This is the context of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This epistle is unique within the New Testament for several reason. First, it is the shortest of Paul’s epistles. Second, it is not directed specifically to a group or church, but to one person—Philemon.
In this letter we get to see the true heart of the great Apostle. He is writing to his friend and disciple Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Onesimus ran away from his owner and stole from him in the process of doing so. Originally from Colossae, Onesimus likely made his way to Ephesus and traveled the well-known route to Rome. Within Rome, it would be easy for a slave to disappear into the population.
After arriving in Rome, Onesimus met Paul, heard the gospel, and was saved. Some would call this a chance encounter, but Paul is clear in his letter to Philemon that perhaps this was God’s plan for Onesimus to escape only to find true freedom through the gospel (Philemon 15-17).
As a Christian, Onesimus wants to make right the mistake he made in running away. With this desire to return to his master to make amends, Paul intercedes on his behalf, appealing to Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother, and not as a criminal. This may sound like an easy request, but it placed Philemon in a difficult spot. As a slave owner, he had to maintain order and authority over his slaves, or one runaway becomes many runaways. The Romans were harsh with runaway slaves, and it was within Philemon’s legal right to have Onesimus put to death for his crime. Yet, with this knowledge underlying his appeal, Paul graciously and humbly asks Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household and to make use of him as a fellow Christian servant, not a slave. That’s a big request.
How do you feel you would respond to a request like this? Not only may it grind against your own personal values, but it creates a leadership vulnerability that could impact your business and management practices. What if all of Philemon’s slaves suddenly heard the gospel and became Christians? Should he treat them all as brothers and fellow servants? If so, how would his household function? Keep in mind, the question is not whether slavery was right or wrong. Paul makes no appeal to Philemon arguing that slavery as an institution was wrong. This was an accepted part of Roman culture, and the New Testament takes a careful approach to how it addresses the issue of slavery. The decision is a personal one for Philemon. Have Onesimus executed or receive him as a brother? What would you do?
For the rest of the story, be sure to attend your Lighthouse this week and find out what happened to Philemon and Onesimus.
This Week’s R2R Distinctive
Humanity (John 3:16) We believe all people are born separated from God by sin, but God in his love sent his Son Jesus Christ as their savior.
For this week’s devotional study, download this week’s issue of The Compass.