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In 19th century, friends and foes of slavery used Philemon to argue slavery
Slaveholders saw Paul as being OK with the legal framework for owning people
It isn’t often that the interpretation of a book of the Bible becomes the subject of public debate, but that’s exactly what happened with the book of Philemon when the morality of slavery was the most hotly contested issue of 19th-century America.
The book of Philemon — at only 25 verses it’s by far the shortest of the Pauline epistles — was used by abolitionists and supporters of slavery, who both argued that it supported their cause. Philemon wasn’t the only part of the Bible that became part of the debate — Paul’s admonitions for slaves to obey their masters1 and the acceptance of slavery in the Old Testament were also used by plantation owners and other slavery supporters, while slavery’s foes frequently cited Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as well as Paul’s philosophy of inclusion.
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The backstory of the epistle of Philemon2 is that Paul had become like a spiritual father to Onesimus, a runaway slave3 owned by Philemon, the leader of an early Christian home church. Paul, who was in prison at the time he wrote the letter, decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon and his household. He urged Philemon to take Onesimus back as if Onesimus were Paul and offered to financially remunerate Philemon for anything that Onesimus owed him.
For the 19th-century advocates of slavery, the epistle was a clear indicator that Paul accepted and even facilitated slavery as an institution. Philemon was used not only to justify slave ownership but as a warning to slaves themselves, as this recollection of Charles Colcock Jones, a white Presbyterian sent as a missionary to preach to slaves shows:
I was preaching to a large congregation on the epistle of Philemon: and when I insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and, upon the authority of Paul, condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those that remained looked anything but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismission, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared “that there was no such an epistle in the Bible”; others, “that they did not care if they ever heard me preach again.”
In one way, the slaveholders quoting Philemon weren’t wrong: Paul wasn’t challenging the economic order of his day. It’s even possible that Paul couldn’t conceive of a world where there weren’t some people who owned other people and could have complete control over them.
Paul undermined slavery without denouncing it
What the slaveholders missed or didn’t want to talk about is what the abolitionists saw so readily: While Paul didn’t directly condemn slavery, his approach was more subversive; his words to Philemon and his household undermined the institution of slavery and sided with the slave above the traditional expectations of the slaveholder.
After the letter’s greeting, Paul immediately indicates that the subject of the letter, Onesismus’s status, isn’t a matter of personal preference but of right and wrong: Although Paul has the authority of Christ to command what he is about to say, Paul tells Philemon, he is going to instead make an appeal out of love. In other words — and Paul is simultaneously blunt and loving about it — Paul tells Philemon to do the right thing because Philemon wants to, not because he has to. At first glance, it may appear that Paul is laying a guilt trip on Philemon, but Paul’s expressions of love outshine any suggestion of insincerity as he indicates that he wants Philemon to act out of his own free will.
Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus:
... no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me a partner, receive him as you would receive me.4
In multiple ways, then, Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus as an equal — or even as more than an equal, as Paul expects Onesimus “will do even beyond what I say.”
That’s an expectation that is inconsistent with ownership of a person.
If Philemon embraced Paul’s advice, Onesimus became a slave in name only even if he retained that legal status. Philemon may also have freed Onesimus of any legal obligations.
Of course, a letter to someone is a snapshot in time, so we don’t know with certainty how Onesimus was received. But there are indications that Philemon not only accepted Onesimus as an equal but also encouraged him as a leader in the faith.
One of Paul’s envoys mentioned in his letter to the Colossians, written later than the letter to Philemon, was named Onesimus, and Paul referred to him as a “faithful and beloved brother.” We don’t know for sure if the Onesimus of Colossians and the one of Philemon are the same person, however.
In Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Onesimus of Philemon became a bishop, and he is also recognized as a saint by some denominations. Depending on the tradition, he died around either in the late 60s or the early 90s CE, possibly as a martyr who was beheaded.
Centuries later, Christian supporters of slavery used Paul’s lack of a direct statement denouncing slavery as evidence it was acceptable to God. But those who did missed Paul’s point about Onesimus’s value as a person, and Paul very well may have had Onesimus in mind when he wrote years later to the Galatians that there is “neither slave nor free ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”5
This commentary on Philemon is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
See, for example, Ephesians 6:5.
Unlike with some of the other Pauline epistles, there is nearly unanimous agreement among scholars that Philemon was written by Paul himself. It is the most personal of his letters and was written to single household rather than to a church or community.
The Greek word Paul used to refer to Onesimus is doulos, which is rendered in the Kings James Version and some other translations as “servant.” But in this context of the first-century Roman empire, the type of servant Onesimus was was more akin to being a slave. The “servant” was viewed legally as property, and Onesimus possibly faced the prospect of being put to death if he were to return to his master after running away. Although it is unknown with certainty why Onesimus ran away, the account suggests that Onesimus may have stolen from his owner or otherwise defrauded him.