Paul, Philemon, and the Problem of Slavery (Part 2)

Anthony Weber —  May 9, 2014 — 2 Comments

I ended the first post on this topic by noting that Paul wanted something better than freedom for Onesimus: he wanted Philemon to view Onesimus as a human being, a brother in Christ, a man of intrinsic value and worth. And if Paul could accomplish that, all forms of injustice and inequality would fade away. The best way to change a cultural mindset that accepts inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it in all its forms.

A cursory reading of the book of Philemon can leave the impression that the focus is all on Onesimus, who needed to return to Philemon, repent for having stolen, and resubmit himself to his responsibilities as a doulos. While Paul certainly does that, a closer reading reveals Paul was not about to let Philemon off the tool. Philemon had a good reputation as a kind and generous man, but Paul is not content with settling for a certain kind of conformity on the outside. He wants to get to Philemon’s heart. And if he get’s to Philemon’s heart, all the things about freedom and inequality that Paul didn’t say will fall into place.

Philemon seems to have accepted a deeply entrenched Greco-Roman view of all doulos in which they were perceived as an inferior, almost sub-human element of society. Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which Philemon was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening in the church – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He may have been generous and upstanding within his culture, but he was still fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:

  • The Greeks so valued their freedom that they scorned anyone who did not have any. One writer has noted,  “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.”  In this case, even if Onesimus, the doulos, was treated well, it didn’t mean he was viewed well.
  •  Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ akin to animals. They were by nature created to serve. The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona,”  or no personality. They were seen empty shells, blank slates with no identity or status apart from what their master granted them. In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the doulos was considered representative of the master’s character.
  •  When we read the dramas and poetry that has survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed people like Onesimus as skilled and productive, but assumed they were con artists who acted nice but planned devious things.

Philemon was raised as one of the free Greek citizens whose worth and dignity was defined by freedom (except his doulos to the civil law – that was the only way that word was used for free Greek citizens). He likely accepted his culture’s perspective, probably without thought. That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. Though he had given his life to follow Christ and entered into a church community in which everyone had equal worth and dignity in the eyes of God, how easy it must have been for him to default to his former perspective:

  • “Onesimus has no rights; he’s not my equal.”
  • “Onesimus is by nature meant to serve me.”
  • “Onesimus betrayed me – he is a con artist.”

Paul wrote to Philemon, “So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me.” When Paul talks about partnership in a mission, he uses the word koinonos – having common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17).  It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive or solo.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community.  It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply to refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem. We can even adhere to a good moral code on the outside while harboring a sinful mindset that will eventually manifest. Paul understands human nature; that’s why he is trying to get to the heart of the problem.

Philemon has to “receive [Onesimus]” (v.17) – literally, to welcome him as a member of the household. Onesimus is Philemon’s “brother,” a term the Greeks NEVER applied to anyone other than a blood brother – until now.  Paul said Philemon was a doulos to God – an idea which the Greeks NEVER applied to someone’s relationship to the gods – until now. 

Paul was saying (and I paraphrase), “Philemon – your view of people is deeply wrong. You think others aren’t as good or deserving or useful as you are. You and Onesimus are brothers, so you should protect, defend and honor him. You are both doulos to God, so your character needs to match your master – forgive and receive Onesimus as Christ has forgiven and accepted you. Your true and free desire should lead you to love and grace.”

If Philemon takes Paul seriously, there is no way Onesimus – or Philemon’s other servants – will be treated as “living tools” lacking intrinsic value or worth. In fact, if the early Christians reading this letter took Paul seriously, any system of slavery, exploitive servitude or arrogant elitism would only whither and die. A community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God’s spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth.

Paul’s approach seems to have worked. His letter to Philemon was widely circulated, and the fact that it was included in the canon of Scripture indicates that his audience believed it to be a reflection of the heart of Jesus Christ. As a result, the early Christian church developed into a community that provided a counter-cultural place of love and hope not only within their own church, but to marginalized and oppressed in Greco-Roman culture as well.

From “The Epistle to Diognetes”, 130 A.D.: “They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh…They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all….They are poor yet make many rich… they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified… They are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers… To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

From “The Apology of Tertullian” 197 A.D.: “[They] pray… for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of [Christ’s return]… On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they [minister to them].But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another…”

Historian Rodney Stark offers an insightful summary in The Rise of Christianity:

“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.”

When we look at the last 2,000 years of church history, Christians have clearly not lived up to the standard embraced by the early church. This failure, however, does not change the foundation laid by the life and teaching of Christ and writers of the New Testament.



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

“New Testament: Philemon,” (

“Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline,” (

“The Epistle to Philemon,” (

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (

“Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli,

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

“Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians,” by Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (

“Women, Children, and Slaves,”


Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (,, and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.