The Best Way To Change A Culture (Insights from Philemon)

Paul, a prisoner of Jesus the Anointed One, with our brother Timothy, to you, beloved Philemon, our fellow worker… I make this request on behalf of my child, Onesimus, whom I brought to faith during my time in prison. Before, he was useless to you; but now he is useful to both you and me. Listen, I am sending my heart back to you as I send him to stand before you, although truly I wished to keep him at my side to take your place as my helper while I am bound for the good news. But I didn’t want to make this decision without asking for your permission. This way, any goodwill on your part wouldn’t be seen as forced, but as your true and free desire.

  Maybe this is the reason why he was supposed to be away from you for this time: so that now you will have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave—as a dear brother. Yes, he is dear to me, but I suspect he will come to mean even more to you, both in the flesh as a servant and in the Lord as a brother. 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. And if he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Look, I’ll put it here in my own handwriting: I, Paul, promise to repay you everything. (Should I remind you that you owe me your life?)    Indeed, brother, I want you to do me this favor out of obedience to our Lord. It will refresh my heart in Him. This letter comes, written with the confidence that you will not only do what I ask, but will also go beyond all I have asked. 

- From the book of Philemon, The Voice


Though Paul’s letter to Philemon is often used to accuse Paul of supporting (or at least being okay with) slavery, the criticism misses the deeper purpose of this letter. Paul presents a radical message that to Philemon would have undermined everything he had been taught about masters and slaves, and could only lead to a world without slavery. 

Slaves made up about 40%  of the Greek and Roman population. This seems like an astonishingly high number, but slavery in some fashion formed the backbone of their economy. I say “in some fashion” because slavery could mean a lot of different things at that time. There were absolutely brutal forms of slavery (particularly for captured soldiers and criminals), but there were other forms that bear little resemblance to what we think of today. The Apostle Paul used the word “doulous,” which can mean anything from a servant to a slave.  It’s a term that was used freely in the New Testament to describe quite a few different positions in society or relationships:

  • Jesus took upon himself the nature of a doulos (Philippians 2:7)
  • We are all either the doulos of sin or of Christ (Romans 6:17-18)
  • Paul said he was a doulos to everyone (1 Corinthians 9:19)
  • Onesimus was a doulos (Philemon)

I appreciate the succinct way in which the translators of the ESV summarized the problem of translating both the Hebrew and Greek words that the biblical writers used to talk about slavery:

"A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that require a range of renderings—either “slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in nineteenth-century America. 

For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context. Thus in Old Testament times, one might enter slavery either voluntarily (e.g., to escape poverty or to pay off a debt) or involuntarily (e.g., by birth, by being captured in battle, or by judicial sentence). Protection for all in servitude in ancient Israel was provided by the Mosaic Law. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone bound to serve his master for a specific (usually lengthy) period of time, but also as someone who might nevertheless own property, achieve social advancement, and even be released or purchase his freedom. The ESV usage thus seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.    "The ESV Translation Committee Debates the Translation of “Slave” 

There were no bankruptcy laws, so indentured servitude was how the lower class or bankrupt found work and worked off debt. This type of doulos was very different from the image we have of slavery. Many were highly educated, and were doctors, professors, teachers, administrators, public servants and even policemen. Since Onesimus was apparently an indentured servant (specifically one who worked in the household and not the fields), I want to focus on that aspect. 

Household doulos were much better off than even the free-born poor. The poor were often day laborers competing for jobs that went to the doulos. Slaves like Onesimus were paid for their work, which provided them the means to eventually buy their freedom. Some owned other doulos themselves (think of the parable of unforgiving servant, who owed his master – but was in turn owed by another worse off than he was). 

In Judaism, the ebed (a word used to cover slaves, servants, ambassadors, subjects, or simply those who were indebted to another) were released after 7 years, and they were given a portion of herds, crops, and lands. In Greek and Roman culture, doulos such as Onesimus had typically earned their freedom by the age of 30 after an average of 10 years of work. In the city of Rome, a freed doulos enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership but also active political freedom, including the right to vote. The even had a title: “the free ones.” 

This system was the way for someone like Onesimus to move up in society and become a successful free man. Even nobleman were known to sell themselves into the service of greater noblemen so they could move up in the Greco-Roman world.  Onesimus himself probably did not ask Paul to abolish the institution of slavery, since what most likely had awaited him on the other side of his service to Philemon was a comfortable life and reputation. For a doulos who was a bondservant or household servant, their story often ended well.  

There were, however, three bad ways the story could end poorly.

If a freed doulos had not earned the patronage and favor of his owner, buying one’s freedom was not necessarily helpful. A doulos had to be, above all things, useful (which is what “Onesimus” means). The doulos were commodities, investments. It’s not as if the owners were educating them and giving them responsibility out of the goodness of their heart. The useful doulos earned the master’s “stamp of approval.” The lazy ones did not.For those that did not, their eventual freedom would not necessarily be a good thing. They would become one of the working poor who scrabbled to survive and lost the day jobs to the doulos with patronage. They might choose to stay with the household even though they were free, but if they had not shown themselves to be useful, they now served in a reduced status with only a taste of freedom and a portion of the master’s provision. 

A runaway doulos was a nobody, a nothing, outside of his usefulness to his master and the state. As much as a doulos could gain honor, privilege and status when he was useful, he lost it all immediately and usually irretrievably when he ran away. Runaway doulos were now useless because they were untrustworthy, and they forfeited all their ties and privileges. They were a lost cause. Their owners could pretty much do with them what they wanted. Typically, a captured runaway was either: 

  • sent to hard labor, which was a death sentence.
  • branded (the Latin word for fugitive began with an “F,” which was burned on their forehead)
  • crucified 
  • whipped to death

Escape was basically a death sentence, if not literally than economically and socially.

When doulos revolted, the Romans brutally crushed the individuals involved and slaughtered the groups with which they associated. Spartacus (70 BC) had more than 70,000 in his rebellion; Rome eventually smashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 slaves. 


Philemon was apparently a wealthy man, so Onesimus was probably in the category of “household servant.” Assuming that the biblical portrayal of Philemon is accurate, Onesimus was probably not running away from abuse and poverty; he was most likely publicly humiliating a man who invested time, money and trust in him, and whose patronage was giving him access to a better life than many around him had. And now, he was in trouble. Captured and awaiting impending judgment, Onesimus sought out a new person to serve. His choice of Paul – himself a prisoner - shows the level of desperation.   

Paul must be wise. 

Paul could write a blistering missive that condemns the whole system. He could command Philemon to free Onesimus and take on Rome. But the early church was already under suspicion for challenging Rome’s social norms -  they took care of widows instead of the forcing them to follow the typical custom of going into temple prostitution to support themselves. Since Rome tended to view any shaking of the social order as suspicious, the early church was already under scrutiny. A Roman guard would read his letter and see what he was recommending to his followers. If it looked like Paul was encouraging revolution, Paul and the letter’s recipients would probably be killed, and nothing would change.

Even if he could start the overthrow of Rome’s social order, the people would just substitute one form of injustice for another. We see it in history (the French Revolution); we even see it in the popular stories today (think of The Hunger Games, or Captain America). If you change the laws on an issue but don’t change the hearts of the people effected by the issue, the same problem will just keep coming up.

Paul it goes for something much bigger than merely Onesimus's freedom: His goal is to change Philemon’s heart. Paul cared about the life of the doulos in Rome (more on this in the next post), but he knew that to truly change a cultural of slavery and serventhood he had to get to the root of the problem: sin, which resides in the human heart, which can only be resolved through Christ. As important as an outward transformation is, the message of the Gospel neither starts nor ends with external control:

Mark 7:20-22: “Jesus went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' " 

Luke 6:45: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

Paul is challenging the hearts of society’s gatekeepers, the ones who stand to benefit from this inequality. He knows that changed hearts change cultures. Paul is challenging those who demand that those around them be useful, or they are worth nothing. Paul is challenging the way in which we can see people as things that exist to serve us and make us happy, not image bearers of God for whom Christ gave his life. 

A transformation inside - if it’s genuine – will inevitably result in a change outside. In this case, the best way to change a culture of inequality, dehumanization, and injustice is to change the hearts of those who perpetuate it. Paul wants to turn all the subservient and abused doulos into human beings of intrinsic value and worth. According to historical records, the early church responded to this teaching in a way that sent a clear message about the value of all people in all situations in life.

  “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….”  From“The Epistle to Diognetes”, (130 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…”   From “The Apology of Tertullian” (197 A.D.)

Historian Rodney Stark summarizes this way 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."

So what's the best way to change a culture?

Through a loving, faithful presence that  challenges injustice and exhorts people to let their hearts to be transformed with the truth and justice of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 



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,” (