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 - one with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). There is a mutual partnership aspect. 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.
Disunity is not an option for followers of Christ. Unfortunately, Philemon and Onesimus were undermining this project. Through them, we learn two important things: If you are a follower of Christ committed to doing life together, you shouldn’t run, and you shouldn’t rule.
Onesimus is a runner. He apparently stole from Philemon, took off, was captured, and ended up in prison. The Bible doesn’t say if he knew Paul before or if he just happened to meet him in jail, but there they are. While in captivity, Onesimus commits his life to following Christ. Paul says he’s now a “dear brother in the Lord” who lives up to his name (“useful”) and ministers to Paul.
If I were Onesimus, I would be thinking, “Awesome! I’ve got Paul on my side. Paul will set Philemon straight on the whole ‘servant’ thing, pacify him, and tell him to give me what I deserve now!” But Paul’s apparently thinking, “Awesome! Onesimus is a follower of Christ now. He’s in the family. Now he can fix the relationship he broke!”
It seems much easier to run away after we offend someone, especially if the consequences are daunting. It's hard to fault Onesimus on this point, especially considering the way in which runaway doulos were handled at that time. Philemon was apparently well respected for his kindness and generosity, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Onesimus could have just returned without there being significant consequences (see my previous post for the life of a doulos).
But Paul knew what he was doing. If Onesimus was truly a follower of Christ, then he had committed to a particular way of doing life. We'll look at how Paul handles Philemon as well, but for now let's focus on Paul's challenge to Onesimus: Followers of Christ cannot run from conflict. Onesimus ran physically; we can run just as far in other ways as well.
1. We run from the reality of our actions
I was sitting at a coffee shop a couple months ago when I overheard a someone tell a friend about some interaction between her and her boyfriend. From what I could tell from her own very confident presentation of herself, they were both jerks in that situation. But her conclusion was: “I’m a lot of woman. If he can’t handle me, that’s his problem.” That’s running away from your actions. Any time we say,“They started it. I had a bad day. I wasn’t feeling well. It’s just my personality!” we are running away from the reality of the impact our actions have on others.
2. We run from our emotions
First, we can do this by minimizing an issue. “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. They’re tough – they can handle it.” Sometimes, other people do need to learn how to let things go. But other times, this reaction shows how we are able to minimize significant issues – usually when we were the one at fault. If our life was a movie, we would star in “Honey, I Shrunk The Problem!”
I’ve noticed a tendency to do this in the mornings when I’m tired. I become critical and snappy, and it’s so easy to drive my boys to school in awkward silence thinking, “My boys are upset because they can’t handle it when I’m just trying to help them become men.” Actually, I am passive-aggressively whining about every little thing that’s out of place and didn’t annoy me last night when I wasn’t tired but became the most important thing of the morning.” If I want a good life together with my boys, I can’t deflect and minimize. I have to be an honest person.
Second, I can pretend something didn’t matter to me when it really did. The other night, my wife and and I were talking about a situation in the community in which I felt I needed to be involved. She said, “Why do you feel obligated to be involved in that? You don’t have time!” And I said, “How can you lack so much empathy?” It was not one of my better moments.
At that point, we both wanted the conversation to end. I was watching an NBA playoff game and Sheila had a book. We both thought about running away into those diversions. Five years ago, we might have sprinted into the safety of our own little worlds. But we are trying not to be runners, and we stayed there, which forced some introspection.
I realized I had lashed out with an unfair criticism because I wanted to avoid what I was really feeling. I had run from myself, then tried to deflect my failure onto her. So I had to acknowledge to Sheila: “You know what? That wasn’t fair. I wasn’t honest. I don’t have time to get involved in this thing. You’re right. I said what I did so I didn’t have to acknowledge something else I am struggling with.” And then it was time for the hard work of honesty.
We can’t run away from reality emotionally by minimizing our impact on others or hiding from ourselves. It will kill relationships.
3. We run from the situation
We think, “If I just go here – in another room, in another house, with another friend, to another job or church – this problem will go away. “ Don’t misunderstand: there are some problems that require distance, in particular situations of abuse or volatile emotional conflict. Space can be a blessing in certain situations if it is uses wisely and purposefully.
But in general, running away from conflict won’t resolve the situation or the heart of the problem. Running might feel good – ah, peace! – but whatever instigated the conflict will probably just pop up in another situation, because all the core reasons the conflict happened in the first place have not been dealt with.
- Why do my friendships keep eroding?
- Why is every boss such a jerk?
- Why am I getting consistent critical feedback in this area?
- Why did I feel comfortable saying something so mean?
- Why did I think it was okay to act so selfishly?
- What is causing me to believe that I am owed something by others?
There’s a common denominator in all the situations we are in: us. If we keep running when we should be staying, we will never see ourselves clearly, we won’t change, situations won’t change, and we will never stop running. Staying means revisiting the situation, revisiting the people, swallowing hard and being just as honest in self-confrontation as we are in confronting others.
That’s hard – but so is not changing. “Staying” has the potential to bring life. Paul said, “I am sending Onesimus to stand before you” with this goal: “You will have him back forever.” We can’t run. We must stand. It’s the only way to genuinely build relationships and a community that will stand the test of time.
If Onesimus’s problem was that he Ran, Philemon’s problem was that he Ruled.
Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which he was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He is fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. This may be a trickier issue for Paul to handle, because Philemon probably didn’t even see it in himself. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:
- “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.” (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). They scorned anyone who did not have freedom – in this case, the doulos, servants or slaves.
- Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ slaves by nature, almost like animals. “The doulos belonged by nature not to himself, but to someone else” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona," no personality. He has no identity or status apart from what his master and his usefulness granted him. 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 artist acting nice but planning devious things.
Philemon was used to being 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 had been raised to simply accept his culture’s perspective, probably without thought. That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. He had given his life to follow Christ, but 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.”
We we see in Paul’s letter a call to face our sinful attitudes and the way they impact others. It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem. An obvious connection is the sinfulness of thinking we are better than others because of their race or gender. Other forms of elitism are more subtle. But when we refuse to deal with the pride within us, we take on the mindset of rulers. It’s not pretty. I suspect we all struggle in some area of our life with “ruling”, believing that we are intrinsically just better than other people in certain areas. Christian rulers have certain attitudes in common:
- They think people who don’t have as much money or things must be lazy or dumb or bad Christians.
- They think people who struggle with a sin they don’t are more deserving of judgment by both God and other people.
- They believe usefulness is a marker of worth.
- They assume people who don’t experience God the same way they do are automatically not as spiritual as they are.
- They elevate or disdain certain people based on class, skill set, personality, or interests. It’s no surprise that the most important people are just like them.
Paul didn't’ let Onesimus run, but he’s not going to send a Runner back to a Ruler. Paul says of Onesimus, “receive him” (v.17) – literally, “take him into your home with kindness.” 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.”
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. If all followers of Christ are truly brothers and sisters, a community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God's spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth (see the quotes about the early church at the end of my previous post to see how this played out in the 1st and 2nd century).
Don’t run. Don’t rule.
Live bound together as brothers and sisters, servants of Christ. Commit to being part of a spiritual family that loves deeply and sacrificially. It won't be easy – but life together never is. It’s risky, vulnerable, and humbling. But it’s the only way to truly build a church, and it’s the only way to experience genuine life together in Christ.
SOURCES and RESOURCES
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," (enterthebible.org)
"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (bible.org)
"The Epistle to Philemon," (www.ccel.org)
“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (pastoralized.com)
“Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli, andynaselli.com.
“What Were Early Christians Like?” at Christianity.com
Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden
"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (healingtothenations.net)
“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/slavery_01.shtml).
"Women, Children, and Slaves," http://www.ancientgreece.co.uk/staff/resources/background/bg18/home.html.