A Place To Call Home (Insights From Philemon)

God has placed within us all a longing to belong. Sometimes we feel it in our families; sometimes we don’t. The same goes for school, work, social circles, and church. We long for that place that will always take care of us and never leave us.  A place where we don’t have to wear make-up, and we can wear sweats until supper time. In this sense, home is something bigger than “house” or “family” or “what I know.” Home is a place we want to go, and when we leave, we want to return.  

When Paul writes to Philemon about how Philemon was to welcome Onesimus back, he’s talking about building a home, a koinonos, a community of  people with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive, solo or selfish.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community. And in order for that life to be a meaningful reflection of God's heart for the world,several key things must be in place.

Equality (in Christ)

 Paul wrote to Philemon, “Open your heart to [Onesimus] as you would welcome me…accept him as a brother…” There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We all bear his image. Christ died for all of us. We all are made righteous because of what Christ has done, not what we can offer. None of us can earn our way into heaven or grace. True church community doesn’t elevate men or women, rich or poor, extroverts or introverts, blue-collar or white-collar, single or married, pastor or parishioner.  True church community doesn’t put people on a pedestal based on background or education.

 This can be hard. We might want to be noticed. We might want to believe we simply are better than others. We might want to be able to rule… but that’s not communion. That’s not self-sacrificial, broken living for the sake of those around us. We give up our right to pride, to be noticed, to be seen. We give up pointing out our background or degree or importance. We give up our expectations that others serve us. We give our claims to power. 

In a church community of genuine communion, we will do our best to make sure the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.  When we look up, all we should see above us is Christ.  When we look down, all we should see below us is dirt. All around – those whom Christ loves. That, I think, would feel like home.

Trust (in Christ)

Paul noted that God may have been at work in this situation in ways that Philemon did not understand: “Perhaps that is why [Onesimus] is parted from you.”  The verb in Greek indicates that God parted Onesimus from Philemon. In other words, God is often at work in ways we don’t understand. We should be actively looking to see what good God is bringing out of situations that look bad – which also means actively looking to see what God is doing in even those who have hurt and offended us.

This is not easy. It’s one thing to look for how Christ is working in the beautiful people who make you happy, but the ugly ones who tick you off? Really? The person who gossiped about me? Overlooked me? Said some things that really hurt me? Shamed me? Who betrayed me? We must give up our right to anger, judgment, bearing a grudge, giving excuses, getting even, hoping for something bad to happen. 

Trust reminds us that God might be working in their life too. This good news for all of us. For every time I trust God in the midst of a situation like that, someone else is trusting God about me in the midst of a situation that I cause. We are all in this together. This doesn’t mean that God causes every situation.  And trusting that God is present and working is different from not speaking truth or enabling ongoing bad behavior around us. But I think we would be surprised at the things that are redeemable.

In a church community of genuine communion, everyone will be looking to see God at work in the lives of others in the midst of their sins and imperfections. That, I think, would feel like home.

Love (from Christ)

 The Greeks always had a pragmatic reason for doing loving things:

  • hospitality made trade and travel safer
  • self-sacrifice in war helped create military machines
  • the love of children or parents kept households together
  • male friendships were the basis of politics and business.

 Paul had a different approach. He says, “I choose to appeal to you on account of love” and then shows Philemon what the love Paul was talking about looks like. “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.”

 “Charge it to me,” is a commercial term of paying the debt of another. When Paul “wrote with his own hand” (v.19), it was a legal promissory note that Philemon could use in a civil suit and sue Paul for the money (or Paul’s estate, if Paul died).  Who would show love for the sake of showing love? Who would embrace someone else as part of their family if there was no practical payoff? Where did Paul get the idea that a third party could pay the debt of another? From Christ, or course, who died for us all while we were sinners, dead in our trespasses and sins.

One sign that we understand the gospel is that we don’t simply know about it – we live it. We try to find ways to embody Christ’s commitment, love and sacrifice for those around us.  We are committed to a life that imitates Christ’s death by being broken and spilled out so that others may live. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he had quite a bit to say about love. Among other things he wrote, “Love patient, love is kind; love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It does insist on its own way, and it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

But there’s an interesting twist when it comes to translations. In 1 Corinthians 13, there are no adjectives in the Greek. We translate them that way (“Love is patient”), but in the Greek it’s a mass of verbs, things love does and does not do. At one point Paul even takes what would normally be two Greek adjectives and makes a new verb. It should read something like this: “Love patients; love kinds; love does not envy, boast, act arrogantly or rudely. It does not insist on its own way; it does not act irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

 That’s the kind of love where people are breaking off a piece of their heart constantly for others. It’s not a place where you show up and take and absorb and simply accept the sacrifice of others. It’s a place where you accept and give.  You receive to pass it on. It’s a church community where we seek to bear burdens that are not ours, to pick up the pieces when we didn’t break it.  It’s a church community where we say, “Charge it to me. I will spend time in nursery with kids that aren’t mine, and bring food to a potluck when I know others don’t, and mentor someone who should have known better.”

It’s a church community where we choose to bear the weight of grace not because there is something in it for us, but because Christ bore the ultimate weight of our sins and gave us the greatest grace of forgiveness and salvation – and we have opportunity to do what we can in remembrance of Him. 

That, I think, would feel like home.

Confronting Blind Spots (Insights From Philemon)

The Johari Window is a model by which to gauge how well we know ourselves, and how well others know us. Basically, it breaks down our exterior and interior life into 4 quadrants: Open (the Arena); Hidden (the Façade); Unknown (Here There Be Dragons); an the Blind Spot (Bull in the China Shop).

The Open Quadrant contains areas where who we are is seen and known clearly by ourselves and by others.  This is the ”Are you not entertained?” portion of life. We know who we are and others know who we are, because we show it. There are no secrets here. In the arena, there is nowhere to hide, and we are seen in all our glory or frailty. If our lives are such that we weren’t ashamed if we are an open book, that’s generally a good thing.

However, there is a danger:  We can put too much into the arena. Kids have no filter and it’s cute, but when if an adult would ask you to come into the bathroom and see what their poop looked like, you would think something had gone wrong somewhere. Maturity requires learning how to live the kind of life that can be lived openly and without shame while exercising judgment when it comes to sharing openly and without offense.

The Hidden Quadrant contains areas of who we are that we know and others do not.  Sometimes, that's appropriate. I don't share everything about my marriage with other people. There are some things about my walk with God that are intensely personal . That’s not necessarily bad - some stuff should be private - but if we aren't careful we can become reclusive or hypocritical. We need to find a trustworthy person or an accountability group so that we do not become hypocrites (with a false façade) or a coward (afraid to show someone who we are).

The Unknown Quadrant contains areas of who we are  that are not seen by us or others. Nobody knows how our interior or exterior life will look because we’ve never done something that would trigger a particle kind of response.  There are some unknowns that are just out of our control. Sometimes we, just have to cross some bridges when we get there: Will I be a good parent?  What will my wife and I do when the kids move out? What’s going to happen after high school/college? How will I handle deep grief? What will I do if my faith is shaken?

However, there are some unknowns in life that we can get to know: Could I teach Sunday School to kids? What’s it like to sing karaoke?. If I was honest with my spouse would he or she reject me? Would my home life be better if I didn’t work so much? What would happen if tithed? Some of these unknowns are more important that others – I doubt my final words will be, “I wish I had sung karaoke.” But others are important for getting me out of my comfort zone and building a resume of life experiences. Sometimes, we need to build bridges so we can get there.

The Blind Quadrant contains areas of who we are that are seen by other and not by us. In football, "the blind side" is a reference for how a quarterback can’t see what’s happening behind him when he’s poised to throw. When he gets hit, he gets leveled, because he did not expect to see that coming. There are areas of who we are that, when someone else points them out to us, we can feel blindsided:  

  • “Do you know what you sound like when you talk with your kids?”  
  • “Bill was really hurt by your sarcasm.”  
  • “You know that problem in your marriage that you always blame on your spouse? It’s you.”

Philemon has a blind spot - he doesn’t know that he has sin that needs addressing. Paul needs to speak truth, and that truth needs to be presented very, very carefully. In Paul's letter to Philemon, we  see at least three characteristics of how truth-tellers can speak effectively to those with blind spots.

1) Truth-tellers Affirm (v.4-7)

"I am constantly thanking God for you in my prayers because I keep hearing about your love and faith toward our Lord Jesus and all those set apart for His purposes….Thank You, Father, for Philemon. I pray that as he goes and tells his story of faith, he would tell everyone so that they will know for certain all the good that comes to those who put their trust in the Anointed One….You are out there encouraging and refreshing the hearts of fellow saints with such love, this brings great joy and comfort to me."

Philemon was apparently a wealthy and kind man. He hosted a church in his home. He had earned a reputation for love. Philemon “refreshed the hearts of the saints,” a military metaphor for the rest an army takes while marching toward a war. That’s a solid resume. It’s worth affirming. Don’t forget what God has already done in people. Let them know what you admire before you tell them what you don’t. Paul used this with non-Christians (the philosophers in Athens) and with Christians (like Philemon). He never compromised his message, but that didn’t mean he was an ungracious messenger.

2) Truth Tellers Invite Change (v.8-21)

Paul has to address a sinful attitude in Philemon, but he doesn't want to simply coerce Philemon into outward obedience.  He want Philemon's change of life and heart to be freely chosen. Why? Because that was the approach of Jesus:

  • Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler, “Sell your stuff! Do it! Now!” (Matthew 19)
  • Jesus didn’t say, “I will come to you and make you rest!” (Matthew 11)
  •  Jesus didn’t say, “Peter, love me!” (John 21)
  • Jesus didn’t say, “Behold, I batter down the door!” (Revelation 3:20)

Paul didn't say, “Just do it because I say so and God says so!” He wanted Philemon to choose to see, to choose to come into the open. So he wrote this:

"Although I am bold enough in the Anointed, our Liberating King, to insist you do the right thing, instead I choose to appeal to you on account of love… 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…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.”

Truth-tellers invite change. Their goal is not just to control actions – their goal is to see Christ transform the heart and soul. 

3) Truth Tellers Stay Engaged (v.22)

“One more thing: you should get a room ready for me as I hope to be released to you soon in answer to your prayers.” 

Godly truth-tellers find away to communicate clearly, “I am not your enemy.” In this case, Paul says, “Oh, and I am looking forward to hanging out with you soon.”  Philemon was the same friend Paul had before. It's not as if he suddenly became an ogre.  When Paul said he was looking forward to spending time with and being refreshed by Philemon, I suspect it sent a clear message of ongoing friendship. Sometimes the message and the messenger are deeply intertwined. We need to communicate we care through not just our words, but our time and our presence also.


So how do we apply this? Here are some questions to ask so you can speak Truth when you are in a situation in which confrontation needs to occur (particularly when you are about to blindside someone):

  •  What is the blind spot in my friend? (Is this just my opinion, or have I and others noticed a pattern?)
  • Is it my business to point it out? (Have I earned the right or do I have the authority to speak into this person's life?)
  •  What can I say to affirm and invite even as I challenge? (How can be a gracious messenger?)
  •  How will I show I am not their enemy? (Not just with my words, but my presence, my posture, my attitude, etc)
  • How can I stay engaged? (What is my follow-up plan to show that I love and care about them even as I offer a challenge?)

Runners and Rulers (Insights From Philemon)

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.


Don't Run

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.

Don't Rule

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.  



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,"


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,” (