Racism Theology

Are Philemon and the White church “older brothers”? (Final reflections on Paul’s letter to Philemon)

During this series I have re-read Paul’s letter to Philemon in light of its often-overlooked protagonist Onesimus. In short, Onesimus’s life matters. But, as the social media interaction I have engaged with during the last couple of months shows, the details matter. Far from being an apology for slavery or even a tacitly pro-slavery letter based on the argument that first century slavery was somehow more ethically acceptable than 16th to 19th century North American slavery, Paul’s letter to Philemon serves to subvert all notions of slavery by exalting the Kingdom and by empowering Onesimus.

    • Onesimus’ life matters – First Paul identifies with prisoners of all kinds (which must include Onesimus) and – despite his position as apostle – relates to Philemon as a brother rather than an “overseer”.
    • From here Paul, in alignment with James’ teaching (James 2:17), highlights the need for faith that results in outworking. Rather, Paul is unapologetic that supernatural, “fully-empowered” faith in Christ Jesus is necessary for Philemon to grow as a believer. And it is clear from the outset that the practice Paul is referring to is Philemon’s (and the whole local church’s) treatment of Onesimus.
    • Paul’s extremely high view of Onesimus is crucial. Onesimus is not regarded as inferior or begrudgingly forgiven, but rather “my very heart” – a view that resonates warmly with all of us who once were slaves in some way, but now are redeemed. At the same time, Paul challenges Philemon’s apparent view that Onesimus was either “useless” or at least unproductive. For Paul, Onesimus is not “useless” but rather a heartfelt co-labourer in the Gospel.
    • The sum of Paul’s high view of Onesimus and his observation that Philemon requires more fully empowered faith sets this stage for a Paul- (and by virtue of his apostolic authority) God-empowered, healthy confrontation between Onesimus and Philemon.
    • Paul “sends” Onesimus back to Philemon, not to grovel for the favour of an overseer, but rather to rejoin the family as “beloved brother“. Indeed Paul goes as far as suggesting that Philemon should receive Onesimus “as you would receive me”. This elevates Onesimus to a level hitherto unheard of. Indeed, to quote Craig Keener’s commentary on the thematically related Ephesians 6:9, “Aristotle complained about a small minority of thinkers…who believed that slaves were in theory their masters’ spiritual equals. Yet so far as we know only Paul goes so far as to suggest that in practice masters treat their slaves in the same way.” My point is that Paul both here in Ephesians as well as throughout Philemon undermines the worldly standards by advancing the Kingdom. And as he advances the Kingdom, the disenfranchised are empowered.
    • A few other important points:
      • Onesimus is not sent back empty-handed, he is empowered by the context Paul has established in the letter to Philemon.
      • Furthermore, it is very likely that Onesimus physically carried the letter into the church in Philemon’s house and could even have read it aloud as was often customary for the letter-carrier to do.
      • There is no explicit, textual evidence that Onesimus committed a crime in the letter to Philemon.

While we cannot be sure of Onesimus’ ethnicity, all these conclusions have particular resonance in light of recent black lives matter protests and suggest ways in which the church – especially the too-often white-, North American-, Euro-centric church can grow. At the same time, re-reading Philemon alongside Luke 15 reminds me of the three brothers in the parable of the prodigal son that I introduced at the start of the series. The question white and/ore British Christians have to ask themselves is: who are three brothers? and which of the three brothers am I?

Just as Paul identified himself as a prisoner at the start of the letter, we have to relate to the dis-enfranchised. Spiritually, we believers are Onesimus (one who is redeemed), but is there evidence of this in our practice?

Likewise, we are Philemon – individuals and corporate church that has the power to release people into their destiny.

At the same time, we are called to be Christlike ministers of reconciliation as Jesus and then Paul in this letter model. The ministry or reconciliation comes with the heart of buying back people from captivity. The Father reconciles; the Son redeems; the Spirit empowers and sends.

We, like the Philemon and the church in his house must accept and empower the new-creation identity people bring with them or will we:

    • Judge them according to what they look like – it is not clear, but there could have been a racial dimension at work in this letter. The class divide, however, along with its Christian resolution, are indisputable.
    • What they used to do – Onesimus was a slave, but now he is a brother – two totally different ways of relating.
    • Rather, identity has to be in Christ the firstborn of many brethren that makes slaves into “beloved brothers”.

Connecting all of this with Luke 15, I believe it is wrong to call Onesimus a prodigal, but he was a returning brother. How had Philemon welcomed him back? As the older brother, the person so privileged he doesn’t know what he already has. Really we should be acting like Paul, who is brokering at his own cost the restoration of the injured party and thereby reflecting the real model “brother” Christ.

Browse the complete series here.


Art = ‘FREED’ by Jen Ford (@JenFordArt). Original caption: “Meet Onesimus, slave who protested his oppression by breaking the law and running away. Taking control of his own liberation he seized freedom for himself and in the process was freed in spirit by his encounter with Paul and his subsequent salvation.”

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