I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother–especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared some of my thoughts concerning the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon entreating him to welcome back his former slave Onesimus, who had been with Paul for a time in prison. It’s interesting to note that Paul doesn’t ask Philemon to take him back as a slave like before. Bear in mind that Philemon possessed some degree of wealth, as he was a man with room to spare in his house for guests and was, obviously, a slave owner. So it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to bring Onesimus onboard as his household slave once again and simply forget all that had transpired to bring bad blood between them. Reset the clock. Start over again. A fresh beginning for Onesimus. Wouldn’t that have been a great and benevolent gesture on Philemon’s part, especially in that day and age when class and title was very much part of the fabric of society.
But that’s not what Paul is asking of Philemon. He’s asking him to go above and beyond the bounds of courtesy. He’s asking him to take a step further than society might approve. He’s asking him to forgo the traditions of the culture and instead forge a path of reform, as Christ would transform the relationship between master and slave into one that reflects the familial heart of the Father.
In doing what Paul requests of Philemon, we effectively see the end of slavery — not through policy change, not through the coercion of law or war, not even through religious decree, but by spiritual adoption individually via the transformative power of Jesus Christ. Paul is putting meat on Christ’s mission statement: to set the captives free (Luke 4:16-21). Philemon is being challenged to act on his faith in a way that very much upsets the typical balance of power — Onesimus no longer a slave but his brother and equal in God’s sight.
There are slaves in our world today. We are all enslaved by something — anything that holds mastery over us is our master. That’s why Paul often referred to himself as a slave for Christ. He was declaring that only Jesus would be able to command Paul’s destiny. I wonder if we Christians would be better off thinking of our mission not as ministers of salvation or purveyors of a religious order, but as reformers who subvert the world’s system by adopting people into God’s own family. Jesus didn’t come to turn free-thinking men into slaves, as some would suggest. He came to turn oppressed slaves into free men. I believe we need to do the same — not by force of law or strength of will but by entreaty from the heart in love.