I’m Confident You Will Do More Than I Ask (Philemon 21-22)

Paul has set a high bar for Philemon.

Given Philemon’s social world, Paul’s requests are astounding. As Philemon’s slave, Onesimus has neither social status nor civil rights. Onesimus cannot sit at the same table with his master. He cannot marry whom he chooses, and he has no real options other than what Philemon decides.

As this letter is read in the context of Philemon’s house church, there is enormous cultural (even political) pressure on Philemon to conform to conventional Roman social norms. His neighbors are watching. His peers, in and outside of his small Christian community, live in a social world that cannot imagine any sort of equality between masters and slaves. Their relationship is asymmetrical. The master literally holds all the cards, and any chink in that armor has the potential to tear apart Rome’s social fabric and economic power. The memory of Spartacus still looms large in the first century A.D.

Nevertheless Paul’s requests assume a different kind of community where slaves are equals before God; where both slave and free are heirs of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29). Paul himself places enormous pressure on Philemon from within the Christian community to (1) regard Onesimus as a fellow-member of the family of God, a brother, (2) welcome him just as Philemon would welcome Paul, (3) charge any debt to Paul, and (4) refresh Paul’s ministry by receiving Onesimus in peace. What Paul asks is extraordinary in the social world in which Philemon lives as the head of a household. This is a high bar for Philemon given the several levels and intersecting realities at work here: (a) Philemon’s Roman world; (b) Philemon’s own household; and (c) Philemon’s house church. This is a complicated situation.

We might say Paul is manipulative, but Paul’s intent is to apply this brotherly pressure without apostolic demand. How else might Paul persuade Philemon without commanding him? It seems to me Paul does this rather well.

We might say Paul is passive-aggressive, but Paul is overt in his requests and rationale. Paul intends to influence Philemon; he is active rather than passive.

Yet, Paul thinks this is a matter of Philemon’s “obedience.” What is the nature of “obedience” here? One might suggest Paul is demanding Philemon to obey his requests and make good on Paul’s expectations, but this runs counter to the kind of response Paul wants to nurture and cultivate in Philemon’s life. Paul does not use his apostolic authority to compel Philemon’s “obedience.” I don’t think Paul wants Philemon to obey his apostolic authority.

On the contrary, it seems to me, Paul wants Philemon to live out the story he confesses to believe. In other words, the “obedience” Paul envisions is Philemon’s embodiment of the Christian narrative in this situation. Does Philemon truly believe the story he confesses? Is he willing as a master to serve the slave, even to become a slave in the eyes of his social world, including his public, household, and church realities? Is he willing to be Jesus to Onesimus?

Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a cruciform narrative, that is, a kenotic Jesus who suffers for the other and empties oneself for the other. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a familial reality between people who live together in this new community. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a common partnership for the sake of the gospel rather than social rank or rights. Throughout the letter, Paul has assumed a Christocentric life in which both slave and free participate as family, as members of God’s household.

Obedience means Philemon will receive Onesimus as first and primarily a member of God’s household rather than his own household. This is how, in the first century world, the gospel transforms slave/free relationships within the Christian community. Within God’s household both slave and free sit at the same table; there is no distinction as they are both heirs of the Abrahamic promise.

I also think Paul believes this relationship—as family within God’s household—will transform how slave and free interact within the social household. In the ancient world, the household included the immediate family and also slaves, workers, and extended family. It was, in many ways, a small village that was supported by the head of the house.

What are the implications for the Roman household when shared by members of God’s household?

For whatever reason (and we imagine some below), Paul did not demand or necessarily envision the manumission of slaves in a Roman household shared by members of God’s household. He certainly thought it should transform how masters treat their slaves (e.g., Colossians 4:1) since those masters are part of God’s household (they themselves also have a master). At the very least, Paul believed their Christian commitments demanded fair and equitable treatment of their slaves, and this treatment was not simply a higher standard than the Roman social world but the standard of Christ’s own cruciform life.

While it is possible Paul hoped that Philemon would free Onesimus (which how N. T. Wright reads the “more” in Philemon 20), it seems more likely that the “more” is Paul’s desire for Onesimus to share the burdens of ministry with him during his imprisonment (and perhaps beyond). Paul hopes for “more” in that he hopes Philemon will send Onesimus back to Paul.

But why doesn’t Paul ask (even demand) Philemon free Onesimus? We might wish he had done that explicitly and forcefully. As modern readers, we would certainly be more comfortable with that, and we are disturbed it is lacking in this letter as well as other Pauline letters (as well as the whole New Testament).

Why is not Onesimus’s freedom, then, the main thing? Justice would seem to demand that. I wonder what Paul would say to our question.

Perhaps it was not an option. The social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse resulted in freedom for slaves. But the social world did not permit a movement whose fundamental impulse confessed a Lord who was not Caesar or subverted Caesar. Christians did the latter but not the former. Why?

I wonder if the rationale might be something like this. To confess Jesus as Lord is the fundamental orienting commitment of the Jesus movement. It is essential and necessary to its existence; it is the primary confession. There is no movement without it.

Paul intended, it seems to me, for this confession to function as a leaven in the lump of his social world. First, and primarily, it must transform how the house church functions: the poor and rich, the slave and free, male and female eat at the same table there. There can be no compromise on this point. The heart of the gospel is at stake if table fellowship within the Christian community is interrupted by such distinctions.

Secondly, Paul intended to, as a matter of process and progress for the gospel (confession of Jesus as Lord), transform the social world of the household within Roman society. There Paul regulates behavior and motives, and there he also plants seeds that will transform the household so that it no longer conforms to Roman social expectations but to gospel ones.

Third, we might guess—but there is nothing certain here—Paul hoped for the transformation of society as well through the gospel’s witness. Perhaps Paul thought the whole world would be made new through the gospel, but there is also a Pauline realism that recognizes the world lies in evil and will not bend to the gospel easily or quickly. Ultimately, however long the world continued, God would transform and redeem the world through God’s own act. Perhaps, then, Paul had no concrete expectation that the world would be rid of slavery though the gospel embodied this hope in the Messiah who liberates slaves. The one who was free became a slave so that the one who was enslaved might be free—that is the gospel (Philippians 2:5-8).

Perhaps Paul does not demand Philemon free Onesimus because Paul begins at the level of personal reconciliation within Philemon’s house church. This is his primary objective so that Philemon and Onesimus live together as reconciled brothers in the church and eat at the same table of the Lord.

Perhaps this will also lead to the transformation of Philemon’s own household itself where slave and free share life together in love and mutual respect, even if does not entail—given the social context—Onesimus’s freedom. That witness would glorify God and serve the mission of Jesus. Perhaps it will lead to “more”….maybe even Onesimus’s freedom and the freedom of other slaves in Philemon’s household. We don’t know.

What we do see is Paul’s desire for a reconciled community in Christ, and we know Paul hopes this reconciled community will, one day, include the whole world. There, we might imagine, the full justice of the kingdom of God would emerge and the kingdom would realize the honor due to all God’s imagers.

In our contemporary social context, we have more opportunities (e.g., voting) and mechanisms (e.g., legislative democracy) to peacefully effect change as we embody the gospel. That was not Paul’s social world, and he could not effectively and peacefully start a social revolution that included freedom for slaves. Instead, he planted churches—missional communities—where the goals of the kingdom were embodied as a witness to the coming reign of God over all the world when all slaves would live as free human beings.

I do wonder, however, how Onesimus thought about all this. He takes a great risk in returning to Philemon’s household because he has no assurance that Philemon will act “Christianly.” I assume Onesimus volunteers to return, and he assumes the risk. As such, Onesimus himself initiates reconciliation with his own kenosis as he gives himself over to the other for the sake of reconciliation as a brother in Christ. That seems unimaginable to me, but this may be exactly the sort of way in which the gospel transforms us.

Paul does not ask for Onesimus’s freedom. He asks for something more important—reonciliation. And, at the same time, Paul believes reconcilation will transform their relationship….perhaps including, ultimately I think, freedom.

What this demands is mutual kenosis, a self-giving that surrenders to the other for the sake of the other. Paul surrenders to Philemon, Onesimus surrenders to Paul in returning, and Philemon is now called to surrender to Onesimus. In this way, the gospel works reconciliation, and reconciliation will bring transformation.



2 Responses to “I’m Confident You Will Do More Than I Ask (Philemon 21-22)”

  1.   Stanley Adams Says:

    You have written a good little commentary. You could mention how that the grk works for Onesimus, Demand, Benefit all have the same grk root word. That is an interesting use of the grk.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, that is true. At some point, I did mention the meaning of Onesimus as “beneficial or useful.” But there is much more depth to the letter than I have been able to unearth in this brief series. Thanks!

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