Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Philemon - A Personal Request

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The attentive reader cannot pass through the verses of this wonderful little epistle without feeling there is something profoundly unique about it. Its tone is quite different from all the other Pauline epistles, and the subject matter unparalleled. There are no doctrinal statements in this letter, no thundering denunciations of error, no soaring flights of spiritual eloquence on the unspeakable riches of God. Nor is the recipient a church or Christian body, but rather a single person by the name of Philemon, "Beloved". St. Paul must have written numerous personal letters throughout his checkered life; and it is a singular miracle that such a precious fragment was rescued, we know not how, from the wreck of such a varied correspondence.

Philemon was converted by St Paul himself,1 and he proved himself worthy of his spiritual parentage by providing his house as a meeting-place for the church at Colosse.2 He was highly praised by all who met him,3 and was given the honorable title of "fellow-laborer" by the great Apostle.4

The occasion that called forth this letter was a chance meeting between St. Paul, who sat chained in a Roman prison, and Onesimus, a slave who had stolen from his master Philemon and fled for his life. Onesimus means "Profitable", and with resounding irony this slave represented the lowest and most worthless class in the social scale. He was regarded by philosophers as "live cattle", "a mere tool with a voice", and he was granted no more rights than a piece of furniture. Rome, due its size and crowding, became the natural cesspool of these offscourings of humanity; among the city rabble were Onesimus' best hopes for secrecy and society with similar vagrants.

The great Apostle did not recognize society's cruel assessment of slaves; for him the barrier between slave and free had vanished in the light of Christ's redemption of all men.

Onesimus, for an unknown reason, came seeking refuge at the Apostle's side; and in time St. Paul "gave birth" to a new spiritual son while in chains.5 Onesimus became to St. Paul not only a sincere convert but a devoted friend, and a constant source of comfort and strength in his weary captivity, which St. Paul could ill afford to lose. To take away Onesimus now was to tear out St. Paul's heart.6

But St. Paul must send him back to his master. Though Onesimus was a reformed man, he was still a runaway slave, and restitution must follow repentance. If Philemon were a Pagan master, St. Paul would be sending Onesimus to certain torture and possible crucifixion. But the master was a Christian, even a convert of St. Paul, and thus St. Paul requests—though by authority he could demand it7—that he receive Onesimus as more than a slave, a beloved brother.8

The world often wonders why the Holy Bible does not directly denounce slavery; why does it never utter a clear, decisive condemnation on this detestable practice of history? The reason is that to have done so was to declare outright civil war. Slavery had become intimately threaded into the fabric of society; and nothing less than violence and murder would have been sufficient to achieve slavery's full abolition. But Christianity by nature excludes the spirit of revolution and political conquest; its aims, unlike all the campaigns of this world's nations, are peaceful and spiritual.

Rather than attacking slavery by name, the Apostles laid down principles that would in the end prove fatal to slavery. The Holy Bible exhorts slaves to obey their masters, while at the same time declaring the universal brotherhood of all men, and that "in Christ there is neither slave nor free."9 Thus with the epistle to Philemon began the slow process of freeing the slave, which at long last ended in slavery's disappearance from every Christian land in the world.

1 v. 19
2 v. 2, Col 4:9, 10
3 v. 5
4 v. 1
5 v. 10
6 v. 12
7 v. 8
8 v. 16
9 Gal 3:28, Col 3:11

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