Concluding Colossians and Philemon
However, with a thoughtful consideration of the cultural context and attitudes toward slavery at the time of these two sister book's writing, they easily reveal themselves not as the pro-slavery text they may first appear to be, but instead as a radical correspondence that challenges hierarchy and authoritarianism in the face of oppression.
These are a few of the primary considerations that could lead to this different interpretation.
The subject of the letters primarily addresses the relationship between three people, or groups of people. Each book is named for its recipients: Colossians is received by the church in Colossae. Philemon is written to a man by that name. The Colossians wrestled with their faith in an empire built on slavery, meeting as a community of former slaves and owners, but now equals under the flag of the cross. Philemon is formerly a slave owner, now a Christian and a minister in the church. He may share pastoral responsibilities with a woman and another man who host the church in a house, possibly the same church who receives the letter we call Colossians.
Paul writes both letters. Paul is also a Christian convert. Once he was an agent of the state, enacting cruel and fatal corporal punishment on Christians. Now Paul is a traveling church planter. In his travels he writes letters like this one to the congregations and communities in his wake that he's helped establish. Onesimus (whose name means "useful") is formerly a slave of Philemon who came to become a Christ-follower through the ministry of Paul. Whether he escaped or was for some reason banished from Philemon's house is not known, though escape is more likely. Onesimus is carrying both of these letters of Paul to his former slave-owner, and to a church in which his former life was well known. He is mentioned in both letters.
So, we must imagine these letters received from the hand of a former slave, written by a former violent agent of the state, now a prisoner of that same unjust empire. The social, cultural and political undertones to such an exchange are electric.
These letters arise from the Greek world of the first century. In this world, slavery is a common practice. Like any society that would allow one human to own another, there is in the mainstream worldview a belief that some people are morally inferior to others. As those who hold slaves today may still believe, slaves in the Roman empire were believed to be mindless automatons, intellectually and morally unable to make personal decisions. Slaves had no dreams or hopes, and would be unable to live or take care of themselves outside of constant surveillance and control. Slaves were property, not friends, and certainly not family.
More has changed in the lives of these new Jesus followers than their religious identity. Once a cruel agent of the state, Paul is now a prisoner of that same empire, a political prisoner. In Colossians, Paul tells them that Onesimus is a faithful brother to himself and his fellow ministers. He says that he is sending him back as one of their own to encourage them with a report on Paul's condition. This, and the similarity in the final greetings of both confirm that Colossians and Philemon were written and sent together. Onesimus was willingly returning to his hometown where once he was a slave and possibly a criminal with two letters from Paul to Christians who knew him in his former life. How was he likely to be received? Were there warrants out for his arrest? What would be the relationship of this newly converted Onesimus to his old associates?
In the light of all of this, the intentionally warm and familial nature of Paul's writing about Onesimus comes into bold relief. In Colossians, Paul makes no mention whatever of the former life of Onesimus. He is only a brother, and a fellow citizen of Collosae. In Paul's letter to Philemon, Onesimus is twice a son, a dear brother in the Lord. He is the "very heart" of Paul, and "dear" as a man and brother to both Paul and Philemon. This clearly runs completely counter to any perverted notion that slaves could be mindless inhuman beings, incapable of morality or relationship. In Christ, the relationships between these three have radically changed.
In covenant Christian community, a former powerful agent of the state can now be in chains, ministering as an equal alongside a former slave who now lives without chains. In this new community, a free former slave can return by his own free will to the one who once owned him as a brother and an equal.
Philemon and Onesimus were separated as owner and property, but reunited as family. How potent are the words in the fifteenth and sixteenth verses, "he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother." The return of Onesimus reflects the reconciliation and redemption of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul continues, "He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord". This speaks powerfully not only of the radical new reality in their relationships, but a new legal reality as well. When Paul calls Onesimus a man, he identifies him as a citizen. Only men are citizens in classical Rome, therefore a woman was not a citizen, and a slave was not a man. Paul was the same author who said in Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). With this statement in Philemon, Paul opposes the legal authority of the empire, and invokes the authority of Christ that makes us all equal citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Finally, we consider the foundation of the appeal from an apostolic church planter to a minister in a house church (possibly the Colossian church) that he helped establish. Paul states explicitly in Philemon verses eight and nine that he could pull rank and order Philemon to treat Onesimus with love and dignity. But instead, Paul intentionally and frequently implores Philemon on equal grounds as a brother and an equal. By his example, Paul illustrates to Philemon the truth of their freedom and equality in Christ. Twice Paul calls himself "a prisoner of Christ Jesus" before ever making his request on behalf of Onesimus. Twice he says that Onesimus came to be partnered with him while he was "in chains". Though he claims the right to command Philemon, in verse fourteen he instead tells Philemon that he will submit to his will. Consider the impact on Philemon of a man in chains submitting his will to a former slave-owner.
Of Onesimus the former slave, Paul speaks only in the highest terms. He is a brother and a citizen. More than this, he is a son. For Onesimus, to receive the son of Paul would have been to receive Paul himself. Paul has placed his own identity on Onesimus. Paul acts as a father when he takes Onesimus' debt as well. In effect, a great trade has been made. Paul, a father in the faith, has been lost to Philemon to the chains and jail in which he will die. In his place, Philemon receives Onesimus as a free man and brother, the one he once personally held prisoner. Paul will never personally enjoy the guest room he requests in verse twenty-two, but in Onesimus he will be restored to Philemon in answer to his prayers.
This is the radical reality of new life after the cross. We are equals both in our skulduggery and our salvation. No matter how different our lives may be, or how we may be separated by the false walls erected by the racism or classism or sexism of empire, we are united in the love of the king who washes our feet. We approach one another in humility and patience, putting each other first. We forgive as we've been forgiven. We submit to the highest authority of justice, truth, and love, and resist all rebels in the empire, whatever authority they claim.
We fight together for the emancipation of every enslaved and oppressed person in the world. We fight for the freedom from oppression for all those who oppress others, for no one is more in news of love than one consumed by power.
And his Kingdom will be manifest through the cracks of the dead gray empire until the whole dead structure comes crumbling down.
All glory to the one true King.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
Galatians 3:23-29 (ESVUK)
Tomorrow – How Great Thou Art - Creation Care and Christian Escapism
Starting Next Week (April 9-17ish) – Ephesians - Theology as Poetry