That's the Book: Philemon
Sometimes in life you have to backup to learn anything. The book of Philemon is one of those times. You'll see what I mean.
The book of Philemon is a short one chapter appeal. Paul is writing a letter to a co-believer Philemon. Paul is asking Philemon to grant freedom to the runaway slave Onesimus. The book is also one of the more misapplied books of the Bible throughout history. So before I summarize what I believe we can learn to apply from Philemon there is an important distinction I have to cover first.
Let’s talk about what Philemon is not.
A validation of slavery.
Especially any sort of bondage that dehumanizes another soul. The chattel slavery of the US history, the caste system in India, or any sort of human trafficking for work or sex is not Biblical and Paul didn’t endorse it. Want proof? Read the text.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do... Philemon 1:8a
According to Paul what Philemon should do under the authority of Christ is to set free his slave. If you read the full Biblical narrative you'll conclude God's heart is for equality and freedom. Major themes in the Old Testament call for freedom. When Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, it is framed as a major sin. One only God had the power to redeem. when the Israelites were captives in Egypt, God sent Moses and most of the book of Exodus being about freedom for the slaves and justice to the captors. The requirements in the law spelled out in Leviticus require a year of Jubilee where everyone is given freedom. Most of the grief in the prophets and the promise of a redeemer center around when Israel was in slavery after the fall of Jerusalem. In the New Testament Jesus makes clear he came to set free those in bondage. And Paul's other books call for treating anyone under any kind of authority with equality.
I believe we end up in trouble with the Bible when we use any verse out of context to justify behavior outside the cohesive message of the whole text. And Philemon is no different.
He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. Philemon 1: 16b
Paul asserts here that the slave Onesimus has equal value as both Paul and Philemon. His status as a man is one of fellow. So Paul is confirming what the rest of the Bible maintains - that all humans are created in God's image and have equal value. So any system which would undermine this truth is outside the Biblical narrative and is heresy. There is no room under the cross for dehumanizing language. So using Philemon (or any part of the Bible) to argue for slavery is flat out wrong.
We can now talk about what I believe the book of Philemon is;
A brilliant approach to advocacy and persuasion.
Sometimes a strong fight and an authoritative move is necessary. If you know children are in danger a call to the authorities is important. If violence is about to occur. you better buckle up for some action. An example would be the American Civil War. Although necessary, the fight is costly. And sometimes - especially when the one who needs to make amends is a believer - the right approach is an appeal through love. A good example is William Wilberforce's extended legislative action in England. William Wilberforce used logic, poetry, legislative bills and lots and lots of words to convince the public in England that the slave trade was a moral travesty. Paul's letter to Philemon is a good pattern to follow if you are working for change. Here are what I see as some critical steps.
1. Start with what is right.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. Philemon 1; 4-5
2. Make a clear call to action.
It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Philemon 1: 9b-10
3. Establish trust and invite partnership.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Philemon 1:12-14
4. Lay in deep. If you have the truth on your side - ask the big question boldly.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ Philemon 1: 17-20
5. Move forward in action.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Philemon 1:22-23
The thing I love about the book of Philemon is that Paul is asking a fellow believer to step out in faith in a way that is expensive, counter culture and focused on love. What can you ask today?
The team at The Bible Project had some thoughts on this book I hadn't considered. Check it out.
Since this post was about slavery I want to direct you to some great organizations fighting slavery world wide right now. And sadly....slavery is still an issue in the United States.
Check out International Justice Mission HERE. This awesome organization is using courts and advocacy world wide to set free modern day slaves.
Check out Shared Hope HERE. This Vancouver, WA based non-profit is fighting for better laws to stop sex trafficking here in the United States.
I love Jesus. I think my two daughters can change the world. I think you can too.
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