Philemon: Slave, Servant and Saint
Looking at this very short book we discover that it is filled with many Christian principles of fellowship. While we could focus on the fact that the owner, Philemon was within his rights to require Paul to send Onesimus back; there is a much deeper principle at worker. How do we deal with brothers and sisters in the faith that are subordinate to us?
I ran into this question very early in my faith as I worked with my commander, a major and I an enlisted guy. Off duty we were members of the dame church and he being, a deacon friend. But during the day, I was fully under his authority and command. He did tell me that when we were off duty, I could call him Jerry. But this did not seem right, and I told him, rather than compromise his position, I would always refer to him by his rank.
Looking at this book, Philemon was correct in wanting his run-a-way slave to return. But now Onesimus was a saint in the faith and had a great testimony with the Apostle Paul. I guess the question comes about – how do we treat people who we previously know were rascals? I remember when I went home for vacation that I meet some people in church that definitely had a past. I said to myself – well that is the last person I thought I would see in church! Of course, they could have said the same thing about me.
In this personal letter, Paul is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ and forget that he was a slave. Paul says that he previously was “useless to you.” Paul is asking [not telling] Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul.
Obviously, there is a lot to consider here. Is Onesimus still a slave? Does Philemon have any say in the matter of Onesimus – I mean is he obligated to receive his run-a-way slave back as a brother? And how would that effect their relationship?
The overarching principle is reconciliation. Paul says receive Onesimus as you would me; but he does not say that Onesimus is no longer a slave but is a saint. The two, Philemon and Onesimus have issues to work out.
How does this apply today? Well, we are all engaged in master-servant relationships. If we are both in the faith, we should not expect unfair treatment or privilege from our bosses. But we also should not put them in positions of compromise either. We have additional advice in Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 4:1-4 on this subject.