Man is often his own stumbling block as we interpret God’s Word, and one of the primary problems we face when interpreting Scripture is leaving our bias at the door. For the last two centuries, slavery has been a hotbed of conversation, and its social costs are still being paid today. However, in the course of utilizing Philemon in this conversation, I think we must consider how the institution of slavery and Christians’ perceptions of it gave Philemon a task it could not complete.
My reading of Philemon leaves me with the impression that Onesimus is in a very real fashion indebted to Philemon, but not specifically in the manner of slavery. I take the use of the word “slave” to be figurative in the context of the epistle and to confer a discrepancy of status or balance between the two men. So then I am subscribed to a real familial relationship between these two men.
The familial relationship takes it a foothold in verse 16, where Paul encourages Philemon to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Two men cannot become brothers in the flesh if they did not originally possess that relationship, so, therefore, the brotherhood he wishes to Philemon to re-accept is likely one that has a familial aspect to it, as well as kinship in the Lord.
The interpretation that considers Onesimus a slave via the literal interpretation of verse 16 is often accompanied by the idea that he has run away from his slavery. I find verse 18 to be problematic in that interpretation, since Paul seems to be unsure if Philemon considers Onesimus to have wronged or owe anything to him. Had Onesimus run away, he would undoubtedly know so and Paul should therefore be aware that he indeed does owe Philemon something. I do not think Paul is being coy with his words, but is honest in his inquiry and willingness to have Onesimus’ debt on his account.
In this epistle, as well as with all others attributed to him, Paul is writing both to the named recipient(s) and a wider audience. While the recipient and his admonitions are set in the historical context of the letter, the wider audience is not necessarily privy to this context. Paul seems to be aware of this as he writes his epistles, and Philemon should be no exception, given its Pauline character. In the case of taking the text of Philemon and making what would have amounted to a counterculture argument about slavery, Paul seems to have failed if that were his specific goal.
We can take Paul’s words, however, and use them for what they are: an admonition to treat our fellow heirs with love and refresh each other’s hearts in Christ.