Social Justice: Maybe let’s try the Biblical way?
Let’s get right to this extraordinary letter. As I stated earlier, Paul’s letter to Philemon is clearly the most unusual of the Pauline letters. Though it is one of four of Paul’s letters addressed to an individual (1&2 Timothy and Titus being the others), this document does not overtly expound on doctrine, give pastoral instruction, or address specific theological questions levied by the recipient. It has a genuinely personal feel to it. It appears to actually be a personal letter from one friend to another.
Make no mistake, however. There is a significant amount of theology in this letter. After all, it is a God-inspired missive included in the canon of Scripture. Therefore, it must (and does) contain information, doctrine, and guidance inherent in all of the books of the Bible. However, the way in which these things are presented to us, via what seems to be a personal letter between friends, sets this epistle apart from all of the others. And the subject matter is, of course, as relevant for us today as it was for Philemon more than 2,000 years ago.
First things first… make no mistake about it… let’s make this clear from the beginning: Paul’s goal, though he never explicitly states it as such, is to get Philemon to free Onesimus as his slave. Again, and this is important, Paul never at any point commands or dictates that Philemon free his slave. However, a close reading of the letter leads us to that inescapable conclusion that this is exactly what Paul is communicating. But Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, knew that simply ordering or commanding Philemon to emancipate Onesimus would not have the impact on either man necessary for a full understanding of the Gospel. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a closer look.
Onesimus had run away from his owner, Philemon… a capital offense. He had stolen from Philemon to finance his trip (18). He sought the anonymity of Rome in hopes of blending in with the throng of people there. Who does he just happen to meet? Paul, who was there under house arrest awaiting Caesar to hear his appeal in a criminal case (Acts 28:30-31). And Paul just happened to be a very close friend of Onesimus’ master, Philemon. Are these “coincidences” piling up enough for you yet? Paul led Onesimus’ conversion to Christ (10), as he must surely have done for Philemon (19b). And instead of aiding Onesimus’ continued emancipation from the cruelty of slavery, he does what we would think unthinkable and sends him back to Philemon (12). But not without a treatise on what being transformed by the Gospel is really all about.
Remember, as despicable as the idea of slavery is for us today in any way, shape, or form, it was a culturally acceptable phenomenon of that time. In fact, some estimates put the percentage of folks who enslaved in Rome at upwards of 40%. Simply put, almost no one thought slavery was wrong. Add in the fact that many of these people were in voluntary servitude for their self-preservation and this all becomes a bit more understandable. But slavery was a plague on that culture, though culturally most everyone did not see it that way. That is why a (probably) wealthy, influential, church leader like Philemon would not have batted an eyelash at the fact that he was a slave owner. It was simply just the way of the world. And that was the bigger problem he did not even recognize.
Look at Paul’s approach to a theological wrong inspired by the actions of the world. First, he openly tells Philemon that he has the theological, doctrinal, and spiritual right to command that Philemon do what he (Paul) tells him to do. In verse 8, Paul clearly states: I could command you… but I would rather appeal to you. Later, Paul tells us and Philemon why he simply doesn’t order him to free Onesimus: I want your goodness to be voluntary and not by compulsion (14). And how do we know that Paul is trying to get Philemon to free Onesimus rather than just to simply take him back? In verse 21, Paul states that he knows “you will do even more than I say” (21b). The “more” is clearly the idea that Philemon will not just take Onesimus back and show him mercy for committing a crime but to actually free him. How does Paul pull this off? By appealing to the transformed nature of the Believer.
Look at Paul’s approach here. He states that Onesimus is now a Believer (10). He states that he (Paul) has found Onesimus now so useful he would have rather kept him there in Rome to serve with him (11-13). He tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul himself (17). He reminds Philemon that he is a Believer and how he has been transformed as a Believer (4-7). He clearly states that God’s hand is in all of this (15). And then he drops the biggest theological bomb he can. He states, unambiguously, that Onesimus is “no longer as a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (16). Onesimus was now Philemon’s brother… just as Paul was Philemon’s brother. And just as Philemon would have never accepted Paul as his slave, even if Paul volunteered himself into servitude, neither should Philemon accept Onesimus or anyone else in that way.
A key construct of the world had wormed its way into Philemon’s worldview. He was thinking more like the world than he was thinking like God. The culture said it was ok to have slaves, so Philemon thought it was ok. The culture had no problem with this ill and that idea was so prevalent that it had even tainted Believers. I believe the key verse in this letter is also the thesis statement for this epistle. Paul did not want to command Philemon, even though that would have worked. Philemon would have freed Onesimus if Paul had directed him to do it. In verse 14, Paul said this cannot be done by compulsion but has to emanate from the goodness imparted to Philemon because of his transformed nature and mind (2 Cor. 5:17; Romans 12:2). In other words, laws and rules don’t guarantee right behavior. Because laws and rules do not transform a heart. If laws and rules guaranteed right behavior, then we would have no more murders, thefts, rapes, or discrimination. We have plenty of laws against all of these things, and yet they happen all the time.
A perfect example of this idea is seen in Luke’s Gospel. A man named Zacchaeus, who made his living as a tax collector incurring scorn from his fellow Jews, was so enamored with seeing Jesus that he climbed a tree to get a good look. Now, in that time, tax collectors made their profit by cheating taxpayers. They made the taxpayers pay more than their share, gave the taxes to the government, and pocketed the rest. In other words, the more they defrauded the people, the richer they became. And this was not only known by the government- it was condoned. They didn’t care so long as they got their taxes. This was clearly a culturally accepted injustice to a lot of people. Now, Zacchaeus in that encounter with Jesus became a Believer (Luke 19:9-10). As a result of his transformed mind and heart, Zacchaeus made an interesting vow. He said he would repay anyone he had cheated “fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Here is the interesting thing. He did not have to do that. The Law required only a repayment penalty of 1/5th for money obtained by fraud (Leviticus 6:5). Zacchaeus could have simply repaid the money with a 1/5th penalty and actually kept the Law. But he was motivated by a transformed spirit, mind, and heart and saw his sin as much worse. He corrected an injustice because of the Gospel, not because he was told to do so. That’s the key.
Even God’s Law as put forth in the Old Testament was not designed to guarantee right behavior. In fact, it was put into place to show us that we will do those things anyway (Romans 3:20). Only a transformed heart can lead to right behavior, and even then we fail at times. Here is the takeaway. Want to put a dent into the cultural wrongs on this planet? Lead people to Christ. Want to ease the discrimination so many experience on a regular basis? Lead people to Christ. Want to see people truly love their enemies? Lead people to Christ. Want to make a real difference in the lives of people? Lead them to Christ. Jesus did not come to earth to correct all cultural wrongs or to fix all temporal injustices. He came to seek and save the lost. And He knew that when that happens… people will be transformed. And since the culture is people, then the culture will be impacted in an amazing way. Laws don’t work- we have plenty of them. We need Something that transforms the heart. Philemon didn’t free Onesimus because Paul told him to do it. He freed Onesimus because he had been transformed by the Gospel. He simply needed to be reminded of this and to remember that he was no longer to think and act like the world. You want social justice as much as it is possible on this planet? Don’t expect unsaved people to act like saved people. Give them the Gospel.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in St. Cloud, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.