The historic and contemporary reality of slavery is never far away from how we think about the Bible. Instead of a frontal attack on the culturally pervasive institution of slavery in his day, Paul took another approach, for example, in his letter to Philemon.
Onesimus was a slave. His master Philemon was a Christian. Onesimus had evidently run away from Colossae (Colossians 4:9) to Rome where Paul, in prison, had led him to faith in Jesus. Now he was sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This letter tells Philemon how to receive Onesimus.
In the process, Paul does at least 11 things that work together to undermine slavery.
1. Paul draws attention to Philemon’s love for all the saints. “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (1:5). This puts Philemon’s relation with Onesimus (now one of the saints) under the banner of love, not just commerce.
2. Paul models for Philemon the superiority of appeals over commands when it comes to relationships governed by love. “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9). This points Philemon to the new dynamics that will hold sway between him and Onesimus. Acting out of freedom from a heart of love is the goal in the relationship.
3. Paul heightens the sense of Onesimus being in the family of God by calling him his child. “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (1:10). Remember, Philemon, however you deal with him, you are dealing with my child.
4. Paul raises the stakes again by saying that Onesimus has become entwined around his own deep affections. “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (1:12). The word for “heart” is “bowels.” This means, “I am deeply bound emotionally to this man.” Treat him that way.
5. Paul again emphasizes that he wants to avoid force or coercion in his relationship with Philemon. “I would have been glad to keep him with me...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (1:13-14). This is pointing Philemon how to deal with Onesimus so that