The apostle Paul made a call to grace in the epistle of Philemon. Paul wrote it while in prison and appealed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossus, to accept and forgive Onesimus, a run away slave who also happened to be a fellow Christian. Paul wrote about a specific situation, which identified key differences in how Christians should view the world compared to pagans.
Under Roman law, a master could severely punish a runaway slave. This included beating the individual, breaking bones, confining to hard labor or even death. Huge numbers of people were slaves during the first century. The Roman economic system depended on slavery.
The apostle Paul did not directly condemn or call for the abolition of slavery. However, he clearly didn’t support it either. Paul made a case for transforming grace that would eventually topple the slave system due to new relationships in Christ.
Paul appealed to Philemon’s reputation, their personal relationship, Paul’s involvement in Philemon’s conversion, the transformation that had taken place in Onesimus’ life, and the new relationships created in Christ as slave and master became brothers. Paul recognized that Onesimus had wronged Philemon, yet he called on Philemon to charge whatever debt was owed to his account. Then, Paul carefully reminded Philemon of his personal debt to him as well as Paul’s apostolic authority.
In one sense, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master to keep from undermining existing law. Also it provided an opportunity for Christ-centered grace to be exemplified in a real life situation. This epistle shows us one example of how the early Church dealt with the challenging institution of slavery. We can learn from this example today as we seek to deal with social injustice in the world.
Paul challenged the evils associated with slavery while recognizing that the focus of the Gospel should not be confused with mere social reform. This could cause us to lose our heavenly mission for merely an earthly one. Instead of focus on slavery, Paul changed the dynamic to focus on brotherhood and mutual respect in Christ. In a subtle way, Paul called for more than just forgiveness of a debt. It seems that Paul was urging Philemon to free Onesimus just as Christ had done for him.
In the first century, the Christian faith created a new paradigm where slaves and masters became brothers due to a change of heart that only comes through relationships. Paul’s instruction provides a deep justification for forgiveness and reconciliation.