Hermeneutics, philemon

Philemon Revisited

In a course titled “Advanced Bible Study Methods” during my undergraduate studies, I was given an assignment similar to writing a biblical theology of Philemon. The goal was to focus upon themes, attempting to find the overarching theme and its progression throughout the text. I interpreted the central theme as brotherly love, and encapsulated the resulting developed concept thus: “To love your brother and/or sister is the end all for Christian ethics – love is fundamentally how we ought to see others who are in Christ.” For this textual interpretational essay, I have elected to re-examine both Philemon and my previous assignment.

Having looked back at my previous assignment, I am in fact quite embarrassed as to my writings and thankful that I have made my way to Union. Largely the previous assignment does not seem directly counter to what Philemon states, rather the previous assignment misses out on a great deal of other themes within the text and possibly the thrust of the document. This essay will not be a restatement of my previous paper, rather, I envision a telling critique and better interpretation of Philemon.

Philemon as Sibling Love
There is no doubt that Philemon speaks the language of love and indeed love is informative as it guides our relationships one to another.1 After all, Paul and Timothy are connected to the intended audience through close relational terms, familial terms in fact (brother, dear friend, co-worker and fellow-soldier) and most importantly linked directly through the love of Christ.2 Indeed Paul continues the theme of sibling love, proclaiming the joy he receives from the love that the intended audience gives, but also urging the audience on further through a prayer and noticeably not through a demand.3 The author maintains a sibling dynamic with the audience, appealing on the basis of love and good will through Christ.4 Likewise, the author continues to maintain a family dynamic, stating how valued Onesimus has become to him (like a father to a son) and now, Onesimus is precious to Paul as his “own heart” in which Paul sends out.

The theme of love continues throughout the rest of the text, however, the love that I saw was a gentle love – a comfortable love, but really, a love that was lacking the sharp edge to actually cut at evil, social structures. My previous interpretation missed the part of the love that turned the emperor on his imperial head. I did, fortunately, recognize that: “this love subverts the traditional response of a master to a runaway slave. Instead of lashing out in severe rage and dispensing a sanctioned revenge under patriarchal law, love brings mutuality to the relation between the master and slave. While the structure of slavery might still exist, this love submits the harsh reality of slavery to the loving reality of Christian mutual submission.”

Nevertheless, the applications I derived from the exercise, while they were needed changes in my life that I genuinely professed, lacked anything other than encouragement, love, and graciousness. Though these applications were relational, they were in fact rather privatized – none of them offered anything in response to the injustice of social structures. After four whole years studying how to see the text, I still saw a kind love, not a love that deconstructed evils or that stood for the oppressed and enslaved. I saw the comfortable kind of love that a white, partriarchal Bible college will profess: mutual submission. Apparently, I had to come to Union to see what I missed.

Philemon Revisited
Somehow, in all the interpretation that I did, I missed the intentionally liberative edge of the text. I first missed the opening salvo: the Pauline prayer in verse 6. It is worth noting the repetition (the function of which is similar to an inclusio) in verses 4-7: that Paul and Timothy receive encouragement, joy and thank God for the faith and fellowship of the intended audience. Verse 6 is different, as it is a prayer or wish of Paul’s, surrounded by the profession of encouragement that Paul and Timothy receive.6 It consequentially legitimizes the audience, their faith and fellowship.

Verse 6 also appears to point toward the argument that Onesimus’ redemption from slavery is part of the Christian call. The sharing/fellowship of the faith becomes all the more effective when the audience understands and sees the good done in Christ – contextually this seems to be the sibling love for one another. The author calls for the audience to understand deeper their faith and fellowship among believers – a faith and fellowship that is not oppressive or allows for the worldly structures into the “church in their house.”7 The placement of the prayer in verse 6, sandwiched between the saints and their encouraging love, appears to proclaim that this prayer, subtly calling for Onesimus’ release, is just as much for the good of the community as it will be a witness of the community.

I also missed the crucial, and indeed, explicit transition of Onesimus’ status in verse 16. As Paul intercedes, Onesimus ceases to remain at the level of a slave in his relationship to Philemon; rather, Onesimus becomes a brother – he is liberated within the Christian fellowship. The relationship between Philemon and Paul is not the only relationship that the text speaks to; it speaks also to the transforming of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus: “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but ho much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”8 The slave in the relationship becomes brother, and the master-slave hierarchical dynamic is transformed into one of brotherly equality.

Furthermore, the Letter of Paul to Philemon is a freeing argument and reaches beyond mere guiding already established relationships within the fellowship into Christ, the love that Paul calls for is redemptive and corrects our relationships one to another.9 As significant as the redemptive action that Christianity enacts when it brings people together as siblings, much more happens in the world outside of Christian relationships within the text. This text becomes a political text as Onesimus seems to be freed from the political world of the emperor who saw him as a slave; this letter is an action by Paul as the body of Christ intervening for liberation in other areas of the body of Christ from the oppressive structure of slavery that the world attempts to impress upon the fellowship.

Paul intercedes for Onesimus not only with words, but with action as well. Paul calls for the fellow Christian to not hold Onesimus liable, and to let Paul pay for any wrong.10 Yet Paul does not stop at mere repayment; he anticipates something far greater of Philemon: “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”11 And as Paul anticipates this greater action on the part of his fellow Christian, perhaps the freeing of Onesimus, Paul’s promise to visit confirms his own plans to follow up on his promises and personally see the matter to its conclusion.

Lastly, now I am hesitant to assert the link I made between Ephesians and Philemon was correct, or at least there ought to be a re-understanding the Ephesians text, otherwise my assertion that Philemon acts like an extension of the Ephesians text is woefully incongruent with the “household codes.”

Safety and the Edge
I find it rather telling that I developed an interpretation that recognized a love that turns over master and slave dynamics, but shied away in my application from the kind of dangerous love that was clearly called for. In fact, this interpretation I think says just as much about me as it does the text itself – certainly I have grown some, but to do so I needed to leave the white theology behind in order to find the edge within the text and its dangerous love.

1. v. 4, 7, 9, 16
2. v. 1, 3
3. v. 4-7
4. v. 9
5. v. 10-12
6. v. 4-5, 7
7. v. 2
8. v. 16
9. v. 16
10. v. 18-19
11. v. 21


3 thoughts on “Philemon Revisited

  1. a. steward says:

    Cool stuff, David. I would say that with the overlaps in the greetings and travel logs, there is an even more explicit connection with Colossians, which seems to throw a fork in the oft-repeated drone (i.e. Niebuhr to Barth) that the cosmic/transcendent Christ has no impact on ethics!

    But hey, what’s wrong with mutual submission? I agree that it’s not really the point of Philemon, but still I can’t see how it’s a patriarchal concept. Sure it gets twisted towards that end, but what good thing don’t we pervert?

  2. d. w. horstkoetter says:


    I assume you are referencing: “I saw the comfortable kind of love that a white, partriarchal Bible college will profess: mutual submission.”

    I admit the sentence was not entirely clear and it also does not lend it self to sounding tongue in cheek on the first reading. The point is, I don’t think a racially monolithic insitution can talk about mutual submission, for I agree with Cone that racism and sexism are linked. So while I might like mutual submission in an idealistic fashion (or with a feminist bent: opposed to descrimination on the basis of sex), that sentence is supposed to be contradictory – that the college wasn’t actually teaching mutual submission in race (wasn’t even mentioning it) and as such, you can see how it wasn’t actually teaching mutual gender submission, though it calls it that. Does that makes sense?

  3. a. steward says:

    Yeah, fair enough. If meaning is defined by intention, then I suppose your right in saying that when a place like Multnomah says “mutual submission,” what we really mean is not an equal or reciprocal submission, but one where women submit men and men “submit to Jesus.”
    But ideally understood, I take “mutual submission” in a yoderian sense, where submission is subversive, when it is voluntary, which it is when you have been liberated by Christ.

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