My friend and former colleague Scot McKnight has published an excellent commentary on Philemon. His commentary, The Letter to Philemon is one of the newest additions to The New International Commentary on New Testament series.
The publisher’s promotional information describes McKnight’s commentary as follows:
Paul’s letter to Philemon carries a strong message of breaking down social barriers and establishing new realities of conduct and fellowship. It is also a disturbing text that has been used to justify slavery. Though brief, Philemon requires close scrutiny.
In this commentary Scot McKnight offers careful textual analysis of Philemon and brings the practice of modern slavery into conversation with the ancient text. Too often, McKnight says, studies of this short letter gloss over the issue of slavery—an issue that must be recognized and dealt with if Christians are to read Philemon faithfully. Pastors and scholars will find in this volume the insight they need to preach and teach this controversial book in meaningful new ways.
In a recent post on his blog “Jesus Creed,” McKnight gave 10 reasons why today’s church needs to read and teach the book of Philemon. The first three reasons deal with the problem of slavery, power, and reconciliation. This is how McKnight describes the three issues:
#1: Slavery has immediate connections to our world.
The slave Onesimus has probably run away; the slavemaster, Philemon, has probably been shamed (at least in the household); Philemon probably was also financially damaged. So we are looking at a slave who has offended the honor of a slavemaster. We are looking at a slave who is willing to return.
How Philemon treats his slave Onesimus puts the Christian gospel and Christian ethics on the line.
In our world, any situation where status differentials are at work is immediately addressed by Paul’s letter to Philemon.
In our world there are millions of slaves, and this letter tells Christians in cultures where there are slaves to fight for the brothers and sisters and to establish cultures where siblingship not slavery becomes the norm. (I have a long section in the book on modern slavery; this section was researched by Justin Gill, an assistant of mine.) We may not have slavery as some cultures today but we’ve got status differentials not unlike slavery.
Racism, white nationalism, populism, elitism, marginalization, power differential, economic privilege, economic power, political power. I could go on but I leave you to fill in the blanks. Paul’s letter to Philemon addresses each of these and many more situations.
What is Paul’s answer to the Philemon-Onesimus differential in status and power? “No longer a slave, better than a slave, a brother or a sibling.” That’s the Christian answer to these differentials: No longer! No longer equality, justice, eradication of status differentials by the Body of Christ in the Body of Christ and beyond!
#2: Power is perennially a problem.
This point is entailed in #1, but power itself deserves to be addressed. It is too easy to create a culture of power and authority that becomes a culture of authoritarianism and inequality and injustice. It is far harder to create a culture where power is surrendered for the good of the other. “No longer a slave, better than a slave, a sibling.” Power that is not used to create cultures of siblingship are not Christian cultures.
Everything learned about power in our culture – well not everything but almost everything – is challenged by what the gospel teaches and announces as true in Christ: power is not Christian until it is power-for, power-with, and power-unto. Power is not Christian when it is coercive, forceful, and empire-building.
#3: Reconciliation is the message.
The slaveowner Philemon had options: he could punish Onesimus and in that punishment implicate any other slaves connected to Onesimus. He could diminish his status in a number of ways. Philemon could “bring justice” to use the language of so many in our culture.
What was Paul’s message? Welcome him as you would welcome me, he tells Philemon. Which means Paul wanted reconciliation: he wanted Philemon to welcome, to embrace, to forgive, to restore, and to reconcile. To start all over again, but no longer as a slave and no longer as a slaveowner. To start all over again as siblings – Paul, Philemon, Onesimus. Three brothers, not three levels of power or hierarchy.
You can read the other seven reasons by reading McKnight’s post, “10 Reasons Your Church Needs Philemon.”
In my next post I will review McKnight’s discussion on slavery in the Roman world. Then in an upcoming post I will discuss how McKnight understands Paul’s message to Philemon. His understanding of Paul’s letter is focused on whether or not Paul is proposing the manumission of Philemon’s slave.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary