Does the Bible Condone Slavery? (Philemon 1)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

8Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,16no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Philemon 1:8–16

God’s Providence and Care

Paul now addresses the delicate matter at hand. While we may not be able to gain absolute certainty regarding the circumstances in which Onesimus left Philemon and joined Paul, it is clear that Onesimus was a slave and, as such, was in an extremely precarious position. He, in common with all slaves in Greco-Roman society, was regarded as the possession of his master and, depending on the attitude of his master, could face violence and even death upon his return.1

In God’s providence and care for Onesimus, however, it turns out that he had a gracious and skillful advocate in Paul. Paul’s appeal to Philemon shows rhetorical skill as well as pastoral sensitivity. It would be unfair, however, to suggest that Paul manipulates Philemon. While it is true that Paul deals with the delicate situation very shrewdly, there is no reason to believe that anything Paul says is insincere or that he did not seek at all times to act in the best interests of both Onesimus and Philemon.

Paul begins with the Greek conjunction dio (“accordingly”), indicating that the strength of the relationship between Philemon and Paul just described is the foundation for how he is going to address this potentially awkward situation. Paul’s style here is full of qualifications, designed to ensure that the communication between the two men is entirely clear in content and tone. Moo notes that verses 8–14 begin and end with Paul’s desire for Philemon to act according to his free will, not by compulsion.2The relationships between the main figures are key to the flow of this letter.

Paul immediately inserts a qualification, asserting his boldness (parrēsia). Paul uses this term seven times apart from this instance (2 Cor. 3:12; 7:4; Eph. 3:12; 6:19; Phil. 1:20; Col. 2:15; 1 Tim. 3:13). In some cases it refers to forthrightness and fearlessness in proclaiming the gospel, but it is also used in 2 Corinthians to refer to Paul’s readiness within the Christian community to confront people frankly. This boldness is “in Christ.” Paul is not simply claiming he can be assertive whenever he wants to be. Rather, he speaks from the context of his calling in Christ and the authority it entails.

Another Way

But Paul chooses another way. In verses 9 and 10, a key verb, parakaleō, is used twice in quick succession to describe Paul’s manner of approach. Although this term may be used with a wide range of connotations, from a gentle encouragement to a strong exhortation (cf. BDAG, s.v. παρακαλεω), the context here shows that Paul contrasts this approach with the “boldness” he might have shown. I agree, therefore, with the classification of both occurrences by BDAG as meaning “to make a strong request for something, request, implore, entreat,” with “strength” understood as a matter of passion rather than of authority (italics original). The appeal Paul makes is “on account of [dia followed by the accusative] love.” Paul does not specify whose love he refers to here. There is scope for a breadth of understanding that would include the love between Paul and Philemon, between Paul and Onesimus, and within the Christian community, Paul’s reference to his age is intriguing. There is a textual question regarding whether the reading should be “ambassador” (a difference of only one letter in Gk.), but the reading “old man” appears to fit the context better (cf. Moo3 and Metzger4). The whole passage suggests that Paul is appealing repeatedly to the value Philemon places on relationships and Christian love. Paul’s reference to himself as an aged prisoner fits that context well.

Spiritually Transformed

Paul speaks of Onesimus as his “child,” adding the explanation, “whose father I became in chains” (AT). Onesimus is described in verses 10–13 using three relative clauses beginning with the relative pronoun hon. The first clause (v. 10b) describes a birth: “whose father I became.” The new birth Paul speaks of here, while not explained, indicates a spiritual transformation accomplished by God, with Paul acting as agent (cf. 1 Cor. 4:15).

Further elaboration of this relative clause describing Onesimus is provided by a parenthetical clause. Here Paul makes the well-known wordplay on Onesimus’s name, which means “useful.” Paul uses two adjectives, achrēstos (“useless”) and euchrēstos (“useful”), related to the meaning of Onesimus’s name to indicate that the spiritual transformation of Onesimus has not only fundamentally changed his character and relationship with Paul but has also transformed his relationship with Philemon. Pao suggests that it is not necessary to read “useless” in a particularly negative light, beyond a general contrast between the past and the present.5 If, however, Onesimus is understood to be a runaway slave, then the play on words becomes more relevant.

The second relative clause describes Paul’s sacrificial act in sending Onesimus back to Philemon. The depth of the relationship between Paul and Onesimus is expressed by the term splanchna (“heart”), the second of its three occurrences in this short letter (vv. 7, 12, 20; cf. comment on verse 7). It is remarkable that Paul can describe this new Christian brother, who comes from a very different social context than Paul the Roman citizen, as one who is his “very heart.”

Christian Servanthood

The third relative clause describes Paul’s desire to keep Onesimus with him. Paul appears to acknowledge that this would not be a normal situation. The purpose (expressed by hina, “in order that”) of Paul’s desire is that Onesimus might “serve” (diakonē) Paul on Philemon’s behalf (hyper sou). It is striking that Paul comments on how Onesimus might have acted on Philemon’s behalf, even though Philemon was a master who had slaves to serve him. This gets to the heart of the distinctive ethic of servanthood lying at the heart of Christian community.

ESV Expository Commentary

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

Paul has clearly and fully expressed his desire to keep Onesimus. Now he indicates that he has subordinated his personal wishes to the good of Philemon, so that Philemon might have an opportunity to do a good act (to agathon sou) freely. This attitude models the concern for the good of others that Paul has seen in Philemon previously (v. 7) and that he will now ask Philemon to show with respect to Onesimus.

Paul speculates (using the cautious expression, tacha, “perhaps”) regarding the situation. Paul’s words do not permit us to clarify the precise circumstances of the parting of Onesimus and Philemon, but Paul reads these circumstances in the context of God’s sovereign providence, knowing the circumstances have a distinct purpose. That purpose, suggests Paul, is for a temporary parting to be replaced by an eternal togetherness. This short statement is nicely balanced, the verb echōristhē (“parted”) corresponding to apechēs (“have back”) and the temporal phrase pros hōran (“for a while”) corresponding to aiōnion (“forever”).

This verse qualifies the apparent balance of verse 15, adding an element of discontinuity to the new situation. The designation “bondservant” was once the appropriate description of Onesimus, but that is no longer the case; now he is a “beloved brother.” Onesimus is already a beloved brother to Paul, even if to nobody else (“especially to me”). This is a matter not simply of a subjective change of attitude but of a new birth. Paul now offers Philemon the opportunity to embrace that reality in his relationship to Onesimus, a relationship that, according to Paul, should be all the more transformed.

Notes:

  1. Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ (NSBT; Leicester: Apollos, 1999), 25–45, 57–61; Thompson, Marianne Meye. Colossians and Philemon. THNTC. Grand Rapids, MI:
    Eerdmans, 2005, 202–204; Pao, David W. Colossians and Philemon. ZECNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012., 348–351.
  2. Moo, Douglas J. Moo, Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 399.
  3. Ibid., 404–405.
  4. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: UBS, 1994), 588.
  5. Pao, David W, Colossians and Philemon, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 388.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.



Popular Articles in This Series


Related Resources


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.