“On the Basis of 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."

(Philemon 1:8-9a)

The apostle Paul's letter to Philemon has an interesting literary parallel in Pliny the Younger's letter to his friend Sabinianus. The two letters are only superficially similar. Sabinianus' freedman (one degree above a slave) had run away and come to Pliny for help in much the same way Philemon's slave Onesimus had run away to Paul in prison. Pliny was a powerful man, a Roman Senator. You may have heard of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a famous natural historian and contemporary of Paul, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvious.

Like Paul, Pliny (the younger) writes a letter requesting Sabinianus to accept the runaway freedman back. Unlike Paul, Pliny appeals to self-interest and sides with Sabinianus against the freedman. He says, "Yes, I know you are angry; and I know, too, that you have right to be angry. But mercy earns most praise when anger is fully justified... anger is always torture for a soft heart like yours."

He says of the freedman, "I've given him a sharp and severe talking-to, and I've warned him clearly that I won't make such a request again." His request is not for full reconciliation and peace between the two but rather a concession to the freedman's youth and to Sabinianus' kindness ("He's young, he's in tears, and you have a kind heart."). Pliny wants the freedman to go back to Sabinianus and apologize and for Sabinianus not to beat him too badly for running away. He is perfectly happy to keep the heirarchy in place upon his return.

Compare all that to Paul in his letter to Philemon! Paul's motivations and appeal are entirely different. Paul is not simply asking Philemon to take Onesimus back and let bygones be bygones. He is aiming for the Christian virtue of love that will result in self-sacrificial forgiveness and full reconciliation. This requires humility on both sides - Onesimus must be humble enough to ask for forgiveness while Philemon must be humble enough to grant it.

Paul encourages Philemon and Onesimus to this humility by establishing the theological fact that they both share fellowship (koinonia) with God together in Christ. Now that Onesimus is part of God's new family in Christ he has become Philemon's "beloved brother" and spiritual equal (Phm. 1:16; cf. Col. 3:10-11).

Interestingly, Paul does not request that Philemon release Onesimus from slavery upon his return (though, I believe he may be hinting at such an outcome in v.21). Slavery, after all, was one of the great evils of the ancient world. Certainly, the dehumanizing practice of slavery was part of the old way and not in continuity with the new order of things that Jesus brought about (2 Cor. 5:16-17). Why not order all Christian slave owners to release their slaves?

Paul was committed to Christ's new way over against the old (Col. 3) but he never gave such a loud and clear protest against the institution of slavery. In fact, at that moment in social history, such an outcry might have done more harm than good, making life harder for Christian slaves and painting Christianity as a political and social revolution not unlike the many worldly rebellions before and after it.

His method was much subtler. He knows that, in principle, it is far better to be free than to be a slave (1 Cor. 7:21-23). But, like Jesus, Paul's way of changing the world is to plant a tiny mustard seed, which seems small at first, but grows into a large, speading tree. In the meantime, he teaches Christian slaves and masters to treat each other as human beings, with love, forgiveness, mercy and respect (Col. 3; esp. 3:22-4:1).

Paul appeals to the heart so that the love of God, shown to us in Jesus, takes firm root and his reign over us grows from the inside out. When that tree blossoms in greater understanding of God's love for us we are then equipped to love others in the same way.