Reflection on Philemon

St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon presents a study in the Christian use of power. Philemon has civil power over Onesimus, and Paul has (or claims) ecclesiastical power over Philemon; Paul wants Philemon to abjure his power over Onesimus, and so chooses a rhetorical strategy that abjures his own power over his suffragan: “Though I might well make bold in Christ to prescribe a duty to thee, I prefer to appeal to this charity of thine.” 1 

From the text, we can sketch only an outline of events: Philemon, who had at some point been converted by St. Paul, was at least the benefactor and perhaps even the presbyter or bishop of a house church. 2 Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, fled and happened upon Paul in prison, who (as was his way) converted Onesimus. Paul, we infer, then sent Onesimus back to Philemon with the eponymous epistle in which he exhorts Philemon not to stand on his legal rights (unhappy consequences attended runaway slaves in the Roman Empire 3), but rather to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

The letter echoes admonitions found throughout the new testament that converts have put away their old selves and become something new, 4 and reflects the logical corollary that this conversion “should necessarily have effects on the social level” 5: The Christian community must deal internally with grievances among the brethren rather than involving civil authorities. 6 Before his conversion, “Onesimus represented the least respectable type of the least respectable class in the social scale,” says Lightfoot, 7 but “[d]o not think of him any longer as a slave,” says Paul; “he is something more than a slave, a well-loved brother, to me in a special way; much more, then, to thee, now that both nature and Christ make him thy own.” St. John Chrysostom aptly remarks that having been converted, Philemon “is worthy not only of pardon, but of honor,” 8 and that “the name of the Church does not suffer masters to be angry, even though they are reckoned together with their servants. For the Church knows not the distinction of master and servant. By good actions and by sins she defines the one and the other.” 9

The text affords no basis for speculation about Philemon’s response. The Apostolic Constitutions, for whatever they are worth, claim that Onesimus went on to be Bishop of Berea, in Macedonia, another Paul-associated church 10—which, if credited, suggests a positive outcome. 11 I also think that we have to take Paul’s kind words for Philemon (despite their sycophantic ring to the informal standards of modern American English 12) at face-value, which suggests that Paul expects compliance. Haydock has a nice line suggesting what Paul was trying to achieve, putting these words, rhetorically, in the apostle’s mouth: “The pardon I crave is not for your slave, but for my son.” 13


  1. Chrysostom remarks: “As if he had said, I know indeed that I can effect it by commanding with much authority, from things which have already taken place. But because I am very solicitous about this matter, I beseech you. He shows both these things at once; that he has confidence in him, for he commands him; and that he is exceedingly concerned about the matter, wherefore he beseeches him.” Homily #2 on Philemon, available at (all online resources as last visited March 10, 2014).
  2. Lightfoot concludes that it was in Collossae, but the text alone seems inconclusive. See J.B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon 304-05 (1879). Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the Apostolic Constitutions list Philemon as Bishop of Colossae. Lib. VII, cap. IV, available at While this is easy to dismiss as legend, see, e.g., Lightfoot, at 306; Edward Horn, Annotations on the Epistle to Philemon in 10 The Lutheran Commentary 224 (Jacobs, ed. 1897), the legend is not without circumstantial support. Two points stand out.
    The first might be considered under the heading “if not Philemon then who?” What was Philemon’s relation to the church that met in his house? Was he merely its benefactor? Given Paul’s concern for proper appointment of officers for churches, see, e.g., Tit 1:5, whether we term them ἐπισκόπους, πρεσβυτέρους, or any given rendering of those terms, surely the church that met at chez Philemon either had such an officer or was subject to an officer with municipality- or region-wide jurisdiction. Is it inconceivable that a benefactor such as Philemon might have been appointed as bishop? It is at least plausible.
    The second we might consider under the heading “quo warranto?” Paul claims that he has authority to order Philemon in regard to his conduct with regard to Onesimus. How so? Do bishops usually have authority to order laymen to buy or sell property (as Onesimus, unpalatable though it is to us to acknowledge it, was deemed to be by Roman law)? If Philemon was Paul’s suffragan rather than merely his lay subject, his claim to such authority seems more plausible.
  3. See Jennifer Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity 88-89 (2006); cf. Lightfoot, at 321-22.
  4. See, e.g., Eph 4:24.
  5. Instr. Libertatis nuntius, IV.13, 76 AAS 876, 885 (CDF, 1984), available at
  6. See Mt 18:15 et seq.
  7. Lightfoot, supra note 2, at 311.
  8. Homily #2, supra note 1.
  9. Homily #1 on Philemon, available at; cf. Encyc. In plurimus, no. 8 (Leo XIII, 1888).
  10. Acts 17:10-13.
  11. See Apostolic Constitutions, supra note 2.
  12. It is hard for me to imagine that, if I were Paul, I would have adopted this rhetorical framework, which rings insincere to modern ears, smacking of cynical manipulation and flattery (see Summa Theologica II-II q.115, available at
  13. Haydock’s Commentary on Philemon, available at