PHILEMON: A GENTLE AND GRACIOUS PERSUASION By Cathy Byrd
Philemon, a brief occasional letter authored by the Apostle Paul while in prison, provides counsel to specific people on the practical matter of dealing with Onesimus, a runaway slave. At the same time, it offers Christians today a model for engaging in advocacy and exercising personal influence. Paul’s persuasive rhetoric in this letter demonstrates strategies that are worthy of our consideration as we seek to influence others and demonstrates Paul’s general preference for persuasion over coercive exercise of his apostolic authority. Examining the specific strategies that Paul uses to make his case, I will highlight four key aspects: appeal to honor, personal identification with others, judicious use of authority and personal power, and presumption of good.
The art of letter writing is almost lost on today’s generation that is trained to use abbreviated shorthand to communicate its thoughts and compress them into 140 characters of type. But the genius of Paul’s letter is that, though it is short, it is an eloquent and sensitive personal communication that is persuasive.
The letter follows a typically Hellenistic form, containing an introductory greeting, followed by a thanksgiving, the body of the letter, and the greetings and benediction that form the closing. It was necessitated by events that are stated or implied in the letter and brings the question of slavery to the forefront in the early Christian church, as Paul does in several other epistles. Because of the delicate and tactful way that Paul addresses the issue, Philemon can be read from either of two perspectives: 1.) a conservative reading that upholds the established social order, or 2.) an emancipatory perspective that advocates the “peaceful and gradual abolition of slavery”. Saarinen, in advocating for the latter perspective, notes that Paul may have cloaked his intention in vague and concealed language in order to comply with the Roman law. However one chooses to read Paul’s intention, Paul does make it clear that the mandate of brotherly love under the shared fellowship with Christ transcends the relationship of master to slave.
Onesimus was a slave belonging to Philemon, a Christian from Colossae. It appears that Onesimus not only ran away (Philemon 15-16) , but that he may have taken money or goods belonging to Philemon, as well (vv. 18-19). If not liable for direct loss of financial assets, at the very least, Onesimus’ absence from his master’s house would have resulted in a potential loss of the economic value of his work. He seems to have found his way to the city where Paul was imprisoned. There Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ (v.10). Finding that Onesimus had skills that could be useful to him in ministry (v. 11) Paul sought to persuade Philemon to act toward Onesimus as he would act toward Paul himself and to send Onesimus back to serve with Paul in ministry. In keeping with the emancipatory view, one might read in this that, in complying with these requests, Philemon would likely find it necessary to free Onesimus.
Onesimus was in a very precarious situation, as a runaway slave. As Risto Saarinen has observed, the institution of slavery was legally established in the Roman empire and “in many ways sustained the daily life of both society and household, providing the basic conditions of life for both masters and their slaves.” A runaway slave in the Roman world could easily slip away and disappear into one of a number of groups – robbers, rebels, mariners, etc. However, upon capture he would likely face even harsher treatment, possibly including imprisonment.
2. Persuasive Strategies
Honor and shame were important concepts among the people in the communities where Paul travelled and in the broader Greco-Roman culture of the time. People sought to avoid shame and be recognized for their honorable behavior among their peers, family members and patrons, a very common relationship of support at the time. Paul makes use of this cultural motivation by stating the honorable course of action in the letter, “what you ought to do” (v. 8) and “no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother”(v. 16).
He also leverages the power of honor by involving others who would serve as silent (or perhaps not so silent) witnesses to the communication between himself and Philemon. Beginning with his greeting, it is clear that Paul and Philemon are not the only parties to this exchange. While this letter is quite brief, it includes the names of ten people besides Paul. Timothy, Paul’s frequent traveling companion and co-laborer in ministry to the Gentiles, is seen to be present in the writing and sending of this letter (v.1). The letter is addressed not only to Philemon, but also to Apphia (possibly Philemon’s wife), Archippus (a fellow worker in the church), and to the house church members who meet in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Furthermore, at the end of the letter Paul includes a greeting from five additional witnesses to his side of this issue (v. 23-24). By involving these other persons, Paul is assuring that his letter, and its appeal to Philemon, will receive a broad hearing. While some of the content is, in fact, relevant to the other recipients, like Paul’s gratitude for their ministry (v.4-7) and the fact that Paul intends to travel to Colossae and be with them again (v.22), the letter is mostly about Paul’s business with Philemon himself. Yet, because it is ensconced within a letter addressed more broadly to the group, Philemon will have to receive its contents under the eyes of his brothers and sisters in Christ. So his reaction to the letter and his response to Paul’s request will be on display for all to see. Philemon has not only the financial value of his runaway slave at stake, but he has his reputation as a Christian and a man of honor at stake.
How can Philemon respond to Paul’s appeal in the presence of so many witnesses in a way that saves face and maintains his stature among the congregation members there in Colossae? It seems clear that he would have no alternative but to concede to Paul’s wishes or risk appearing ungrateful to Paul, his patron of sorts, since it appears that Philemon himself was brought to faith in Christ by Paul (v. 19). And even though Philemon might be well within his legal right to take action against Onesimus, by rejecting Paul’s request Philemon would also risk appearing punitive or unmerciful toward Onesimus with Paul and among the Christians at Colossae. In verse 9, “I appeal to you on the basis of love,” and in Paul’s closing benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” (v. 25) Paul is clearly appealing not to the letter of the law in Philemon’s response in this case, but to the spirit of the law of love and inviting Philemon to act graciously, with the same love he has shown other saints (v. 5)
“The more abstract and theological purpose of Philemon has to do with the
teaching of freedom, love, and gratitude. Christians should be able to renounce their legal and moral claims and learn to act out of love and gratitude.”
Another strategy that Paul employs to good effect is personal identification with others. In the opening greeting Paul refers to himself as a “prisoner of Christ”. In this gentle way, he may be seen to be taking a stand of solidarity with Onesimus, whom Philemon would be well within his legal rights to have imprisoned for his escape. Since Paul is, also, literally, physically a prisoner in chains, presumably for his preaching activities, he is also illuminating a spiritual reality, demonstrating to Philemon and the other members of the Colossae house church that they all are indeed “prisoners of Christ Jesus”, too, by virtue of their submission to His authority in their lives. In the case of this greeting, both what is said and what is not said is significant. Notably, Paul does not include his status as an apostle in the greeting, as he does in some letters, since he does not intend to use his apostolic authority to accomplish what is being sought.
In another example of identification, Paul equates Onesimus with Philemon when he says “so that he (Onesimus) could take your place in helping me” (v.13).
Additionally, Paul’s use of many relational and familial terms in this letter further serves to identify him with his readers. Some of those are “brother”, “fellow worker”, “sister”, “fellow soldier”, “my son”, “my very heart”, and “partner”. In verses 7 and 20 Paul refers to Philemon as a brother and in verse 16, he refers to Onesimus as a brother, effectively equating their statuses with one another and with himself. Jesus, too, set a clear priority on the spiritual family relationships over other relationships, biological or legal, in Mark 3:32-35. However, becoming a brother in the faith does not automatically erase the slave/master relationship that exists legally.
Paul also uses their shared ministry of the gospel as a means of identifying himself with his readers in Colossae, too. He acknowledges their love for the saints, their active sharing of their faith, their understanding of being heirs in Christ to “good things”, and that they have refreshed the hearts of the saints (v.5-7). By enumerating these acts of generosity and ministry, Paul suggests a status in the kingdom of God for his readers as equal, in at least some respects, to his own, as ministers of the gospel.
Perhaps the most direct example of this persuasive strategy of identification is Paul’s request that Philemon welcome Onesimus “as you would welcome me” (v. 17). This serves as a powerful amulet of protection for Onesimus. Under ordinary circumstances, considering the potential for brutality in the Roman culture, presenting himself to Philemon in person could have subjected him to legal and perhaps physical consequences that could be significantly adverse. But with this letter in hand from Paul, serving as Paul’s personal emissary, it is clear that Onesimus has a powerful ally and protector. Another key factor in positioning the return of Onesimus in its most favorable light is Paul’s insistence that any debt owed to Philemon by Onesimus is to be charged to Paul, an example of Paul personally assuming the liability for and identifying with Onesimus. How could Philemon deny one who is obviously so close to him and who holds both him and Onesimus in such high regard as Paul apparently does?
The third technique employed by Paul is the judicious use of authority and personal power. Paul’s personal prerogative to act authoritatively appears to be a function of Paul’s apostolic authority over the church in Colossae. As the one who introduced Philemon to Christ, Paul says “although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do” (v.8). But it may also be a function of his patronal role in Philemon’s life. Even though Paul possesses these prerogatives, he chooses not to exercise any of them. Paul acknowledges that he has the authority to order Philemon to comply with his request (v. 8), a fact that would be clear to Philemon, but he makes it clear that he wants Philemon’s decision to be “spontaneous and not forced” (v.14). Paul desires Philemon’s consent rather than peremptorily appropriating Onesimus’s services for himself, without regard to Philemon’s prior claim on Onesimus (v. 14), which would have violated their Christian fellowship with one another.
The final technique in Paul’s letter to Philemon is the presumption of good in response to the requested action. To a degree this technique is related to the issue of honor. Due to Paul’s knowledge of the strong imperative of honor in the culture, he would be right to expect that an appeal to the honor of Philemon in doing what he “ought to do” would yield the desired result. Additionally, Paul expresses “great joy and encouragement” because of the way this congregation has “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (v. 7). So, when Paul later refers to Onesimus as “my very heart” (v. 12), one might assume that Paul is expecting Onesimus’ status with the community from which he had fled to be “refreshed”, since Onesimus is now also one of the “saints”. Furthermore, it is clear that Paul himself expects to have his own heart “refreshed” by the aid of Onesimus, with Philemon’s permission and blessing, while Paul continues in prison (v.20). These repeated references to hearts and refreshing that weave through the greeting and the body of the letter infuse it with both an acknowledgement of and an appeal to brotherly love. In verse 21 Paul expresses his confidence that Philemon is going to do even more than has been asked. Paul’s expectation of a response above and beyond the requested action here is a reflection of Christ’s own teaching in Matthew 5:40-41, “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Paul does not explicitly direct Philemon to free Onesimus, but it seems clear that he is appealing to Philemon’s good graces and expressing confidence that Philemon will do what he “ought to do” and “even more than I ask”. This may refer to an expectation that Philemon will grant legal status to Onesimus that is in keeping with his new spiritual status of equality with Philemon, Paul, and all of those at Colossae and in the kingdom of God.
“The nature of Paul’s approach to Philemon serves as a reminder for us to appeal to the highest Christian motivations. This is a challenge to pastors, evangelists,
teachers, and all who have reason to care about the right behavior of others. We need to take the risks Paul did in trusting God and the power of faith and love.”
3. Result of Paul’s persuasive appeal
We are given no indication of the outcome of Paul’s plea to Philemon either in this letter or elsewhere. There are, however, several points that suggest the probability that Paul’s direct request for Onesimus’ service in ministry and his implied appeal for the liberation of Onesimus were fulfilled. John Knox, in his book, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul, suggests that Onesimus himself may have been the one who aided the publication and distribution of the letter, as tradition holds that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus. What better or more authoritative way could Onesimus honor his master-turned-benefactor among the churches than to assure that Paul’s letter received a wide reading, becoming a testimony to Philemon’s honor and generosity? The letter also establishes Onesimus’ status as a co-laborer with Paul in the kingdom and would further serve as Onesimus’ proof of his liberation by Philemon. This wide distribution of the letter, as well as its creditable authorship, would likely have strengthened the case for its inclusion in the canon.
In summary, by utilizing the persuasive strategies listed, Paul demonstrates the close, loving relationship he has with Philemon and the Colossae church and his knowledge of what motivates Philemon – cultural honor and patronage, Christian standards of ethical behavior, obedience to authority, and affection for Paul. Paul leverages all of these in advocacy for the benefit of his beloved new son in Christ, Onesimus, and for his own needs, as well as for the needs of the kingdom of God.
As Harris notes, Paul “demonstrates a style of exerting influence without coercing, of persuading without violating the personhood of the other individual. Here is a model for parents, church people, and leaders with vested interest in the outcome of others’ decisions.”
To appreciate the power of this artful and brief epistle, we might well remember these words from nineteenth century theologian and music publisher John S. Dwight’s translation of the beloved Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” which reflect Paul’s call to Philemon to accept Onesimus as his brother in Christ and the ultimate goal that will result from such koinonia:
“Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace;
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.”
(from “Cantique de Noël,” by Cappeau de Roquermaure)
Harris, Murray J. Colossians and Philemon: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans Publishing Co. (1991) pp. 241-288.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction
to New Testament Ethics, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. (1996) p.40
Martin, Earnest D. Believers Church Bible commentary. Herald Press. 1993. eBook.
New York, NY: Harper Collins. (1996) pp. 239-279.
O’Brien, Peter T. Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 44. Waco, Texas: Word Books. (1982) pp. 265-308.
Saarinen, Risto. The Pastoral Epistles with Philemon and Jude, Brazos Theological
Commentary on the Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, (2008) pp. 199-211.