Philemon, A Study in Hierarchy   Leave a comment


Content Note: Authority, Slavery, Passive Aggression

 

I was reading Slactivist the other day when I came across this post about the Biblical book of Philemon (I’ve reproduced the full text of Philemon at the bottom of this post). I like Slacktivist. He does good work. His deconstruction of the Left Behind series is, for me, the gold standard of internet deconstructions.

But I did not like the post.

Actually, my reaction to what the post was saying was so negative that I realized I didn’t like the book of Philemon, either. The post was revealing because it demonstrated in a more straightforward way the screwed up power dynamics that are present in Philemon. Which is actually kind of sad, since the story of Philemon and Onesimus is mostly a nice story.

Once upon a time, Philemon was a man and a Christian, and Onesimus was his slave and a Christian. Onesimus ran away from his master, and came across a Christian named Paul. Paul and Onesimus took care of each other for a time, and then Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, expecting him to be welcomed not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Presumably, Onesimus was welcomed with open arms.

It’s a nice story, and there’s a lot of goodness in it. Paul even goes into it trying for the right effect. Paul requests that Onesimus be welcomes:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.

That’s a nice thought, and a good idea.  It would be most beneficial for Philemon if Philemon acceded to Paul’s request because “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” That result is the one that would allow Onesimus to return “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Unfortunately, that result is no longer possible. Why is that result no longer possible? Because hierarchy, that’s why.

Seriously. Paul can croon about how they’re all brothers in Christ, but it isn’t really true. And Paul knows it isn’t true. Let’s look at what else Paul says to Philemon, besides the Brothers in Christ bit.

I could be bold and order you.”

“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.”

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”

It should also be noted that the letter wasn’t just addressed to Philemon, but to Philemon, a few other people, and the entire church that meets at Philemon’s house. This was not Paul taking Philemon aside and saying, “This is what I think you should do.” No, this was Paul calling out Philemon in front of Philemon’s entire church. And Paul ends by saying that he’s planning to visit them soon. So Paul’s suggestion is accompanied with a “I’m going to be checking up on you soon, so don’t screw this up.”

Essentially, it is impossible that Philemon could refuse Paul’s request. Which also means, in many ways, it is impossible for Philemon to accept Paul’s request. Philemon can choose how to feel about following Paul’s order, but that’s basically it.

Which, I guess, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I mean, we’re talking about the difference between Onesimus being welcomed as an equal a Brother in Christ and Onesimus being punished for running away before returning to work as a slave. So Paul pulling rank isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least in this situation.

And that’s the thing. Hierarchy can be useful. It can help. It can work for marginalized people as it did when the Civil Rights movement used the federal government to force state governments to clean up their acts. But it can’t ever be the foundation for a really Christian relationship.

“I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love,” Paul writes. It’s a good thought. It’s the right thought. But given the hierarchal relationship between Paul and Philemon, it isn’t a workable thought. And so we find hierarchy, as it so often does, masquerading under the guise of a request that isn’t a request. But that’s what the book of Philemon is. It is a command posing as request. It is a letter based on a falsehood. It is hierarchy hiding itself in a polite lie. And we shouldn’t ever forget that when we read about Philemon and Onesimus.

 

*****************

Philemon

New International Version (NIV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

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