Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter. He wrote it in prison, and it is addressed to Philemon, who administered a house church in Turkey’s Lycus Valley, between Colossae and Laodicea. Paul’s letter to Philemon was, in the nineteenth century, used to defend both slavery and its abolition. The letter speaks of Paul’s endorsement of the house slave Onesimus, who Paul sends back to the church in Lycus Valley not as house slave, but as minister and assistant to Philemon.
This letter is not about slavery, though. It is about human dignity and Paul’s ability to propagate the faith while still in prison, by making good use of the men and women around him. Onesimus, whose name ironically means “useful,” was imprisoned with Paul at Ephesus. Paul instructs Onesimus in the faith. As Onesimus is about to be released, he sends him back to the Lycus Valley, not as a prisoner, but as a brother. Paul also instructs us with his polite language, preferring to ask rather than to order the church leader Philemon to take in Onesimus. Paul is so impressed with Onesimus that he promises to pay any past debt incurred by Onesimus.
The Orthodox churches believe that the former slave “Onesimus” mentioned in Paul’s letter is the same Onesimus who becomes the episkopos of Ephesus in 54 AD. If Paul wrote from prison in Ephesus, it is entirely possible that his letter to Philemon was intended to be a very understated, if not coded, endorsement of the ministry Onesimus was about to undertake. Paul’s defense of Onesimus and his petition to Philemon is rhetoric at its best, and the Letter to Philemon is considered a prime example of Paul’s ability to persuade with the written word.
For I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to (both) you and me.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.