It was about the year 60 A.D. The apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome, his first imprisonment there, living under house arrest. A slave named Onesimus came to Paul. Onesimus belonged to a Christian named Philemon who lived in Colossae. The slave had run away from his master, apparently stealing some things in the process. (money? his master’s signet ring to facilitate travel? food and clothing?)
Paul meets with Onesimus, converts him to the Christian faith, then sends him back to Colossae (along with Tychicus) bearing at least two letters: Colossians and Philemon. The letter of Philemon requests (orders) Philemon to pardon Onesimus and to send him back to Rome to help Paul. (Note Paul’s mention of “obedience” in Philemon 21, which lets us know this was more than just a suggestion)
A few points and a hypothetical or two:
- Under Roman law, harboring a runaway slave was illegal. If someone found a runaway slave, they had an obligation to return them to their master.
- Paul didn’t turn Onesimus over to the authorities. Being under house arrest, he had easy access to Roman law enforcement officials. Paul did not have Onesimus arrested.
- Paul’s priority was on teaching Onesimus the gospel. Paul didn’t say, “Return to your master, make amends for what you stole, then we can talk about Jesus.” It’s also reasonable to think that Paul waited until he had finished the Colossian letter before sending Onesimus back to his master.
- Would Paul have sent Onesimus back to a non-Christian master? We don’t know the answer to that one, but it’s interesting to think about. Runaway slaves could be punished rather severely under Roman law, especially those that had stolen something.
- What would Paul have done had Onesimus chosen not to return? Again, we don’t know. Had Onesimus rejected the gospel, it’s possible that he wouldn’t have agreed to return. Even as a Christian, he might have said, “I don’t think it fair for me to have to return to my master, so I’m not going to.”
- Onesimus may not have been a runaway. Frank Bellizi makes this interesting point on his blog. It’s possible that Onesimus was exercising a right to appeal to a third party (Paul) and had always intended to return to his master. I’m not convinced, but I thought I’d include that for those who’d like to study the possibility.
Lots of things to think about with Paul and the slave. What are your thoughts? Since we’ve been talking immigration, does any of this shed any light on how we should respond to that issue?