Paul’s very brief, pointed letter to Philemon deals with the relationship between a Christian slaveowner and a runaway slave. This letter is NOT what many modern readers think Paul “should” have written. In the modern passion for social justice, many readers are greatly offended that Paul does not issue a full-throated and explicit condemnation of chattel slavery – and thus miss the fact that the Holy Spirit leads Paul to “dig deeper” than the surface issue of these two men’s socio-economic relationship, to speak directly to their relationship as fellow Christians.
Philemon was a Christian at Colossae; we know nothing of his background, occupation, family, or manner of life before he became a Christian. We might reasonably suppose that Apphia (vs. 2) was his wife, and that Archippus was their son, who had worked with Paul in some capacity (cf. Colossians 4:17), although this is not certain. The fact that the church met in the home of Philemon, combined with his status as a slaveowner suggests that he must have been relatively prosperous, if not wealthy. It is generally thought that Paul wrote this letter about the same time as the letter to the Colossian church, during his first imprisonment in Rome (about 58-62 A.D.).
The “issue” of the letter is a slave named Onesimus (“Profitable”). There is NO “backstory” given here to provide context for us (perhaps the situation was well-known to the church at Colossae), but it is clear that the slave Onesimus had run away from Philemon, his owner/master. Some scholars believe that Onesimus had also stolen something – besides himself – from Philemon. Whether or not this was the case, under Roman Law Philemon would have been allowed to have Onesimus executed (by crucifixion!) for the crime of “stealing himself.”
How Onesimus came to be in contact with Paul during the time he was a prisoner in Rome, we cannot tell; but it does NOT appear that Onesimus was also a prisoner, since Paul proposed to send him “home” to Philemon (vs. 12). It WAS during this time that Paul had converted Onesimus to Christ (vs. 10), thus creating a relationship between the runaway slave and his master that had not existed when he ran away – they were NOW brothers in Christ.
In what is probably the single most-important lesson from this letter, Paul points out to Philemon that he could command Philemon to “do what’s right” toward Onesimus, he chose instead to plead with him to do so (vv. 8-9). Here is where the modern reader often stumbles; cynicism urges us to suppose that Philemon would not choose to “do the right thing” toward his slave unless forced to by a direct command from Paul, and the absence of that command is sometimes misconstrued as Paul being “weak” regarding the inherent unfairness and cruelty of slavery. What we actually see here is an inspired appeal for a Christian to “do the right thing” because it was the “right” thing to do!