Philemon: The Background
Why place Philemon into a discussion on leadership? Some people lead by character. They are seen as leaders by how they do what they do. Others have leadership because of social or corporate rank. Philemon is in the latter category.
This is the first reality that forms the background to the letter and Paul’s decision to write it. As an owner of a slave who had run away, Philemon has social control of the situation. Paul is addressing him as one who has choices and leverage in how the situation is to be handled. It seems likely that both are aware that Onesimus has been found since so little is said about the status of the slave. So the issue is how will Philemon lead given the slave has been found.
Second, there is an “injustice” that the slave has performed against Philemon in the social context of ancient slavery. By running away or seeking Paul’s help in a dispute with Philemon, Onesimus has incurred a social and economic debt Paul is going to address in ways that are distinct from the way this situation would normally have been addressed.
There are two basic scenarios for Onesimus’s absence from Philemon’s home. Either he ran away (and possibly even robbed Philemon) or he was seeking out Paul to mediate a dispute with his master. Either option is possible and either places him in Philemon’s debt as he was property who no longer was of use to the owner. Slavery in Rome was not quite of the same stark character of much slavery in the South of the USA. Some slaves were regarded as part of the family and could have major skills. A slave caught running away was to be returned to the master, where he simply could be reinstated or punished even to the point of death. J. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 13-17, 25-31. How slavery is like and unlike “new world” slavery is discussed by S. Scott Bartchy in The World of the New Testament, Joel B. Green and Lee Martin MacDonald, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 169-76. Two major differences were that slavery was not a matter of race and many slaves were well educated and given important roles in some ancient households. The loss of a gifted slave would impact the owner’s family.