Philemon: The BackgroundArticle / Produced by TOW Project
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.