Philemon and WorkBible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
A workplace application of the theme of mutuality is alluded to in Colossians and discussed in Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the Bible. In Colossians, Paul mentions “the faithful and beloved brother,” Onesimus (Col. 4:9). The letter to Philemon tells us that Onesimus was the slave of a Christian named Philemon (Philem. 16). Onesimus apparently escaped, became a Christian himself, and then became an assistant to Paul (Philem. 10–11, 15). Under Roman law, Philemon had the right to punish Onesimus severely. On the other hand, Paul—as an apostle of the Lord—had the right to command Philemon to release Onesimus (Philem. 17–20). But instead of resorting to a hierarchy of rights, Paul applies the principle of mutuality. He requests that Philemon forgive Onesimus and forego any punishment, while at the same time requesting that Onesimus return voluntarily to Philemon. He asks both men to treat each other as brothers, rather than as slave and master (Philem. 12–16). We see a three-way application of the principle of mutuality among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Each of them owes something to the others. Each of them has a claim over the others. Paul seeks to have all the debts and claims relinquished in favor of a mutual respect and service. Here we see how Paul applies the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and putting up with each other’s faults (Col. 3:12–13) in a real workplace situation.
Paul’s use of persuasion, rather than command (Philem. 14), is a further application of the mutuality principle. Rather than dictating a solution to Philemon, Paul approaches him with respect, lays out a persuasive argument, and leaves the decision in Philemon’s hands. Philemon could not have failed to notice Paul’s clear desire and his statement that he would be following up with him (Philem. 21). But Paul manages the communication in an artful way that provides a model for resolving issues in the workplace.
Want to read more about Philemon? Check out this article: Beyond Rank and Power: What Philemon Tells Us About Leadership