Teaching New Testament: Work and Status in Philemon

Seminary Curriculum / Produced by TOW Project

This article was written by Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Howard G Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership and Cultural Engagement, and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.  It was originally published in the Oikonomia Network newsletter in December 2016.

One might think that Philemon has little to say about the theology of work. However pursuing vocation often raises key relational questions, especially in a world consumed by issues of rank and status. How Paul handles the relationship between the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon has a great deal to teach us about issues of rank and status. I recently did a full walkthrough of this little letter for the Theology of Work Project. Here are some of main points made in this article:

  • Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status. When Paul tells Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would a brother, and then as an apostle, rank is flipped around. Christianity often does this, using old concepts and completely transforming how they are to be understood.
  • Leadership is not primarily about the exercise of power, status, rights or efficiency but grounds itself in relationships, a participation that leads to the practical good and affirms new potential. The Christian faith is about relationships – how we connect to God impacts how we connect to others. The Great Commandment and the Ten Commandments demonstrate this, as both have a “God and others” structure. Healthy relationships have the potential to bring out the best in people. Good leadership works for this.
  • As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make. Paul goes to bat for the one he defends in the letter by saying if there is anything owed, he will bear the cost. By doing this, Paul keeps things orderly and fair, but also neutralizes any potential animosity, promotes justice and builds toward compassion.
  • Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than through coercion. Paul is often accused of being manipulative in how he approaches Philemon. However, Paul is simply asking in a way that shows that what he could demand, he instead invites. The result is an opportunity for Philemon’s character to be developed through this choice.
  • As a leader, Paul still can place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision. There is a form of pressure that emerges from what Paul does. Paul lays things out so clearly that Philemon really has little choice but to respond. The moral vision Paul provides shows how faith goes in a relational direction that differs from common cultural norms. It also means that these new ways need to be learned and digested. They do not come naturally. This different direction is the direction of Christ, who is the example Paul provides in Philippians 2:5-11.
  • At the core of Paul’s request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not through status but through service. This is the core of vocation. How do we steward well? We steward well when we serve first and foremost. At the root of vocation is the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28. We are called to manage the creation of God well. As we serve each other, we understand our role is actually a means to a greater end, rank becomes less important, and relationally serving takes priority. That is a central message of this little book.
  • Philemon’s rights take a back seat to what will make for a better relationship and work environment. This is perhaps the key result of Paul’s approach. In a culture that emphasizes rights, stepping back from them is a difficult lesson to accept, but it is a key to what Paul asks for here.
  • Rank and power are not the key lenses through which to view relationships, even in social contexts where we might have rank. The great lesson of the book is that the way we move forward in our relationships is to minimize what rank does. Sometimes you need rank as a way to know who makes what decisions. But realizing we are all made in God’s image and deserve respect is a great leveler, especially in light of the example of Jesus. This is where real living and real relating reside in vocation.

Simply put, Philemon is a little book that say a great deal about how we live out our lives as we work together.

Suggested Assignment

How does thinking about how Paul instructed Philemon make us think about how we view rank and relational engagement in contrast to the way the culture around us handles these issues?