The book of Philemon is about a runaway slave. It clocks in at one brief chapter, which makes it one of the two shortest texts in the New Testament. Easy to miss. Easy to finish. And since it is so short, you get little backstory.
A slave named Onesimus (the word means “useful”) had escaped from a slaveholder named Philemon, a Christian who held church meetings in his house. Onesimus came to Rome, where he met the apostle Paul, was converted and then turned around and helped support the apostle during an imprisonment. The book of Philemon is Paul’s request that Philemon free Onesimus from slavery.
“I beg you to help Onesimus! He is like a son to me … welcome him as you would welcome me … he is much more than a slave. To me he is a dear friend … If he has cheated you or owes you anything, charge it to my account … Don’t forget that you owe me your life.” That’s it. No data on why Philemon was in debt to Paul or what happened to Onesimus or a hundred and one other questions.
Philemon is not an abolitionist apology, and no New Testament writer opposes the institution of slavery. But Philemon (along with the gospel and Exodus) lay a firm foundation for the abolitionist’s position. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And the thin tract of Philemon does make it quite clear that it helps to know your whole Bible, not just a few parts of it. “A text without a context is a pretext for anything.” A hateful soul in possession of a Bible is far more brutal than a dungeon master. We see what we are prepared to see. “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).
The Rev. Eugene Stockstill is pastor of Ebenezer United Methodist Church and Myrtle United Methodist Church in Union County.