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A Liberative Reading of Philemon

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of Sixth Month, 2022


Speaker: Welling Hall


Scripture: Philemon


Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,


And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:


Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,


Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;


That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.


For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.


Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,


Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.


I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:


Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:


Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:


Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:


But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.


For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;


Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?


If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.


If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;


I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.


Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.


Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.


But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.


There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;


Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.



I pray that the fellowship inspired by your faith will be empowered by all the good you do for Christ's sake. Philemon 1:6 ~ Translation: Welling Hall


Dear Friends,


How delightful to meet with you this morning in a way that has become customary for us. Although I would love to be with you face to face, I could not be with you at all were it not for this technology, so praise be for the blessing of this connection!


This morning we have sung about gun violence: the scourge of which has galvanized my work as an artist for the past ten years. And the more I reflect on the multiple threats to the imperative of creating a beloved community, here, now, the more I understand gun violence to be just one of many manifestations of white supremacy that tolerates mass shootings as a way to keep people in their place and reject the blossoming of a diverse and inclusive civil society.


In my seminary studies, I have been eager to learn about the theological origins of white supremacy. They are indeed robust. Among the staggering history that is well known to our African-American cousins and unknown or ignored by too many progressive white Christians, including me, are the kind of statements made by formerly enslaved persons like Frederick Douglass who was crystal clear that the meanest and cruelest of his masters became even more violent after he found religion and became a Christian.


How can this be? I’m sure that you have heard about how the letters of Paul have been used to justify slavery. This morning, I am going to focus on the scripture we just heard, the Book of Philemon. Philemon is the shortest book of the New Testament. With other books that eventually made it into the canon, there was back and forth about whether or not it should be included at all, and significantly, it was accepted into the canon between the fourth and the sixth centuries of the common era. It was accepted into the canon along with an interpretation that this letter from Paul to Philemon is about a runaway slave who stole something and then sought to be reconciled with his master.


With this interpretation and translations supporting that interpretation, Philemon is one of the Bible books that was not only used to justify slavery in this country, but used to justify fugitive slave laws based on the supremacist theology that a “good Christian slave” should want to return to the master’s household. One of the many reasons why we still care about fugitive slave laws is that it has been well established by the NAACP and by historians like our own Carol Hunter, may she

rest in power, that modern day policing has its roots in the vigilante patrols that were set up to enforce fugitive slave laws.


But what if that is not what Philemon is actually about? Here is the Cliff Notes version of this morning’s message: The understanding that Philemon is about a Christian requirement that a runaway slave should be returned to his master (AND BE HAPPY ABOUT IT!) is based on a reading of the text that is simply not supported by thorough linguistic, historical, and sociological analysis.


Earlier this morning you heard the King James version that supports the dominant Christian narrative and fugitive slave reading of Philemon. There are many reasons to reject that reading, including these:


1) The format of the letter indicates that it is not from one man to another man, but from one Christian community to another Christian community;


2) Unusually and significantly, a woman, Apphia, is called to be a witness to the contents of the letter. This disrupts normal social expectations – just as Christian social relations disrupted Roman imperial ways of life, Paul is calling on Philemon to disrupt normal social expectations and Paul expects this letter to be read in front of witnesses who can hold Philemon accountable in love;


3) The letter is full of both familial and legal language, lifting up the importance of community and fellowship in Christ as well as the seriousness of the matter at hand. The letter is also full of a number of stylistic flourishes and puns to emphasize Paul’s points and establish familiarity;


4) The formal characteristics of the letter mean that Philemon had to have already known that Onesimus (whose name in Greek means “useful”) was with Paul. Two of the puns are about Onesimus’ name. We could call him “Jack” because the puns are about the man’s usefulness or utility to Paul and to Philemon;


5) The conditions of Paul’s house arrest mean that it would have been impossible for any one to be in hiding with Paul if he had been a fugitive. Indeed, the most plausible interpretation based on Roman realities is that Philemon sent his slave to provide for Paul’s needs while under arrest.


6) Finally, grammatically, the prepositions used mean that Paul was pleading for Onesimus, the man we are calling Jack. Paul was pleading for Jack himself, not asking for something on Jack’s behalf. In other words, Paul is not interceding for a slave in a dispute with a master, he is asking that a man be able to *be* something different, in particular, a minister of the gospel. Intriguingly, there is a man of the same name who is mentioned in Colossians as consecrated a bishop by the Apostles and who accepted the episcopal throne in Ephesus (where scholars believe that Paul was imprisoned).


The bottom line is that contrary to the received wisdom, this letter is not about Paul requesting that Philemon receive a thieving slave back into his household. Rather, in a radical and Christian break from social expectations, Paul is asking that Philemon free a man he holds in bondage so that Onesimus, “Jack,” can be a liberated member of the community and a minister of the Gospel as part of Paul’s mission team. This is a reading and theology that rejects the white supremacist

interpretation. This is a reading for today. How might the world be different if we understood liberation rather than enslavement to be a fundamental Christian paradigm? How might Christianity be different if its dominant social message were not enforcement through the guns of slave patrols and stand your ground laws but accountability through the love of Jesus?


I will close with my free paraphrase of Philemon, using contemporary idioms as much as possible, to lead us into open worship.


From: Paul, a prisoner on behalf of Christ Jesus,

and our brother Timothy

To: Philemon, our beloved co-worker,

Apphia, our sister,

Archippus, our fellow soldier,

and to the church that meets in Philemon’s house


Grace to you and the peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!


I give thanks to God all the time, recalling you, Philemon, in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith in Lord Jesus and the community of the faithful. I pray that the fellowship inspired by your faith will be empowered by all the good you may do for Christ’s sake. Your love has given me much joy and encouragement because you, brother, have refreshed the faithful in their hearts and souls.


Emboldened by Christ to command you to do the right thing, I am instead appealing to you on the basis of love. I, Paul, am an old man now – and also a prisoner by virtue of Christ Jesus.


I am pleading for my very child, Onesimus (aka Jack), whom I bore when I was in chains. He was, at one time, a useless jack to you, but now he is a really useful jack to you and to me. To you I have appealed his case, the case of this Jack who is my heart and soul, even though I have been wanting to retain him here, so that he might be a minister of the Gospel to me in my chains as your representative.


But I wished to do nothing without your consent, so that your

good deed would be voluntary and not coerced. Perhaps this is why he has been separated from you for a while, so that you might receive him fully, forever, no longer as a slave, but as much more than a slave, as a beloved brother, certainly to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If you regard me as a partner, receive him as you would me. If he has wronged you or is in debt to you, charge this to my account.


I, Paul, have written in my own hand – I myself will reimburse you, and it goes without saying that you owe your life itself to me. Yes, brother, I wish for you to be of use to me in Lord. In Christ restore my heart and soul!


Trusting in your obedience, I have written to you, knowing that you will do more than I have requested. And, at the same time, prepare a guest room for me for I hope that through your prayers, I will be graciously given to you all.


Epaphras, my fellow prisoner by virtue of Christ, also greets you, as do my co-workers, Mark, Aristarchus, Demos, and Luke.


The grace of Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit.



King James Version, Public Domain.


This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2022 Welling Hall. All rights reserved.


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