Paul’s Ethics of Relinquishing Power and the Letter to Philemon


The nature of Paul’s request in the Letter to Philemon is hotly contested. Is Onesimus to be released from slavery or not? Paul states his ultimate desire in v15-16a and then the disputed exhortation follows in v17:

τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς, οὐκέτι ὡς δοῦλον ἀλλὰ ὑπὲρ δοῦλον, ἀδελφὸν ἀγαπητόν… Εἰ οὖν με ἔχεις κοινωνόν, προσλαβοῦ αὐτὸν ὡς ἐμέ.

For perhaps it is because of this that he was separated for a while, so that you may receive him for eternity, no longer as a slave, but above a slave, a beloved brother… Therefore, if you have partnership with me, accept him as me. (Author’s translation)

The source of ambiguity is obvious: Paul never explicitly tells Philemon to free Onesimus. Rather, Paul appears to have entrusted the precise details of Onesimus’ obligation to him and the church that gather in his home.

My contention in this paper is that the apostle Paul believed Christians had an obligation to relinquish social power over others. Subsequently, I will attempt to show that this ethic undergirds his letter to Philemon, thereby illuminating the meaning of Paul’s exhortation.


1 Corinthians 8-10 and Paul’s Foregoing of Compensation

Paul demonstrates his ethics of power through apostolic example and apostolic exhortation. We will address them in order.

Paul’s pastoral methodology in 1 Corinthians 8-10 demonstrates both. Apparently the Corinthian Christians are debating the decency of eating food sacrificed to idols. Paul’s pastoral response is to discuss personal rights and social power dynamics in light of the gospel. 

Paul notes that there are differences in theological understanding and maturity (1 Cor. 8:1-8). Some people can eat the food without issue, maintaining allegiance to Yahweh alone, while others risk falling into idol worship. In 1 Corinthians 8:9, Paul addresses those who are mature: “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (ESV).

The word translated “right” in the ESV is εξουσια, meaning power or authority.[1] Popular English translations nearly all use “right” or “liberty” here in place of the more common semantic force of “power” or “authority”. This semantic range is telling. Personal liberty and individual unassailable rights are our terms for our modern conceptions, not Paul’s. To Paul, such “rights” are a particular form of personal power. Paul’s concern that “weak believers” not be caused to “stumble” into idolatry is, at its core, a matter of how Christians steward their personal power in relation to others (1 Cor. 8:10-13 and also Rom. 14).

This is why Paul immediately begins to talk about himself in chapter 9. He will use his example as an apostle to exhort the strong (as opposed to the weak, ἀσθενὲς) Corinthians to do likewise. In 9:1-2 Paul begins to rhetorically assert his authoritative status and extensive “personal rights”:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. (ESV)

Paul is an authority over the Corinthian church. His apostolic office holds great power. Among them is the right to receive financial support as compensation for his labor (9:4-11). But Paul establishes his rights as one of the apostles not to lay claim to it, but rather to showcase himself as an imperatival example of Christians foregoing their rights. To see it most clearly I will quote Paul’s argument extensively:

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:15-23, ESV; bold added)

The logic is straightforward: Paul had more rights and authority than any in the Corinthian church, and yet he deemed it best to forsake such rights. Why? To winsomely assimilate to those he ministers to on behalf of the gospel, thereby “sharing with them in its blessings”. To Paul, his only ground for boasting and reward is that he willingly sacrifices his personal rights – mainly those for compensation – for the sake of others and the gospel.

Paul’s decision to relinquish his apostolic claim to compensation is no minor detail. He mentions this fact in four other epistles (2 Cor. 11:7-12, Phil. 4:10-18, 1 Thess. 2:6-9. 2 Thess. 3:7-12).

Paul felt no need to offer such a reminder in his pastoral epistles. Timothy and Titus were both intimately aware of Paul’s sacrifices as an apostle. Rather, Paul exhorted Timothy to continue following his example (2 Tim. 3:10-14) and instructed him to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Paul took his authority as an apostle deadly seriously, leading by example in order to instill his radical social ethics into the community of Christ-followers.

The frequency with which Paul mentioned his choice to relinquish his apostolic “rights” in the church epistles reveals that he considered it especially important to imbue this particular aspect of his conduct. It seems that Paul felt his great apostolic authority entailed a great Christian responsibility to steward it as Christ had his. To Paul, this meant being willing to relinquish the rights of apostleship.


Power vs. Authority vs. Rights

It is essential to clarify terminology before continuing. Note the very different meanings contained in our words authority and rights. As noted, the semantic range of the Greek word εξουσια included both of these connotations and more. When discussing power and the idea of relinquishing power, lazy uses of language can derail the whole conversation. For example, whether one thinks of power as primarily a good thing or bad thing depends typically on what aspect of power they are focusing on. Rights, for example are deemed as positive while authority is considered negative.

As an apostle, Paul was given authority on behalf of Christ to lead within the church. Like the Old Testament prophets, this authority was granted based on an encounter with God, which happened along Paul’s journey to Damascus. Nowehere does Paul reject this authority, hand it off to someone else, or question its value. Rather, in every epistle he establishes his apostolic authority in order to justify his very act of writing. In this sense Paul kept and exercised his authority to teach and extol the churches. It is by this authority, in fact, that Paul is emboldened to pass along the very grace and peace of God, as seen in his famous introductory blessings. Indeed we would have no Pauline epistles at all if he had relinquished all such power, for the epistles themselves are acts of apostolic authority.

However, there are forms of power that come with such authority, including varous forms of personal rights. Paul believed such rights should be relinquished. The example of compensation makes the point: It is precisely because Paul accepted and exercised his leadership authority by writing apostolic epistles that he felt the need to share examples of giving up the rights that came with apostleship. Paul didn’t disdain all hierarchies of authority or hate everyone in positions of power. Rather, as we will see, he felt that such power necessitated a Christian willingness to forego using that power for one’s own benefit, especially if it came at another’s expense.

For now, let us say that the ethic being explored here is not one of disdain for all forms of power. Rather, it is a view that cautiously accepts hierarchies and systems of authority, esteems the surrendering of personal rights as a form of self-sacrificial love, and views the exercise of unequitable forms of social power as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.


Romans 14-15 and Christ’s Example

Before moving on, let’s look again at how Paul handles the food issue. It is a surprisingly prevalent concern in the churches Paul wrote to, and it serves as an excellent case study from which we can discern his ethics of power. Paul addresses the same food concerns in Romans by again exhorting the strong to willingly sacrifice their rights for the sake of the weak:

“Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble… We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Rom. 14:20b-21, 15:1, ESV).

Again, the exhortation is simple: Christians have been empowered and permitted to eat whatever they want, but Christian discipleship necessitates relinquishing such rights if love of neighbor requires it. Here, however, Paul reveals the source of this ethic, referring not to himself but to Christ as the normative example:

For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”… May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom. 15:3, 5-7, ESV)

To be “in accord with Christ Jesus”, a Christian must apparently be willing to relinquish his own power, even his legal and God-given rights, for the sake of his brothers or sisters. This is true, to Paul, on the basis of how Jesus, the ultimate authority, relinquished his power even over his own life. This shows an important aspect of Paul’s ethic of how Christians should steward social power: The high ethical bar of giving up one’s rights for the sake of one’s neighbor was established by Christ himself. In other words, this was no peripheral social concept that might be a good approach for some, but was rather a clear moral obligation placed upon all of Christ’s followers.


Paul as a Student of Jesus’ Approach to Power

Though it may be obvious to fellow students of the Scriptures, it is important to note that Paul derived his power ethics from the teachings of Jesus. He wasn’t making it up.

The narrative of Christ’s life offered a sufficient example of laying down one’s power in love. As we’ve already observed in Romans, Paul believed this example created a moral responsibility for Christ’s followers to imitate. Moreover, Jesus taught explicitly that his disciples were to imitate his way of stewarding social power:

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over (κυριεύουσιν) them; and those who exercise authority over (ἐξουσιάζοντες) them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules (ἡγούμενος) like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27, NIV, bold added)

This moment in Jesus’ life is recorded in all the synoptic gospels. In Luke’s account, it functions as Jesus’ parting words, coupled with his prediction of Peter’s betrayal, just before the passion event on the Mount of Olives. To Luke, it is seminal. 

Mark and Matthew, however, place the account a bit earlier. The lesson occurs as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem for the last time. Interestingly, Mark’s account not only highlights the appeal to apostolic ethics but focuses also on the lesson’s connection to the very meaning of the cross. Remarkably, Mark also includes an additional :

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers (ἄρχειν) of the Gentiles lord it over (κατακυριεύουσιν) them, and their high officials exercise authority (κατεξουσιάζουσιν) over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (διάκονος), and whoever wants to be first must be slave (δοῦλος) of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Mark 10:35-45, NIV, bold added; see also Matt. 20:20-34)

To any student of Jesus, these passages would have been absolutely foundational. To one tasked with apostolic leadership such as Paul, this story would have been something akin to a life verse. In them we can trace a straight line from the example of Jesus to Paul’s apostolic ethics as they relate to the exercising of power.

First, the word translated as “lord it over” is κυριεύουσιν, a verbal derivative of the word κύριος, which is the Greek word translated as “lord”. This is the same word used repeatedly in the New Testament to refer both to Jesus (and Yahweh). Indeed the shortest expression of Christian faith was encapsulated in the phrase κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς, meaning Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:11).

Unfortunately, the English word “lord” has become convoluted and void of practical meaning. It may be translated as lord, ruler, sovereign, head, guardian, or owner. Its closest parallel in our English terminology is actually master, one who has legal right to own and rule one’s slaves.[2] This was actually one of the original and primary metaphors for God in the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh was called Adonai, meaning literally “my master” from the Hebrew noun adon (אֲדֹנָי).[3] Its usage in passages like Genesis 24:12 and Exodus 21:5 prove the slave master connotation.

The metaphor is plain to see: Yahweh was the master, Israel the slave. This way of imagining God’s relationship to Israel became so prominent that it later came to be used as the honorary replacement for the divine name. This is why God is called The LORD, using capital letters to indicate that it is filling in for the name of God. When later rabbis translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they used κύριος both as both the metaphorical title and honorary name of God.

This of course was mere common knowledge to Paul and his peers. When reflecting on Jesus’ teachings, therefore, he would have easily seen the profundity in Jesus, the Master, instructing his representatives to imitate Him in relinquishing the rights of Master for the role of slave. The concept was scandalous and absolutely challenging, but it was clear: God was to Israel as a Master to His slaves, and Jesus’ manifested God’s love by willfully trading the Master’s authority for the slave’s sufferings. Paradoxically then, to worship Jesus as Lord was to do likewise, serving as fellow masters-turned-slaves (Rom. 14:7-8, 1 Cor. 7:22, Eph. 6:5-9).

Paul and the other apostles got the message. Not only did Paul overtly obey this instruction and draw repeated attention to his doing so, he also made explicit reference to this very lesson:

I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. Not that we lord it over (κυριεύομεν) your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. (2 Cor. 1:23-24, NIV, bold added)

Peter too makes explicit reference to this central instruction for those who would lead others on behalf of Christ:

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over (κατακυριεύοντες) those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet. 5:2-4, NIV, bold added)

The apostles were cognizant of this gospel teaching. They had obediently adopted it as a cornerstone of Christian leadership. Paul, indeed, seems to have been nervous to appear faithful to the instruction. Knowing the churches’ familiarity with the stories and teachings of Jesus, Paul appears to have felt great pressure as a leader, seeking to prove himself repeatedly as sufficiently Christian in his use of power.

The line of connection between this foundational teaching and Paul’s own ethic goes one step further. We have already discussed the word εξουσια, power. Let’s look again at the first line of Jesus’ instruction:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over (κυριεύουσιν) them; and those who exercise authority over (ἐξουσιάζοντες) them call themselves Benefactors. (Luke 22:25, NIV, bold added)

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers (ἄρχειν) of the Gentiles lord it over (κατακυριεύουσιν) them, and their high officials exercise authority over (κατεξουσιάζουσιν) them.” (Mark 10:42, NIV, bold added)

Notice than in both accounts “lording over” and “exercising authority over” are in direct parallel. In the Lukan material, the verbs κυριεύω (to master) and ἐξουσιάζω (to exercise power) are set in parallel. To do one is to do the other. The gentile rulers do both, and Jesus’ disciples are to do neither. In Mark and Matthew’s material the same two verbal roots are used but the preposition κατα is added, emphasizing the hierarchical sense of ruling and exercising power over another. Now the term ἐξουσιάζω can mean either to exercise authority or more simply to have authority. Either way, the meaning here is clear: To Jesus, to rule over someone like a master over a slave is to have and exercise power over them. This is the very thing that Jesus could have done, but didn’t do, and therefore prohibits his followers from doing.


Paul’s Pastoral Instruction

I have thus far made a case for Paul’s belief in a deeply subversive Christian ethic of power. It is now time to observe this ethic in action, paying attention to how Paul’s letters addressed those with power and those without. We will find that Paul addressed those on opposing sides of a power gap differently. Most importantly, while Paul often exhorted those in low positions of power to remain loyal, respectful and submissive, never once does Paul encourage anyone to exercise such power over another.

We have already discussed at length Paul’s personal choice to forego his right to compensation. Another concern in the Corinthian church reveals that Paul applied this ethic to the entire community. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, Paul is irate at word of a lawsuit between believers. He lays out the simple logic of the ethical failure in v7: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” The main failure is the plaintiff’s self-serving refusal to imitate Christ’s example of relinquishing rights for the sake of peace. Paul’s anger, however, is rooted in the fact that the church’s inconsistency with the gospel risks displaying a corrupt version of Jesus to the world. As we will see, when it comes to issues of power, Paul’s two main concerns are promoting the Christian ethic of self-sacrificial love and preserving the reputation of the church. Unfortunately, failure to observe these aspects of Paul’s treatment of power dynamics has caused chronic misinterpretation of his pastoral instruction.

Apostles and Churches. Paul chose to work as a tentmaker rather than claim his right to compensation from the churches. However, he never questioned the validity of such rights and certainly never encouraged churches to withhold such pay. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul repeats his quotation of “Do not muzzle an ox…” (Deut. 25:4) in order to make the same point that he had in 1 Corinthians 9: “The worker deserves his wages” (a quotation of Jesus in Luke 10:7). Here in his letter to Timothy, however, Paul is no longer trying to highlight his personal sacrifice. Rather, he is giving Timothy guidance on how to help oversee healthy communities. His point is that religious workers deserve pay, so pay them! Yet Paul encouraged others, like him, who had the power to claim such compensation to follow his example and relinquish it (1 Thess. 3:7-10, Phil. 4:14-19). Hence, to Paul, apostles had power to demand pay from those they ministered to. Paul encouraged those with such power to lay it aside and work, while admonishing the churches, on the other hand, to honor the rights and pay them. The logic can be deduced to ‘don’t take, give’.

Rich and Poor. On a similar note, Paul addressed the issue of wealth discrepancy on multiple occasions. When he wrote to wealthier communities, he exhorted them to give sacrificially to the poorer churches, such as that in Jerusalem. In 2 Corinthians 8:9, he explicitly uses the example of Christ’s sacrifice as the model for an ethics of wealth rights”: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Then he goes on to explain that the goal is equalization: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality,” (v13-14).

Wealth is, essentially, a right to assets. It is the power of capital. Paul’s ethic of redistributing wealth, therefore, is no different than his overall ethic of Christian self-sacrifice. Though the rich have a right to their goods, Christians are those who see the wellbeing of the community as more important than one’s own wealth. Therefore, the rich give to the poor (Acts 2:45, Rom. 15:25-28, 1 Cor. 16:1). Indeed, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32). One has to look only to the stories of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) and the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) to see that Paul and the early church were simply obeying Jesus’ teachings to relinquish their rights to personal property and wealth.

Rulers and Citizens. In several places (Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Tim. 2:1-7, Tit. 3:1-11) Paul addresses the relationship between citizens[4] and their government rulers. Paul only addresses the disempowered citizens, so we have only one side of his double-edge sword. We must only surmise what he would have said to any Roman rulers who chose to worship Christ.

To the Christian common folk, Paul’s message is first to simply submit (Rom. 13:1, Tit. 3:1). He did not endorse a revolution. Secondly, they were to both pay their taxes and show their rulers respect (Rom. 13:6-7), avoiding slander (Tit. 3:2). Lastly, they were to serve the authorities by praying for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

The question asked by many modern Christians is, why? Why did Paul seem to side with the gentile rulers? The first answer is that Paul appears to have sided with them only because we don’t have any documentation of Paul addressing them. We have wrongly interpreted Paul’s exhortation to the disempowered laity as an endorsement of the Roman imperium. This is mistaken, illogical, and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. It fails to notice that Paul always addressed the powerful and powerless differently. We can only imagine the harsh words Paul would have for a self-proclaimed Christian ruler like Donald Trump or Constantine. When we read Paul closely, however, it isn’t difficult to imagine the chastisement that would be in store.

Even so, Paul would never have let the colonized Christians off of an ethical hook simply because they were the victims of unjust government. If that were the case, Paul would hardly have anything to say to anyone. Rather, his rhetoric on Christian citizenship is fully consistent with what we’ve seen: It is simply, live in line with the example of Jesus. Did Jesus lead a revolt? Of course not. He submitted to evil authorities more fully than anyone ever had, and the result was beautiful world-changing redemption. It is no surprise then that Paul’s ethical stance once again follows the line of faithful, painful obedience to Christ’s example. His aim is to preserve the reputation of the gospel by preventing, at high emotional costs, the church from being depicted as an anti-authoritarian political threat to the empire.

Just because Paul tells the church to submit to Caesar doesn’t mean Paul ever did, or would, tell Caesar to exert his rule over the people. His encouragement to submissive citizenship is not at all an endorsement of empire.

Men and Women. This issue of the church’s reputation is again prominent in Paul’s handling of gender roles. Unfortunately, inattention to this concern of Paul’s as well as the significance of cultural norms has led many Bible-readers to greatly misunderstand Paul’s handling of women in the church.

The primary passages are 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (as well as 1 Pet. 3 outside of the Pauline corpus):

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Tim. 2:11-12)

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)

Taken at face value in today’s modern society, Paul seems like a sexist, paternalistic oppressor of women. However, consideration of his ethical concern for relinquishing social power will point us toward a very different conclusion.

It is actually far more likely that Paul was seen as a dangerous liberation theologian than as anything like the aforementioned caricature. A reputation like this would have terrified Paul, though. Again, one of his utmost concerns was to protect the culture’s perception of the church, in order to not corrupt or convolute the gospel. Paul lived amidst an extremely patriarchal and sexist culture, by today’s stands. That is certain. He would have been constantly asking himself the question, “How counter-cultural is too counter-cultural?” In other words, at what point of social behavior would the Christian community cross the line from being salt and light to being seen as an imminent threat? Paul devotes attention in many of his epistles, addressing many of these concerns, to persuade the churches to avoid crossing that line. It appears he decided that when it comes to gender norms, for women to stand up and asserts themselves in traditionally male leadership roles within the church would have crossed that line.

The point for interpretation is not whether we agree with where the line was drawn but with why.Paul never asserts that women don’t have the same rights as men to stand up and teach in the church. He just tells them not to in order to protect the reputation of the community for the sake of the gospel. It is the same logic that governs the rule about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11: “If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head” (v6). The issue isn’t whether or not Christian women have the authority to teach or to worship with their hair down. Rather, it’s about whether they should exercise those rights. For Paul to tell them to relinquish such rights for the sake of the gospel is perfectly consistent with his overall pastoral ethics.

Lastly, what is of greatest concern here is the exhortations Paul doesn’t give. Never does he instruct men to exercise power over women. Nowhere does he celebrate patriarchy. Paul doesn’t commission disempowerment. Honoring this silence is a hermeneutical requirement for reasonable interpretation of Paul as a Christian pastor and ethicist.

Husbands and Wives. While Paul’s concern about cultural perceptions likely inspired his conservative handling of gender relations in public worship, his treatment of the private marriage relationship reveals his liberalism. His instruction pertaining to power dynamics between husbands and wives is likely far closer to what he privately hoped for the church as a whole. Paul’s treatment of marriage, therefore, offers a perfect example of the pastoral approach previously discussed:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Eph. 5:21-24, NIV)

It’s at this point, based on Paul’s previous handling of women, that we would expect him to perhaps move on to another subject. Women should follow Christ’s example and preserve public rapport by submitting to their husbands. OK, next topic. Instead, however, Paul pivots and addresses husbands in a parallel discourse:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself… However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Eph. 5:25, 28, 33, NIV)

However controversial v.21-24 may sound to modern readers, Paul’s command to husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificial love, like Christ’s, would have been far more scandalous. After all, the sexual culture of Paul’s day was so hostile to women that Jesus’ own disciples had thought it better not to marry if they were forbidden the right to abandon their wives (Matt. 19:10).

Paul repeats a similarly equalizing double-exhortation in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4, this time explicitly mentioning the role of power:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over (ἐξουσιάζει) her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over (ἐξουσιάζει) his own body but yields it to his wife.

It appears that Paul views the marriage vow itself as a relinquishing of authority over one’s body to their spouse. This isn’t far from how men would have viewed their wives – objects over which they now possessed authority. The fact that Paul’s knife cut both ways, however, and with equal severity, shows just how radical an ethical challenge he felt Christ’s had created. Not only did Paul not tell husbands to exercise their culturally assigned authority over their wives, he told them they had no moral right to even their own body. While Paul softened his moral agenda within the public setting of a worship service, his exhortation for husbands to relinquish their power in the home was perhaps the strongest of all his apostolic instructions.

We haven’t exhausted the various relationships and power dynamics Paul addressed. He issued guidance on issues of power differential between elders and congregations (1 Tim. 3:1-7, 5:17-20), parents and children (Eph. 6:1-4, Col. 3:20-21, 1 Tim. 3:4-5, 12, 5:1-2), and more. The logic of Paul’s thought is consistent throughout: To the one in the position of low power, the exhortation is to submit, however painfully, for the sake of the gospel. Where we really observe Paul’s ethic at work, however, is how he addresses the other side, those with high social power. In every single relational situation Paul either says nothing or he exhorts those with power to relinquish it. There is not one single instance of Paul speaking to someone in a position of power over another and instructing him to exercise that power. Perhaps the most important case study in which this can be observed is that of Paul’s treatment of slavery, to which we now turn our attention.


Paul’s Ethical Focus on Slaves and Masters

Let’s refresh a bit. So far I’ve contested that Paul found in the example and teachings of Jesus an explicit ethical challenge to follow Christ by choosing to relinquish personal power for the sake of others and the gospel. Paul’s devotion to this ethical position can be seen in both his apostolic methodology – most clearly in his intentional decision to forego pay – and in his apostolic instruction. Specifically, we just finished highlighting how Paul often exhorts those without power to continue in submission but never tells those in power to continue in domination. We’ve covered this ground because I contested at the outset that discovering this Pauline ethic would help us crack the interpretive puzzle of Philemon, allowing us to understand what it is Paul wanted Philemon to do. It’s toward this final point we now turn.

Paul addresses the master-slave relationship, like the previous case studies, in several places. In fact, it’s the most prevalent relational concern of all apart from Jews and gentiles. This indicates Paul’s deep conviction on the issue. It also shows that Paul saw in the slave-master power dynamic a kind of key template with which to try to illustrate his robust Christian theology and ethics.

Recall our previous discussion in which we noted the straight line connecting the ideas of God as Master, Jesus as Master-turned-slave, and the worldly rulers who exercise power over others. “Not so with you,” Jesus had said, and so to Paul the master-slave relationship highlighted the great scandal of Jesus and the huge task of the church. While those “in” Christ get to share a seat in His kingdom and a claim to His authority, what it practically means to follow Jesus here and now is to trade those rights for the role of slave, even slave of all (Mark 10:44).

Therefore, when Paul looked at real life slaves and slave masters, he saw an opportunity for the upside-down kingdom of God to manifest in an especially powerful way. It’s both a Godsend and a logical probability then that we have the letter to Philemon in the Biblical canon. The letter and the issue of slavery are more than just another case study – they’re a profound illustration of New Testament theology and ethics. That is why N.T Wright can suggest the otherwise absurd idea that even if we had no other textual evidence for Christianity besides Paul’s tiny letter to Philemon, it would be enough to indicate a kind of theological revolution had occurred.[5] First let’s look at the case studies, then we’ll tackle Philemon.

In 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, Paul offers a few unique pieces of instruction:

Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

This passage makes it clear just how sympathetic Paul is to the plight of slaves. They should gain their freedom if they can, which is about as dangerous a public statement Paul could possibly have made. Further, if not a slave, you shouldn’t become one. Paul also offers here a kind of psychological consolation not found in any of the other situations, encouraging slaves to comfort themselves with the theological thought that they are actually already freed in Christ. This attests to the notion that Paul held an especially robust theological position concerning slavery.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the logical tension between verses 20, 21b, and 24. The overarching context of this discussion is not just slavery but the general question of whether or not one should remain in the same situation as when they became a Christian (1 Cor. 7:17). Paul’s resounding answer is yes. In fact, the whole vignette on slavery is sandwiched in between two nearly word-for-word repetitions that yes, each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. How then do we explain Paul’s parenthetical comment that if possible, slaves should gain their freedom? Did slavery qualify as an exception to the rule? Or did Paul see this possibility as exceedingly rare and therefore worth only a brief side comment? Or is this a kind of author’s slip revealing a window into his worldview that is perhaps closer to his innermost desires, that all slaves be freed?

At the least, it is safe to say that this peculiar passage proves that Paul believed both submission and freedom were good Christian choices for slaves to make, but that freedom was categorically better if feasible. This in turn reveals that in every other instance where Paul exhorts a person of low social power to submit to some authority, this exhortation absolutely cannot be taken by itself to insinuate Paul’s approval of the situation. If Paul wants slaves to submit – unless by some small chance they can gain freedom – then why would we not believe Paul also cherished a hope for gender equality, the end of empires, and more?

Ephesians 6:5-9 offers a similar consolation to slaves but also adds a counterweight exhortation to masters:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Once again Paul plays off the “slaves of Christ” analogy, further proving his interpretation of slavery as a kind of theological mold. Paul assumes that his audience knows that the exhortation to submission is for the sake of winning favor (i.e. reputation). He also adds the theological consolation of a divine reward.

Most remarkably though, Paul uses the idea of God as the true Master to support his command to treat slaves “in the same way”. Interestingly, the exhortation to masters here is equally vague as with Philemon. Far more is insinuated that said. Paul says nothing to either party that sounds as if he expects liberation. And yet, he told slaves to obey their masters as slaves of Christ, and then tells masters to treat slaves likewise? The implications are undeniable:  Both slave and master are ultimately slaves of Christ, the true Master. This equalizes the relationship. And ultimately, how can enslavement hold under the premise of equality? It appears that Paul may not have risked endorsing a revolt simply because he hoped that the institution would naturally erode within the Christian community.

Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:22-4:1 is almost an exact replica of the Ephesians discourse.

In 1 Timothy 6:1, Paul repeats the submission-for-reputation argument. Then in verse 2, Paul specifically addresses a Christian slave’s attitude toward a Christian master, an understandably frustrating position:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.

This passage reveals Paul’s awareness that this would be a disturbing situation to be in, which indicates further a sense of common expectation that Christianity ought to undermine slavery. It also assumes Christian masters would obviously be devoted to the welfare of their slaves. It simply begs the question, however, at what point does concern for a slave’s welfare necessitate relinquishing one’s power over his or her life?

There are a few other notable New Testament passages concerning an ethical response to slavery. First, Paul writes a similar epithet in three different places describing the new universally equal family of God. Each contains a list of relationships between previously disparate groups who are now one in Christ. Every list is different. Only “Jew and gentile” and “slave and free” show up in all three places. This highlights the theological centrality of slavery in Paul’s mind, placing it second only (if even that) to the fact that God’s kingdom had just gone global.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col. 3:11)

“For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Cor. 12:13)

Lastly, 1 Peter 2:11-15 offers a remarkably similar handling of slavery and power as all that we’ve just observed. Submission to authority is exhorted, including to slaves. As with Paul, the motivations include preserving rapport with society at large, earning a divine reward, following Christ’s example, and serving ultimately as Christ’s slave. Indeed v21-25 is an extended patchwork of Old Testament quotations that serve to support the point that, ”To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps,” (v21). Peter’s logic and theology as well as practical application are entirely consistent with Paul’s apostolic approach.


Paul’s Ethical Expectation of Philemon

We are finally ready to crack Philemon. Recall Jesus’ teaching on bucking the world’s ways of power. I argued that any good student of Jesus, like Paul, would have connected the idea of “lording over” (being one’s master) and “exercising authority”. Such a student would have easily associated anyone dubbed a master or lord with this teaching, immediately coming to an ethical tension. My first point then is that by now, after observing Paul’s faithfulness to this teaching, we could deduce the basics of Paul’s ethical approach to Philemon without even reading the letter. Just on the basis of Philemon’s identity as a Christian master over a fellow Christian slave, we could assume a level of consternation and discontent in Paul’s response.

When we approach Philemon we find convincing evidence that this expected pattern is indeed at play.

Lord Jesus. To repeat, the word translated “lord” is κύριος, which means master. It is the same word translated as master in every instance we’ve looked at, for example:

And masters (οἱ κύριοι), treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master (ὁ κύριός) and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:9)

It is noteworthy then that in the brief 25-verse letter to Philemon, Paul repeats the word Lord (κύριος) six different times (v3, 5, 7, 16, 20, 25). Now, this word is prevalent in all of Paul’s letters as the prefeered title for Jesus. This doesn’t preclude the possibility, however, that Paul intentionally repeated the term as a way of reminding Philemon and the church that there is only one true master. This is, afterall, exactly what Paul did in the Ephesians passage just quoted.

Ineffective Faith. Verse 6 is integral to the interpretation of Philemon. It can be difficult to translate, however. Here is the sentence, verses 4-6, in Greek and my translation (bold added).

Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ μου πάντοτε μνείαν σου ποιούμενος ἐπὶ τῶν προσευχῶν μου, ἀκούων σου τὴν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν πίστιν ἣν ἔχεις πρὸς τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἁγίους, ὅπως ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν·

I always thank God when I remember you in my prayers, hearing about your love and the faith which you have toward toward the Lord Jesus and to all the holy ones, that your participationin the faith may become effective in the knowledge of every good thing which is in us for Christ.

There are two key words here: κοινωνία and ἐνεργὴς. The first – κοινωνία – has played an integral role in New Testament studies. As I have argued elsewhere[6], the term can mean partnership, fellowship, communion, or sharing, but is best translated here as participation. Here in Philemon 6 it is modifed by the genitive τῆς πίστεώς (the faith).

The second word, ἐνεργὴς, is where we derive the English word energy. It comes from the root ergon, meaning to work. It means either effective or active. Either word could be used in verse 6.

Collectively, Paul is articulating his prayer that Philemon’s “participation in the faith may become effective/active.” This long sentence essentially acts as a form of prayer shaming, or even prayer threatening. Paul starts by pleasantly telling Philemon that he prays for him, but then shares a part of his prayer “aloud” so that Philemon gets an indirect window into what he is thinking. The implication should be obvious: If Paul is praying for Philemon’s faith to become (γένηται, in the subjunctive) either effective or active, that means that he currently sees it as either ineffective or inactive. Philemon would have been put on alert.

It also begs the question, why does Paul deem his faith inactive? What “good thing which is in us for Christ” does Philemon not know about? And what kind of action would it take for Philemon to prove himself as an active, effective participant in the faith of Christ?

Paul’s Apostolic Example. We noted earlier how Paul was eager to prove himself a sufficient imitator of Christ when it came to stewarding apostolic power. He also sought to set himself as an example on others, adding to the weight of his exhortations. It should be no surprise then that Paul applies this tactic with Philemon:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. (Philemon 8-15, NIV)

Paul explains that, as an apostle, he easily could have simply commanded Philemon to do what is right, but instead has set aside his authority to make a humble, brotherly appeal. Paul’s aim is to motivate Philemon to act voluntarily (v15). It would seem then that Paul has at least begun to illuminate the answer to our question above. For Philemon to prove himself effective, he must make a voluntary decision to do the right, Christian thing. Had Paul simply given an order, this would do nothing to prove the legitimacy of Philemon’s participation in the faith.

But Paul is doing more here. He is once again using his words not only to instruct but to demonstrate. He is showing Philemon – a master with power over another – what it looks like to set aside such power and to relate “on the basis of love” (v9). Paul’s choice doesn’t soften the blow. Rather, it adds the weight of moral modeling. If Christ could lay down his power, so could Paul. If Paul could lay down his, so might Philemon. If not, well then this would likely prove Philemon an inactive, unwilling participant in the faith.

Paul’s RequestPaul goes on to express his request. This is the point of contention among scholars and interpreters. The request is considered vague, subtle, and ambiguous. My contention is that in light of Paul’s observable faithfulness to a Christian ethic of relinquishing social power the request is neither subtle nor ambiguous.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 15-17, NIV)

Paul’s use of leveling relational language is well observed by scholars. His use of the sibling metaphor throughout the letter (v1-3, 7, 16, 20) puts Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus on the same level. Here he explicitly exhorts Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but “as a dear brother,” “a brother in the Lord.” The language is clear enough, especially in light of how consistently Paul expects Christians to stop exercising their domination over others. Paul wants Philemon to forsake his rights as master, trading the enslavement relationship for one of brotherhood. This is fully consistent with everything else we’ve seen. The slave-master relationship may have been the norm within the Roman imperial culture, but “not so with you” thought Paul. To be a fully active and theologically consistent participant in the community of Jesus, Philemon would have to learn this lesson and obediently apply it. Paul was confident of his obedience (v21), but he would pay him a visit just to double check (v22).

The fact of his including the entire church community in the letter’s address (v2) increased the forcefulness of Paul’s supposedly subtle request. Together with the warning of a personal visit, the letter likely constituted a kind of public rebuke, even an open threat. Just as Paul believed those who held authority as elders in a church should be liable to public exposure and accountability (1 Tim. 5:20), so too the master of the house was subject to communal scrutiny.

Another remarkable fact is Paul’s refusal to make any apology for Onesimus. This is despite Paul’s recognition that there may have been material losses involved (v19-20). Scholars such as N.T. Wright[7] have noted the similarities between Paul’s letter to Philemon and another ancient letter from the Roman statesman Pliny the Younger to a slave owner named Sabinianus.[8] Pliny too acted as an intermediary asking the master to accept the return of a runaway slave. The similarities are striking. So too are the differences. In the letter, Pliny repeatedly expresses guilt, remorse and repentance on behalf of the slave and petitions on the grounds of mercy that he be accepted back without fatal punishment. Paul, on the other hand, in absolutely no way chastises or blames Onesimus. This silence coupled with his bold and threatening petition would have spoke loud and clear.

This is perfectly representative of Paul’s approach to situations of severe power differential. To the weak and powerless like Onesimus, Paul encouraged radical Christian imitation but also acted to empower and protect. To the powerful like Philemon, Paul challenged sharply and stood up for the disempowered party. He refused to blame the victim. Indeed both Pliny and Paul were asked to advocate for the return of slaves, but only Paul did so on the grounds of a basic Christian obligation to forego dominion over others.


Interpreting Philemon

In light of our current study, it is bewildering how any earnest Bible reader could question Paul’s disapproval of Onesimus’ enslavement. Most modern readers want to see Paul say, “Free Onesimus!” Many scholars, on the other hand, contest that Paul was perfectly approving of Onesimus’ slavery and slavery in general. The irony is that both sides completely miss Paul’s larger, overarching ethic at work.

There is of course much to be considered in terms of cultural context. It is well established, for example, that sheer freedom without some other work opportunity often led to greater financial vulnerability than the slavery itself.[9] In other words, one can’t simply assume that a mere release from slavery was always the best option.[10] But this is beside the point. Paul wasn’t petitioning for freedom, a mere legal release and parting of ways. He sought the total Christian leveling of social status such that Philemon and Onesimus could actually remain connected but in a brand new way, beginning a new relationship as equal brothers. Paul’s theology included the erosion of slavery, and it meant more than that. To him, there was now “neither slave nor free” for all were one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). To Paul, Philemon would either prove that he understood this – by abandoning every shred of domination over his slaves – or else he would prove himself inactive in the faith.

To Paul, one’s stewardship of social power was at the heart of Christian faith. It was founded on the model and explicit commandment of Jesus. Paul’s goal as an apostle was the same as his aim in the letter to Philemon: Not to liberate slaves or end slavery, but to move people to follow Jesus in relinquishing their power over others. In other words, Paul didn’t write to free Onesimus but to convince Philemon to be a Christian. If he succeeded, Onesimus would certainly gain his freedom, but he would also gain a brother, and Philemon would discover the scandalous insight of the gospel and thereby prove himself an active participant in the faith.



Our journey here has been long in part because we’ve had to take two separate roads, studying the letter to Philemon as well as a greater Pauline ethic of power. Both were necessary. It is my assertion that Philemon has been both misinterpreted and under-interpreted because scholars and laypeople alike have failed to see Paul’s consistent position toward Christians and power. In turn, the failure to see and admit such an ethic in Paul is in large part due to the failure to see or accept Paul’s scandalous attitude toward Philemon. Indeed how many of us have ever heard a pastor or theologian question the validity of a Christian’s faith on the basis of whether or not they persistently exercise coercive power over another? And yet this is precisely the effect of Paul’s letter as well as the basic logic of his New Covenant ethics.

And at this point we should remember that Paul considered this ethical commitment to be a matter of simple obedience to Jesus. Paul merely served as an ambassador tasked with passing the ethic forward, instilling it in as many people as possible while fighting to prove true to it himself.




[1] Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. (1996). A Greek-English lexicon (p. 599). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[2] Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., & McKenzie, R. (1996). A Greek-English lexicon (p. 1013). Oxford: Clarendon Press. See also: Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[3] Lo, J. (2014). Deity. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[4] “Citizen” is an imprecise word here. The majority of the Jews were not deemed citizens under the Roman Empire and thereby had few legal protections or rights. Even those, like Paul, who could claim Roman citizenship, knew nothing of the democratic empowerment we know today. There was no vote. I therefore mean simply a member of the common folk. 

[5] Wright, N.T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 6

[6] “Koinonia in Philemon 6 and 17”, 2017.

[7] Wright, N.T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 5-6

[8] Pliny the Younger, “Letter CIII. To Sabinianus” in Epistulae (Letters).

[9] Bartchy, S. Scott, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, ed. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 169-176.

[10] Harris, Murray J. Slave Of Christ (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 40-41.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *