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Good For You? | Is Christianity Oppressive?

May 19, 2024
Philemon 8-21

8Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

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To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst

To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships

To participate in God’s mission to the world 

Opening Prayer

Almighty God, who taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant to us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things and always to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Responsive Prayer—Acts 2:1-8, 11

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, 

And it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 

And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 

And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 

And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

—We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 

Summary and Connection

The letter to Philemon is a fascinating epistle. It is the shortest of Paul’s letters. The subject matter is that of Philemon’s runaway slave turned convert, named Onesimus, whom Paul wants Philemon to forgive and to accept on his behalf. Also interesting is that “Paul’s words of affection for Onesimus surpass any other expression of love for an individual Christian in his writings.” (MacLaughlin, Rebecca, Confronting Christianity, p179).

The letter follows a classical pattern: Paul compliments Philemon as a great servant to the church (verses 4-7), makes his appeal by expressing his love for Onesimus (verses 10 and 12) and his expectation that Philemon will do the right thing (verses 14 and 21), and then assures Philemon that whatever Onesimus has cost him, “I, Paul,” will personally make it right (verses 18-19). While Paul uses a rhetorical argument, he fills it with gospel motivation. Paul says that, like Philemon, Onesimus is now family — his own “heart” (which promotes Philemon and Onesimus from master and slave to brothers in Christ) — and he tells Philemon that not only will he pay any outstanding debt, but also that Philemon already owes Paul his “own self.” In other words, while Onesimus may owe Philemon financially, Philemon owes Paul spiritually for the infinitely priceless salvation that Paul has shared with him. Paul leaves Philemon the freedom to make the right choice but carefully gives every reason why Philemon should make it.

Now, the narrow specificity and delicate nuance of this letter make it difficult to apply in broad brushstrokes. It leaves many critics wondering why Paul did not banish slavery outright. And it leaves Christians with a Bible that many people believe condones slavery. We are in a sermon series called Good for You?, and we are discussing this and other common objections to the faith. In this study, we will ask, “Is Christianity Oppressive?” And the answer requires some background. The first thing to note is that the Greco-Roman slavery of Paul’s day differed substantially from the New-World-style slavery with which we are sadly familiar. Slavery in the Americas was race-based, lifelong, and segregated. Classical slavery was not race-based, not lifelong, and slaves were almost indistinguishable from citizens in dress, speech, and occupation. Second, the Bible as a whole is an anti-slavery narrative. The main character is the nation of Israel, their main story arc is from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, and their main identity is as God’s emancipated people. This anti-slavery bent is why abolition ultimately won out in every country where Christianity had influence (even where the Church was violently divided over slavery) and why the gospel of freedom and liberation was always obvious to Christians like Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, William Wilberforce, John Newton, Granville Sharp, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and many others. Third, it must be clearly stated, without excuse, that “the complicity of white Christians in the history of slavery, segregation, and racial injustice in America stands as a blot on the record of Christianity.” (MacLaughlin, Rebecca, Confronting Christianity, p185) It is also true, as Martin Luther King Jr. preached, that the answer to racism is not less Christianity but, as he put it in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a deeper commitment to the law of God and the gospel of freedom. It is this same gospel in which Christians over the centuries have found freedom from shame and forgiveness for sins so that they too can “do what is required” (verse 8). Let’s discuss Philemon, and the Jesus behind the ministries of both Paul and King, who was “in the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) and “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). 

Discussion Questions

1. Looking at the Bible

Observation: Read the passage privately. What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage? Do you notice keywords, parallels, or surprises?

  • Since Philemon is so short, consider reading all 25 verses. What is Paul asking of Philemon? On what basis is Paul making his appeal?

2. Looking at Jesus

At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

  • Paul says that he is imprisoned for Jesus (verse 9) and the gospel (verse 13). To see how Paul uses the gospel of Jesus in his appeal, read verses 18-21 again. How is Paul modeling Jesus in his argument?

3. Looking at Our Hearts

  • How are we like Philemon, and what wealth, status, privilege, or pride do we need  to sacrifice for the sake of our brothers and sisters? How are we like Onesimus, and how could God’s grace in Jesus set us free even in difficult circumstances?

4. Looking at Our World

  • Where in our lives do we need to set other people free by the forgiveness and freedom that we enjoy in Christ? 


God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.

  • View Study Guide Notes

    Question 1: In the ancient world, a runaway slave could be subject to extreme punishment and even death. Especially if, as Paul may be implying in verse 18, Onesimus had stolen from Philemon to finance his escape to Rome. By God’s providence, Onesimus just so happens to find Paul, who just so happens to have converted his master, Philemon. Paul takes this divinely appointed opportunity and asks Philemon to do at least three things. First, Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Paul removes both financial and spiritual obstacles by offering to settle any accounts and by reminding Philemon of the spiritual debt which he owes to Paul. Second, Paul asks Philemon to elevate Onesimus. Paul’s estimation of Onesimus as “his very heart” and as “my child” should make Onesimus a precious brother to Philemon, “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (verse 16). Third, Paul asks Philemon to embrace Onesimus, receiving him as if he were Paul himself (verse 17). How can Paul ask for this incredible alteration in the master and slave relationship? Because they are all three — apostle, master, and slave — one in Christ. This revolutionary change in relation between people who are united in Christ is the power that would eventually end slavery in every place where this power was preached. In this particular instance, it begins when Philemon realizes that the debt of grace that he owes to Paul is just a small reflection of the great debt we all owe to Christ, and that we who have been forgiven much should also forgive much.

    Question 2: Paul’s argument to Philemon is a case-study in how to persuade on the basis of the liberating gospel of Jesus. “Charge it to my account” recalls Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus is the Lord of all, to whom we owe everything, even “our own selves.” Yet Jesus became a slave for us (Philippians 2:7) and is not ashamed to call us brothers (Hebrews 2:11). Jesus gives us all of his riches and benefits and therefore sets us free to do the right thing for our neighbors’ good and for God’s glory (Ephesians 2:8-10). With one another, there is neither “slave nor free” (1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28), and to the world we are all “slaves of Christ” (Romans 1:1; Colossians 4:7, 12; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; James 1:1; Jude 1:1).

    Question 3: This is a personal application question. It may be helpful to consider this comment by Dick Lucas: “To live in this evil world Christians cannot avoid living within social structures that are unjust and unequal, though their presence within it as salt and light should help to change structures. Yet, whether one is born an ‘Onesimus’ or a ‘Philemon,’ one can find in Christ the secret of spiritual freedom.” Or consider the words that John Newton, the slave-trader turned abolitionist (and writer of “Amazing Grace”) engraved over his fireplace, from Isaiah 43:4 and Deuteronomy 15:15: “Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, BUT thou shalt remember that thou wast a bond-man in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

    Question 4: This is a personal application question that can be answered from the perspective of our individual lives, our life as a church, or our life as part of our workplace or community.