Jesus said his followers ought to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. I always thought that was five parts serpent to one part dove. The letter of Philemon is perfect proof of this concept. Paul’s subject in this letter is a runaway slave named Onesimus. He converted to the faith while in prison with Paul, and now has an opportunity to return to his owner, Philemon. Philemon happens to be a Christian, converted under Paul’s ministry as well.
Paul writes this letter to try and convince Philemon to free Onesimus and treat him as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave.
Here is where the wise as serpents is applied to this letter. The letter is not sent directly to Philemon. Look at to whom this letter is addressed:
From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy. To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house. May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
This letter was sent to specific people and the entire congregation that meets in their house, of which Philemon was a member. Paul takes this issue of a runaway slave, something that was personal property, and throws it out into the public realm of congregational life.
Now, instead of this being an issue that Philemon can decide in the privacy of his own home, this becomes a an issue of Philemon’s public honor. Will he claim his rights under Roman Law as a dishonored owner of a slave, or will he show his honor as a Christian to the congregation? Everyone now knows this is the choice Philemon now has.
We surmise that Philemon did free Onesimus because his name shows up in two other places. Colossians 4:9 has Onesimus as one of the deliverers of the letter. And in Ignatius’ letter to the Church in Ephesus in around 108 AD Onesimus is identified as the bishop of that congregation.
Paul was wise in having this become an issue for the entire congregation, not just one person. After all, Christian behavior and ethics are not personal. When we are Christians, we are all a part of the same body. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one of us has suffering relieved, we all rejoice.
We would do well to remember this as we look at the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world.