Introduction to the Book of Philemon
It is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church in your house. The early Christian community was organized around the home. No doubt many churches were started in the homes of early Christians. There is no evidence of church buildings before the third century. The first traces of special houses for worship occur in Tertullian. He speaks of going to church. Clement of Alexandria uses the double meaning of the word church. About 230 A.D., the Emperor Alexander Severus granted Christians the right to a place in Rome to worship God. Around 250 A.D. Roman court records have a case involving a church building confiscated during the Decian persecution. The remains of the oldest church buildings is at Europas. Rome is supposed to have had forty church buildings by the 4th century.
The letter concerns Onesimus, a slave who, after robbing his master (Phile. 19) absconded to Rome, where he came into contact with Paul. We have no way of knowing how or why Onesimus visited Paul in prison. However, Paul converts him and sends him back to his master. Evidently actions taken before you become a Christian still count.
This letter brings the whole problem of slavery before us. There is no denunciation of Philemon’s right to hold slaves. Yet there is one significant phrase that transforms the master-slave relationship. Onesimus is returning no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother (Phile. 16). His emancipation is hinted at (Phile. 21).
In the Roman Empire there were about 60 million slaves. Papyrus letters offered rewards for the return of slaves or for information regarding their whereabouts. Plato in effect said that a slave was a motorized hoe that could reproduce. Aristole held that certain men by nature were meant to be slaves to serve the higher class of men. During the American Civil War Paul’s letter to Philemon became an almost insurmountable obstacle to the abolitionists. Many religious groups, discounting their wise leaders advice, divided because they made slave-holding a test of fellowship.