Philemon and the Abolition of the City of Man

Slavery is the biblical motif which gets at the all pervasive economic, social, and psychological system of sin and it is against this background that exodus and redemption are also to be understood. Slavery is not simply the biblical metaphor for sin but is the concrete manifestation of what is meant by sin and in turn is precisely that from which Christ redeems. The very term “redemption” means that one’s life is no longer subject to commodification, objectification, materialization, or to circulation in an economy in which human life is reduced to bare life without intrinsic value.

In this human economy, the basic categories human/subhuman, citizen/alien, inclusion/exclusion, sovereign/subject, slave/free constitute the city of man. Being inside the city (with its laws and subjects) and outside the city (where there is no law) are marked by slave and free. The premise of the gospel is that being found outside the city, outside the law, outside the domain of what it means to be human (the exclusion which establishes the inclusion of the city), is the place occupied and exposed by Christ. Christ establishes a new organizational principle, a new family, centered on the koinonia of his body, in which exclusion is no longer the structuring principle of inclusion.

In the short book, Philemon, Paul masterfully knocks out all supporting presuppositions for continuation of a top-down master/slave order. After the gospel and after the writing of Philemon, slavery among Christians would seem to be excluded, and yet the reception of this smallest of books speaks of the troubled reception of the fulness of the gospel. The question arises, with a book like Philemon, whether Christians who fail to recognize the basis of this new koinonia (in which there are no slaves and masters but only brothers and sisters) fail to comprehend the gospel – and beyond this the question is as to where this incomprehension lies?

Philemon seems perfectly clear in its implications. Paul tells Philemon to accept Onesimus back as if he is Paul himself (v. 17). Philemon is to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). Paul’s letter is filled with pathos as Onesimus is “beloved,” “my child whom I have begotten in my imprisonment” (v. 10) In Onesimus, Paul says he is “sending my very heart” (v. 12). Paul claims personal kinship with Onesimus and identifies him with his own deepest feelings – the very center of who he is. “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17). It is doubtful that Philemon will regard Onesimus as anything short of a brother, which is Paul’s appeal: “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (15-16). Here is Christ’s ethic applied, as Paul identifies himself with the slave, he undoes not only the oppression of Onesimus but the dehumanizing master/slave relationship in which the master too is degraded.

Paul’s point may include the freeing of Onesimus so that he might return to Paul and Paul’s ministry, but his ultimate point is to have Philemon regard Onesimus as a brother. This unity or koinonia is the point of the gospel and the gospel accomplishes these other things (ending slavery, ending oppression, and overturning the city of man) in the process. What is not mentioned, but is very much present in Paul’s maintaining it is Philemon that “owes him his very self” (v. 19), is that a human life is on the line. The unmentionable but lurking reality is that Philemon, as a master, has the right to crucify a runaway slave. Owning another human and denying them their humanity (the very opposite of what Paul has done for Philemon) is part of Roman slavery exemplified in the masters right to crucify his slave. Yet, it is precisely as a slave that Christ dies. Christ’s citizenship, his place in Israel, his existence as being fully human, is denied in his crucifixion, but in this way the counter-economy of the gospel is established. Crucifixion and resurrection remove the fear of death, the controlling factor in slavery, yet Philemon in maintaining the master/slave relationship would seemingly disregard the cross. This is the unspoken fact, but when Paul says charge to me whatever Onesimus owes (ultimately it his life he owes), he is imitating Christ in his willingness to identify with the slave. He is saying – take me not him.

Here is one of the small gems of the New Testament; revolutionary in its implications and a worked example of the apocalyptic implications of the gospel. This small book calls for a reassessment of what it means to be human. It calls into question the very founding structure and economy, the hierarchy of relations, the accepted reality of Roman society. Yet these seemingly revolutionary and obvious implications of Paul’s gospel turn out to not be so obvious throughout church history.

According to J. B. Lightfoot, the ancient church did not pay much attention to the letter because “the gospel is not concerned with trivia.”[1] As Demetrius Williams describes the opinion of the early church,

Although Philemon was included in some early canon lists, there was little to no comment on it because no one apparently found any occasion to mention it. The letter was thought to have no doctrinal content that might have led to its being quoted, no contribution to the development of Paul’s theology, or of Christian theology in general.[2]

Williams describes the early consideration of the letter as being trivial, banal, beneath consideration, and perhaps unworthy of the canon. Because of early attacks on the book, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) defends the book precisely by changing the import of its message. He “argued that God established different social roles and estates and every individual should stay in his or her proper role” and in some way the book supposedly demonstrates this.[3] Both Chrysostom (c. 347-407) and Jerome (c. 342-420), due to attacks on the book, also attempt to defend it. But as Williams demonstrates, theirs is a somewhat underhanded defense:

John Chrysostom found a purpose for Philemon in addressing the situation of converted slaves. He argued that when a slave is converted and faithfully continues his life as a slave, even unbelievers are able to see that slaves can become believers without questioning the present norms of the society.[4]

Williams follows an established pattern in interpretation of Philemon, in which the book is used to draw moral lessons about knowing one’s place and a demonstration of Paul’s humility, but the remarkable element is the seeming blindness to the moral implications of slavery spelled out in the book. There seemed to be a concern to protect against the radical interpretation of Philemon, and on this basis preserve it as part of the canon. Williams traces this line of reasoning up to and including the Reformers:

Martin Luther, in his 1527 Lecture on Philemon, viewed Onesimus as an example of a person who was misled by the idea of freedom. He argued that Paul respected the established legal rights of property and did not seek to abolish slavery. Calvin, too, affirmed respect for the prevailing order and also emphasized Paul’s request to receive Onesimus back into his service.[5]

There were those who advocated the abolition of slavery among Christians (e.g., the Donatists in North Africa, Gregory of Nyssa, and various anonymous Christians to which Theodore refers), but this radical minority were often silenced by the conservative majority’s appeal to Philemon, as if this book made the case for slavery and conservatism – which in modern eyes it clearly does not. What this history of interpretation seems to indicate is the stifling effects of Constantinianism, imperialism, Christian nationalism, and racism, on the gospel. Given the primary role slavery plays in Scripture, it would seem that to be blind to the gospel’s implication for this institution is simply to be blind to the fulness of the gospel. Perhaps the blindness entails a refusal of the radical nature of the gospel.

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, bare life functions as the basic stuff from which truly human life, or life within the polis or the city, is formed, but in this formation, there is a necessary distinction between life inside the city (that life accounted for in the law, in citizenship, in being fully human life) and that life excluded from the city. That is, within life there is a necessary division between mere biological life and the good life of the city, and the marker of these two forms of life is the biological life shared by all humans. Thus “when Aristotle defined the end of the perfect community in a passage that was to become canonical for the political tradition of the West, he did so precisely by opposing the simple fact of living (to zēn) to politically qualified life (to eu zēn): ‘born with regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to the good life.’”[6] Agamben demonstrates that the Aristotelian recognition of an opposition within life between unqualified life (zēn) and good life (eu zēn) is the structuring principle of the judicial and political order constituting the city. For there to be an inside, there must be an outside, so that excluded life is an essential part of the structure of the polis. The politics of human society is the place in which life must be transformed into good life and it does this on the basis of the exception. “In Western politics, bare life has the peculiar privilege of being that whose exclusion founds the city of men.”[7]

The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[8] This is the power of the sovereign, to decide the state of exception or to decide who falls outside the city and is thus subject to random killing as in crucifixion. The slave determines the master, and the sovereign, in ordering this arrangement, establishes the law. To challenge this order would be nothing short of challenging the accepted consensus as to what it means to be human.  

Agamben notes that bare life is transformed through a particular relation to language. Through the instantiation of the voice (having a voice in the polis) the division is made within life, as the “politicization” of bare life brings about the good life (or having language – the logos). The fundamental division is not friend/enemy but the division accomplished through language, between bare life and political existence. “There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.”[9] Language, or having a voice in the polis, is the saving element which transforms bare life into human life. Those rendered voiceless (within the city) are synonymous with those outside the city or outside the polis and law.

The choice appears to be between the logos and city of man or the Logos and communion of Christ. There is no question that the implication of the gospel, as Paul presents it throughout his writings and as it is concentrated in Philemon, would challenge the status quo of the law, of social structures as they exist (in Judaism or in the slave trade), and that it speaks of an apocalyptic breaking in of a new order of culture and humanity, and yet the revolutionary nature of the gospel, particularly as it pertains to slavery has a very troubled history as reflected in the enduring nature of slavery and in the troubled reception of this little book. The issue is at the very core of the gospel and at the very core of the construction of human society, and it may be that it is the contradiction of these two realms that has caused this major issue (expressed in this minor book) to be so misunderstood.


[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “’No Longer as a Slave’: Reading the Interpretation History of Paul’s Epistle to Philemon,”

Onesimus Our Brother: Reading Religion, Race, and Culture in Philemon (Paul in Critical Contexts), Matthew V. Johnson Sr., Demetrius K. Williams, et al. (Fortress Press, 2012) 11.

[2] Williams, 16.

[3] Williams, 18.

[4][4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) 9.

[7] Agamben, 12.

[8] Agamben, 18.

[9] Agamben, 12.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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