Chapter 4 Pauline Theology
1 Corinthians - Charismatic freedom
Galatians - Standing fast in freedom
Romans - Power for freedom
Philemon - Freedom and slavery
Paul has had a bad press. Women assume he was a male chauvinist. He was hijacked by Augustine's doctrine of original sin. Theologians have suggested that he took the church in a quite different direction from what Jesus had in mind. Others try to decide which epistles were written by him, and which must be by others because the style is different (forgetting that Paul had bad eyesight and had to let others write for him, Romans 16:22, Galatians 6:11, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:17).
When I was first sent out as a missionary I had been trained to see my task in individualistic terms. My job was to reach as many persons as I could with the good news of Jesus, and help them to accept him as Lord and Savior. But as I studied the New Testament I realized that this was not the vision that Paul had in his mission. Almost in passing he said that "From Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of the Messiah" (Romans 15:19). Which means that he had already evangelized the vast area stretching 1500 miles (2400 kilometres) from Jerusalem to present day Croatia. There is no way he could have talked to each one of the millions of people who lived in the big cities along that route (Tarsus, Antioch in Pisidia, Ephesus, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth), let alone the surrounding country.. .
By comparing this text (Romans 15:19) with what Paul actually did, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear he went to all the main administrative centers and planted a church in each place. That was sufficient. The job was done, and there was no point in him continuing there (Romans 15:23). Once a church was planted in each city, the area was evangelized. He did go back himself for further short visits, and he sent fellow workers to encourage these young churches and correct errors brought in by false teachers.
Once that strategy became clear it was obvious that the epistles were not theological treatises for Paul to express his ideas for posterity. I had tended to use them to provide proof texts for evangelistic sermons or to solve problems of church discipline.. That was no doubt useful, but it missed the essential fact that Paul wrote his letters to free churches to live by the power of the Spirit.
In the New Testament we have thirteen of Paul's letters, nine of which are addressed to churches, and four are written to individuals. I was trained to study these with the help of commentaries to find out what the Greek words meant and fit Paul into a model of what I was meant to believe. Now I ask myself how each letter relates to the kind of freedom that Paul had in mind. He wanted these churches to demonstrate and offer freedom to a world that was enslaved by various religions. I will pick out just four of the epistles to illustrate this.
1 Corinthians Charismatic Freedom
In the previous chapter I pointed to the astonishing mutuality in marriage set out in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. Evidently Paul had learned this from Jesus and the Christian women he came to know. He also explained how the Christians in Corinth were to be freed to function as a community of the Spirit in that city. They needed to allow others the freedom to be different instead of dividing themselves into parties under various leaders (1:10-17). They were free to look to the power of the Spirit to give them wisdom (1:18-4:20). People who misuse their freedom might need to be handed over to Roman justice, but Christians are not free to sue one another for petty grievances, or to defile the church as the temple of God by immorality (5:1-6:20). There was a freedom to eat food in the market place, even though it had been offered to heathen idols, but concern for the freedom of others who were more scrupulous was also important (8:1-13). And Paul explained his own freedom as an apostle (9:1-27). He outlined the implications of baptism and sharing in the Lord's table, and some misuses of freedom that could be disastrous (10:1-11:34). And we have the great chapter on the resurrection and our freedom from death (15:1-57).
But we will narrow down to focus on our astonishing freedom to function as the body of the Messiah in the world (12:1-14:40). In the previous chapter we saw that Jesus had no intention of being a one man band. He quickly freed his very new disciples to go out and engage in the liberating work he had begun. As Jesus had predicted (Matthew 16:18), Peter found himself laying the foundation for the church that was brought into being by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. But it was Paul who was mainly responsible for sub-dividing that world-wide church into churches of the Spirit in cities of the Roman empire.
When I was first converted I was attracted to the Plymouth Brethren. J.N.Darby (1800-1882) and others had seen that a local church was not to be organized under a one-man ministry. Evangelists had to proclaim the good news to outsiders. Bible teachers were to expound the whole counsel of God to church members. There were those gifted in "forms of assistance and leadership" in the community (1 Corinthians 12:27-28). And there were a group of elders to shepherd each assembly.
Though I was training for Anglican parish ministry, I was totally convinced by Bishop Lightfoot's Dissertation on "The Christian Ministry." Congregations had a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9) who were known as bishops (episkopoi means those who have oversight). There was no such thing as a congregation being run by an Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Greek Orthodox parish priest (J.B.Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, London: Macmillan 1900, pp.181-269).
In the early sixties I had seen that Paul's Epistle to Corinthians went very much further than the Plymouth Brethren. As in most other denominations, the Brethren had assumed that evangelists, teachers, and elders must be male. But Paul had pictured an organic body in which the Holy Spirit functioned to provide a rich variety of gifts, services and activities. This body was to function as the expression of the body of the Messiah in that city (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). You did not become a church member by being put on a list. The members of the body are those who perform functions given to them by the Spirit. (If you are a false teacher trying to destroy the body you are cancerous.) But, as Jesus taught, we should include children as having an important function in the church (1 Corinthians 7:14), and Jean Vanier showed in the L'Arche communities how the mentally handicapped also have their place. Some very important functions are invisible behind the scenes (1 Corinthians 12:22-24).
Where then did mission fit in? There was a mission of each congregation in a city, but there was also a moving bloodstream of mission teams like those led by Paul and others. These teams were led by apostles to engage in planting new churches and nourishing the world-wide church. The early Brethren and most evangelical denominations taught that the function of apostles terminated when the New Testament canon was complete. Roman Catholics and some Anglicans tried to connect the apostles with local church bishops. But it was obvious that Paul refused to stay in one place looking after local congregations. There were always new areas that needed church planting. (see The Church: An Organic Picture of its Life and Mission, 1968 and this website).
Since then I have seen that in Paul's mind there was only one church in each city (Rome, Corinth, the Galatian cities of Iconium and Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth). But in a huge city like Ephesus there were many locations where the one church gathered (as named in Romans 16:3-16). This solved the problem of church union which took up huge amounts of conference and committee time when I was a student. The problem for church union advocates was how can a divided church have any credibility in the world? How do we organize a union of all the churches?
I came to see that was not a question that could concern Paul. In a huge city like Corinth or Ephesus there was no way Christians could walk to one central location. They were free to attend whatever meeting place was convenient for them. By definition there is only one church in each city (town or administrative center) and its surrounding area, and it is impossible to divide it.
That means that in a city like Kingston, Ontario, where I live, the body of the Messiah functions through Christians with many different gifts of the Spirit to permeate the whole city. On Sunday these meet in buildings under various names such as St. Paul's Anglican, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, First Baptist, Alliance, the Gospel Hall, Salvation Army Citadel, the Penitentiary, and the gathering at the homes of Mrs. Jones and countless other places at various times during the week.. The Pentecostal groups in South America have shown that in the barrios of huge cities like San Paolo or Buenos Aires the quicker new meeting places can be established the more the church grows.
Where then do denominations fit in? Denominations are not churches in Paul's terminology. In our day they provide the support (training, ordination, locating, payment and pension services for ministers, literature, conferences, mission outreach, etc.) to provide for each kind of church expression. Viewing the one church in a city as a garden, it is evident the head gardener likes a variety of roses, tulips, daffodils, peonies, phlox, brown eyed susans, etc. They each have their own identity and they survive best in clumps. And it is wrong for tulips to complain that the roses next to them have thorns. Changing the metaphor, I now see the pursuit of what used to be called church union as an attempt to merge all the food chains into one, and compel everyone to use the same store (the Communists tried this in Moscow). The idea of one denomination for all Christians is impractical and misguided.
Christians in each city can view themselves as one church with the freedom to honor the rich variety of differences that the Spirit delights in. In practice this is already happening. All over the city people now feel free to exercise the gifts the Spirit has given them, and they work with others without denying their own denominational preferences in styles of worship.
Galatians Standing fast in freedom
We have seen how a church in a city like Corinth was totally animated by the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit there would be no life, and without life an organic body quickly disintegrates back into undifferentiated deadness. This is why Paul was so angry at what had happened in Galatia. "Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3).
In the theology which I took for granted the work of the Holy Spirit was viewed in individualistic terms. Roman Catholics and High Anglicans thought that the spirit was imparted in baptism. Evangelicals said we receive the Spirit when we first exercise faith and are born again. Now I can see that Paul's churches were not made up of believers who had first received the Spirit and then were added to make up a church. Rather individuals were baptized into a church where they were nourished to enjoy the life and fruit of the Spirit. "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13). It was in the community of the Spirit that people came alive and were gifted and empowered to function as Christians.
I had already seen this in the ministry of Jesus. Baptism was an enrolment to begin learning in his school of the Spirit (Go Make Learners, 1981). When they began the disciples knew nothing, but after baptism they were taught to see the Spirit at work and they learned to look to the power of the Spirit as they engaged in ministry.
As the church moved out from Jerusalem, Philip the evangelist went to proclaim "the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus the Messiah" among the Samaritans, and they were baptized , both men and women (Acts 8:12). But that was only a preliminary to the establishment of a church of the Spirit among them. "When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:14-17).
As the charismatic movement began impacting the main line denominations I observed a radically new model of evangelism at work. I had been taught that individuals were converted and born again (say in a Billy Graham evangelistic meeting), and then the problem was to get them to join a church. The plain fact was that only those who were added to a congregation of the Spirit could be found a year later. But in a live charismatic meeting people were first included in the life and worship of the community, and it was there that they experienced the Spirit at work in their lives.
Faith is often the result of being freed by finding oneself in a live community of the Spirit. I could not deny the changes in some friends who went long distances to share in the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. This also seemed to be occuring in some newer charismatic congregations that were packed with enthusiastic young people.. And it explained the effectiveness of movements like Cursillo and the Alpha courses.
That changes the meaning of Paul's letter to the Galatians. For many years I preached it as a call for individuals to avoid legalism. "For freedom the Messiah has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). I even wrote a book titledLiving Totally : Without Guilt, 1983. I still feel that personal freedom from legalism and judgmentalism is part of the good news, but it now seems far less important than encouraging a whole church to be freed to permeate a city in a multitude of different ways.
This seems to be what actually happens in a revival where the fabric of a whole community is transformed. A few years ago Inuit settlements in northern Canada had lost all hope as they were ravaged by alcoholism, drugs, and the suicide of many of their young people. After much prayer and repentance a movement of the Spirit began which has recently saved and transformed the political and social life of whole communities. About the same time a huge movement of the Spirit among all denominations in the city of Kampala, Uganda, impacted every level of government, and even reduced the AIDS statistics.
Now let us try to imagine what had happened when Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians. This letter was for the cities of Antioch in Pisidia (the capital) and Iconium in the Roman province of Galatia. There were a large number of Jews in these cities. The historian Josephus reported that two thousand Jewish families had moved to Antioch in Galatia two hundred years before (Antiquities 12.3-4). As was his custom Paul began his church planting ministry by visiting the synagogue (as in Acts 14:1, 17:1-3, 18:5-8, 19:8-9). As a result Paul was able to plant a church in Antioch and in the nearby city of Iconium during his first missionary journey (Acts 13:14, 14:1, 21-23). We can assume from what happened in Corinth that people were baptized and experienced the astonishing new freedom of life in the Spirit. They began to exercise a variety of gifts of the Spirit as they permeated the life of their city and its surrounding area. There were meeting places for Christians in homes where they could gather in each neighborhood (as in Ephesus, see Romans 16: 3-15).
What had gone wrong just a few years later? Why was Paul so upset? "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Galatians 3:1). "Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh (merely human effort)? Did you experience so much for nothing?" (Galatians 3:2-3).
It seems that the large Jewish community had managed to steer the church back into a form of Christian Judaism. The bitter opponents of Jesus were the Pharisee legalists. And there are indications of this kind of counterattack in the early church (Acts 11:2-3, 15:1-5). Paul refers back to a previous situation "because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us" (Galatians 2:4). Obviously legalism was a constant danger to his mission. .
And now in Galatia instead of looking to the creative work of the Spirit the focus had changed to a church bound by rules and traditions. When this happens inevitably deadness sets in. The spiritual life of the church disintegrated as ordinary members were no longer free to exercise their gifts of the Spirit. And instead of the fruit of the Spirit, self effort could only produce works of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-25). Only the Spirit could impact the community with the wisdom from above, which is "pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits" (James 3:17). Without that the church becomes a self-righteous gathering of hypocrites that no city needs.
In chapter 3 of the Epistle Paul connects the work of the Spirit among the nations with the promise made to Abraham. This is missed by the NRSV translation which should read : "The scripture, foreseeing that God keeps making right (the present continuous of dikaioo meaning to make free or pure as in Acts 13:39) the Gentiles by faith, declared the good news before to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations shall be blessed in you' (Genesis 12:3). For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed" (Galatians 3:8-9).
In the context of chapter 3 the freedom of the Spirit is the opposite of "doing the works of the law" (Galatians 3:2). Clearly Paul is contrasting Jewish legalism with Abraham's experience.. "My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise" (Galatians 3:17). That convinced me that Abraham's faith was walking by the Holy Spirit (our God has always been Trinitarian), and it was by this same experience of the Spirit that was going to bless people of all nations through churches of the Spirit in every city.
Romans Power for freedom
The Epistle to the Romans used to be divided into two parts. Justification came first (chapters 1-6) and sanctification followed (with a puzzling digression about Paul's concern for his own Jewish people in chapters 9-10). But the logic of what Paul had in mind did not make sense until I saw that the English word justification (Latin justificatio) belonged to the Roman law court model that Augustine derived from Jerome's Vulgate translation into Latin. And this meaning of the word governed the thinking of the western church throughout the middle ages.
The Greek Orthodox theologians, who still read the New Testament in their own language, have never given the Greek term dikaiosune (righteousness, uprightness) the sense of a law court justification. The noun dikaios (upright, just, righteous) corresponded to the Hebrew words tzaddiq and yashar which described the righteous person as opposed to the wicked (Psalm 1:6, 7:10, etc. Proverbs 2:21-22, 10:3, 11, etc). And the passive of the verb dikaioo (make free, pure) refers in Paul's letters to being made free (Romans 2:13, 3:20, 24, 28, 4:2, 5:1, 9, Galatians 2:16-17) from the power of sin by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:39, Romans 8:2, 4, 9-10).
Armed with these original meanings of the Greek words, I began to see that the Epistle to the Romans was not about justification in a Roman law court sense. It was about the power of God. And this power was not the power to forgive us (God's love never did have a problem with forgiving) but the power of the Holy Spirit. The Messiah "was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit (the Holy Spirit) of holiness by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4). This is explained later: "If the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Romans 8:11).
That is why Paul says "I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). This is the power of God's love that is "poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).
Five years ago I read Clark Pinnock's Flame of Love : A Theology of the Holy Spirit (InterVarsity, 1996). I saw that everything the Son of God did to free us was by the power of the Holy Spirit. In his Gospel Luke described how he was conceived by the Spirit (1:35), baptized by the Spirit (3:22), led into the desert by the Spirit (4:1), began teaching by the Spirit (4:14-15), announced his liberating ministry of the Spirit (4:18), sent his disciples out in the power of the Spirit (12:12), and promised them they would be "clothed with power from on high" (24:49).
If all Jesus' ministry was by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Paul's ministry involved planting churches of the Spirit, why was this not reflected in commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans? So I decided to write Romans : Paul and the Power of the Spirit (1998 web publication). This has enabled me to see the Epistle in a completely new light.
The heart of the Epistle is not the discussion of how we can be justified in a legal sense by the Son satisfying the Father's wrath. The key is Paul's description of how the flesh (our efforts to obey rules) is totally unable to free us from "slavery under sin" (see the discussion of Luther in the next chapter). "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it . . . making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:14-24). And the change that occured in Rome was that "The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2).
The main text of the Epistle ends with "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit: (Romans 15:13). That means that for Paul the basis of our assurance and hope for the future is the fact that we have already experienced the Holy Spirit working in our community and in our lives. Every fresh experience of the Spirit strengthens our assurance that he will work in us in whatever situation we will encounter in the future, including our own death. That is very different from an assurance based on "I made the proper decision for Christ so I am born again."
I also saw that Paul was concerned for the power of the Spirit to change nations, and without the work of the Spirit there was inevitable social disintegration. . He explains that "since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made" (Romans 1:20). This suggests that all nations know that the power of God is the creative Spirit of God (John 1:1-3). The aboriginal tribes of North America looked to the Great Spirit. What had gone wrong in the decline of Greek civilization was that "Though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened" (Romans1:21). Paul then gives three downward steps of the wrath (bad consequences) that resulted from this in the Greek and Roman world (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
But among Jewish people a similar rejection of the Holy Spirit in their national life was also having its effect "God shows no partiality" (Romans 2:1-11). In many nations "what the law requires is written on their hearts" (Romans 2:15), evidently by the Holy Spirit. But Judaism had rejected this kind of heart faith. Paul explains "A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart - it is spiritual (by the Spirit) and not literal (in mere words). Such a person receives praise (approval, recognition) not from others but from God (Romans 2:28-29).
After outlining the difference between trying to be put right by the law, and inner transformation by the Spirit (Romans 3 to 8), Paul then gives us three chapters about what had gone wrong in the Judaism that rejected the power of the Spirit that Jesus had offered them. His own Jewish people had received so much: "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises" (Romans 9:4). But instead of "righteousness through faith" they wanted a righteousness "based on works" (Romans 9:30-32). The result was that "being ignorant of the righteousness (dikaiosune, the being put right) that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God's righteousness" (10:3).
There was a remnant (as in the days of Elijah) "chosen by grace" (11:5), but as a nation "a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in" (Romans 11:25). Evidently Paul thought that the blessing of the Jewish people through the power of the Holy Spirit working among them would have to wait till they became jealous by seeing what had happened among other nations (Romans 11:11-12).
But Paul did not just think in terms of the power of the Holy Spirit among Greeks and Jews. The whole creation "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (Romans 8:19). As a result of the work of the Spirit in a community or city the whole environment would be affected. "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21), going back to Genesis 3:17-19). This suggests that instead of merely human efforts to save our environment, genuine change awaits the creative life of the Holy Spirit. It is church communities which can bless and free the environment we live in.
Just a year ago I used to say that much of Africa is a disaster area, and I could see very little hope for that continent ravaged by AIDS, civil war, and horrendous corruption.. Now, as a result of what has happened in Uganda, I can see how the Spirit can revive a whole church (of many denominations) and change the social, economic, and political situation from the inside. Apparently even the ecological situation has changed so that the earth is freed to yield its fruits. I am told this has also happened recently as a result of the revival in Guatemala. "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing" (Isaiah 35:1). But that is a message the environmental prophets might find hard to swallow.
Philemon Freedom and slavery
For our fourth picture of Paul's approach to freedom we have the Epistle to Philemon. This was one of the four letters that Paul wrote to individuals. Obviously Paul is not suggesting the kind of Liberation Theology we noted in the Introduction at the beginning of this book. He did not try to effect the liberation of slaves by political action. Nor does this letter, or Paul's other references to slaves in the church (e.g. Ephesians 6:5), suggest that slavery is to be tolerated for ever. It has to be changed from within by communities of the Holy Spirit.
The acceptance of men and women and children being enslaved is still common in some Muslim countries of Africa.. In the various states that make up Arabia millions of people from other countries are not bought and sold as slaves, but they are brought in to work for the Arabs without any political rights or freedom. The situation was hardly different in the southern states of the United States even after slavery was officially abolished.
For three thousand years in India Hindu religion has kept the untouchables (now called Dalits) at the bottom of the heap in the caste system. Soon after independence in 1947 the government passed laws to make distinctions based on caste illegal, but after fifty years the situation of two or three hundred million untouchables has hardly changed. They are not legally slaves in that they are paid a pittance to work, but they remain generation after generation in total subservience.
Paul himself was born as a full citizen of the Roman Empire (Acts 22:25-28). How then did Paul plan to free the vast population of slaves in every city where he worked? He planted churches which would continue Jesus' practice of welcoming poor, downtrodden, outcaste people to full table fellowship. This is why the communion service is so important. "When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper (Jesus' kind of welcome to table fellowship). For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing" (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).
The sequence of change is the key to the freedom he had in mind. First any slave could be baptized, and immediately welcomed in the Christian church of that city. As Paul said, "Welcome one another, therefore, just as the Messiah has welcomed you" (Romans 15:7). In a church animated by the Holy Spirit the slave was immediately made a full member of the body of the Messiah and given one or more spiritual gifts to exercise. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).
Then there was the experience of an astonishing mutual submission. "Be subject to one another out of reverence for the Messiah" (Ephesians 5:21). Slaves continued legally as slaves, but they now were to "Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord" (Ephesians 6:5-7) and Paul adds. "Masters (slave owners) do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality" (Ephesians 6:9). In the church gatherings there was to be no distinction. "As many of you as were baptized into the Messiah have clothed yourself with the Messiah. There is no longer Jew of Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Jesus the Messiah" (Galatians 3:26-28).
Now we can see the mind-boggling implications of the letter to Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave from his master Philemon who belonged to the church in Colossae (Colossians 4:7-9). If he was caught he could be executed, or severely beaten and sent back to his master for even more cruel treatment. When Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus Onesimus may have run errands for him. Paul could have handed this slave over to the Roman authorities, or kept him as a refugee from justice, or told him to go back to suffer the consequences with Philemon a hundred miles away in Colossae. Instead what he did had very radical implications for the freedom of slaves in the Christian churches.
Paul sent him back with a letter explaining that this slave Onesimus had come to Christian faith, and Paul loved him like his own son (Philemon 10). The apostle would have liked to keep him with him, but he wanted to allow Philemon the freedom to decide what to do (Philemon 13-14). What Paul hoped was that Onesinus would be welcomed by the church in Colossae as "a beloved brother" (Philemon 15-16). This would mean that the next Sunday Onesimus the slave would be freed to eat at the communion table with Philemon his slave owner. He would begin functioning in the church as a full member exercising one or more gifts of the Spirit. And inevitably it would only be a matter of time before Onesimus was freed from slavery.
We do not know if Philemon had the grace to do this. The story is open-ended to leave us free to imagine the outcome. In any case Philemon retained his freedom as a slave owner. But if things happened as Paul suggested, all slaves in the area would see a way for them to be freed by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
Readers will be wondering. "How do these radical interpretations relate to the great theological tradition of the church?" That must be the topic of our next chapter.
Chapter 5 Church History