“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no 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.”
Paul wrote a deeply personal letter from prison to Philemon, a man he had led to the Lord. He wrote about his runaway slave Onesimus appealing to him on the basis of their deep relationship to accept the man into Christian fellowship and back into the household, to be restored and forgiven. Paul has found him useful, a play on words regarding the slave’s name which means “useful”. Philemon, as a partner in Paul’s work, was a partner with Onesimus who also supported Paul’s work. Paul accepted him though he knew he was a runaway slave and could have easily have been returned to his master, but he has allowed the man to help him in ministry while he himself was in chains. In the process he brought him to Christ and by his continued work enabled him to grow in godliness. Now the time had come to reconcile brothers who had quarreled, so Paul sent him back.
We may or may not object to what Paul did with Onesimus because we deem slavery in all its forms to be immoral and sinful. Yet in Paul’s day it was part of the social system, one which no New Testament writer ever opposed or called to be abolished. This is because in Christ when the slave and the freeman become brothers, the social system has lost its power and control. Both the slave man and the free are free in Christ yet both are bound as servants to serve Him and His kingdom in whatever social level they happen to be.
Because we are free in Christ, the world and those cultural systems in which we believers live should no longer dictate how we live or with whom we maintain relationships, though we often let it. When, by faith, we enter into the Kingdom of God, we accept the Lord’s way of living, speaking and acting over all the laws of human governments and all the rules of society, culture and family. We support just and righteous government and work within the system as long as we are allowed to serve the interests of God’s kingdom first and foremost. When forced to choose we must obey God’s commands. We must never disobey or betray our Lord and King, Jesus.