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The key passage in Philemon 1:15-16 (ESV):

For this perhaps is why [Onesimus] 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.

The context of the short letter seems to be that Onesimus, a slave or bondservant, escaped from Philemon and came to Paul while he was in prison. Paul has sent the man back to his owner and asked for him to be forgiven. But is Paul further arguing for the slave's release from service?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Not explicitly...

First of all, I agree with your understanding that Onesimus is an escaped slave belonging to Philemon. There's support for this in verse 15 (all quotes are NASB):

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while

If Onesimus had been sent by Philemon, there would be no reason for Paul to propose a reason for the separation. There is further support in verse 17 (accept him) and 18 (if he has wronged you) that clearly indicate the likelihood that Onesimus has offended Philemon in some way.

Paul makes only four explicit requests in this letter:

  1. "Accept him as you would me" (v. 17)
  2. "Charge [any offense] to my account" (v. 18)
  3. "Let me benefit from you" (v. 20)
  4. "Prepare me a lodging" (v. 22)

The first two requests are for the benefit of Onesimus. As a runaway slave he could have been punished severely, but Paul is asking Philemon to view him instead as a brother in Christ (v. 16) as Philemon would view Paul (v. 17). Paul then insists on being held responsible for wrongs done by Onesimus (v. 18).

The last request is that Philemon prepare a place for Paul to stay in hopes that he will be released from prison and able to visit.

Paul is not as clear in his third request. What sort of benefit is he requesting? I think the answer is in verses 12-14:

12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.

Paul is asking Philemon to send Onesimus back to minister to Paul on Philemon's behalf. As the owner, Philemon is free to instruct his slaves to perform any work he desires. If he instructs Onesimus to "go minister to Paul", then Onesimus is serving his master Philemon by serving Paul. Philemon is helping Paul by sending Onesimus as his proxy to minister to Paul. Paul gets the benefit of Onesimus's ministry. In short, everyone wins.

...but perhaps implicitly.

Even though I don't see Paul explicitly asking for Onesimus's freedom, he follows up with:

21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.

The even more could have been a very thinly veiled request for his freedom especially when combined with verses 15-16:

15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 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.

Given the salvation of Onesimus, Paul is emphasizing that Philemon should view Onesimus primarily as a brother instead of as a slave. Their legal relationship is still that of master and slave, but in reality they are brothers in the Lord and that status should dominate their relationship.

Would it have been possible for Philemon to continue to own Onesimus as a slave yet view him as a brother? Sounds doubtful to modern ears, but I really don't know enough about slavery in that day to say for certain.

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How do you read "no longer as a slave" in verse 16? (I can guess, but it would help your answer if you address what might be the key pro-manumission phrase directly.) Second, if Paul's request is to have Onesimus sent to him, that sounds like the slave would be freed. Maybe you can elaborate on how it's possible to be a slave to one man (Philemon) while serving another (Paul) on the opposite side of the world. (Again, I can predict the answer, but it would help your case to spell this out.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 19 '11 at 18:28
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@JonEricson Is this clearer? –  jimreed Oct 20 '11 at 17:38
    
Yes, thank you. Given the rest of the Pauline corpus, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Paul's concern is to heal relationships first and correct social injustice later (if ever). It would be nice if he had called for an end to slavery altogether here, but he didn't. –  Jon Ericson Oct 20 '11 at 18:42
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i think that while paul was in prison he Onesimus heard paul speaking and preaching and praying and he just as Saul had been a follower before he was paul,and Onesimus had wanted to follow paul because he was drawn to the word of God just as paul had been and for this cause paul had found a need for his brotherhood and fellowship and could use his services and help in the spreading of the gospal message therefore paul knew he was drawn to him and he felt responsible and he knew it was of God so he asked that the charges be charged to him of anything that was owed him he would pay for it.he would use him for the on going of the christian program.

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Hi there, welcome to BH.SE. I was wondering if you could edit some punctuation into your answer to make it a bit more comprehensible. Thanks! –  swasheck Mar 4 '13 at 23:31
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Yes, absolutely.

Paul starts his plea with verse 10, showing that Onesimus was previously a useless slave. However, he has found favor with Paul and now Paul is trying to convince Philemon of his usefulness:

Philemon 1:10-11 (NASB)
10 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.

After explaining how Onesimus was useful to him in prison, he encourages Philemon to take him back, not as a slave, but as a brother (from verse 16 above).

Philemon 1:15-16 (NASB)
15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 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.

He concludes his plea for Onesimus by asking that Philemon accept him as he would accept Paul:

Philemon 1:17 (NASB)
17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;

Clearly, Paul is trying to redefine the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, pleading for manumission.

Extension to all slaves

While it seems clear that Paul was pleading for manumission for Onesimus, there is not indication that this should be extended to all slaves. It seems that this particular slave was a special case and that he had served Paul well. He seems to be pleading for Onesimus manumission specifically--not on general grounds against slavery, but on specific grounds of the value of Onesimus.

See also another commentary on the passage

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