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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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  • He is arguing that it is better to serve the eternal heavenly Master rather than the mortal earthly one. – Lucian Aug 19 '19 at 12:07
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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
  • Very well stated, I was just reading the same topic here bibleodyssey.org/tools/video-gallery/s/… Your answer follows the same line of thought. – seedy3 Oct 8 '15 at 0:07
  • There's a problem in your interpretation. The text does not at all say that Onesimus is a runaway slave. It says that Onesimus has offended Philemon, and therefore Philemon has basically thrown his slave Onesimus out of his household. If Onesimus were a runaway slave, it would make no sense for Paul to try to convince Philemon that he should take him back despite the wrong he has done. Philemon would be outraged and be demanding that Onesimus get back to him and get back to work. (continued next comment) – arara Dec 13 '20 at 19:52
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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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In addition, Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus were likely aware of the Levitical law which said, “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not miss treat him.” Deuteronomy 23:15,16.

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  • This is a helpful supplement. Perhaps you could expand on how, in the light of this, Paul's action is not a "breaking" of this deuteronomic (not "levitical") law? It might be worth, too, taking a look at this "Meta" on what we're looking for in answers. Thanks! – Dɑvïd Mar 3 '18 at 19:48
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It seems that I'm a bit late to answering this. The short answer is yes, Paul is requesting the manumission of Onesimus. Another person here, jimreed, has answered this question, claiming that Paul only implicitly asks for the manumission of Onesimus. This is wrong, and I have added comments under jimreed's answer showing why it is incorrect and how a correction would show the explicit nature of this request. The following answer is something I've written elsewhere, but also copied and pasted here.

Philemon 15-16 has Paul telling Philemon that when his slave Onesimus returns to him, he is to be "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother". It appears as if Paul is requesting the manumission of Onesimus. It's worth looking a little more about what Paul wants for Onesimus here. In Philemon 11, Paul brings attention to that Philemon considered Onesimus useless to him. In Philemon 15, Paul says he is trying to explain why Onesimus was separated from Philemon. In Philemon 17, Paul asks Philemon to "welcome him [Onesimus]" back, and in Philemon 18-19, Paul says that if Onesimus has ever wronged him or owes him anything, he should not hold it against him but instead charge it to Paul. Finally, in Philemon 21, Paul says he knows that Philemon to do even more than he asks. Considering this context, it appears as if Onesimus has wronged Philemon and that, for this reason, Philemon has thrown Onesimus out of his household, and as a result, Onesimus has went to Paul (Philemon 10). (A few people think Onesimus is a runaway slave, but this makes no sense given the fact that Paul describes Philemon as the one being wronged by Onesimus, which implies he threw Onesimus out. Furthermore, if Onesimus was a runaway, it would make no sense that Paul would be trying to convince Philemon to take him back - Philemon would be furious and demanding that Onesimus return to him. Finally, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 requires that runaway slaves not be returned to their master.) Now, Paul asks Philemon to take Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a dear brother. Thus, Paul wants to re-establish the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, but he wants it to be different as well. The prior master-slave relationship is to be done away with, and instead, they are now to be as brothers together. Furthermore, after Onesimus was removed from Philemon's care and instead went under Paul, Paul made him not as a slave but as his "son" (Philemon 10), and with Paul, he helped spread Christianity (Philemon 13), and in their time together Onesimus has become dear to him (Philemon 16). It seems like Paul bereaves that Onesimus should join Philemon again, but hopes that his own relationship with Onesimus will model the new relationship that will be established between Philemon and Onesimus in the future.

One should also keep in mind the context of Paul's other letters in order to make this conclusion more obvious than it already is. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, Paul says that individuals, if they get the opportunity, should leave their status of slavery. In Galatians 5:1, Paul says that, by analogy, people who are already free should not become slaves. Clearly, Paul is not the biggest fan of people being enslaved.

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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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