Philemon In Light Of Galatians 3:28 -- By: Nikki Holland

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 32:3 (Summer 2018)
Article: Philemon In Light Of Galatians 3:28
Author: Nikki Holland


Philemon In Light Of Galatians 3:28

Nikki Holland

Nikki Holland is a graduate of Northern Arizona University and is working towards an MDiv at Earlham School of Religion. She is a founding member of a house church in Merida, Mexico. This article was among the winners of the student paper competition at CBE International’s 2017 conference in Orlando, Florida.

Paul’s letter to Philemon presents a real-world example of how Paul interacted with churches and individuals based on the unity he proclaims in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). This article addresses Paul’s development of koinōnia (“fellowship,” “partnership,” “sharing”) in the church that meets in Philemon’s house, and how koinōnia supersedes the hierarches that were so prevalent in the NT world.1 First I discuss how Paul uses hierarchy in Philemon, focusing on how Paul subverts the system of slavery. Then I examine family relationships in this letter to demonstrate how Paul subverts expected power differentials between Gentiles and Jews and between men and women. Next, I look at the kind of power Paul exerts in his petition to Philemon, since he is not using his rank as an apostle to command his “dear friend and co-worker” (vv. 1, 9). Finally, I discuss koinōnia in Paul’s understanding of the church and its relationship to power structures, especially the hierarchy within the slave system. Although Paul recognizes (and potentially participates in) the various power relationships in this world, he believes that hierarchies are just that—of this world. Because his focus is on the next world, Paul is concerned with living in the Spirit—living in this world by the principles of the next world. He does so by superseding various kinds of earthly hierarchies with koinōnia, which he enacts in Philemon by announcing Onesimus as an active and equal participant in that koinōnia, by calling Gentiles his family members, and by addressing Apphia as having at least equal influence with the men in her church.

Hierarchy In Philemon

Paul asks Philemon to receive his runaway slave,2 Onesimus, back as a beloved brother and even as Philemon would welcome the apostle himself. Not all scholars consider Paul’s request to be an example of egalitarian theology. Pieter J. J. Botha, for example, asserts that through his use of the language of slavery and kinship, Paul here demonstrates...

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