Paul as Head of Household (Day 20 Audioblog)

A reading of Paul’s letter to Philemon

In a nutshell: Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus, now a member of the community of the Anointed, with a letter back to his master Philemon, who also happens to host the community’s gatherings.

Although in my capacity as an envoy of the Anointed I could order you to do what is fitting, I would rather appeal to you out of love—just as I am, Paul, an old man and now even a prisoner because of the Anointed Jesus.
—Philemon 8b–9

30 Days of Paul around the Web

  • Glynn Cardy reads Philemon with a cautious stance: “It sounds like a nice little reconciliation story: ‘C’mon guys, you’re both bro’s in JC, time to kiss and make up!’ … But unfortunately this nice little story also sounds like: ‘C’mon slave, you who has been naughty and run away, time to go home to your kind Christian master’.”
  • Justin DaMetz explores what Philemon can teach us about reconciliation: “In Philemon, we see Paul as we very rarely see him: humble, deferential, brown-nosing a bit, trying to praise and flatter Philemon as much as possible, so he will do what Paul is asking. Martin Luther very accurately called this letter ‘holy flattery.’”
  • Jack Gillespie wraps up 1 Corinthians today with a careful exploration of what Paul means by the word “resurrection”: “Some think he was talking about a spiritual (i.e., non-material) being; that Jesus didn’t have a material body but was some sort of spirit energy. Others think that the apostles and others were so distraught from Jesus’ death that their emotions got the better of them and they started seeing things. Others contend that they just meant a new sense of G‑d’s presence within their hearts. Others believe that Jesus was resuscitated. That is, he died (or was really close to death) but was brought back to life. … None of these explanations fit the meaning of the word as it was used in Paul’s time.”
Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Fresco from Pompeii (House of Terentius Neo, VII, 2, 6). Inv. No. 9058. National Archaeological Museum.
Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Fresco from Pompeii (House of Terentius Neo, VII, 2, 6). Inv. No. 9058. National Archaeological Museum.

Paul as Head of Household

In today’s audioblog on Paul’s letter to Philemon, I focus on what to me is yet another authority problem for Paul. I just can’t help but notice Paul’s need for authority, and what I see here is an incidence of Paul as head of household in the sense that he is claiming Philemon belongs to his (spiritual) household—or better, legion—of the Anointed.

Is this another case of Paul also being “a Jew to Jews”? Is Paul here attempting to be the “head of household to heads of household”? To me, it’s not clear how aware of his strategy Paul actually is.

Jump to audio (on the Westar website)

Questions for the Road:

  • Is it okay to imitate structures of power in order to subvert and even overthrow them?
  • Did Paul do anything truly radical here, in your opinion? Is this merely a case of “man against man except when it’s the other way around”? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not sure myself.

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

2 thoughts on “Paul as Head of Household (Day 20 Audioblog)

  1. Philemon, a paraphrase: Paul writes (in his own hand) from prison to Philemon and his wife Apphila, and to the association which meets at their home, and also mentions an Archippus, perhaps for subtle leverage.

    I compliment you Philemon, on your love of the brethren which has powerfully touched their hearts, and your Lord inspired trust. I don’t need to tell you that the effectiveness of trust is tied to seeing the good that we may do for Christ. I don’t want to command you, so I appeal on the basis of the love for which you are so well known. Onesimus has been invaluable to me during this imprisonment, serving in your Place. I send him back to you as a father sends a beloved son. Perhaps you guys were meant to be separated in order to start over again as beloved brothers, in secular life and in the Lord. I hope that you still consider me your partner, so that you can welcome him as you would me. Dare I even bring up that you owe me your life. I take responsibility for any way that he may have wronged you. Refresh my heart as you refresh the hearts of others – I think that you will probably do even more than I ask. I am in prison with Epaphras, and I have talked to fellow workers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, and all send their greetings.

    Comment: Enjoyed the audio, Cassandra. Yes, Paul’s authority is extremely important to him. I think that here Paul quite clearly comes down on the side of freeing a slave, and he is not adverse, as we have already seen in talk about collecting for the saints in Jerusalem, to couching bullying language in gospel trappings (probably in part due to that shaky self-concept thing again). Of course, in his other writings, the belief in the imminent second coming seems to create an attitude of not fighting the condition in which one might find oneself.

    Liked by 1 person

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