Social Hierarchy & the Disruptive Gospel

Can you imagine gathering for worship and having a letter read out loud that contained a rebuke to you from a well-known and trustworthy spiritual leader? That’s pretty much what happened to Philemon. The church in Colossae met in his home. Paul’s letter, Colossians, was delivered by a group that included none other than Onesimus, a slave who seems to have taken something from Philemon and clearly run away (Colossians 4:7-9, Philemon 1:18).

Paul wrote two letters to the believers in this small farming community: Colossians and Philemon. Both were likely read in their corporate gatherings (in Philemon’s home). Colossians is filled with grand theological truths about how the cosmos is held together by the resurrected Son of God. The letter to Philemon, on the other hand, is an application of the transforming and disruptive power of the gospel in relation to the social structure of slavery.

There’s a lot that can and should be said on the issue of slavery in the New Testament. Here’s a helpful article on the topic for a start. Sufficient for this post, we must be careful to not equate slavery in the Roman world, referenced in the New Testament, with that of the early nineteenth century. That is not to say it was okay, it is simply to say it was very, very different.

But what I want to draw attention to for this post is how the Apostle Paul shows Philemon, this wealthy slave owner, that the gospel unravels the hierarchy of the day. Paul calls Onesimus his child (Philemon 1:10). Furthermore, Paul so closely identifies with Onesimus as his spiritual son that to send him back to Philemon is to send his “very heart” (Philemon 1:12). And Paul tells Philemon that he is sending back Onesimus not as his servant but as his brother (Philemon 1:16).

This is beautifully disruptive. The gospel subverts social hierarchies. By the way, the word hierarchy means the “rule of a high priest.” The way we use it today is to designate levels of importance to show that some things are more important than others. What we find in the New Testament is that because of our great high priest, we are all equal beneath his sovereign rule.

That is the biblical hierarchy: the Triune God is supreme, and humans, made in God’s likeness, have intrinsic and equal worth. And in Christ believers belong to one family. That’s why Paul uses one uniform title for the people of God: not Greek, Jew, male or female, but saint. Paul calls all the believers from every level of the social strata by the same term: saints.

In this way we see that the brotherhood of God is an outworking of our understanding of the fatherhood of God. And because God is our father, Paul admonishes Philemon, Onesimus is a brother. He left Philemon a slave. But the gospel happened to him. And Philemon is reminded of this gospel that transforms a former slave and makes him a brother. And more than a brother, Onesimus is a saint.