Reconcilable Differences in Christ: Philemon and Forgiveness

David E. Briones

New Horizons: May 2022

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Also in this issue

Apprentices in Forgiveness

The Fallout from Forgetting Forgiveness

At times, relationships in the church can be marked more by the way of the world than the way of the cross. When one believer is wounded by another, the relational pain can cause the offended believer to listen to the world’s advice. They cut off the other person. Give them the cold shoulder. Never forget their sin. Make them pay for what they did. They are quick to cite Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” but more so as a license to sin, to hold a grudge, and to live in the misery of unforgiveness—all in the name of “righteous anger.” But the way of the cross shatters the debilitating shackles of unforgiveness.

The world happily affirms the reality of irreconcilable differences, but the gospel speaks a better word. Just think about God’s love for you in Christ. His love, John Owen writes, is like the sun rather than the moon. It never waxes and wanes.[1] Even after years of a rocky relationship with him, he will never sit you down and say, “I’m leaving you. We simply have too many irreconcilable differences.” You will never be served divorce papers. If you cling to him by faith, he will never leave nor forsake you (Heb. 13:5), because Christ has reconciled us to the Father (Rom. 5).

The God of the gospel is about reconciling differences.[2] And as “imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1), we should be, too. One place where we can learn more about reconcilable differences in Christ is in the most unlikely of places—the book of Philemon.

Relational Advice in Philemon?

Now, you may be thinking, “Can anything good come from Philemon?” It is only 335 words long in the original, a letter written by Paul to a master named Philemon. Paul writes from prison on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Can it really be useful? At first glance, it doesn’t seem so. But when you read it carefully, one truth quickly emerges from this letter. Ready for it? It is not primarily about slavery. Actually, it is about relationships in Christ.

This emphasis, however, is lost in translation.

A key word for Christian relationships is a familiar one: koinōnia (“partnership,” “fellowship,” “solidarity”). This word occurs in verse 6. The ESV unfortunately translates the phrase hē koinōnia tēs pisteōs hymōn as “the sharing of your faith,” which makes it sound like Paul is praying for Philemon’s evangelism to be effective. But the word here is better translated as “solidarity,” and Paul is intentional in using it this way. We can see that by noticing the inclusio in verse 6 (koinōnia) and 17 (koinōnos, “partner”). (An inclusio is a repeated word or phrase that bookends a section of Scripture.)

In verse 6, Paul, after commending Philemon’s faith in Christ and love for all the saints (vv. 4–5), prays that his koinōnia with the saints would become even more effective. He writes, “I pray that the koinōnia of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” The knowledge of every (salvific) good thing makes our koinōnia effective. On the other end of the inclusio is verse 17, the climax of the letter. After making an appeal to Philemon (vv. 8–16), he draws a conclusion. “Therefore, if you consider me a partner (koinōnon), receive him as you would receive me.” Interestingly, verse 6 commends Philemon’s koinōnia with “all the saints,” but by the time you get to verse 17, Philemon has learned that Onesimus—a recent convert—now dwells among the company of “the saints.”

So, what exactly is Paul doing here? He is testing the depths of Philemon’s (and our) understanding of Christian solidarity in light of the cross. That’s what I love about the book of Philemon. It presents us with a rocky relationship with reconcilable differences in Christ. But this raises the question: what are those relational differences?

Relational Differences in the Church

Stepping into the book of Philemon is like stepping into a room where the relational tension is so thick, you could cut it with a knife. You can sense the aftermath of a huge blowup, but you have no idea what happened. To make sense of things, we need to answer two questions.

Who was involved? Philemon is a high-status master (vv. 1–2). Onesimus is one of his many low-status slaves (v. 16). And Paul, the imprisoned apostle (vv. 1, 13), gets between them. So, there is a massive difference in social status.

What happened? Apparently, when Onesimus was an unbelieving slave, he “wronged” Philemon and therefore “owes” him (v. 18). Since Onesimus met Paul in prison (v. 10), many argue that he ran away from his master. He most likely “wronged” him by stealing from Philemon, since this is how runaway slaves funded their escape. And he may “owe” him for the time of his service during his departure. However, during his time in prison with Paul, he was converted (vv. 9–11). Although many slaves received the name “Onesimus”—which means “useful”; after all, masters wanted them to live up to their name—this Onesimus was actually “useless” (achrēstos). He only became “useful” (euchrēstos) in Christ (v. 11). (Perhaps, Paul was subtly making a Christological point in the original— “without Christ,” achristos?) The apostle, then, writes this letter, puts it in the hands of Onesimus, a transgressor (“wronged”) and a debtor (“owes,” v. 18), and sends him back to Philemon (v. 12).

But the question becomes: what will Philemon do? Legally, he could have sought the death penalty for a runaway slave. Biblically, however, Paul’s letter beckoned him to look to the one who was crucified for his own transgressions and debts as well as Onesimus’s. He was to live Christlike before Onesimus, not insisting on his own rights but lowering himself for the sake of others (compare with Phil. 2:5–11).

Relational Resolution in Christ

Paul’s appeal to Philemon contains all the hallmarks of pastoral genius. First, he entreats Philemon on behalf of Onesimus by lowering his own status. Paul, a low-status “prisoner” (v. 1), intervenes on behalf of a low-status “slave.” Paul, like Christ, identifies with the lowly and pleads their case. As Luther writes,

[Paul] acts exactly as if he were himself Onesimus, who had done wrong. Yet he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his rights; but he empties himself of his rights in order to compel Philemon also to waive his rights. What Christ has done for us with God the Father, that St. Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon.[3]

Second, Paul subtly tells Philemon, a master, or lowercase “l” lord, that there is an uppercase “L” Lord above him. The title “Lord Jesus Christ” bookends the letter (vv. 3 and 25) and appears twice in a pivotal section (vv. 16, 20). This is Christian koinōnia. It always involves the Lord as the divine party in human relationships. This recalls Colossians 4:1, “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven,” and Ephesians 6:9, “Masters … stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (emphases added). 

This pastoral point has power. By redirecting the eyes and hearts of two unreconciled brothers to their common Master in heaven, Paul confronts the playing field of worldly status by highlighting Christian status. In the world, one man may be a master and the other a slave, but, in Christ, they are fellow servants of a common heavenly Lord. God shows no partiality (Rom. 2:11). There is no Hindu caste system in Christianity. Whether you make $2,000,000 a year as a CEO or $20,000 at Chick-fil-A, whether you have a graduate degree or lack a high school diploma, whether you are a pastor or a layperson, we are all one in Christ Jesus and have an equal standing before our God (Gal. 3:28). Our economical roles may differ, but our ontology, our very being, is identical before God. Our status, our worth, is in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

Of course, we’re still called to acknowledge and respect authorities. Just read the Westminster Confession of Faith and its proof texts on the fifth commandment. But we should not confuse earthly and spiritual status. We should live neither pridefully nor ashamedly in our earthly status over against our spiritual status. Whether a superior or inferior, both are glorious opportunities to serve one another with Christlike love. As Paul writes, “through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13).

Third, Paul explicitly commands Philemon to “welcome” Onesimus. “Therefore, if you consider me a partner, welcome [proslabou] him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). The exact same word “welcome” occurs in Romans 15:7: “Therefore welcome [proslambanesthe] another as Christ has welcomed [proselabeto] you, for the glory of God.” This divine “welcome” is nothing other than divine reconciliation between two parties at odds in Romans 14–15: Jews and Gentiles. And this is the same story of relational resolution underlying the story of conflict in Philemon. In essence, Paul grabs Philemon and says, “Welcome Onesimus, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

But he is also speaking to the unforgiving Christian today. God had every legal right to give you the death sentence. Instead, he placed all your transgressions, your debts, and your sins on the one who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21). While we were God’s enemies, God reconciled us by the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10). The offended, high-status, divine party willingly and lovingly sacrificed his only Son to destroy the hostility and reconcile us to himself in one body through the cross (Eph. 2:14–16). And he didn’t do that simply out of a sense of justice. He is both “just” and “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). His strict justice and loving mercy were manifested at the cross.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon (and us) in verse 17 is a shorthand gospel proclamation. Although subtle, the essence is captured best by Ephesians 4:32: “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (emphasis added). The call of the gospel is this: God has done this for you, now go and do likewise.

Don’t Rebuild the Wall of Hostility

But it is shocking to me how many of us, instead of doing likewise, do otherwise. What ingratitude. What a misunderstanding of God’s grace. At what point do we think we are greater than God? What makes us think that we can rebuild the wall of hostility that God has destroyed? What makes us think that the debt someone owes us is greater than the debt we once owed to God? What makes us think that their transgression is more punishable than ours? If we are committing those heinous crimes of ingratitude, then we are no better than that wicked servant in Matthew 18:22–35 who, after being forgiven of an enormous debt by the king (ten thousand talents, or roughly seven billion dollars), threw one of his debtors in jail until he coughed up a measly one hundred denarii (roughly four thousand dollars). God forgave our inestimable debt, and we gladly receive his grace, but then we turn around and ungratefully consider our brother’s sin against us more costly and more offensive than our own sin against God. We rejoice over the demolition of the wall of hostility between us and God, but behind God’s back, we are picking up those same bricks and erecting a wall to cut off our brother.

If that is the status of our heart toward God and others, then we should expect the same judgment from God that the wicked servant of Matthew 18 received. For the king was shocked by his ingratitude and threw him into prison until every last penny was paid (which obviously will not happen in his lifetime). “So also,” Jesus bluntly concludes, “my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). Jesus is even clearer and harsher in Matthew 6:15: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” You can have no assurance that you’re forgiven and reconciled to God, if you yourself do not forgive and long to be reconciled to your brothers and sisters.

Of course, reconciliation does not mean that the relationship will be as it once was. Sin has consequences. But neither can we harbor unforgiveness in our hearts until they repent. Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and commands us to “forgive [our] brother from [our] heart” (Matt. 18:35). How do we do that? Preach the gospel to our stubborn pride and realize this: that slave is your brother.   


[1] John Owen, Communion with God (Oxford: Benediction Classics, 2017), 30–31.

[2] Of course, God does permit divorce in the case of abandonment or adultery. But marriage is not the focus of this article.

[3] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, 1546 (1522)” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, 390.

The author is an OP minister, associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, and author of an upcoming commentary on Philemon (T&T Clark). New Horizons, May 2022.

New Horizons: May 2022

Apprentices in Forgiveness

Also in this issue

Apprentices in Forgiveness

The Fallout from Forgetting Forgiveness

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