“For this perhaps is whyhe 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. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Philemon 15-18 esv
We don’t live in a class system society, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between how people are treated. We may not have slaves and masters, but there is a certain level of distinction when we think of how celebrities are treated, what politicians get away with, and how the rich can buy power that dictates the prices we all must pay for our necessities. So, while the classes are not distinctly laid out in our culture, it can clearly be seen that there is inequality across the board.
I’ve been to many churches in my day and I often come across a phenomenon where congregations reflect a specific sub-group that doesn’t quite accurately depict the culture where the church is located. As a society, we are far more comfortable to share space with like-minded individuals. There is a certain air of status in many churches today which would cause the Apostle Paul’s blood to boil. But when we don’t talk about it, when we disregard letters like Philemon, we ignore the essential doctrine of propitious equality.
When Paul wrote this personalized letter, it was his intention to teach Philemon a counter-cultural lesson that can only be understood in light of the gospel. Not even the Law reveals this amazing revelation. In the middle of this simple letter, Paul points out that we are all equal at the foot of the cross.
No man can come to the Father except through Christ. And no man can come to Christ with out first humbling himself. I find it quite interesting that we allow our prejudice to dictate how we present the gospel. I’m not exempt. I grew up in a conservative Christian home where I was sheltered from negative influences. I still retain those prejudices when I see someone who has long hair, body piercings, and uncovered tattoos. Even when I see them in a church service, my initial reaction is to assume they are a visitor and are unsaved.
While we would never preach it from the pulpit or put it in our ‘about us’ page on our website, we tend to think other Christians ought to be a lot like us. Let’s face it, we’re far more comfortable around religious conservative types. Being light is far more efficient when we huddle together. But in being this sort of light, where is the salt? Where is the principle where we are touching the unbeliever?
What Paul was asking Philemon to do was completely unorthodox. It was unheard of in that day an age. To make a slave a brother? A slave who had stolen and ran away? Who had dared to show his face back in town? What would the people think? It wouldn’t have been wrong for Philemon to say no. He could have refused Paul’s request and taken justice on the crime committed. But as a Christian, Philemon wasn’t just representing himself and his status among Earth’s citizens. He was representing Christ, and God forgave far more to make us brothers with the Son than we could ever forgive in our lifetime. We were slaves to sin, having forsaken God as our rightful owner, we had taken our own lives and ran away from God. But God sent Jesus to pay our penalty and to make us sons of God and therefore brothers with each other. We are now joint heirs. Equals in God’s eyes. Forgiven of all our trespasses and given a place of honor we didn’t deserve. So when someone comes to sit in our seat, we have no room to judge and complain for what we do not posses of our own. We all had to come to Christ the same way, and we all started form the lowest state possible. All men are equal, down at the cross.