Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell

To be ordained as a Teaching Elder in the PCUSA church, you must go to seminary, you must take at least one semester of the original languages – Hebrew and Greek, and you must pass five intense Ordination Exams – The Bible Content Exam, surprisingly, it’s a killer! Church Polity. Theology. Worship and Sacraments. And finally, the Exegesis Exam, which means to dive deep into a Scriptural text and allow the text to reflect through historical context and the original language what it’s saying to us as a church and our faith. As I said, these exams are intense and more students than you would think, fail multiple times. And when it was my turn to take the ordination exams in Seminary, I wisely or stupidly took four at one time. And honestly, you’ll think I’m nuts, those two weeks were some of the best and most exhausting memories I have of Seminary. My good friends were taking the exams with me and we would arrive at school together early before class, spend hours upon hours in the library with books stacked high. We would have these moments of looking up at each other with exasperation or exhaustion. We’d share meals together, wine together, books together and then closed out the library, reserving our same holy tables as we drive home as one. I think it was the solidarity and the deliriousness of those days that make them so sentimental. My exegesis exam passage that week was Paul’s letter to the Galatians, a passage that I spent so much time on and dove so deep into that when I read it now, it makes me sick to my stomach. But it’s a passage that is relevant to Paul’s letter to Philemon today.

Galatians 3:28 reads, “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.” It’s a well-known passage and on the surface is beautiful in itself, but just wait, it gets so much better. Without sharing my entire exegetical exam with you, let me simply say, Paul is obsessed with not abolishing distinctions of people, but rather, the “obliteration of dominance” and hierarchy.[1]

Let me give some context to the culture and the intense power Paul was up against. Paul and the first Jewish-Christian communities lived in a deeply divided culture. Rome was an empire carrying laws, politics, slaves, hierarchies, and an assortment of religions. It was everything we imagine about power and more. Throughout the Roman empire, as a theologian puts it, “peoples were pitted against peoples, classes against classes, religious creeds against religious creeds…– yet all existed within a common culture and common laws.”[2]  It was all about power, the Roman power and the Roman law. The Jewish Christian community was among the minority and we know from other Pauline letters of persecutions these communities faced on the regular. They were under the thumb of the dominate system of Roman rule, which sadly and realistically included the division of society into those who are free and those who are unfree, like we read in the letter to Philemon. And so Paul, through many of his letters advocates to abolish the dominance embedded in the social construct of Rome. Paul did everything to establish and preach on inclusion, equality, and love all based in Christ. As Sabine Bieberstien writes, “he was on the side of the powerless, inextricably woven into the history of the [outcast] Jewish [people]  in the Roman empire.”[3] And so, no wonder, no wonder we learn that Paul is in prison while writing to Philemon. Paul and the first churches are in dangerous territory by including ALL people into their faith and new religion. Jew or Gentile, male and female, slave or free, Paul wants all seen as equal, not only under the Roman law, but the laws of faith as well. This is radical to the ears of the Roman people in power. The Roman hierarchies have been put in place for reason. But throughout Paul’s letter to Philemon and to other communities, he was adamant for a different, more inclusive structure. This equality, this inclusion, this unity under Christ, this basic love under Christ pushes against everything the people under the Roman rule understand. It’s radical. It’s radical, like Christ. We must remember this as we look at his letter to Philemon.

And here’s why. Our text today has been used in our nation’s history by the church and people of faith, even the Presbyterian Church, to justify slavery and the punishment of slaves if they flee their slaveholders. The pro-slave advocates (pre, during, and post the civil war) referred to this passage as “’the Pauline Mandate,’ the biblical sanction of American slavery. They believed Onesimus to be a runaway slave who escaped Philemon. And Paul advocating for Onesimus to return to Philemon as a slave. Slave holders said this passage supported “the Fugitive Slave Act” which required the return of runaway slaves to their slaveholders under penalty of law, even when the slave escaped to a free state. This passage has been used to uphold the original sin of America. It’s been used unjustly, disgustingly and with violence and dehumanization at its core.  Abolitionist theologians pushed hard against that interpretation and understood Paul as never mentioning Onesimus’s service status. But instead, Paul calls Onesimus a “beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Since then, many pastors, theologians, scholars have read this text on the surface that you should love your enemies, you must forgive, reconcile your wrongdoings. Some have kept the message thin, sweet, nice, and uncomplicated. They don’t want to dive into the discussion of slavery and how this passage has been used for more harm than good. There’s more to address in this letter than a nice, cozy message. As the preacher, Bruce Reyes-Chow, writes, “we can argue the profound nature of Paul’s letter is that we should love your enemies, but in this case we must also acknowledge that the “enemy” has used passages like these throughout history to ensure they hold onto power and control over other human beings.”[4] This letter has been used more recently to justify oppression, enslavement, exploitations, even the simple niceness of Christians.  There’s so much more here than that if we’re brave enough to look.

I remember sitting in a Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon class back in seminary Dr. Cannon is more than a hero to many Union seminary students and black women in ministry. She was a truthteller, a justice seeker, a force of goodness and empowerment. A woman with high respect and an advocate for the church, just check out her NY Times Obituary. She was the first African American woman to be ordained in the PCUSA and helped pioneer womanism as a theology, a theology to amplify the long-ignored voices of black women. Following the days of the Charleston Emmanuel AME shooting in 2015, NPR reached out to Dr. Cannon for an interview. I distinctly remember Dr. Cannon telling her class why she turned all interviews down. She was so deeply struck, sliced to the core, like the men and women in the Emmanuel AME Church that how could she speak out about that event when the media so desperately wants to hear a reason for hope, forgiveness, reconciliation. How could any of that be present after that shooting? I remember Dr. Cannon saying something along the lines, “I cannot forgive. How can I forgive that? So often the world, the media turns to black women to have the right comforting words. I don’t have the words they’ll want to hear.”

This text is no different. So often we turn to Scripture for comforting, hopeful words and those words are in here, throughout Scripture, AND then there are words from our holy text that has done more harm than good, misconstrued and misunderstood. Words that have hurt and dehumanized, ousted and oppressed people in the body of Christ. Words that have been used in ways that are unforgivable. We talk about it; we preach on it, so we don’t forget it. And then we find the good news, the actual interpretation found through the study of the original languages and historical context.

While Paul never riots against the hierarchies of slavery, and there’s no question that Paul asks Onesimus to return to his old slaveholder. But Paul does not ask Onesimus to return as a slave, instead as a brother in flesh, a brother in the Lord. An equal. And Paul certainly asks Philemon and his community to reconcile their relationship with Onesimus, but not as a slave – as a brother in Christ. Charles B. Cousar, a theologian, writes, “Paul’s expectation that Philemon will treat Onesimus ‘as a beloved brother’ and that he would welcome Onesimus as he would himself lays out an entirely new structure of relationships… relationships that can be seen in marked contrast to that of the typical slave and owner.”[5] Relationships butted up against the social construct designed and upheld by the Roman empire.

While we would love for Paul to shout out against slavery, Paul instead works with individuals, small communities, local churches and invites them, (in this case, Philemon) into the depth of this new religion of Christianity, in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male and female, but ALL are one in Christ Jesus.” He holds them to a deeper, fuller understanding of Christ, than a nice cozy message. Paul, in all of his lengthy sentences and obscure thoughts, wants Philemon’s community and the people of faith today to hear that followers of Christ, people who are in the body of Christ are more than nice and cozy people. We are faithful, radically and completely inclusive. People who understand the essence of unity, and people who are in solidarity with each other. Christians who lift each other up and who seek a transformative reconciliation that is far beyond the mere words of forgiveness.  Paul is talking about a kind of Kingdom that is possible under God, not under Roman rule, or Christian nationalism, or under a political party. A kindom, where siblings of Christ stand with siblings of Christ instead of slave vs. slaveholder, poor vs rich, immigrant vs citizen, gay vs. straight. A kindom that when demonstrated to its fullest, becomes more than a kindom we can only dream about, but a kindom that is on this earth just as we know it’s in heaven. This text has been used for more harm than good, it’s been preached as a nice message for reconciliation with our enemies. Instead, this text invites us to reflect deeper on what it means to be people of faith, people who are part of the body of Christ. People who not only desire, but are called to seek a kindom on earth where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but where ALL, and Paul means ALL, are one in Christ Jesus.


[1] Brad R Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience, (Collegeville:

The Liturgical Press, 2002), 93.

[2] Richard N Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books,

Publisher, 1990), 30.

[3] Sabine Bieberstien, “Disrupting the Normal Reality of Slavery: A Feminist Reading of the Letter to Philemon,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2000.


[5] Charles B. Cousar, Philippians and Philemon A Commentary, The New Testament Library Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 105-106.