Clinton Arnold explains Philemon best in the following paragraphs: “Paul wrote this brief letter to Philemon, a fairly wealthy businessman who hosted a church in his home in the small city of Colossae (about 100 miles from Ephesus). Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had fled to Rome where Paul was incarcerated. In an extraordinary chain of events, this fugitive slave became a Christian, ministered to Paul faithfully, and was now returning to Philemon. Paul was deeply concerned about how Philemon would receive his runaway slave. He thus wrote a tactful appeal to Philemon to consider the change of life Onesimus had experienced and to receive him back not only as a servant, but also as a fellow believer.

This letter shows the beginning of the impact of the gospel on the unjust institution of slavery. Whereas Paul did not overtly attack slavery here (which would have been inappropriate for the situation), he did draw out the implications of the gospel for changing the relationships between slaves and slave owners. This is exemplified in his appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave” but “as a dearly loved brother” (v. 16).

Given the injustice of the institution of slavery, why didn’t Paul directly request that Onesimus be freed? Paul was not addressing the Roman Senate but rather a middle-class businessman in a rural village. His priority at this point was to restructure the relationships within the Christian community based on the love and forgiveness of Christ.”