One of the challenges that are brought up in regards to the teachings of Paul is the tiny epistle written to Philemon. In this letter, Paul is urging his friend Philemon to receive back his former slave, Onesimus, who has since become a believer in Messiah Yeshua. The contention typically brought up is that if Paul is urging Onesimus to return to his former master, then Paul is breaking torah, because of the command in Deuteronomy 23:15-16:
15You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.
First of all, it must be said that we don’t know all the details of why Onesimus was apart from Philemon in the first place, and many assumptions have to be made to arrive at any conclusions. All we know for sure is that they were separated (vss. 11, 12, 15), at some point Onesimus encountered Paul and became a believer in Messiah Yeshua (v. 10), and he is now standing once again before his former master holding this letter penned by Paul (vss. 12, 17).
The letter of the command says not to “hand over to his master a slave who has escaped.” We don’t know for sure that Onesimus escaped. The text only indicates they were apart or separated for some reason. Verse 15 states, “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while.” The word separated is echoristhe and stems from the root chorizo which means “to separate, divide, put asunder, depart, withdraw.” Either Paul is being extremely diplomatic in his choice of words to soften the remembrance of Onesimus’ escape, or there may have been other circumstances that caused Onesimus to be away; the text doesn’t actually say.
It is apparent from the text, however, that Onesimus had in some way become unprofitable to Philemon either during or after his departure. For a slave owner, a slave would be a financial investment for a manner of work that was required to be done. Either Onesimus was not a very good worker, or his departure caused a financial loss and hardship to Philemon, as Paul writes, “[he] formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.” The word used for “useless” is the Greek word achrestos, with the Strong’s definition of “inefficient, i.e. (by implication) detrimental:—unprofitable.”
That Onesimus had been a potentially useless slave is also indicated by the fact that Paul indicates he is willing to make up for any shortcoming Onesimus may be responsible for: “But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account…” (v. 18). If Onesimus had not resourcefully fulfilled his obligations as a slave, then this would be another strong indication of Philemon’s justifiable unwillingness to receive Onesimus back, in any capacity, and why Paul is so emphatically and passionately pleading for him.
So if Paul is returning Onesimus, a former slave, to his previous owner, how is it that this is not a violation of the torah command in Deuteronomy 23?
Well, for one thing, as mentioned above, we cannot be sure Onesimus actually escaped, which is the crux of the command. Additionally, the command mentions the slave is to live where he chooses without being mistreated. Clearly, Onesimus had not been mistreated by Paul, as Paul refers to him as his own “child…my very heart,” (vss. 10, 12). Further, there is no indication that Onesimus is not choosing to return, only that Philemon may be hesitant to receive him back after past grievances.
But lastly, and most importantly, is how Paul states it in vss. 15-16:
For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
The key reason torah is not violated is by Paul’s phrasing here that Onesimus is “no longer as a slave.” Paul is not returning a slave to his master to return just to his slave status, but is reintroducing a known individual in a new relationship as a brother in Messiah Yeshua. In Onesimus’ absence from Philemon, he became a Messiah believer, and had been helping Paul in his ministry needs while Paul was imprisoned. Philemon was also a Messiah believer, as Paul names him a beloved fellow worker who had an assembly of believers meeting in his home (vss. 1-2). Two brothers in Messiah, regardless of social status, should be able to overcome past difficulties. This applies even to the most extreme status conflict of that between a slave and his master.
Ephesians 6:5-9 NASB – 5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. 9 And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
Galatians 3:26-28 NASB – 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In their new relationship to each other in Messiah Yeshua, there is no longer a status of slave and master; all are one in Messiah Yeshua. Therefore there is no violation of torah. Even if Onesimus is returning to his former physical status as Philemon’s slave, that status is now changed forever by the work of the holy Spirit in the lives of both of these men. I believe that by this action, Paul is demonstrating the power of the gospel of Yeshua to overcome the barriers between men of all social rank. Not only is torah not violated, but the true intent of torah instruction is brought out through the gospel by dispelling the artificial distinctions between all people for all time.