Obedience in Pauline Ethics: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon

Obedience in Pauline Ethics: A Case Study of the Letter to Philemon

Jonathan W. L.O.

Although Paul uses a variety of ways to describe the ethical demands he places on his churches, "obedience" is one of the most meaningful ideas within Paul's theological formulations with regard to ethics. In a stirring and skillfully-crafted letter to Philemon, Paul defends and pleads for the runaway slave Onesimus, urging his master to forgive him and to welcome him home as a brother in Christ. The way Paul handles this issue is not only a demonstration of his art of persuasion and skillful rhetoric; it is also a testament to the reality and essence of the gospel, and a window into Paul's ethical thought. Paul tells Philemon that he has full confidence in his “obedience” (Phlm 21), and that he will do even more than what Paul has said. While interpreters typically understand "obedience" as obedience to Paul's command, such an interpretation undermines Paul's efforts to downplay his authority throughout the letter. Furthermore, "obedience" has a rich theological meaning within Paul's other letters, suggesting that he may have something greater in view when he uses the term in Philemon. In Paul's theological and ethical discourse, "obedience" is a concept that is closely related to "faith" and "love," and in Philemon these ideas intersect to construct a grand display of the gospel in action.

This essay discusses the concept of “obedience” within Paul's ethical discourse, using the Letter to Philemon as a case study. The study comprises three parts: (1) a survey of the language of “obedience” in Paul's ethical discourse, (2) a study of the role of “obedience” in the Letter of Philemon, and (3) a discussion about the implications of this study for contemporary Christian ethics. “Obedience” for Paul connotes an ongoing ethical journey rather than a moral destination; a journey that begins with faith and moves towards love, with an ever-increasing realization of every good thing one can do for Christ.

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