Paul was a Roman citizen. In fact, based on the account in Acts 22:23–29, Paul benefited from the status of cives Romani — citizens who had full legal protection under Roman law. What’s more, Paul inherited his citizenship through birth, a distinction that gave him a certain prestige among those who might have purchased citizenship.
As they were yelling and flinging aside their robes and throwing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be examined with the scourge, so he could discover the reason they were shouting against him like this. As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”
When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander came and said to him, “Tell me — are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes,” he said.
The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.
Therefore, those who were about to examine him withdrew from him at once. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.
It’s important to understand that being within the boundaries of the Roman Empire did not automatically make you a Roman citizen. For example, most people living in First Century Judea would fall under the legal status of Provinciales – peoples who fell under Roman control but had few rights compared to higher classes. In the book of Philemon, Onesimus didn’t even enjoy that limited legal status, for Onesimus was a slave.
Not Citizens, Not Even People
Slaves lacked legal personhood in the Roman Empire. The question of citizenship was a moot point because they were property, not people. In the First Century, there were few protections for slaves. Masters could use corporal punishment, sexually exploit, torture, and even kill their slaves with little fear of reprisal. After all, they weren’t abusing a person. In their minds, they were doing nothing more than mistreating property, worthy of no more consideration than a piece of furniture. (See Marcel Mauss. 1979. “A Category of the human mind: the notion of the person, the notion of ‘self'”.)
Professor Keith Bradely puts it this way in Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome:
In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons – notice that in Plutarch’s story the slave does not even have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.
Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.
The public distrusted slaves, who were the first to be blamed for any public disturbance or crime. The capture of escaped slaves was a national obsession. An escaped slave was known as a fugitivus — a term loaded with the same derision we might reserve for illegal alien. Harboring an escaped slave was illegal, and captured slaves would often be whipped, tortured, or killed. Any slave returned living to their master would be branded on the forehead with the letter FUG, for fugitivus.
This is the climate under which Onesimus meets Paul sometime prior to the book of Philemon. Onesimus has no legal right to be in Paul’s presence. He has no right to expect any special treatment. He should entirely expect Paul to tun him into the authorities as a fugitive slave with no rights. At worst, this journey could be a death sentence for Onesimus, but something about Paul draws the slave to him.
A Message Greater Than Citizenship
There is no evidence at all that Paul holds Onesimus’s lack of legal citizenship against him in the book of Philemon. This should come as no surprise from the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.
Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law — not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.
Or who wrote Romans 1:13–17.
Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
Or Galatians 3:27–28.
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.
Paul knew the gospel is not constrained by social class, by geopolitical boundaries, by national allegiances, or any other worldly division we might create. Christ’s gospel is for all, and if we put artificial boundaries between lost souls and the truth of Christ, even those of citizenship, then we are like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, who “lock up the kingdom of heaven from people.”
Onesimus would have known of Paul by reputation at the very least. He would have known of this prophet who spoke of a faith that eliminates all social status. Before meeting him, Onesimus saw Paul as a safe space, a place where he could learn of the man called Christ without fear and from a person who would treat him as a person, not as property,
An Aside on Applying Authority
We often speak of Biblical authority in terms of direct commands, implications, and apostolic example. I also respect the notion of the silence of the scriptures — the idea that if you cannot find authorization for something, then the silence on that topic is prohibitive; it’s not something God wants from us. The book of Philemon hits all of these in terms of how a disciple of Christ should treat a non-citizen in regards to the gospel.
1. Direct Command
Onesimus has not yet reconciled his legal status when Paul writes this in Philemon 1:15–17:
For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.
If there’s any question how Paul views this statement, see verse 21, where Paul writes, “Since I am confident of your obedience…” These are not the words of one who views this as a request. It is a command. Onesimus is a brother in Christ above all, legal status notwithstanding.
2. Example and Implication
Paul writes, in Philemon 1:9–13:
I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.
- Paul taught Onesimus the gospel and baptized him into Christ.
- Onesimus was still a fugitive slave when Paul converted him.
- Therefore, Paul’s actions demonstrate that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is of greater urgency than earthly citizenship.
Paul sets an example for us that demonstrates how we should conduct ourselves in similar circumstances. If, for example, I have opportunity to teach an undocumented immigrant — an illegal — then my responsibility is to their soul first. Any earthly citizenship is purely a secondary consideration. It will be important to reconcile that problem eventually, but it’s not the first concern.
3. Silence of the Scripture
There’s no record that Paul alerted the authorities about Onesimus. There’s no record he berated or tried to turn away Onesimus as an illegally free slave. There is evidence to the contrary that Paul insisted Onesimus fix his legal status before learning about Christ. The lack of these details means they were not part of Paul’s encounter with Onesimus, nor should they be part of the way we conduct ourselves in similar circumstances.
The Promise of a Better Kingdom
Worldly nations are inherently broken. Rules for citizenship are often discriminatory and overwhelming. And what do they get us? At best, we have a few worldly rights and privileges afforded in a transient geopolitical entity surrounded by imaginary boundaries that have no meaning beyond a tentative agreement with other such entities. Jesus Christ offers us something better.
…But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.
1 Peter 2:9–10
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The book of Philemon teaches me that heavenly citizenship is better than and more important than earthy citizenship. Being a Christian is more important than being an American (or insert your own country here). In my life, I should put Christ first, not America first. I should seek to share the greatness of Christ, not make my nation great. The only question of citizenship I should ask of anyone is whether or not they are part of Christ’s kingdom.
Paul did not idolize his citizenship, and neither should we. My call is not to make proselytes to American civic religion but to bring lost souls to Christ. My call is not to teach Western culture but to teach the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is not to make you like me, but for me to prefer you and help you on your spiritual journey. Through Him, we add to the citizens of His kingdom, which knows no class, no race, and no boundaries.