“And the church which is in your house,” or, Why Greek is Important for Interpretation

Paul begins his letter to Philemon,

“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother. To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: (Philemon 1-2, ESV).

Upon a casual reading, someone could say that this letter was not written to the church, but only mentioned. It does not have the word “to” connected with it, though someone could certainly argue that it would be included with the initial “to” prior to Philemon.

However, if one consulted the Greek New Testament, all possible confusion would disappear. Paul uses a particular case to address the church in this letter.

He writes, “καὶ τῇ κατʼ οἶκόν σου ἐκκλησίᾳ,” or, “and to in house your church.” (The Greek New Testament, SBL Edition) Wallace renders this a “dative of recipient.” [Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 148.] Interestingly, the NET conveys this translation, as do the NIV, NASB. This is a small demonstration of the benefits of using multiple translations.

In other words, this letter is addressed to the church that met in Philemon’s house as much as it is to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus. Now, this may seem insignificant, but I think it suggests otherwise.

Consider the personal nature of this letter. A former slave runs away from his master. During this time, Paul leads him to Christ (cf. Philemon 10). In an effort to restore these two men (i.e., Philemon and Onesimus), Paul pens this letter. Why should the church know about this? Is it really any of their business?

Paul seems to suggest that it is. Not only would the church benefit from this letter, but other churches would as well (a practice Paul engaged in, cf. Col. 4:16). It also minimizes the individualism that has affected churches in my own context. In the United States, we are highly individualistic. We keep to ourselves. The churches in Paul’s day, however, were more knowledgeable about one another.

It is also important to consider the nature of the material. The letter presents the Christian faith in action. Though many of Paul’s letters convey sound, deep theological truths, this letter focuses primarily on the outworking of that theology (cf. Eph. 1-3, Rom. 1-11). Through his interaction with Philemon and Onesimus, Paul is also offering the Church a case study of real, Christian living.

When I preach this passage to the church, I can do so confidently. It is addressed to the church. I know this because Paul was specific in his selection of words. I may have missed this if I relied on one English translation. Thank God for Greek!