From incarceration to release, prison ministry is a vehicle for discipleship and leadership training.

What can the book of Philemon teach us about prison ministry? Turns out, a lot.

The name “Onesimus” comes from Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which he wrote about Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave.

The New Testament book recounts the story of Paul taking in Onesimus and finding him to be an asset in ministry. And when he sent him back to his former master, Philemon, he encouraged him to receive Onesimus as a brother.


The leaders at World Impact take a similar approach to prison ministry. Through training workshops offered to churches and ministries in conjunction or independent of World Impact, churches can reach individuals inside and outside of the prison walls. Here’s how:

Through Onesimus Workshops, church’s get equipped to welcome former prisoners into the life of the church. As a result of providing them a healthy place to continue their walk with and service to the Lord, they have the opportunity to flourish in the faith.

With The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), churches partner with World Impact to train urban church leaders with seminary-level education geared towards urban life. Some of these leaders receive training while incarcerated.

Through these two groundbreaking programs, World Impact has seen almost 2,000 individuals – inside and outside of prisons – get equipped to serve and lead urban churches.

Like most communities, leaders that rise to positions of power from within sometimes have an easier time gaining authority and credibility, and urban settings are no different. Not only do they have an understanding of the cultural and historical nuances, they also have a detectable passion for the communities they serve.

In turn, they are effective at inspiring spiritual movement and lasting change in their communities. It boils down to this:

With training, men and women who have experienced incarceration can be powerful agents to advance God’s Kingdom in and through your local church.

Urban leaders need time for reflection and rest. Learn more about WI’s Leadership Retreats.


Philemon lived in the city of Colossae and was a believer. His home was large enough for the Colossian church to gather there to worship God, so we know he was well-off.

Paul wrote him a letter from prison that was supposed to be read to the entire church when they gathered. In the letter, Paul expresses his gratitude and appreciation for Philemon, mentioning his “love for all the saints” and “faith in the Lord Jesus” and informing him that “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.”

In the letter, we discover that Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves, had run away from his master’s house and that Onesimus had made contact with Paul in Rome. Onesimus had become a Christian as a result of their encounters and had tremendously aided Paul in his mission.

Despite Paul’s desire for Onesimus to continue in ministry with him in Rome, he opted to first encourage Onesimus to reconcile with Philemon, sending him a letter in which he affectionately refers to Onesimus as “my son” and “my very own heart.”

Paul appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother and not a slave, since “he is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord”

This story has themes of grace, forgiveness, justice, and restitution, with lessons that apply to believers today. Let’s explore, specifically, what we can learn from Philemon’s story that applies to the subject of prison ministry.

3 Inspiring Prison Ministry Lessons From The Book of Philemon

1. Believe forward in others and encourage growth.

Bible Study Tools describes this hope-filled phenomenon of “believing forward” beautifully:

Because of the transformation God has worked in his life, Paul prays and believes forward in Philemon’s life, knowing that “he who began a good work in [Philemon] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Toward this end, he prays “that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ” (v. 6).

By believing forward, especially in marginalized or disenfranchised individuals, they are encouraged in the faith.

Also, Paul praises Philemon’s hospitality and generosity, but also appeals to his growing faith and inspires him to stretch even further, to the point of welcoming back the slave who has betrayed him.

2. As believers, we are children of God.

Consider this verse from John:

“How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1)

Regardless of your background, once you become part of God’s family of believers, you’re simply one of God’s children. This is important to note when you’re part of a ministry where the participants have such varied histories and circumstances, like prison ministry.

Furthermore, the Gospel is available to everyone. Regardless of social position or prejudice, the Good News is the great equalizer: we are all in need of salvation.

Watch to Larry’s story of redemption and healing below:

3. Restitution is Important

Being a believer does not absolve Onesimus from the consequences of his behavior. He committed a crime by leaving Philemon, which is why Paul sends him back to his master’s home. It should be noted that Paul was also sacrificing in the name of restitution. Onesimus had become valuable to Paul’s ministry, calling him “a son” and also “useful” and “helpful.”

Also, Paul appeals creatively and lovingly to the Christian master, Philemon, asking for him to bestow unwarranted grace upon his runaway slave. This paints a poignant and meaningful picture of our rebellious attitude (and need for repentance and grace) toward a just and loving God.

Formerly incarcerated individuals have paid their restitution and, as believers, are enjoying grace and the freedom that comes with it. Some might say they are enjoying it even more than the rest of us:

“Where sin abounds, grace abounds much more.” (Romans 5:20)

Keep these truths in mind when leading or supporting a prison ministry that disciples and trains those who’ve been incarcerated: believe forward in others, see all believers as children of one Father, and honor the restitution that has been paid.

With a ministry foundation based on these lessons, World Impact has seen incredible transformations and impact in urban settings.

Help us equip and empower transformations through prison ministry.

What other valuable lessons do you see in the book of Philemon? Drop a comment and share your insights.