This article was written after the author reflected on Dr. Nijay Gupta’s masterclass, “Cruciform Onesimus,” which was presented at a SATS Symposium on the 18th of February 2022.

When I saw that the title of Nijay Gupta’s presentation was “Cruciform Onesimus” and that he’d be discussing cruciformity, I admit that I had no idea what he meant or what to expect. Although “cruciform” (meaning “cross-shaped”) is a familiar term to most, the meaning of “cruciformity” wasn’t immediately apparent to me.

The book of Philemon is the perfect place to start since it is a letter in which Paul effectively calls Philemon to cruciformity. A slave by the name of Onesimus had left the house of his master, Philemon, had found Paul and been converted, and was then encouraged to return to Philemon for the purpose of reconciliation.

In those times, Philemon would have been well within his rights to punish Onesimus, but Paul’s letter challenged him to behave differently. The pillars of cruciformity are sacrifice, humility, and grace and we see these in the way that Paul calls Philemon to respond to Onesimus’s return:

  • He asked him not to punish Onesimus, despite having the right to do so.
  • He asked him to cancel Onesimus’s debts.
  • He asked him to welcome him graciously, as a dear brother.

Cruciformity is at the heart of Christian ethics and is the choice to live in a way that Jesus first modelled for us. Some authors take it one step further by saying that cruciformity is “Christoformity.” Philippians 2:6–11 describes how Jesus, despite his identity as God’s Son, humbled himself and served God obediently. And Paul echoes this when he appeals to Philemon on the basis of love and calls him to obedience to God.

But what about Onesimus—how is he to live out the pillars of cruciformity? What about those who aren’t in positions of power or wealth? Or worse: those who are downtrodden or in abusive relationships, for example? These are important questions because answering them helps us understand how cruciformity applies in the face of adversity.

Onesimus is about to return to a master who had the right to punish him; Paul talks about a debt owed, and there was likely a preceding conflict that had caused Onesimus to leave in the first place. Onesimus is certainly not in a position of power where practicing sacrifice, humility and grace is easy to imagine.

Many potential human responses could threaten to creep in here: helplessness, hate, pessimism, or thoughts of revenge. The Christ-like antidotes to these are the key to cruciform Onesimus. I use the term ‘antidote’ intentionally, because we are often called to live out the opposite of what the world expects:

On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’” (Romans 12:20, emphasis added)

“Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Corinthians 2:7–8, emphasis added)

When returning to Philemon’s house with the intention of reconciliation, Onesimus will need to live out:

  • obedience and courage, instead of helplessness;
  • love, instead of hate;
  • forgiveness and patience, instead of revenge; and
  • hope, instead of pessimism.

Although the above differs vastly from what was asked of Philemon, the heart of the matter is the same and applies to us all: Christ-like behavior and choices, regardless of our circumstances.

Perhaps, then, cruciformity isn’t so much about a formula or specific set of virtues as it is about the state of our hearts towards God: obedience to him takes preference over our own selfish desires.

If this has whet your appetite to delve deeper into this fundamental aspect of living our lives for Christ, lean into that:

  • Read the book of Philemon.
  • Watch the SATS symposium from which this article was adapted.
  • Contact SATS for further information on this topic or on studying further.

Short Bio: Carrie Milton is a veterinarian and language practitioner. After completing her Bachelor of Veterinary Science and working with a variety of animals for a number of years, she reawakened her love for the written word. Accredited by the Professional Editors’ Guild, she has tried her hand at everything from theses to fiction.