This is that little letter of Paul’s (much like John’s second and third letters) that are a bit perplexing. One wonders how such a personal, narrowly focused correspondence could be expected to inspire and instruct the worldwide church throughout the ages over and above all the other letters floating around churches in the first century. OK, there is the hugely significant role it played in changing views on slavery, but that doesn’t continue to resonate as much in the portions of the church where slavery is already seen as wrong. Maybe the unique example of forgiveness is the take-away, but there might be other areas of scripture where this teaching is more compelling. Then there is the portion of Christian scholarship that (completely missing the point in a fun way) try to solve the puzzle of its conclusion historically. (Could Onesimus have gone on to become the Bishop of Ephesus who also happened to edit Paul’s letters together for circulation?)
If you read this letter through the lens that we do here at NonModern—taking it as a hands-on guide to church planting that begs extrapolation of practices derived from the experiences Paul had in his ministry—you see Philemon in yet another light. Church planters and people in leadership don’t have to stretch hard at all to think of many situations similar to this one in their own ministry including everything from dealing with a new believer to reconciling estranged believers to coaching small groups. The list goes on and on. While none of them is exactly what Paul had going on here, the way Paul approached the problem is an example to follow. Once you see the approach that Paul took, you will also see the sad fact that it is hardly ever our approach.
Paul does not command. He appeals to his fellow believers’ own sense of what God desires. He does not prescribe a list of discipleship orders for Onesimus to follow in his young faith. He praises him for his new motivation and usefulness as a believer. In both his relationship to Philemon and to Onesimus, Paul does not appeal to law but rather to love. He trusts that the Holy Spirit will do a better job of compelling believers to do what they should. In the end it is up to each believer to obey God or not. They will answer to God, not to Paul. Paul’s calling as Apostle or church planter comes with insight and vision that should be communicated; but not with the authority to decide what everyone should be doing in their own ministry for God.
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