Lessons From Philemon.

The book of Philemon (the last page before Hebrews) is a short letter with a big lesson for God’s revolutionary leaders today.

A little bit of background: Philemon, the guy the letter was written to, was a fairly wealthy Christian in the city of Colossae two thousand years ago. The book is a letter to him, from the apostle Paul, and about someone else: a slave named Onesimus.

Onesimus had belonged to Philemon, before he ran away from his master, which was a capital offense in those days. The moment Onesimus left, Philemon had the legal right to kill him as an example to the rest of the slaves in the household, so returning home was pretty much not an option for Onesimus: he’d burned his bridges; if he ever went home he’d be heading to the gallows.

Some time later Onesimus was arrested in Rome and thrown into jail, where he met Paul and of course Paul introduced him to Jesus. Onesimus gave his life to Christ, and Paul began – in the Roman prison – to teach him about the ways of the Kingdom. And as Onesimus grew in his understanding of God and His ways, he understood that he needed to go back to Philemon and make things right, even if it cost him his life.

Paul is a Onesimus’ spiritual father, and Onesimus is really helping him. Roman prisons are pretty ugly places (think medieval dungeon) and Onesimus – who was out of prison by now – is serving Paul, bringing him meals, relaying messages from believers outside, and generally making life bearable. But Paul sends him back to his rightful owner to resolve the issue of his crime of running away.

This letter went with him, a greeting from Paul to his brother Philemon, and it included some instruction for Philemon for this reunion. In the midst of that teaching, Paul reiterates how useful Onesimus has been, and he instructs Philemon on how to receive Onesimus (“…that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother.”). But he leaves the ultimate decision to Philemon. “I could order you to receive him, but I’m leaving the decision in your hands.”

There are two lessons here for today’s Christian leaders. (Please understand that I’m not talking about professional pastors; I’m talking about believers who lead or influence or mentor other believers, though that will include professional pastors.)

1. The people that minister with you or to you are not your people. They belong to another Master, and we need to be completely free with them; we must welcome their service and we must release them freely when their Master calls them to another place, regardless of what it costs us. Hopefully, we’ll send them to their next assignment as more equipped and able servants than when they came to us.

2. There are times when we know the answers better than those whom we’re mentoring; we understand what they need to do better than they do. And sometimes, we could functionally order them to do the “right thing.” But we must resist that! We must give them the freedom to make the decision for themselves, even if (even when) their wrong decision could hurt them and us. We can advise them; we can instruct them, but we cannot – we dare not – make the decision for them, else we make them dependent on us, not on Him. And woe unto us if we make someone dependent on us!

This was a tough lesson in Paul’s day. You can tell he really wants Philemon to make the right decision; Paul calls Onesimus “my own heart”; he really loves this guy, and he knows that he’s putting Onesimus’ life into Philemon’s hands, and if Philemon chooses what his world demands, what is legal and expected, Paul will lose a good friend, and the Kingdom of God will lose an important leader. But still Paul leaves the decision to Philemon. He still sends Onesimus back.

The Bible doesn’t tell the rest of the story, but church history does: Philemon did receive Onesimus back, and he went beyond forgiving him, and he freed Onesimus from his slavery. And Onesimus went on to become the apostolic leader over the church in the city of Colossae.

We can trust people to make the right decision, but even if it’s difficult, we still must make that choice: it’s their decision, let them make it, even if they make it wrong.


the rose among lillies said...

"motivate" this turning into a challenge??


Good word by the way =)

As always, I enjoy reading (and listening to) what's in yer head.

Joshua said...

wow, this is great. I really enjoyed reading this. Its a challenging word when working with volunteers.
Thanks for the thoughts.