So why is Philemon in the Bible?

What’s with Philemon? There’s no doctrine. There’s no history. There’s not really any ethical teaching. So why is Philemon in the Bible then? To ask those three questions and come up empty-handed is part of the reason! If our approach to the Scriptures is such that we are looking for everything to be s-p-e-l-l-e-d out in “do thisdon’t do that” terms we will miss most of what God wants us to learn. Such an approach is actually quite shallow, and perhaps lazy also. Much of Biblical teaching is implicit not explicit.

For example, when reading the Old Testament you find respected men of faith living polygamous lives  -e.g. Abraham (Gen 16). If we took an explicit approach to the Scriptures we could say: So the Bible condones polygamy then, it must be OK – just look at Abraham. However, if we take an implicit approach we observe the outcomes of such a domestic arrangement and then gather up the evidence. So when we see the marital disharmony that resulted from two wives in the house perhaps we can conclude it’s not such a good idea. Look also at king David – great king, great poet, lousy husband. Seemed to be in the habit of not only marrying more than one woman, but going to the extreme of taking that woman from another man (2 Sam 3:14-16, 2 Sam 11). The family disharmony that swirled around David would make Jerry Springer blush. His approach to family life led to murder, incestuous rape, political crisis. Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba took polygamy to legendary heights (1 Kings 11:1-6) which eventually led to spiritual disaster… I think we can safely say that the Bible does not paint a glowing picture of a polygamous life-style. If we still want something explicit on the subject, see Gen 2:24.

So, back to Philemon. Who’s involved? Main characters are Paul – apostle to the Gentiles, author of great slabs of the New Testament, founder of Christianity in Asia minor and Italy. Also, we have Onesimus –  a runaway slave (Phm 16-18) who had stolen his bus money on the way out. And finally, Philemon to whom this letter has been written (Phm 1). The letter is a wonderful redemptive tale. Paul was in jail again – in chains for the gospel (Phm 13) and he crosses paths with Onesimus the runaway slave. They form a friendship and Paul shares the gospel with him. Onesimus then becomes a Christian (Phm 10-12). During their discussions (which would have included Onesimus coming clean about his past) they discover they have a mutual relationship in Philemon – a fellow gospel worker to Paul and erstwhile master to Philemon. Paul’s a Christian. Philemon’s a Christian. Onesimus is now a Christian too, but now there is the tricky issue of the fact that Onesimus was AWOL and stole from Philemon. How to resolve this tension?

How Paul handles this issue is the reason we have Philemon in the canon. Paul is a major major church heavy-weight. If we were to look to ecclesiastical history for guidance on how to deal with tricky issues, we would assume that the use of blunt instruments such as threats, murder, excommunication, spiritual abuse and other unsavoury techniques are the way to go, particular for someone who had some real clout as Paul did. However, that is not what we see here. Rather:

(Phile 1:8-9 NIV)  Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, {9} yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. 

Paul could have thrown his weight around. He could have ordered Philemon to accept  and forgive Paul’s new buddy Onesimus. But no! Instead, he appeals on the basis of love. He builds up Philemon (Phm 4-7) and then humbly makes his appeal (Phm 10). He gives Philemon the respect of providing reasons for accepting Onesimus back (Phm 15). Paul does not want to act unilaterally but in partnership with Philemon (Phm 14,17). He offers to make the restitution (Phm 18). He appeals on the basis of their friendship (Phm 17). He is intensely personal (Phm 19). Paul is making a strong and compelling argument but he is not overstepping. At every point along the way, the love and respect for Philemon is maintained.

So what we have in the book of Philemon is a wonderful example of how a godly leader is to exercise influence. Philemon is all about showing how the gospel of love can work when the rubber meets the road in a conflict situation.  Without God, the one in authority can over-exert and damage the dignity of those he wishes to influence. With God, the dignity of all is maintained, love prevails and the best outcome results.

Which evidently it did as we find Onesimus popping up as a useful brother in Colossae (Col 4:9). All is good and we get to have a great practical lesson in leadership style.