Philemon: Leading in Love


Sunday, September 18, 2022

The letter to Philemon is one of the shortest of all the epistles and also stands out from many of the others as addressed to an individual rather than to a church. Not only that, but in Paul’s salutation, he identifies himself not as an apostle as he does in his letters to the churches, one with authority over Philemon, but as a prisoner and a coworker of Philemon. This letter is a masterclass in how to lead in love, rather than in authority. If you are in a position of leadership or desire to be a leader, then take to heart the lesson that Paul gives here.

Before we look at how Paul leads Philemon, let’s look at what Paul wants. While Paul is in Rome, he teaches and converts a slave who ran away from his master in Colossae, a man named Onesimus. This man was the slave of Philemon, a disciple at the church in Colossae. Paul becomes very close with Onesimus and considers him to be like a son (Philemon 1:10). After his conversion, Onesimus is willing to return to his master. It’s for this reason that Paul writes to Philemon: to request that Philemon accepts Onesimus back into his service, not just as a slave but also as a brother in the faith (Philemon 1:16).

Now Paul has the authority as an apostle to simply command Philemon to do the right thing here, to receive Onesimus even though Onesimus wronged him by running away. Paul could have written his salutation as he did in the letter to the church, as an apostle of Jesus by the will of God (Colossians 1:1). Instead, Paul humbles himself and approaches Philemon as an equal, as two coworkers in the same mission. This is such an important lesson for leaders. There is a time to exercise authority over people, but there is also a time for a leader to empty himself of his authority so that those you lead can step up and make a free will decision that comes from love rather than coercion (Philemon 1:8-9, 14). 

After his greeting, Paul warms up Philemon with some well-deserved praise. Philemon is praised for his love for the saints, for his faith toward Lord Jesus, for the refreshment of the hearts of the saints (Philemon 1:4-7). Paul tells him how encouraged that even he is just to hear of the works of Philemon. There’s a common teaching these days that for every criticism, you should also give five compliments. Here Paul is demonstrating that principle beautifully. He shares his praise and his personal encouragement in hearing of all that Philemon has done. In doing this, he is able to put forward a request and have it fall on welcoming ears. I have made the mistake before of leading my feedback with criticism and it is never well received. If you learn one thing from this letter, know that your encouragement has more power to make people change than your criticism alone ever will.

Now that Paul has opened with praise, he is ready to put forth his criticism, although to call it a criticism isn’t quite right. Paul knows that Philemon has every right to refuse to receive Onesimus. Philemon was wronged by his slave, and why should he take back an unfaithful servant? If Paul had just sent Onesimus back without sending a letter ahead of him, Paul foresees that Philemon might stumble and fail to receive Onesimus as a brother. If that were to happen, Paul would then have to criticize Philemon for his lack of love for his brother in the faith. So Paul gets ahead of this situation and gives Philemon the chance to make the right decision before he is put in that difficult situation. Paul is so wise. I doubt that I would ever have that insight and foreknowledge to turn a potentially sour encounter into a positive one. 

How can we take this lesson and make it practical? If you are in a position of leadership in your church, your youth group, your school, your job, whatever it may be, try to apply these lessons.

1. Give people the chance to make the right choice before you exercise your authority.

2. Praise people for their good works before you attempt to correct, guide or criticize.

3. Provide guidance before a situation arises. It is easy to recommend a course of action than to correct an error in action. The past is set in stone, but the future is still open.

Even if you aren’t in a position of leadership, I encourage you to heap praise on your leaders and your coworkers.

-Nathaniel Johnson

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