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Work to edify your brother

Work to edify your brother
Posted on August 18, 2019  - By Winston Hottman

“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Philemon 8-10

One of the striking features of the letter to Philemon is Paul’s preoccupation with his own needs. Whereas in his other letters, Paul is primarily concerned with the needs of his audience, in Philemon, Paul takes centrestage as the one who needs help. Paul is the one who is aged. Paul is the one who is imprisoned. Paul is the one who yearns for companionship and service. Paul is the needy one.

Paul the manipulator?

This can be surprising since the relational dynamic we come to expect is one in which Paul as a spiritual father is the primary, if not exclusive, patron of the relationship, while his children in the faith are the beneficiaries. But in the case of this letter, the dynamic is flipped as both Onesimus and Philemon are called upon to serve Paul in his need.

Now, a surface-level (and cynical) reading might suggest that Paul is concerned exclusively with his own good. From this perspective, Paul’s regard for Onesimus’ value is based solely on what Onesimus can do for him, and the rhetoric of Paul’s letter to Philemon is just shy of manipulating Philemon to do what Paul wants. But if we were to read into this a lack of concern for Onesimus and Philemon on Paul’s part, we would miss the point of the letter. Though Paul does address his own needs, the way he does so reflects a deep concern for the good of the other two men involved. Notice some ways in which this is so.

Paul and Onesimus

First, while Paul desires Onesimus’ company because of the way the latter can minister to his needs, his request has the effect of elevating and empowering Onesimus. This is the point that Paul makes when he tells Philemon that “formerly [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (v.11). Paul employs a word play (since the name ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’) to demonstrate a change in Onesimus’ status. Whereas Philemon, for whatever reason, had come to view Onesimus as useless, as a member of the body of Christ, Onesimus can now ‘live up to his name’ as someone capable of contributing to the needs of others. With this comes a level of equality and dignity within the community as Onesimus is now to be regarded as a “brother in the Lord”.

As most of us have experienced, a one-way relationship in which one party only gives while the other party only receives is not a healthy relationship and typically reflects pride on the part of the giver. Paul’s relationship with Onesimus, instead, reflects in Paul a personal humility and a regard for Onesimus’ dignity.

A one-way relationship in which one party only gives while the other party only receives is not a healthy relationship and typically reflects pride on the part of the giver

Paul and Philemon

Second, notice how Paul appeals to Philemon for Onesimus’ service. Paul acknowledges that in light of what he has done for Philemon, he is within his rights to have retained Onesimus without making a request. Paul also makes clear that Philemon should allow Onesimus to remain with Paul. However, while Paul could have constructed a scenario in which Philemon had no choice, he instead wants him to make the decision voluntarily so that it can be done out of love. Paul recognises that for Philemon to be forced to do what is right isn’t as valuable or as beneficial to Philemon as choosing freely to do so. Paul creates space in which Philemon can exercise his responsibility to choose between right and wrong and opens to Philemon the blessings that flow from sharing in the love that unites the community — not only as a recipient, but as a giver.

As with Onesimus, Paul relates to Philemon in a way that acknowledges and affirms Philemon’s equality and dignity within the body of Christ, giving him an opportunity to exercise his maturity as a follower of Jesus. As any good parent understands, the way to honour a child’s developing maturity is to gradually grant them the freedom to make their own choices, letting them exercise his or her responsibility without compulsion.

Paul the edifier

What the letter to Philemon then provides is a beautiful picture of how Christ works among His body, tending to its needs through its members. Paul exemplifies this reality by using his weakness to be for others who he needs to be, so that they can be who Christ has called them to be. As Oliver O’Donovan notes in Entering into Rest: Ethics As Theology, this is the very essence of the love that Paul defines in 1 Corinthians 13: “To act that another may act well: that is to seek an end which carries the assurance of God’s Kingdom within it. It is a crown God would set upon our ends, more spectacular than our works could have won for themselves.”

Not only are we called to love others by serving them, but we are called to love them by creating space within the body of Christ for them to fulfil their calling to serve others, including us.

Winston Hottman

About Winston Hottman

A Ph.D. student in theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Winston Hottman is also co-founder of the Center for Baptist Renewal. Currently, he serves as Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.



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