Philemon and the Opposite of Abusive Leadership

Philemon and the Opposite of Abusive Leadership

We must find leaders who choose the better path presented by Paul in this epistle. When they speak, we should hear words of life from our loving Father. And we must seek out those who do not demand submission to their authority, chafe when they are disagreed with, or wield church censures when they are crossed—but ones who lead by Christ-like example, embodying our gentle Savior in speech and in conduct.

There is much talk in the church today about oppressive leadership and spiritual abuse, and for good reason! We can certainly be thankful the conversation is finally above the fold and the church is talking about some much needed issues that have plagued her for far longer than we’d like to admit.

That said, there is a good deal of course-correcting taking place and putting off negative behavior, but we may be wanting for positive articulation of what we should be looking for in our spiritual leaders. What type of leadership qualities ought we be seeking—not just the types we should be avoiding or removing? How should those in authority be conducting themselves when it comes to care for the flock? The Apostle Paul in the book of Philemon gives us just such an example of winsome, gospel appeal, as compared to legal demands and dictatorial authority.

You recall the book of course. Onesimus, a runaway slave from the Colossian Church, fled from his wealthy land owner, Philemon, and ended up in Rome to find safe quarter. There he encountered an imprisoned Apostle Paul, came under his evangelistic efforts, and as a result was converted to Christ. Onesimus is then sent back to the church in Colossae, which met in his master’s home, with letter in hand from the Apostle to Philemon.

Pause here for a moment. Onesimus’ life is forfeit. In a best case scenario, he would be thrown into prison until he was able to pay back the value of everything stolen and defrauded from Philemon. Far worse consequences than that could be justified under the law at such a time. It is into this context that Paul pleads for Onesimus to be forgiven his debt and for Philemon to receive him, not as a runaway slave forever indebted, but as a brother in Christ, a fellow heir of the Kingdom, and as an equal member of the church!

Instead of making demands, and without appeal to his apostolic authority, this letter reads as a gentle entreaty to a friend and brother to exhibit the grace of our infinitely forgiving Father in Heaven.

Notice Paul writes not as the authoritative “Apostle” in verses 1 and 2, but as “a prisoner” and places himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Philemon, his wife, and their son by calling them brothers, sister, fellow workers and fellow soldiers. He then reminds them how thankful he is for their love for all the saints and how they have refreshed the hearts of so many—of which Onesimus would now be one (vs. 4-7).

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