Church Justice in Philemon

Philemon, NCV.  1 From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and from Timothy, our brother. To Philemon, our dear friend and worker with us; 2 to Apphia, our sister; to Archippus, a worker with us; and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about the love you have for all God's holy people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the faith you share may make you understand every blessing we have in Christ. 7 I have great joy and comfort, my brother, because the love you have shown to God's people has refreshed them.

8 So, in Christ, I could be bold and order you to do what is right. 9 But because I love you, I am pleading with you instead. I, Paul, an old man now and also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, 10 am pleading with you for my child Onesimus, who became my child while I was in prison. 11 In the past he was useless to you, but now he has become useful for both you and me. 12 I am sending him back to you, and with him I am sending my own heart. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that in your place he might help me while I am in prison for the Good News. 14 But I did not want to do anything without asking you first so that any good you do for me will be because you want to do it, not because I forced you. 15 Maybe Onesimus was separated from you for a short time so you could have him back forever -- 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a loved brother. I love him very much, but you will love him even more, both as a person and as a believer in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done anything wrong to you or if he owes you anything, charge that to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back, and I will say nothing about what you owe me for your own life. 20 So, my brother, I ask that you do this for me in the Lord: Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 I write this letter, knowing that you will do what I ask you and even more. 22 One more thing -- prepare a room for me in which to stay, because I hope God will answer your prayers and I will be able to come to you. 23 Epaphras, a prisoner with me for Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you. 24 And also Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, workers together with me, send greetings. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


The Apostle Paul gives a look into Justice in action for the first century Church in his short letter to the church at Colosse.  While principally addressed to the leader, Philemon, the message also is sent to a woman, Apphia, a member, and to the church as an homogenous group.  This address gives universal applicability of Justice in all levels of Church structure. 


Clearly, this letter includes several degrees of relationship that we might encounter today.  First there is the Apostle to Pastor degree, assuming Philemon is the pastor of the church that meets in his home.  Then there is Apostle to member degree, Paul with Onesimus,  next, A minister-leader, Philemon, with a member, Onesimus.  Also there is the inclusion of men and women as members whose influence would be felt in the society of the church. 


Since Philemon is personally involved, there is the need for his overseer, Paul, to be involved with an objective point of view and reconciliation in mind.  Perhaps Philemon was angry, hurt and even embittered toward this lowly slave who had done him wrong.  Perhaps, Onesimus had made other attempts on his own to be reconciled that were rejected.  We do not know and see only the apostolic solution and authority without knowing all the details in the background.  It will not be difficult to find similar situations in the modern Church with the same results of broken relationships and wounded hearts.  If Justice is not restored by presence of an overseer’s wisdom and authority, there is little hope that many local church’s divisions will be healed.


Paul is functioning as a New Testament Judge at the level of an appeals court.

His decision delivered to Philemon supports the ideas that Justice serves to accomplish reconciliation by fulfilling righteousness.


Paul’s letter is not ‘nice.’  It is a firm directive to the leader of a local church.  Paul makes it clear that Philemon owes him a debt, at least one of gratitude, and that he expects nothing but obedience in response.  In stating that the response of Philemon should be ‘spontaneous rather than forced,’ Paul is implying that it will be forced if it is not spontaneous.  This is a judgment by Paul that shows impartiality and makes it known that a leader is not to be given extraordinary, preferential consideration within Biblical concepts of Justice.  It is also noteworthy that Paul includes love functioning in righteousness as the correct motive force.


By addressing the letter to the whole church, Paul includes the social pressures arising from the expectations of the group for a single course of action by Philemon.  There are no private discussions, or negotiations of other options that Philemon might adopt.  Time, distance, and righteousness did not permit those actions.  We see no conspiracy among the leaders to protect the ministry or the ego of the local minister from ‘bad’ members.  We do see the right course and suppose that Philemon was submissive to it while setting aside personal feelings.


Thankfully, Paul moves also into the positive argument for reconciliation by presenting the ideas that, while Onesimus was worthless as an unbeliever, he would be of great value to Philemon as a brother and should be received as such.  Consider two factors:  1. Philemon had a significant investment of time and money in the slave who performed continuing functions that had value too.  This investment and economic benefit was lost.  Think what it would cost to acquire, if legal, train, and maintain a human slave today.  2.  Onesimus could no longer, as a free brother, be dependent upon Philemon for support in any way.  No pay, no room and board, no health care insurance.  We do not know from the letter, but perhaps poor circumstances in Rome had forced Onesimus to seek out Paul in prison or maybe Onesimus was also inside the walls.  Difficult circumstances promote repentance, do they not?   Christian Justice will always have a cost for both sides of a conflict.  The hope is, however, that the end will be better than the beginning, and that righteousness will be the means.


Paul indicates that Onesimus could now and in the future be of service to him in the ministry.  The importance of resolving the wrong with Philemon was foremost and, I believe, of necessity to any future work of the ministry by Onesimus.  It will be a good policy for any of us who desire to be in ministry today to first go back and make all of our wrongs right as best we can.   Can we expect to find a father in the faith like Paul to guide and help?  Will the leadership of the Church today see what is needed to support the reconciliatory process?   Would a modern Philemon be generous and forgiving to a repentant Onesimus?  Would a place in ministry be afforded to such a young rebel in this century?


We might expect Paul to mention the need for forgiveness by Philemon, but he does not.  Modern theologians might suggest that Philemon should write off the debt and pretend that the run away had never happened.  It is not clear from the letter, but there may have be stolen money or property involved as well.  Note that forgiveness is an issue but it is hidden within the concepts of repentance and restitution.  Paul demonstrates mercy in his direction to charge all debts to himself.  It is unlikely that Paul or Onesimus had cash resources, but Paul is willing to assume any outstanding sums.  He also says there is more than enough in the spiritual indebtedness that Philemon has to Paul to cover everything.   Paul states, “I’ll pay it all for Onesimus.”  The option to collect, or not, is Philemon’s, but it seems doubtful that he would attempt recovery from Paul.  It would be just if he did. 


Repentance is demonstrated in the letter, and also by the physical return of the slave.  Repentance, a change of mind, will doubtless be necessary for all the members at Colosse.  Will it be easy for them?  I wonder what it took to convince Onesimus, the fugitive, to accept and follow through with the return to Colosse?  He would be compelled to admit his wrong and possibly suffer humiliation in the process.  Sometimes humility is proved in humiliation.  Going back to Colosse could not have been easy for him or them.  Restitution is underwritten by the apostle, so the way is made possible for forgiveness that accompanies reconciliation.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are the fruits of these humble actions by someone who has done wrong.


There had been a relationship that was broken by the wrong of the run away.  A senior minister of the Church prevailed on him to return and make it right with Philemon.  Onesimus repented, and with Paul’s help, offered restitution.  Onesimus returned to admit his fault, to pay back the debt, and to seek to be united in a new way with his former owner.  The apostolic office sets the course for a complete model of how Justice should operate, even today.  These just patterns of restoration include threads of communication, leader support, responsibility, confession, repentance, restitution, and reunion all woven together by the Holy Spirit.


We assume that the letter was delivered, Onesimus was forgiven, Philemon was healed, and everyone was happy again.  That’s what Justice is all about.


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