‘Exhorting on the Basis of Love’
ABOUT 60-61 C.E., a runaway slave left Rome and began a 900-mile [1,400 km] journey home to Colossae, a city in southwest Asia Minor. He carried with him a handwritten message for his owner, penned by none other than the apostle Paul. Today, that letter is a part of the Bible and has come to bear the name of its recipient, Philemon.
The letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of tactful, persuasive reasoning. More important, though, it contains a number of practical lessons for Christians today, one of which is the value of exhorting one another on the basis of Christian love. Let us take a close look at this short but powerful letter.
A Runaway Returns
Philemon was a Christian, a much loved member of the Colossian congregation. (Philemon 4, 5) Why, the congregation there used his home as a meeting place! (Verse 2) Furthermore, Philemon was personally acquainted with the apostle Paul; it may be that the apostle was instrumental in his becoming a Christian. True, Paul indicates that he did not personally preach in Colossae. (Colossians 2:1) He did, however, spend two years in Ephesus, preaching to such an extent that “all those inhabiting the district of Asia [which embraced Colossae] heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10) Philemon was likely among the responsive hearers.
At any rate, like many affluent men of that period, Philemon was a slave owner. In ancient times, slavery was not always degrading. Among the Jews, selling oneself or family members into slavery was an accepted means of paying off debts. (Leviticus 25:39, 40) The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia comments about the Roman period: “Large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery for various reasons, above all to enter a life that was easier and more secure than existence as a poor, freeborn person, to obtain special jobs, and to climb socially. . . . Many non-Romans sold themselves to Roman citizens with the justified expectation, carefully regulated by Roman law, of becoming Roman citizens themselves when manumitted [set free].”
A problem arose, though, when one of Philemon’s slaves, a man named Onesimus, deserted him and fled to Rome, possibly even stealing money from Philemon to finance his escape. (Verse 18) In Rome, Onesimus came in contact with the apostle Paul, who was a prisoner there.
The “formerly useless” slave who had fled servitude now became a Christian. He put himself at the disposal of Paul and rendered useful services to the imprisoned apostle. Little wonder that Onesimus found a place in Paul’s “own tender affections” and became “a brother beloved” to Paul!—Verses 11, 12, 16.
The apostle Paul would have liked to have Onesimus remain with him, but Philemon had legal rights as Onesimus’ owner. Onesimus was thus obliged to return to his legal master’s service. How, then, would Philemon receive him? Would he angrily demand his right to mete out severe punishment? Would he challenge the sincerity of Onesimus’ claim of being a fellow Christian?
Settling Matters in Love
Paul was moved to write Philemon regarding Onesimus. He wrote the letter in his own hand, not using a secretary as was his custom. (Verse 19) Take a few minutes to read the brief letter to Philemon in its entirety. You will note that after introducing himself and wishing Philemon and his household “undeserved kindness and peace,” Paul commended Philemon for ‘his love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the holy ones.’—Verses 1-7.
Paul could easily have invoked his authority as an apostle and ‘ordered Philemon to do what is proper,’ but instead Paul ‘exhorted on the basis of love.’ He vouched for the fact that Onesimus had indeed become a Christian brother, one who had proved himself useful to Paul. The apostle admitted: “I would like to hold [Onesimus] back for myself that in place of you he might keep on ministering to me in the prison bonds I bear for the sake of the good news. But,” continued Paul, “without your consent I do not want to do anything, so that your good act may be, not as under compulsion, but of your own free will.”—Verses 8-14.
The apostle thus urged Philemon to accept his former slave back as a brother. “Receive him kindly the way you would me,” wrote Paul. Not that Onesimus would necessarily be freed from servitude. Paul was not agitating to change the existing social order of his day. (Compare Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:2.) Nevertheless, the slave-master relationship would unquestionably be tempered by the Christian bond that now existed between Onesimus and Philemon. Philemon would view Onesimus “as more than a slave, as a brother beloved.”—Verses 15-17.
What, though, of the debts Onesimus may have incurred, perhaps as the result of thievery? Again, Paul appealed to his friendship with Philemon, saying: “If he did you any wrong or owes you anything, keep this charged to my account.” Paul expressed confidence that Philemon would show a forgiving spirit, going beyond the requests Paul made. Since Paul hoped to be released soon, he even arranged to enjoy Philemon’s hospitality in the near future. After giving some further greetings and wishing Philemon “the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul closed his letter.—Verses 18-25.
Lessons for Christians Today
The book of Philemon abounds in practical lessons for Christians today. For one thing, it reminds us of the need to be forgiving, even when a fellow believer has seriously wronged us. “If you forgive men their trespasses,” said Jesus Christ, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”—Matthew 6:14.
Those in positions of authority within the Christian congregation today can especially benefit from the book of Philemon. It is noteworthy that Paul refrained from using his apostolic authority to order Philemon to do what is proper. Furthermore, Paul did not demand that Onesimus be allowed to remain in Rome in Paul’s service. Paul respected the property rights of others. He also appreciated that while an authoritarian approach might have resulted in compliance, it would be better for Philemon to act from his heart. He made an appeal based on love so as to elicit a heartfelt response.
Christian elders today should therefore never be “lording it over those who are God’s inheritance” by abusing their power or by using a harsh, authoritarian way of dealing with the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3) Said Jesus: “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them and the great men wield authority over them. This is not the way among you.” (Matthew 20:25, 26) Overseers generally find that members of the flock respond far more to loving appeals than to orders. Those suffering from depression appreciate overseers who will kindly make time to listen to their problems and give understanding counsel.
Paul’s letter further reminds elders of the value of commendation and tact. He begins by acknowledging that ‘the tender affections of the holy ones were refreshed through’ Philemon. (Verse 7) This sincere commendation no doubt put Philemon in a more receptive frame of mind. Similarly today, counsel or advice can often be cushioned with sincere, warm commendation. And such counsel should be, not blunt or tactless, but generously “seasoned with salt” so as to be more palatable to the listener.—Colossians 4:6.
The apostle Paul further expressed confidence that Philemon would do the right thing, saying: “Trusting in your compliance, I am writing you, knowing you will even do more than the things I say.” (Verse 21) Elders, do you express the same confidence in your fellow Christians? Does this not help them want to do what is right?
Interestingly, parents often find that expressing confidence in their offspring also has a good effect. By recognizing the value of willing obedience—a desire to go beyond merely meeting requirements—parents can grant their children a measure of dignity. Parental commands or requests should, when possible, be made in a kind, loving tone of voice. Empathy ought to be shown, reasons given. Parents should warmly commend their children when such commendation is deserved and avoid being overly critical of them, especially in public.
Along the same lines, husbands can manifest the qualities of reasonableness and kindness, being ready to praise their wives. This makes wifely submission a pleasure and a source of refreshment and joy!—Proverbs 31:28; Ephesians 5:28.
Exactly how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter is not stated. We cannot imagine, though, that Paul’s confidence in him was misplaced. May Christian elders, parents, and husbands today similarly find success in their dealings, not by compelling, ordering, or coercing, but by ‘exhorting on the basis of love.’
[Picture on page 23]
Rather than appealing to his authority as an apostle, Paul exhorted Philemon on the basis of Christian love