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). Were this appeal disingenuous and underhanded, how inappropriate and manipulative would such writing be! Paul, as an inspired author would merely be winking at the truth, and it would undermine the veracity of the Scriptures themselves. No, this is a sincere appeal, not a buttering up of Philemon.
By the time we reach verse 8, where Paul makes mention of a possible “command” to do “what is required”, there has been no statement of what he desires—no mention of his aim at this point in the letter. So when he assures Philemon he is appealing “for love’s sake” (vs 9), it is once again sincere. Instead of using the law to compel, he pleads, he appeals, he gently leads and guides as a good shepherd should.
Next he reasons with Philemon of Onesimus’ genuine conversion, usefulness in the kingdom, and his beloved standing before Paul (vs. 10-13). It is true that Paul would’ve gladly kept Onesimus in Rome with him, but he refuses to do anything without Philemon’s consent, that no good would come about from compulsion (vs. 14). Then by the time we get to verse 17, we finally hear the actual request: receive Onesimus as Philemon would receive the Apostle himself. All one would have to do is read verse 22 to see how Paul would be received: as an honored guest, cared for and provided for in Philemon’s home.
Paul additionally permits Philemon to require exacting justice in this scenario, and says, if you demand repayment, then by all means, “charge it to my account” (vs. 18). Finally, and he’s pouring it on thick at this point, Paul is “confident [Philemon] will do even more than I say” (vs. 21). What a gentle letter. What loving reasoning and tender argumentation!
As people stand before us in pulpits each week, how do they speak—how is it they conduct themselves with the word of God? Do they stand as little lords over the congregation, using the word as a bludgeon—or do they speak with the tongue of the Good Shepherd who speaks life, freedom, and pleads with gospel appeal? Are we seeking out humble servants who woo our affections as they lovingly hold out Christ to us, or do we seek after rulers like those in the world “lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (Matt 20:25) even though Christ says “It shall not be so among you.” (vs 26)
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.
How is it that you learned Christ? Did you submit to a legal tyrant, a dictator who demands obeisance, or, as Psalm 110 describes us, are we glad “volunteers in the day of his power”? I think it is safe to say that we all bowed the knee to Jesus, as we heard of the excellencies of his grace and the generosity of his mercy. We heard of our certain condemnation, and alternatively, of a Savior who graciously gave himself for us. This is what subdued us to our Lord. The Good Shepherd did not conquer us as he will his enemies on the last day, and he does not call us as servants but calls us “friends” (Jn. 15:15).
May we read our New Testaments with a greater eye to the type of Christlike character that drips from such godly leaders in Holy Writ. And let us therefore seek these qualities in our leadership and expect them to be gentle and humble men who “do not lord it over the flock, but live as examples” to us all (1 Pet. 5:3).