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May 12, 2011 / Daniel

Forgive Onesimus, a Command or a Request?

Icon of Onesimus

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So I’ve been puzzling over a couple of different statements that Paul makes in his letter to Philemon.   In vv. 8-10a, Paul writes,

“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.”

And few verses later, he adds,

“I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. “

These statements make it seem like Paul is leaving the decision entirely up to Philemon.  It’s a request.  “Please, forgive Onesimus.”  Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Now look at v. 21.  Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”  This statement makes it seem more like a command.  Paul expects for Philemon to comply with this request.  So even though Paul doesn’t play the authority card at first, he ends up playing the card.

I don’t know about you, but this bothers me a bit.  It seems a little manipulative.  And yet, I think Paul’s tactic here makes good sense within the context of koinonia (cf. Philemon 6).  As believers in Christ, we belong to each other.  We are responsible for each other.   As a good pastor, Paul desires to hold Philemon accountable to the demands of the gospel.  This is what church membership is all about.  When you say, “I want to be a member of my local church,” you are saying, “I want to be held accountable by you.”  “I want to be responsible for you.”  The church is the family of God.  So when you belong to a family, you have family responsibilities.

I think that the tension in these verses also reveals something about the nature of Christian obedience.  Our duty must be a delight.  Psalm 100 says, “Serve the LORD with gladness.”   Attitude is everything.  Part of the command is to obey with the right attitude.  If we don’t find pleasure in obeying God, then it’s not truly obedience.


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  1. revmlee / May 12 2011 10:58 pm

    Something that I think about often in Philemon is how Paul is unafraid to ‘leverage’ his spiritual investment in Philemon (especially in vv.19-20). Paul seems to be unapologetic about calling on Philemon as a spiritual father. It’s almost like he’s using the relational chips he’s accrued to say, “do this because you owe me,” but like a loving father, he knows that Philemon will do it not out of coercion, but because that’s the kind of ‘son’ Philemon is. I wonder what the pastoral implications/application is for this relationship? Just some more wood for the fire I suppose.

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