Philemon: Relinquishing Control

Have you guys ever studied the little New Testament book of Philemon? I’ll freely admit that it’s not one that I’ve looked into very often, but it caught my eye today and I camped out there for a while. It’s a short book, only 25 verses, and yet it holds such a profound truth that sets my mind at ease. I thought maybe you’d like to hear about it, too.

The backdrop of the letter written from Paul and Timothy to wealthy Greek landowner Philemon is this: Philemon, because he is a landowner, is also a slave owner. Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves, has escaped and run to Rome, where he meets Paul and is converted to Christianity. Philemon is a Christian himself. In fact, the church at Colosse meets in his home. So here comes the conflict.

Paul has Onesimus in his care, but he knows the right thing to do is to return Onesimus to Philemon. However, at that time it would have been customary for a slave owner to beat or even kill a runaway slave. But now that Onesimus has come to Christ, Paul asserts that he is no longer JUST a slave, but a brother in Christ. It’s time for Philemon to put his money where his mouth is. Will he turn a blind eye to the gospel and do what was customary, or will he instead welcome Onesimus home as a Christian brother? And, of course, the book of Philemon is Paul’s letter to Philemon trying to persuade him to accept Onesimus back as a brother.

The letter opens with Paul expressing his thanks and praise for Philemon’s reputation as a Christ follower. Paul states that it is because of that reputation that he comes to Philemon ASKING instead of DEMANDING that Philemon accept Onesimus back with forgiveness. Paul lays it on pretty thick and strongly encourages Philemon to represent Christ well in the way he handles this situation with Onesimus. And then Paul ends with the hope that he will one day be able to come again to visit Philemon.

There are so many take-aways in these few verses, so I hope I can convey to you the profundity of the truths here.

1. (Small Truth) In verses 4-7 Paul recounts to Philemon his respect for the life and reputation Philemon has built. He builds him up and reminds him of who he is in Christ before he lays out what he wants Philemon to do. Paul’s gentle yet firm reminder of Philemon’s character sort of pushes Philemon into doing the right thing. This biblical tactic is one to file away and use the next time we’re faced with encouraging someone to do the right thing.

2. (Big, Huge, Mac-Daddy Truth) Have you ever noticed that though we see Paul write this letter to Philemon, we never hear how the situation turned out? Did Philemon accept Onesimus back with forgiveness as a brother in Christ? Did he punish him with death or beating? We never know the end of the story. And THAT is important. So often we feel like it is our responsibility to FIX situations for our family or friends. We push hard and try to control what people do so that we get the outcome we want. We want so badly for others to make the right decision that we all but make that decision for them, instead of allowing them to choose for themselves. But do we really win by using such measures? Or do we simply become control freaks who manipulate people to get what we want?

Paul’s job here was to persuade and ask. To gently remind Philemon about his character. To hold him up to the Christian standard laid out by Christ Himself. But we don’t see Paul force. In fact, he says that he has every right to demand, but that he instead wants Philemon to choose righteousness for himself.

This parallels the way Jesus Himself works. While He calls us to Himself, and it is His will that ALL should come to Him, He does not force us. When we are forced into a particular decision, it keeps us from making that decision on our own free will. Which is better – to force someone into choosing you or to allow them to choose freely and have them choose YOU of their own free will? Jesus answers that for us, and so does Paul.

Y’all, there are times we gotta back off and let people make their own decisions, even if there is a possibility they will make a bad one. Sure, we can encourage them, just like Paul did, but in the end, we HAVE TO let people fall or fail or choose poorly, or lo and behold CHOOSE RIGHTLY. We can’t be everyone else’s Holy Spirit, NOR ARE WE CALLED TO BE!! It is only when we choose righteousness for ourselves that Christ is honored in our lives. Let’s not take His glory away from someone else’s life by directing their steps for them.


  1. Stephen Collins says

    I taught this lesson earlier in the year. Your thoughts are insightful, esp the “Big Truth”. I would add that Philemon held a great deal of respect for Paul. No doubt Paul led Philemon to Christ, probably even discipled him. Paul leveraged that relationship in his request. I think that a corollary to your insight is that Paul lived a life that was obviously worthy of Philemon’s respect. Does the way we live allow us to be a positive influence for Christ, or do our actions damage our testimony? Philemon was most likely a wealthy person with some amount of authority and respect in his own right, but obviously looked up to Paul (a homeless missionary) in regard to spiritual matters. Final note, it was Paul’s job to persuade but he also wielded the stick of accountability. He made it a point to imply at the end of the letter that he was coming in person to check up on the situation (vs 22).

    • thehillhangout says

      Your comments are spot on, Stephen. Indeed, Paul certainly had earned the right to hold Philemon accountable. It would have been out of line for him to address Philemon about the matter without developing that kind of relationship with him first. While scripture instructs us to hold each other accountable, it has been my personal experience that correction is most often welcomed when there is first a solid relationship built on trust and mutual respect. And, indeed, Paul did hold Philemon further accountable by mentioning a future visit. As a spiritual father, his children knew what he expected, and they, no doubt, didn’t want to disappoint him. Thanks for your insight.


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