Beyond Rank and Power: What Philemon Tells Us About Leadership

Article / Produced by TOW Project
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Weighing in at one mighty chapter, Philemon is the shortest book written by Paul and one of the shortest in the entire New Testament.[1] Given its length, that this book made it into the canon seems initially surprising. And yet a glimpse at this short epistle begins to show us why—this little work packs a powerful message. Paul is dealing with issues associated with slavery, a core social institution and reality of the ancient world. In Paul’s dealing with the cultural expectations of slavery, there is far more here than discussion about an ancient institution. Paul also is treating the topic of social roles and the profound change knowing Jesus should make for people. He is engaged in dealing with themes tied to power, rank, justice, and mercy.

Paul writes to Philemon, a slave owner. It is about Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves who had gone missing, apparently by running away, and had ended up with Paul. By all rights, Onesimus was at Philemon’s mercy, given he was the property of the slave owner and had violated all kinds of social rules. How Paul handles this situation reveals not only that Jesus makes a difference, but how that difference impacts leadership and power.

Here is how we will proceed. I set the background of how the letter relates to leadership, work through the letter in sequence, and then draw on points to be made about leadership. I plan to walk through the whole of Philemon before showing how it connects to issues tied to power, rank, and leadership because one needs to see the whole of what Paul is doing to appreciate all that is happening. This is not a piece here and another piece there approach with applications sprinkled in along the way. Paul is reaching for a reconfiguration of how relationships are seen and implemented. The lessons come in not only what he says, but how Paul does it. My treatment develops what the Theology of Work Commentary has to say about mutuality in Philemon going in several directions by looking at the letter’s discussion of fellowship, as well as filling out the commentary’s claim that Paul shuns the use of command in addressing Philemon.[2] This second point is seen in how Paul deals with the issue of Philemon’s social rank.

Philemon: The Background

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Why place Philemon into a discussion on leadership? Some people lead by character. They are seen as leaders by how they do what they do. Others have leadership because of social or corporate rank. Philemon is in the latter category.

This is the first reality that forms the background to the letter and Paul’s decision to write it. As an owner of a slave who had run away, Philemon has social control of the situation. Paul is addressing him as one who has choices and leverage in how the situation is to be handled. It seems likely that both are aware that Onesimus has been found since so little is said about the status of the slave. So the issue is how will Philemon lead given the slave has been found.

Second, there is an “injustice” that the slave has performed against Philemon in the social context of ancient slavery. By running away or seeking Paul’s help in a dispute with Philemon[1], Onesimus has incurred a social and economic debt Paul is going to address in ways that are distinct from the way this situation would normally have been addressed.

Paul’s Way Into a Delicate Discussion (Philemon 1-8)

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Paul’s greeting to Philemon sets the stage for the delicate social negotiation he is about to undertake. Paul opens commending Philemon’s love and faith that leads Paul to pray for Philemon with thanksgiving. The quality of Philemon’s fellowship in faith is the object of Paul’s prayer. The goal of Philemon’s faithful fellowship should be to promote the knowledge of the good that belongs to those who know Christ. Here is faith at work before we discuss how it works with work. Faith has a target, how I engage with other people. The goal is to seek the knowledge of the good, applied in relationships, including social relationships of power. The knowledge here is not mere facts, but a practical, relational good as the rest of the letter is about to show. The Greek word fellowship (koinōnia) really describes a participation, a joint interacting and engagement with others (v. 6).[1] Paul can be hopeful of this result because Philemon’s track record shows he has been a cause of refreshment to the hearts of saints. All of these themes are in the first seven verses before Paul makes a single request. But make no mistake, these are not simply opening remarks or casual comments. They help to lay the foundation for what Paul is going to ask.

Two points emerge about leading from this opening.

First, Paul states a goal of leadership is building quality in relationships. This is the goal of any relationship, the promotion of the knowledge of a practical good where people can work well together. Leadership is about more than accomplishing a task or meeting quotas. How people are treated matters. It is this goal that drives the request to come.

Second, Paul is an encourager in seeking these goals. He instills confidence that Philemon can go where Paul is about to take him, even as the request will require sacrifice of certain rights Philemon has. Paul knows Philemon well enough to know the slave owner can do what he is about to ask. The track record shows Philemon is capable of going in the requested direction.

Paul’s Delicate Request (Philemon 9-25)

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Paul’s way into his request will sacrifice his position of leadership as an example of what he is about to ask. It is easy to miss this move, coming as it does at the start. In vv. 8-9, Paul says he could command what he is about to ask. He could simply play the leader’s card of power and social rank. He says as much in verse 14, when he says he wants Philemon to act not out of compulsion but out of free will. Paul will not act from a place of power and authority. Out of love, versus status, Paul’s appeal will come not as an ambassador nor as an apostle, but as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. In jail, Paul would rather Philemon act out of what is good and right relationally than force Philemon to act.

The request is on behalf of Onesimus. Paul has fun with the slave’s name, which means “useful.”[1] “Useful” had become “useless” to Philemon, having run away, but now he is useful to them both. It is hard to know if Paul’s original assessment is because Onesimus had run away and thus was unable to serve Philemon or if this is his description of him socially and relationally as a slave, being seen only as property. The former seems more likely that the latter, as slaves were of use to their owners when they served in the house.

Paul is sending the slave back to Philemon, even though Paul would prefer to keep Onesimus and let him serve the gospel on Philemon’s behalf. Paul suggests that the consequence of Onesimus’s running away may have been a shift in the slave’s status, since he came to know Christ in the process. Onesimus has gone from being a slave to being a brother. He has gone from being a slave for a time until death comes, to being in relationship with Philemon forever.

So Paul’s request is that Onesimus be received as if it was Paul coming back to him! What a promotion. Onesimus has gone from slave to brother to “apostle” in just a few sentences. Paul’s request is interesting. He says, “If you consider me a partner (koinōnon), receive him as you would me.”[2] Fellowship means partnership. Onesimus may have one status according to the world, but in Jesus there is another way to look on who he is. He is a brother.

There is to be no doubt that part of what drives Paul’s request here is that Philemon and Onesimus share the faith with Paul. Still the idea of looking beyond mere social status to what one is at a human level would be true even if Onesimus had not been a believer. What drives the commandment to love your neighbor, regardless of who they are, enemies included, is surely predicated on the fact all people are made in the image of God.

Philemon may well be asking, “But what of the risk of being taken advantage of, Paul?” Paul is aware of that question and offers a solution as well. He says if Onesimus has wronged Philemon at all, that this should be reckoned to Paul’s account. Paul will cover any damages Onesimus owes. He even writes the letter at this point in his own hand to make the point as personally as possible.[3] Paul does push his point here, noting that Philemon owes Paul his very own self, probably a reference to Paul’s leading him to and nurturing him in the faith. If Philemon will do this, receive Onesimus as a brother, then this will refresh Paul’s heart. Philemon will do for Paul what he had already done for so many others (see v 7).

Paul is not shy in his request as he notes not only that he is confident Philemon will do this, but that he will do even more than what he asks. This is probably an allusion to the idea of sending the slave back to Paul. He then note he hopes to visit Philemon soon, so Philemon is to prepare a room for Paul.

With that said and the request made, Paul gives some final greetings and signs off commending Philemon to Jesus’ grace.

Lessons on Leading

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How does faith change work and leadership? On that question this letter says a lot because it treats how Christ impacts relationships, including relationships that exist in a world of social rank. Social rank shows itself and often controls our assessment of relationships in many spheres: work, home, church, and society at large. Here are some relational dynamics that Paul is focused on Philemon grasping and applying that also carry over into a whole host of contexts.

1. Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status. Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus not in the social world’s terms but from within the faith. This changes everything. Paul does not do this once, but three times. The obvious place is where he asks Philemon to consider Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. However, the second move is where he asks him to receive him as he would Paul, as an apostle. Yet, ironically, the third move is when Paul says he will appeal to Philemon not as an apostle but as a slave of Jesus Christ.

Each one of these appeals has a point. The enhanced status being in Christ gives Onesimus elevates him into a new light. But Paul’s other point is his appeal to Philemon to see the apostle as a slave. This makes the profound observation that we all serve Jesus and any power status we have is very relative. The work we do we do as unto the Lord, serving him. Even apostles serve at the leading and direction of God. This leveling, in both directions, reminds us that behind the rank the world often gives us is our core humanity that makes us all servants of God. We are called in whatever role we have to serve him well. In fact, one can argue that this is the core appeal that Paul is making is here. He is using his stepping back from his authority in humility as the example that sets the stage for what Philemon is being asked to undertake. To say such a perspective is a merely game changer profoundly understates how significant a move this is as the following points show.

2. Leadership ultimately is not primarily about the exercise of power, status, rights, or efficiency but grounds itself in relationships, a participation that leads to the practical good and affirms new potential. The practical good often does involve following through on commitments and doing one’s job with integrity, but it also, as here, can mean being forgiving and honoring the potential a person has to change and become a new person. Paul ultimately is asking Philemon to grant and acknowledge this change in Onesimus. To see him in a new light, a light that Jesus had ignited that made Onesimus a different person than the one who had run away.

3. As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make. It is important that Paul, sensing the loss and cost Philemon is asked to bear, is willing to pay for the loss and make sure some sense of justice is maintained as he asks for leniency and compassion. The debt Paul is willing to bear mirrors a parable Jesus tells, where the Good Samaritan not only rescues the man beaten up on the side of the road, but pays the innkeeper for any debt the man will accrue as the man recovers at the inn. This bearing another’s burden is part of the “participation” or demands of fellowship Paul is contending for in this letter. Of course, the supreme example of bearing such a cost on behalf of another is what Jesus did in dying for our sin and paying our spiritual debt. By injecting himself into the relational equation, Paul also makes himself a participant in this situation, becoming part of the fellowship he is calling for Philemon to display.

4. Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than forcing compulsion. Paul as a leader is not just seeking for Philemon to make a decision here but to do so with an understanding and appreciation for why it is a good decision. He is appealing to Philemon’s free will so that character is developed. Paul is not just interested in a bottom line decision. There is a famous saying that “He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In that scenario, nothing really changes. Any act that comes from mere compulsion often is done once and then left behind because the rationale for it is not really grasped. Once the compulsion is removed the behavior reverts back with no gain for character. Paul wants Philemon to act not because he must but because he should. He wants Philemon to get that profound difference.

5. As a leader, Paul still can place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision. One of the more interesting features of this letter is how Paul applies “pressure.” There is a (non)use of power. Paul does not do it so much from rank, but he does do it quite intentionally—relationally—by reminding Philemon of the debt he has to Paul. Paul is not appealing as an apostle, but he is appealing to him based on what he has personally done for Philemon. Granted Philemon is well aware of who Paul is, but Paul is approaching him on another level. In effect, Paul is saying, if you appreciate how I have related to you with you as the beneficiary, then you will see how I am asking you to treat another. If you can be the beneficiary of such relationships, you can contribute to others in the same way. That this appeal is at a relational level underscores the entire approach of the letter to build a relationally strong response from Philemon. The approach matches the goal.

One also is reminded that we are to learn from God’s example with us. Such lessons may be behind what Paul is asking for, something a text like Philippians 2:6-11 also teaches. Jesus did not regard deity and thing to be grasped onto but emptied himself into the form of a servant for us, even to the point of dying as an innocent for us. Jesus also tells a parable where a person forgiven a huge debt fails to forgive another a small debt. That forgiven, non-forgiver is rebuked and rejected in the parable for not showing the same forgiveness he had received. Paul is asking for something similar here. If I can serve you to your benefit, Philemon, then you can serve others. If Jesus or I can empty myself for others, so can you.

6. The final point is that at the core of this request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not by appeal to status, but with an eye to service. If Philemon does what Paul asks, then Paul will be refreshed. If Philemon does more than what Paul asks, then Paul will be served in a way that allows Philemon to participate both in Paul’s ministry and in Onesimus’s service. When we lead out of a concern for building relationship and character, when we are willing to see potential and create space for growth and change in another, and when we are willing to sacrifice in the process, we are serving in our leadership, following not only the model of Paul’s request to Philemon but the example of the Lord. That is faith at work, at work in exemplary and sacrificial service that builds relationships and character. Not only does the leader grow, but so do those he or she leads as he or she models how faith works.

Further Applications for Leadership

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Two applications remain. The first is how Philemon’s rights are (not) handled. Paul does address the injustice by expressing a willingness to make up any debt Philemon incurs. However, in the end, it is interesting how little time is spent with this issue. In many contexts today, this would be the issue to address. The fact Paul spends so little time with this and leads Philemon not to go in this direction is revealing about how recast relationships also shift what becomes important to consider and address.

The second application comes from what we do not know about the impact of the letter. A key element of leadership is being able to learn and deal with confrontation like that Paul just undertook with Philemon. We actually do not know what Philemon did with what Paul said to him. Did he listen and apply the advice or not? We do not know. However, what Paul’s approach shows is that leaders need to be able to learn. What this Scripture urges us to consider is that rank and power are not the key lenses through which to view relationships, even in social contexts where we might have rank. We are especially to consider the relational dynamics that we gain from God and from the example of Jesus when it comes to thinking about the relational dilemmas we often face. This can reconfigure how culture might teach us to react to such events. It gives us other lenses that might be more powerful in helping us grow and in helping others to grow as well. Leaders who truly lead also guide others into being better, not only in the tasks they perform but also in how they do it. When relating is central to how leaders lead, leaders learn and also produce growth both in themselves and in others. That in the end is what Paul calls real fellowship, real relating.