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.