How do we reconcile with fellow Christians? In my thirteen years of pastoral ministry, I have found that much of my calling deals with helping those who have been injured by other people—especially other people in the church.
We live in a messy world filled with messy relationships. The church exists in that world, so it isn’t immune to messy relationships. The letter of Philemon is example A. The circumstances of this letter are just messy. Paul is a prisoner, writing a letter to Philemon—a slave master—about Philemon’s thieving and runaway slave, Onesimus. And they are all Christians. Talk about a mess. The church is messy, and it doesn’t get much messier than a slave and his owner in the same church. I tend to think this letter of Philemon resides in our Bibles because it offers one of the most complex, messy relationships the church could ever experience and provides a beautiful picture of how to seek reconciliation in the midst of such relationships. The Apostle Paul approaches reconciliation between these two brothers masterfully.
Paul practices patience. He takes time before asking anything of Philemon. He lays a foundation. He is 145 words into this 335-word letter before he even mentions Onesimus. And Onesimus is the sole reason he is writing this letter. Notice the foundation he lays: he informs Philemon of his own love for Christ (vv. 1, 4, 6, 9) and then his love for Philemon (vv. 4, 5, 7). Let others know your love for Christ and your love for them first. The appeal or correction that flows from that stream will be less obstructed.
Paul doesn’t demand and doesn’t attempt to control Philemon. He appeals to him (vv. 8–10). You can never force someone to reconcile. You can’t demand it. Paul says in verse 8, “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.” He knows that love must be manifest for true reconciliation, but love can’t be compelled. It can’t be forced. He does the same thing in Philippians 4 when he addresses Euodia and Syntyche, two women in conflict in the church at Philippi. He says, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord” (v. 2). He appeals to them individually.
Paul reminds Philemon of the gospel. How does Paul appeal to Philemon? Paul reminds Philemon multiple times that he is a child of God, a brother in the Lord, and a recipient of grace (Philem. 5, 7, 11, 16). Reconciliation in the body of Christ flows from the reconciling Savior. Philemon has received abundant love, forgiveness, and grace in Christ, and this matters for his relationship with Onesimus. Again, in verse 8, Paul says, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required.” Remember the gospel, Philemon. It frees us, but it also binds us.
Paul remembers Philemon’s point of view. Notice that Paul considers Philemon’s state of mind. There is empathy here. The patience Paul exercises is out of care for Philemon. Most likely this was the first that Philemon had heard of Onesimus after he stole from him and ran away. If Paul had immediately appealed to Philemon regarding Onesimus, Philemon would have recoiled. But Paul understands people. He takes Philemon’s feelings and concerns in mind. He remembers the other person. Often, it will change our approach to a situation when we consider how the other individual may view it.
Paul reminds Philemon that Christians are family. Christian reconciliation is always reconciliation between family members. Who is Philemon receiving? Not simply Onesimus, his slave, but now Onesimus, his brother in Christ. Paul makes this clear in verse 10: “I appeal to you for my child.” In effect, Paul is arguing, “You are brothers. This must affect your relationship and determine your approach to him, Philemon. Despite all your differences, all your pains, and all the betrayal. Nevertheless, you are now united as family.”
Paul gives Philemon an eternal perspective. During conflict, it helps to consider it in light of eternity. Paul reminds Philemon that at one time Onesimus was his slave in the flesh, but now he is a beloved brother “in the Lord” (v. 16). This is eternal. Here is a relationship that is greater, deeper, fuller, and will never end. How many of our disagreements, misunderstandings, feelings of bitterness, and lack of forgiveness in the body of Christ would disappear if we looked at our conflict in light of eternity?