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Appeal do not command

Paul makes a fine point in this letter to Philemon when he says “though I am bold enough (in Christ) to command you to do your duty yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” He is appealing on the basis of a mutual love, that he has for Philemon and that Philemon has for Paul and that they both have for Jesus Christ. Onesimus is a slave who stole from his master and ran away an offence punishable by death under Roman law. Having fled he met Paul, became a Christian and now Paul wants to send Onesimus back not ot be punished or re-enslaved but to take his place as a brother in the church.

When someone is ordained they take an oath of allegiance – some of you may remember hearing Paolo say these words a few weeks ago:

“I swear by almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of St. Albans and his successors (in all things lawful and honest) : So help me God.”

Now I suppose that the bishop of St. Albans has read Paul’s letter to Philemon – in fact I think that is a pretty safe bet – but even if not he behaves as if he had. The other day he dropped me a little note to ask me to do something for him. Notice that he asked even though my oath of allegiance would allow him to command. He like Paul, however, would much rather appeal to me than to issue an instruction.

We notice too in St. Paul’s letter that as well as offering good reasons for Philemon to do as he asks – “for Onesimus will be useful to you” he also says that “he prefers to do nothing without your consent.” In this way he gives Philemon the chance to refuse.
He does send Onesimus back but with the letter so that Philemon is not bounced into action but may accept Paul’s request voluntarily. And what a difference that makes. We all know how much better it feels to help someone, even family members, or perhaps especially family members, by your own choice rather than being badgered to do it.

We are not told what happened to Onesimus immediately he arrived although there is a corroborating account of his travel in Paul’s letter to the Colossians but we can expect that Philemon received him and in other documents there is a suggestion that he became a senior church leader.

Paul and Bishop Alan base their leadership style on the example of Jesus who came as a servant: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. If you love me you will obey my commandments.” And it is that way round: We obey because we love God,, not because He has the power to command or because we anticipate a reward but because we love we want to do what is right.

And so this is the way that the church works., it does not lead by fiat or diktat but by consultation, by request by prayer and through Spirit led volunteering and service. So it was at general Synod that archbishop Justin Welby helped us to have a series of discussions and conversations to help discern how the church should respond to emerging complex issues in our society. He and the Bishops surely have the power to command but far far more importantly he and the Bishops have the humility to lead.


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