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
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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