“And I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” Philemon 6 esv
What does it take to ruin your testimony? In this short epistle the Apostle Paul writes to Philemon concerning his friend and young convert Onesimus, who was Philemon’s slave. After his general salutations, Paul makes an interesting appeal to Philemon’s character of faith and love. Paul then makes a profound comment that he is praying Philemon’s witness in the midst of this circumstance.
Onesimus was a slave of Philemon’s who had run away, possibly having stolen from his master as well. Somehow, Onesimus reached Rome and met Paul, who was imprisoned there. Onesimus eventually came to the faith and became close to Paul and his companions. After hearing Onesimus’ story, Paul sends him back to Philemon to make amends along with this letter.
Paul’s comment that he is praying for Philemon’s effectiveness in witnessing is closely associated with the situation that is taking place. Paul is subtly suggesting that Philemon’s reaction to Onesimus will have an impact on his testimony in the community.
Notice that the issue was not that Onesimus owned slaves, that was a common practice in their time and culture and needs to be understood in that context (Read Here). The issue was about forgiveness. It would have been within Philemon’s rights to have Onesimus executed or imprisoned. Considering he owned slaves, it is possible that he was an affluent citizen in society and other wealthy slave owners would have been watching Philemon very closely to see what he would do. They may have even been hoping for an execution to set the example for their own slaves. But what Paul was asking Philemon to do was something quite out of the ordinary and contrary to culture.
What We Can Learn From This
Just doing something contrary to culture does not impressed the world. Not owning slaves in a slave holding society would not have impressed any of the unbelievers in their community. But forgiving a slave and welcoming him as a brother spoke volumes.
It’s interesting what Christians will give up in the pursuit of being distinct from the world. Some go so far as to distance themselves from the very people they were commissioned to reach. We have effectively created two distinct societies which have little to no influence over each other. This is not effective for the sake of the gospel. Faith must come with love, and love requires action.
Jesus said that the world would know we are His disciples if we had love for one another. Frankly, the disunity among believers who claim to love God is the biggest detriment to the gospel. Yet, if we could turn it around and love one anther despite our differences, we would truly represent an effective witness for the gospel.
Our holier than thou persona which proceeds us hinders us from being effective witnesses today. Because we feel the need to distance ourselves from values and practices we do not support, we have marred the very essence of the Gospel. We must remember that we were all equally as guilty as the most vile sinner before Christ saved us by coming into our world. If we will not go into the world of the most vile, we fool ourselves by thinking we are following after Christ.