“Accordingly, though 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—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Philemon 1:8-10 esv
This is a big deal for Paul to say that he’s not going to be bold. Paul was probably the boldest apostle, even more frank than Peter. Paul was known for his sharp attacks on the Corinthian Church and anyone who would suggest that the Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be a Christian. But on the issue of slavery, he makes an appeal rather than an imperative.
Paul wrote this letter and sent it by way of Onesimus in order to encourage a fellow brother in Christ. He writes as one understanding the circumstances and he broaches the subject quite delicately. He begins by complementing Philemon for his faith and commitment to the gospel and he encourages him to be thoughtful of his actions, that they would be worthy of the gospel. Then he makes this request, that Philemon forgive and free Onesimus.
In our culture, slavery in the Church would be a moral imperative that would demand bold speech. So it’s important to note that their culture was quite different.
If this issue was not a moral imperative in Paul’s day, what was? Paul’s boldest position was the one he consistently and firmly took on circumcision. Circumcision was such an integral part of the Jewish community that when many of them converted over to Christianity, they brought with them the traditions of their past which had spiritual significants. The problem with this was that the church began demanding the old traditions as a requirement with Gentile believes. Paul considered this teaching a heresy and was even so bold as to call those Jewish teachers who promoted it dogs, a reference Jews used for uncircumcised Gentiles. So, it can be said, that boldness is warranted when the purity of the gospel is under attack from false teaching.
Paul speaks quite boldly to the Corinthian Church for the foolish behaviors they were participating in. Even though these areas were not necessarily sin, the Church at Corinth should have known better than to emulate pagan practices. So, it is clear that when blatant disregard to culture is rampant and foolishness jeopardizes the purity of the gospel, boldness is in order.
So what makes this letter different? It appears that Philemon was a genuine believer with a sincere desire to honor God. Paul is not writing to someone who is preaching heresy or living foolishly. Paul is writing to a solid leader in the Church. As a result, Paul writes an appeal for Philemon to recognize what Paul has recognized.
I have taken notice of the way many Christians interact with each other in our communities. Christians don’t need a solid reason to speak harshly toward each other. If someone writes a poem that they don’t particularly like, they feel the need to rip it to shreds. Many of the fights that take place across Churches and denominations are based purely on prejudice rather than heresy or foolishness. Beyond that, anyone with a Facebook or Twitter page becomes an outspoken Pauline Apostle, exercising criticism over people, Churches, and ministries they have little to no knowledge of. I’m not exempt either. I have been as much a part of the problem as the average critic, and while I believe that anything done publicly should be able to withstand critique, the language and behavior of many Christians does not reflect the humility of Christ or the purposeful boldness of Paul.
There seems to be an overabundance of Christian kill-joys in our Churches today which are holding back the progress of the Church from moving forward. If we are going to develop unity and peace, it is going to require that we start confronting the pharisaically proud, who seem to be doing all of the confronting. But that will require boldness for the meek, to confront the harshness of the bold.