I will joke at work that no one calls me just to say that things are going well. When someone calls and admits that they have a question or request for me, it’s OK, though. After all, they needed help, and it’s (usually) my role to help them out.
In the book of Philemon, the namesake recipient gets a special letter from Paul. In it is an implied request for Philemon to do something. However, once Paul makes the need known, he gives Philemon the courtesy of not making it a command:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—
Philemon 1:8-9 NIV
In the church, when we have a friend – a fellow believer – who is so close to us that they are permitted to hold us accountable, they have the right to remind us about our obligations to Jesus Christ: not just our taking on Jesus’ name and professing our faith in Him, but also living in a way that honors and shows love for Him. And, we should be willing to challenge others to remain faithful and to do the right thing, especially when we see them getting off-track (and when they seem to be unintentionally blind to it).
As we can read above (and later in this letter), Paul has more than enough authority to insist on Philemon’s compliance, but Paul makes it a personal request, instead. This is humility on Paul’s part: keeping one’s strength, power, and authority under control, out of love for others.
Note that Paul also mentions the fact that he has become an old man. When we were younger, we may have wanted to exercise our authority (even when we didn’t have much), and we might have gotten fired up about having all of our rights. With age and maturity, though, comes the wisdom to realize that the world is sometimes better off when we yield some of our rights for the good of others (see also Matthew 5:38-42).
Now, I think that there is a difference between blind trust and accountability. Some people (both those that deserve it, and those that don’t) want us to “just trust them”. At times, this is necessary when there isn’t time to share the details (or they are confidential), but other times, this claim is merely used to cover up dishonest behavior.
In a different way, if we really care about fellow Christians, just “trusting” each other to live up to Jesus’ example isn’t enough. Yes, we can often trust fellow believers, especially those that have demonstrated enough maturity. We can share our secret struggles, for instance, or entrust them with appropriate distribution of our money given to a church. We can have confidence that they will keep their word.
However, if we just leave our fellow believers to their own walk with Jesus, we are doing them a disservice. If we merely “trust” everyone else in the church to have a faithful walk with Jesus, and to do the right things, we bypass the blessings that are present in accountability. If a believer isn’t regularly checking in with someone (or a few others) who can ask the hard questions and provide counsel and encouragement to keep on the narrow path of the faith, there’s a missed opportunity. Like Paul did for Philemon, others can point out opportunities for us to demonstrate our faith, as well as places where we can increase our faith by acting upon it. Those who have allowed others to hold them accountable can attest to how this reinforces good Christian disciplines, as well.
We don’t know for sure what happened between Onesimus and Philemon historically, but I think that we would like to hope for the best: that Paul’s optimism and confidence in Philemon’s faith was justified. Still, in this simple letter, we learn what it means to ask others to do the right thing, for us to serve others (whether through accountability or offering them chances to do the right thing), and for us to live out our faith.
And, we can love others enough to give them the chance to make the right choice, rather than forcing them to do so. But, we should still ask fellow Christians to do the right thing, whether they need a reminder of how to live as Jesus did, or they just need to have an opportunity pointed out for them.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for (and delivered on) November 29, 2020.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.