Philemon. It’s one of the shortest books in the Bible, a brief epistle that makes up what it lacks in word count with a dynamic message on forgiveness, fellowship, and unity in the church. Since it was first penned by the apostle Paul, this powerful little letter has continued to impact the lives of individual believers and deepen the fellowship of local congregations around the world.
In today’s post, I’d invite you to consider the epistle to Philemon, and the example it sets for pastors. As shepherds of God’s flock, we must all be committed to teaching, modeling, and encouraging forgiveness and reconciliation.
A careful review of how Paul handled the conflict between Philemon and Onesimus highlights practical steps you can take to help shepherd those in your care, as they deal with conflict and pursue reconciliation.
Be gentle with all parties involved.
Notice, first of all, Paul’s gentle words to Philemon. He does not wield his apostolic authority with a heavy hand, forcing Philemon to forgive. Instead he appeals to Philemon humbly, as a brother (Philem 7–9). Paul is also very gentle in his treatment of Onesimus, referring to him as his child and his own heart (Philem 10, 12), and encouraging Philemon to see his new identity as a Christian. Paul is clearly gracious and gentle in his handling of both men, and their position in the conflict.
In this, Paul sets a clear model for ministry leaders to follow. If we are to shepherd our people toward reconciliation, we must guide them with a gentle hand. This graciousness should be displayed generously and equally. In doing so, you will set the example for the parties on both sides of the conflict. By focusing on gently interacting with those you are shepherding, you will model the kind of gentle manner they should use with one another.
Focus on the big picture.
Notice that Paul doesn’t use this letter to Philemon to get into the minute details of Onesimus’ sin. He does not mention how much it cost Philemon, the time-frame between Onesimus’ flight and his return, or the particular civil laws in play. In fact, the genesis of the conflict isn’t detailed with any specificity. Instead Paul focuses on the big picture.
He serves as witness to Onesimus’ new identity in Christ and his capability as a minister (Philem 11–13, 16). He encourages Philemon to consider the possibility that even Onesimus’ betrayal could ultimately have been for Philemon’s good (v. 15). There’s no effort on Paul’s part to take sides, to reignite hurt feelings, or to fan flames of bitterness. Instead, he encourages Philemon to consider how this situation could be used for the glory of God and the good of the church.
Again, as pastors and shepherd, we would do well to follow Paul’s example here. When you’re shepherding people toward reconciliation, avoid getting lost in the minutiae. Be careful not to perpetuate the conflict unnecessarily. Instead, encourage both parties to see the possibility for God to use their reconciliation for His glory and the good of the church. Encourage all parties involved to view each other not as antagonists, but as children of God and useful servants for the kingdom. Keep you focus on the big picture, thereby helping your people to do the same.
Help them to see Christ’s work.
As already mentioned, Paul speaks emphatically to Philemon about Onesimus’ new identity and worth in Christ (Philem 11–13, 16). Paul also gently reminds Philemon about the abundant grace he, himself, has been shown and the work Christ has done in his own life (Philem 4–6, 19). The apostle points out how Christ is using both Philemon and Onesimus to minister to other believers, as well as how Christ could use Onesimus in Philemon’s life. This reminder about the Lord’s work must surely have encouraged Philemon, as he sought to forgive Onesimus’ transgression and its earthly cost.
Here again, Paul sets a powerful example for shepherds of every age. Our counsel must point to the work of Christ. We ought to show those on both sides of the conflict to remember the grace of God—the grace that He has shown them and the grace He expects them to show one another. When shepherding people to forgiveness and reconciliation, we have no more powerful tool than to show people how they have been forgiven and reconciled to God through Christ.
Be willing to sacrifice.
In encouraging Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him into fellowship, Paul willingly put his own well-being at risk. He openly and emphatically volunteered to take on Onesimus’ debt (Philem 18–19). Paul did not stand aloof, offering a generic recommendation. He did not speak in warm, fuzzy platitudes. Instead, he displayed a clear willingness to make personal sacrifices for the purpose of seeing reconciliation take place between his fellow believers.
My friend, if we are to shepherd people toward genuine forgiveness and reconciliation, we must be willing to get down in the trenches and sacrifice in that pursuit. We must be ready to put ourselves on the line for the good of the people God has entrusted to us—being willing to weep those who weep. We must be willing to give of ourselves (time, effort, treasure) and sacrifice, in order to shepherd people toward reconciliation.
It’s been said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine" (cf. Eph. 4:32). As we shepherd the flock of God that has been entrusted to us, may we learn from Paul’s example and graciously, diligently shepherd people toward reconciliation with one another.