The big stick or the gentle word? How do we influence people to do what is right? There is, of course, a time and place for both. But as the apostle Paul addresses a delicate pastoral problem, we see his preferred method of influence.
In Philemon 1:8-16, Paul spells out the issue: Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away but, by God’s sovereign will, had met Paul and been converted. He has been of tremendous personal help to Paul, and it is clear that Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, but he cannot. It would be illegal to keep someone else’s slave and a serious breach of fellowship with his dear brother, Philemon. Thus he sends him home. Can you image the impact when the newly converted Onesimus first turned up at the church in Philemon’s home?
Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus back, but as much more than a slave. He is now a brother in Christ, equal in standing before their Master in heaven. Look at how Paul tackles this problem. He does not throw his apostolic weight around. Rather, he exhorts and appeals. This is a principle by which he consistently conducts his relationships with the churches and his fellow workers. Paul wants voluntary decisions (v. 14). He wants people to be persuaded by his arguments, which are rooted in the gospel. And the gospel spells freedom. Paul wants to help people to discover their Christian freedom; not bind them with more rules.
Finally, because people know the gospel and have the indwelling Spirit, Paul is convinced they will know “every good thing” (Philemon 1:6) they should do and have the desire to do it (Philemon 1:21).
In the church there is always the temptation to be authoritarian and heavy handed. That is not Paul’s way, unless it is a matter of spiritual life and death. A runaway slave will not be an issue we come up against, but whatever problems we do face in the church, we can find resolutions as we examine them in the light of the gospel.
The gospel transforms relationships. Think about your own personal relationships and the relationships in your church. How have you seen the gospel make an impact there? Where is there room for more growth?
When is it appropriate to give commands and use “the big stick”, and when should we bring a gentler word of exhortation?
How can open, honest sharing be abused in a church? How can we be wise in what we share publicly in the gathering of Christians?