The average Christian in our culture is inundated with choices to make when dealing with those things we perceive to be evil. Various groups suggest boycotting practically every major producer of goods in America and beyond because they sponsor television programs which don’t exactly portray the Christian life.
In addition, there is a boycott of K-Mart, which owns Waldenbooks, which in turn sells pornography. And don’t forget about Holiday Inns, which sometimes offers access to raunchy television movies in the privacy of your motel room. Throw a little ‘greenpeace’ theology into the spectrum and the options for boycotting producers and companies become the stuff legends are made of.
Being the great patriots that evangelicals like us tend to be, often our answer — beyond our boycotts — is to write congressional representatives and senators, our state governmental authorities, even local city councils and country commissions. Political decisions, from the size of the budget deficit to federal funding of a local health clinic, are posed in terms of “the Christian way to think is …”
It is difficult to see where such approaches are making much progress in our fight against evil. Abortions are running at increasingly high rates; television appears to get worse by the season; and pornography, prostitution, pollution, and the like are rampant in our major population centers. When we consider the millions of dollars invested by groups like the American Family Association, Clear-TV, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, we must wonder why things aren’t at least a little better.
The rate of decline in the morals of our culture may have been bridled to some extent, but no voice of integrity is saying that things are getting better. Should Christians be satisfied with just a slowing down in the decline — especially since the Christian faith proclaims a radical and God-empowered possibility of change?
In the canon of the New Testament, readers will find a brief personal note from Paul, the great apostle of change, to a relatively unknown man named Philemon 1. A casual reading of this brief letter often causes us to wonder exactly why God, in His providence, included this New Testament letter in the first place.
Upon more careful examination, however, it might well be discerned that this little letter demonstrates a radically different and radically superior approach to dealing in life-changing ways with the ills of society.
Philemon 1 evidently was a rather well-to-do member of the church which met at Colossae. Some commentators have speculated that the church may have met in Philemon’s home. Additionally, Philemon is a slave owner — not exactly the kind of information we expect to find on the resume of an outstanding church leader. Paul had never visited this church, but appears to know several individuals there and even writes to them from his imprisonment in Rome.
Another character in this brief glimpse of first-century Christianity was a slave named Onesimus, whose owner was Philemon. For unknown reasons, Onesimus ran away from his owner and somehow made it to Rome. Maybe he thought he could hide in the Roman masses and not be caught; a captured run-away slave’s future was always bleak, often ending in death. Somehow, Onesimus came into contact with Paul in a Roman prison where Paul awaited his trial before the Emperor. Onesimus becomes a Christian and, as Paul will later describe him, he became “indeed useful both to you and to me” (NRSV, Philemon 1:11).
The status of Onesimus as a run-away slave, however, was a troubling issue for Paul. It surely wasn’t that he condoned slavery; he wanted to bring this issue to some reasonable resolution within the confines of his faith in God’s redeeming and life-changing power and within the cultural context in which he lived.
Had Paul taken the approach that seems to be so attractive to much of evangelical Christianity today, he likely would have organized a group to form a picket line around the home of Philemon in Colossae. Then he would have found some sanctuary location in which Onesimus could be safely hidden. Then, after a boycott of every business that Philemon was involved in, the problem would have been solved.
But there isn’t the slightest hint that such an approach ever entered Paul’s mind. Rather, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of the gospel. It must be admitted, of course, that the unfree culture in which Paul lived might well have sent military force to end any protest even as it started. Even so, it should be noted that Paul does not use his apostolic authority to command Philemon to free Onesimus; he makes his appeal on the basis of the gospel, not force.
“I am sending him back” (NRSV, Philemon 1:12). This statement strikes most readers of this epistle as incredible. How could Paul have possibly consented to sending this run-away slave back to his owner, knowing that death could well be the penalty? It is unlikely that any of his social equals would have criticized Philemon for doing just that — many would have encouraged him in this regard, thinking that it would have made their slaves more aware of the severe penalty for running away.
In so many ways, this issue with Onesimus is a life and death issue, more than simply a matter of social inconvenience. Much of the ancient world lived under the destructive system of slavery, wherein men and women’s rights to freedom were randomly taken away for the benefit of those in power. Innocent lives were at stake. What can we learn from Onesimus’ life? Is the modern church willing to adopt Paul’s approach?
Paul did not begin his attempts to solve this problem by telling Philemon that he would write every member of the Roman Senate and the Emperor, nor by seeking to organize a form-letter campaign to outlaw slavery. Rather, he begins by approaching the heart of the man whose life needed to be changed.
Paul reminds Philemon that he could have used his authority so that Onesimus would become a free man (Philemon 1:8). He seems to have expected that Philemon would have respected his judgment and would have given Onesimus his freedom. Victories won by brute force and raw power, however, aren’t always that great.
So Paul appeals on the basis of love (Philemon 1:9). How can we continue to miss this lesson, that the real way to change incorrect behavior is not by the exercise of political or religious power but on the basis of the appeal of love? Paul wants Onesimus freed not because he could command Philemon to do so but because Philemon should want to do so on the basis of his love for Christ and the people of Christ. In Paul’s own words, he wants this good deed to “be voluntary and not something forced” {Philemon 1:14).
The “secret ingredient” that makes Paul think this will work is that Onesimus is no longer just a slave, he is a brother {Philemon 1:16). The fact of evangelism — winning a lost person to the cause of Christ — has provided the one ingredient that will make it possible for this social ill to be solved in a productive and healthy manner.
It should be a matter of great alarm that the modern, evangelical approach to Christianity is so focused on the power of government and protest to solve our social ills. Besides the fact that the power approach obviously isn’t working and, at its best, merely postpones solution, it also doesn’t appear to be biblical.
According to some traditions, Onesimus became a bishop in the church at Ephesus. If that be so, then it is further testimony that Paul’s approach could be more successful than much of what we see in our culture and hear proclaimed with regularity in our pulpits.
The thing that changes people is the gospel — the incredible story of God’s love expressed in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord in glory. Even the Law that God gave in the Old Testament was powerless to make His people what He wanted them to be. Why do we think that calling our members of Congress and encouraging them to pass man-made laws will do more than the Law of God did?
In Ezra 8, there is an interesting analogy to this whole subject. The Babylonian Captivity is at an end and the children of Israel are preparing to return to Jerusalem. Ezra and the other Israelites are concerned about their safety on the journey; they fear disaster at every turn.
Ezra, however, is not about to doubt the power of the God who had delivered them. He says, “I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him” (NRSV, Ezra 8:22).
Christians make some rather serious claims about the power of God to change sinners into saints, infidels into believers, sinful men and women of old into new creatures. Yet, shouldn’t we, like Ezra, be ashamed that we so often call on the power of government and the power of protest for protection from our fears? Must we ignore the power of God and the power of the gospel to change men and women?
Paul took a great risk in sending Onesimus back to Philemon. It would be better for modern society if the modern church could recover such confidence in the power of the gospel!

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