This whole article is essentially a short meditation on the book of Philemon. Philemon is one of those wonderfully short books of the Bible, very easy to read, and only a single chapter long. But it also, I think, contains some very deep wisdom that can be applied to you as a leader. So take about 10 minutes and read Philemon. I won’t post it here—it’s too long to throw in front of an article.
Paul does something very interesting in Philemon, and something I think is key in Christianity, particularly in Christian leadership.
Paul is in a very unique situation. He has under his leadership as an apostle a disciple named Onesimus. Onesimus was an escaped slave. The person he escaped from was one Philemon, who was a Christian whom Paul seems to have either known or known of already.
So Paul is in a position of authority as an apostle with both of these men. As he says in verse eight, he could simply command Philemon to free Onesimus, and then be able to enjoy Onesimus’ service as part of Paul’s ministry team. But he doesn’t. He instead sends Onesimus back to Philemon.
Now some modern readers would get in an uproar that Paul didn’t decry slavery as evil and rebuke Philemon for owning slaves. Non-Christians, in particular, love to throw out that accusation at Christians for passages like these. But we have to bear a few things in mind, chiefly that Paul lived in a society where slavery was legal (and could potentially have gotten in legal trouble for harboring an escaped slave), and that Paul seldom tells people to overthrow the laws they live under. Neither Paul nor Jesus were the political revolutionaries some people like to imagine them to be: they didn’t tell people to throw off the yoke of the Romans and be free, and Jesus didn’t write the U.S. Constitution, nor the Communist Manifesto.
So Paul, with his spiritual authority, could have told Philemon, “How dare you enslave a fellow human being? Release him right now!” And we could argue that this would be very loving for Onesimus—freeing him from his bondage. But what about Philemon? That’s not loving at all to Philemon.
Some would argue that Philemon, by owning another person, was violating the Greatest Commandment in the first place, and used that as justification for not loving him. Which is interesting on two fronts: “love your neighbor” is the second-greatest commandment, not the Greatest Commandment (that’s “love God”), and the same person who taught these two commandments also commanded us to love our enemies—which includes those who aren’t loving, doesn’t it?
So instead of exercising his authority, Paul sends Onesimus back to his owner. But he doesn’t leave it at that. Paul also points out that they have an inviolable relationship:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Onesimus and Philemon are brothers. They are not merely slave and owner; they are family. Family with each other, and with Paul. He even goes so far as to say:
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
This is powerful Christian leadership: Paul refuses to exercise his authority, but instead teaches those under his authority to love one another. And he takes on, for both their sakes, anything that might be a point of contention between them.
Paul valued restoration over exercising his authority.
You have to value the people you lead more than you value your leadership.
A leader who values their leadership more than their people frequently says, “I’m the leader, so we’re doing this.” A leader who values their people more than their leadership knows to do that only when it’s actually necessary, and they look for ways to avoid doing that.
When you say, “I’m the leader, so we’re doing this,” you are cashing in on your relationship with the people following you. And if they don’t trust you—if they don’t feel like you value them more than you value bossing them around—they won’t go along with it.
But if you value them, if you value their relationship, then you draw on it as little as possible. You want to continue to grow that relationship more and more, and that doesn’t happen as well when you draw out from that relationship.
It’s something you have to do sometimes. But if you value the person, you only do it if you really have to.
How much better is it to grow the other person rather than to draw on some of their trust?
So as the semester draws to a close, look for the opportunities to grow the other person rather than commanding them. How can you guide them rather than steer them? If there’s conflict, what is the underlying need that’s driving that conflict? What does this person actually need?
What is best for them?