Two unmarried sisters refused to talk to each other. They drew a chalk line on the floor between their beds, and each resolved not to invade the other’s domain. Cupboards, the refrigerator, the stove burners, the kitchen tableÑeach sister had her own “territory.” They lived that way in silence for years, refusing to be reconciled.
How do you get two people like that to talk, to overlook their differences, to resolve their conflicts? Many husbands and wives are locked in a war of silence, spurning each other because of hurtful words or inappropriate actions. Some people hate going to work because of a mean-spirited boss or a cantankerous coworker. Even some Christians spurn each other at church because of a difference of opinion on music or ministry.
How do you bring together two people who are at odds? How do you help an offended person and the offender resolve their conflict? How can you help them put down their weapons and agree to work together?
The Epistle to Philemon, a short, little-known New Testament book, tells us how the apostle Paul brought about reconciliation between a slave owner and the owner’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Called “the most compelling letter of reconciliation in ancient history,” this epistle is a masterpiece of Christian tact.
Running away from Philemon in Colosse, Onesimus traveled to Rome, about a thousand miles away. Somehow he met Paul, who led him to the Lord. Then Paul sent him back to Philemon with a letter urging the slave owner to take back his slave.
Imagine Philemon’s emotions when he saw Onesimus at his door. Philemon was a believer; he even opened his home to a congregation for Sunday worship. But having been offended by the slave’s crime, Philemon may have been smoldering with anger ever since the slave left. Philemon could have been thinking, “If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll wring his neck.” Or, “If he ever shows up, I’ll make him pay back everything he stole, and then some.” Or Philemon could have said, “He’s a criminal. I’ll turn him over to the authorities to execute him.” Or on a milder note, “What a surprise, Onesimus. I’ve been hoping you would return. We have been shorthanded ever since you left.”
Think of Onesimus. Here Paul was sending him back to face the very person he had offended. Filled with apprehension, he may have reflected, “Philemon will probably punish me severely or maybe even have me put to death. How can I possibly face him after I ran away? And yet Paul insisted that I go back.”
To be sure that the slave returned, Paul sent with him a fellow worker, Tychicus. As they arrived, Tychicus handed Philemon Paul’s letter. Did Paul order Philemon to take back his slave? Did Paul use his authority as an apostle to demand that the two be reconciled? No. Instead Paul was diplomatic, using a number of tactics that eased the tense situation and helped restore rapport.
First, Paul commended Philemon; he didn’t clobber him. The apostle wrote of his friend’s “faith in the Lord Jesus,” his “love for all the saints” (Philem. 5), and his having “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (v. 7). And he added, “I appeal to you on the basis of love” (v. 9). With such a verbal pat on the back, how could Philemon refuse Paul’s request?
Second, Paul built up Onesimus; he didn’t blast him. Onesimus was now a believer in Jesus Christ and thus a spiritual “son” of Paul (v. 10) and a “dear brother” (v. 16). That meant that he and PhilemonÑslave and slave ownerÑwere now equal spiritually. Onesimus was now a “brother” of Paul, and he was also a “brother in the Lord” (v. 16) to Philemon. Surely then the two could be rejoined now that they were both in the family of God. Also Paul wrote that Onesimus, a changed man, would now be “useful” to Philemon (v. 11). The slave, whose name means “useful,” would now be living up to his name. What a clever play on words.
Third, Paul called on Philemon to decide; he didn’t coerce him. Gently the apostle wrote that he “did not want to do anything without [Philemon’s] consent.” He wanted his friend’s response to be “spontaneous and not forced” (v. 14). Reconciliation between two people can’t be forced. But it can be encouraged and prompted.
Fourth, Paul expressed confidence in Philemon; he didn’t doubt the slave owner’s positive response. By being optimistic Paul knew that the slave owner would act favorably and would “do even more” than Paul asked (v. 21). Confidence goes a long way toward encouraging others to take the right steps.
Fifth, Paul appealed to his own relationship with Philemon; he didn’t look down on him. Philemon, he said, was his “dear friend and fellow worker” (v. 1), his “partner” (v. 17), and his spiritual “brother” (v. 20). How could Philemon not fulfill Paul’s proposal?
Sixth, Paul used shrewd reasoning, not gruff arguments. He reminded Philemon that the apostle was “an old man” (v. 9) and a prisoner in chains (vv. 1, 9Ð10, 13). And anticipating his release, Paul asked Philemon to prepare a guest room for him (v. 22). How then could Philemon possibly reject Onesimus? When Paul arrived in Philemon’s home in Colosse, he would readily know whether Philemon had complied with his appeal. And by receiving the slave who was now a Christian, Philemon would be refreshing Paul’s heart (v. 20). Since the slave owner had already refreshed the hearts of other believers (v. 7), how could he not refresh Paul’s heart? Bringing together two people who are at odds calls for careful persuasion, not harsh disputes.
Seventh, Paul appealed to the power of the Spirit-filled life, not to sinful practices. The Colossian church met in Philemon’s home (v. 2), so that Philemon would have been struck by reading these words in the Epistle to the Colossians: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Imagine this wonderful reunion of a slave owner embracing his slave, a Christian leader accepting a lower-social-class worker who was now his equal in Christ.
Paul’s tactful strategy shows how believers today can help people in emotional tugs-of-war to unleash their strangleholds on each other. As Paul wrote, Philemon’s welcome should be the same as if he were reuniting with the apostle himself.
Want to help bring about reconciliation between a squabbling husband and wife, a disputing boss and worker, or two locked-in-conflict Christian workers? Then follow Paul’s superb example of spiritual diplomacy. Don’t clobber, coerce, doubt, or belittle. Instead commend, encourage, express confidence, and challenge with Christlike standards.
Roy B. Zuck (ThM, 1957; ThD, 1961) is senior professor emeritus of Bible Exposition and editor of Bibliotheca Sacra at Dallas Seminary.