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Authority Vs. Appeal

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

Chan Gin Kai

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. (Philemon 8-10)

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. (Philemon 14)

Slaves played an important role in ancient Roman society and economy. Besides manual labour and domestic services, slaves were employed in highly skilled jobs and professions too. For example, accountants and physicians were often slaves. In the Roman Empire, slaves made up about 30 to 40% of the population. That’s about one out of every three; that’s tens of millions of slaves across the empire. A lot of the Christians in the first century would have been slaves or would have owned slaves.

Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, and he had run away. The Roman Empire was very strict on runaway slaves and if caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for fugitivus.

But when Onesimus ran away from Colossae to Rome, he met Paul and got converted. Talk about divine intervention; Paul had converted Onesimus' master, Philemon, years before. Thus, Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, to make a plea for the runaway slave.

Paul said he could have exerted his authority as an Apostle and ordered Philemon “to do what you ought to do”, but he explained, “I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love”. The word “appeal” was used again in the next sentence, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus”.

In this plea, he let go of his position as a leader, and adopted a position of humility, “It is as none other than Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ”. Paul also expressed to Philemon, “I did not want to do anything without your consent”. He respected Philemon, and he respected Philemon’s rights under Roman law. Don’t we all love humble leaders more than those who pull rank?

Paul was certainly not a man who lacked the boldness to confront sins sternly when he needed to; he had ordered the expulsion of a Christian for gross immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). So why was he appealing to Philemon and not exerting his authority?

Firstly, how much authority does a leader have? Not that much, really. A leader can encourage and exhort, remind and reprimand; but what can the leader do if a person simply refuses to obey? Expel him? But that’s only for the worst cases like gross immorality and divisiveness (Titus 3:10). So what other measures can a leader take against a disobedient person? Suspend him from church? Fine him? The Bible does not describe these measures, nor list any other measures.

Secondly, a leader needs to consider the other person’s feelings, interests and rights. Paul asked for Philemon’s consent because Philemon was wronged, suffered an economic loss, and the law was on his side. He had the legal right to demand Onesimus’ return and to punish him as well. Of course Paul appealed through a higher law, God’s commandment to love. But he didn’t go “I’m quoting God’s law now, so OBEY!” Instead, he persuaded Philemon sensitively, acknowledging Philemon’s feelings, interests and rights.

Most importantly, a leader should help the other person to obey God because he wants to, not because he is forced to. Paul expressed that he sought Philemon’s consent “so that any favour you (Philemon) do would not seem forced but would be voluntary”. If people are forced to obey, how permanent is that obedience? It lasts only as long as they are being watched or reminded. A leader needs to help the other person get closer to God and obey God out of his love for Him. God wants us to have sincere hearts, and there’s nothing sincere about forced obedience.

As leaders, we can get impatient sometimes, and try to exert authority to get quick results. But these are not results that will last, and create more problems in the long run. Also, some of us are mistaken about the authority we have. The people we serve don't really need our permission or approval. We cannot shove spirituality down people's throat. Jesus didn't even do that, instead, he won people over with his love, and the power of God's Word.

How do you lead? Do you work more through authority or appeal?

Chan Gin Kai

Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God".

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