Self-Righteousness & Seismic Changes
Updated: Aug 24, 2019
Chan Gin Kai
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. (Philemon 17-22)
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a master class on the art of persuasion. He had first appealed to Philemon “on the basis of love” (Philemon 9). Then he reasoned with Philemon, helping him to understand God's better plan in turning a runaway slave into “a dear brother” (Philemon 16). He then used a third approach, pushing Philemon emotionally through the above verses.
Paul pressed really hard: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him”, that left Philemon with little choice. Paul added that he would be willing to compensate Philemon for whatever Onesimus owed him, but reminded Philemon that he owed his salvation to Paul. He then mentioned that he wrote the letter himself (he had an assistant for other letters), emphasising the importance of this letter. Paul continued to pile on more pressure by saying, “Confident of your obedience... knowing that you will do even more than I ask”. And he added the ‘killer blow’ by saying he planned to personally visit Philemon.
Some scholars wrote that Paul was emotionally manipulative. I agree that he did push Philemon very hard on an emotional level, but he did so sincerely, not manipulatively. He used a few different persuasive approaches because accepting Onesimus would have required a seismic paradigm shift for Philemon. They lived in a world where the law supported slavery. That’s how their economy worked, that’s how their society functioned. People didn’t feel or think it was wrong. Paul needed to help Philemon change that deeply ingrained mindset.
It’s not as though Philemon was a bad guy. He was the leader of a house church and Paul was full of praises for him. He was in fact well known for his love (Philemon 5 & 7). But even really devoted disciples and loving leaders can have some mistaken mindsets that are too deeply ingrained. Why is that so?
We grow up in a world with systems. Countries, economies and societies have written rules and unwritten standard practices that permeate through the way we live. They influence how we define righteousness and what’s regarded as socially acceptable behaviour. The problem is, what the world regards as morally right changes over time.
Slavery powered the world back in the times of Philemon. In USA, slavery was only legally abolished in 1865 and women were only allowed to vote in 1920. In Singapore, women finally received legal protection from marital rape in 2019. We are revolted by slavery. We are outraged that women didn’t have the right to vote. We are appalled it took so long to get wives protected from sexually abusive husbands. We have very justifiable reasons for feeling so strongly about these wrongs. But before we get self-righteous about what was done wrong by people in the past, be forewarned that future generations will be upset with some of the things we now accept as right too.
Just a decade ago, only a minority understood the dangers of fossil fuel. The majority has woken up to the problems of climate change now. The new generation may self-righteously blame us for ruining Earth. And the generation after them will self-righteously judge them for something else.
While I learnt about global warming three decades ago, I only learnt about the dangers of single-use plastic three years ago. What new things will I learn tomorrow about human rights or environmental degradation or societal norms that will cause me to regret my actions today?
Each generation knows more than the last, and is wiser too (hopefully). It’ll be self-righteous to judge the previous generation for what they didn’t know or never even thought of. It will require a lot of persuasion to make a paradigm shift.
Background Influences & Personal Perceptions
Cultural backgrounds play a part in our definitions of sin. As Christians, we would all agree that lewd dressing is wrong because the Bible says so. But how do you define lewd dressing? What is considered lewd varies in different cultures and countries. We all agree that it is wrong to be rude, but what is considered polite in some countries is regarded rude in others.
Our past religious backgrounds play a role in our definitions of sin too. The early church had some internal conflicts because of different definitions of what’s obedience to God. The Judaizing Christians believed that the Gentile Christians were required to obey Moses’ law on circumcision. In Acts 15, the Apostles and church elders held a council to discuss the issue so that a correct conclusion could be taught to all the churches.
How our parents brought us up and our personal experiences also influence our definitions of sin. So while we all agree that we shouldn’t sin, we often have different definitions of what sin is. While we often think the grass is greener on the other side, we also often feel we are more righteous on our side. That’s self-righteousness.
We want to follow God and help others follow God too. The danger is when we self-righteously impose our definitions of sins on others. We may have had leaders who have done this to us, and we may have done the same to others as well. We end up hurting each other even though we have the best intentions in mind.
Philemon was an exemplary Christian in so many different ways, but he needed a seismic change in his mindset on slavery. Like him, we go by our law, follow our social norms and work with our limited knowledge and life experiences. We don’t know about the wrongs we’ve done until we finally learn about it.
Paul didn’t approach Philemon in a self-righteous way. Instead, he understood the reasons why even the most devoted disciples could go wrong. And he used all the skills he could muster to help Philemon change.
As disciples, let’s not be quick to judge others. As leaders, we must not shy away from helping people make seismic changes in their mindset, but let’s not approach it in a self-righteous way.
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".