Paul offers a unique perspective on partnership in Philemon.
Philemon 1:17-20: 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. (ESV)
Do you believe that the Gospel is for everybody?
If the answer is yes, then what do you do when God chooses to bring people into our neighborhoods who are different from us in every way?
Last Sunday, my church, First Baptist Church in Metuchen participated in an outreach to the Indian community. This Sunday, we are joining him for outreach to the Pakistani community.
These two communities in our area represent two major religions of the world, Islam and Hinduism. Together, they make up 2.8 billion people in the world that don’t know Christ.
Today missionary work is restricted in India and Pakistan. But if Indians and Pakistanis come to know Jesus here, they will bring the Gospel to their respective home countries. This is true for people from all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. They are there because God intended them to be there.
Church, God is at work, and he invites us to participate in this work with him. He does not force us to help, but rather he offers us a partnership in the Gospel.
Perspective on Partnership in Philemon
In Philemon 1:17-20, Paul shows us how this Gospel partnership works, whether outside the church or inside the church.
He appeals to the Gospel partnership between Paul and Philemon to secure a pardon and enable reconciliation between Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus.
Onesimus was an outcast, Gentile, and criminal. But the Gospel challenged the cultural and religious norms of that time. The Gospel is an equalizer of all, where there is no Jew or Gentile, elite or outcast, free or slave.
Paul wants to remind Philemon of their shared partnership in this Gospel that does not differentiate.
Paul outlines three things in our text that are essential for Gospel partnership: recognition, reciprocity, and responsibility and respect.
Partnerships are based on the mutual recognition of each partner and on the recognition of the partnership by both.
Philemon 1:17: “If you consider me a partner, receive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me.” (ESV)
The word ‘partner’ here in Greek is related to koinonia, or fellowship, which we studied three weeks ago. In koinonia, all believers are partners in the Gospel. We are all parts of the body of Christ and belong to each other.
Paul and Philemon, as believers, are thus partners in the Gospel.
If Philemon understands and recognizes their Gospel partnership between Paul and Philemon, then Philemon would have to recognize other partners in the Gospel partnership the same way.
That includes recognizing Onesimus as a fellow believer and equal partner.
Partnerships are based on a reciprocity between participants, wherein each contributes to what is expected of them.
Paul is doing what he is expected to do, Onesimus is doing what he is expected to do, and now it is Philemon’s turn to do what he is expected to do in the Gospel partnership.
But Paul does not appeal to his authority to boss Philemon around. Instead, he structures his entire appeal in a way that would leave Philemon no choice.
He appeals to Philemon’s partnership with himself and to Philemon’s godly character to seek reconciliation between him and Onesimus, fellow believers and brothers in Christ.
Paul is also setting an example for mature believers. You don’t boss others around and tell them that they’ve got to listen to you because you’ve got more knowledge, education, or ministry experience.
This is what I consider godly and positive reinforcement through exaltation, appreciation, and acknowledgment of what God is already doing in and among us.
Paul’s appeal is based on Onesimus’ godly character too. Onesimus is so useful for the Gospel that Paul doesn’t want to send him back. But in a partnership, you share what is good for everyone, so Paul sent him back to Philemon in the hope that Philemon would find Onesimus as useful as Paul did.
Paul, in the interest of their partnership is giving up Onesimus. In a spirit of reciprocity, so Philemon should forgive Onesimus in the interest of the Gospel.
Paul even offers to pay whatever Onesimus owes Philemon, while at the same time reminding him that he owes Paul reciprocity too.
Philemon 1:18-19: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” (ESV)
Paul proposes an IOU to cancel a debt because they are in a Gospel partnership. The statement, “to say nothing of your owing me even your own self,” is like saying, “man, I do not want to bring this up, but you know you owe me too, yes, not in human currency but spiritually. So, you decide, what is a greater debt, eternal life and inheritance in heaven or earthly possessions?”
All believers owe the Gospel partnership that we have in the Lord. I owe you, so I contribute by laboring in the ministry that is what is expected of me. You owe the Gospel partnership as well for the sake of Christ, for the love of Christ, and for the cause of Christ.
Church, we are in a reciprocal relationship. Often, we may think the church and the congregation are in a financial partnership. But let me assure you, it is beyond a financial partnership. It is about mutual responsibility and respect in Gospel partnership.
Mutual Responsibility and Respect
Paul wants Philemon to carry out his responsibility as a partner, not under compulsion to do the minimum. Gospel partnership begins with mutual recognition of partners and partnership, it is sustained through reciprocity, and it advances through mutual responsibility to the Gospel partnership out of mutual respect for partners.
It’s only right that, out of mutual respect for the partners and partnership that we have in the Lord, each person contributes, participates, and carries out the responsibility as it is expected of them. This benefits and refreshes the heart of those who labor hard for the Gospel partnership.
It refreshes my heart and benefits me as a believer when I do not feel that I am the only one trying to carry the vision that God has given us as a church.
If Philemon understands what it takes to make a partnership work, he will let go of his authority, pride, and social status and will receive Onesimus not passively, but with honor, as he would receive Paul.
This will be the type of exciting reception in recognition of a mutual partnership that will end in complete reconciliation and restoration.
And this should not be limited to inside the church. As the demographic of our surrounding area changes, and God brings into our church and neighborhoods people from all walks of life, even those who may be very different than us, we should receive and accept them with honor, just as Paul is commanding Philemon, for the love of Christ, the sake of Christ and the cause of Christ.