A More Excellent Way

I’m welcoming Alex Keen to the blog today. I appreciated her careful handling of Philemon as guidance for relationships in the church with cultural power differentials.

Several years ago, I was encouraged to consider writing a piece on navigating authority as a woman in a complementarian church. During this time, quite a shake-up was happening in both evangelicalism and the world at large. There was a heated kerfuffle in the reformed internet world over trinitarian doctrine as it related to the roles of men and women. There were abuse allegations mishandled in the world and in the church. In all of this, the voices of leading women rose against the abuse of male authority in both spheres. Frustration spread like wildfire through hashtags and hateful words. While the heat has cooled a bit for now, the issues themselves have yet to be resolved and full familial restoration may be a long way off for many. I would like to propose a way forward by examining the book of Philemon and offering four principles derived from this very short letter. Late? Yes. Timely? I hope so.

To begin, there are three men involved in the story behind the letter: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Paul is in prison at this point, writing letters to churches. He not only wrote a letter to the believers in Colossae (where Philemon lived), but a personal letter to Philemon who hosted a church in his house. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had abdicated his responsibility and somehow found his way to Paul. There, he is brought to saving faith by Paul’s testimony. Now Paul is faced with a decision. To use his authority to keep Onesimus? Or to send Onesimus back into a situation that might result in his suffering? 

1. Acknowledge Authority

First, Paul acknowledged different spheres of authority. All three men had authority in some way. Paul had authority over others as an apostle and elder. Philemon had authority over others as a church leader and master. Onesimus had authority over himself as a fellow believer and brother. Though Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what is right, he instead acknowledged and honored Philemon’s authority by making requests instead of making demands.

Though I am not certain, evidence seems to indicate that Onesimus returned to Philemon freely. Paul, in Colossians 4:9, calls him “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number.” Onesimus came as an equal in order to be restored, not as a slave to be punished. Paul most likely did not use his authority to force Onesimus to return, but honored and encouraged Onesimus’s choice as a brother to return.

Acknowledging the authority of others instead of using authority to coerce obedience highlights the equality of all people in Christ, regardless of gender, race, or social status.

2. Appeal to love

Second, Paul appealed to Philemon for love’s sake. In doing so, he left room for Christ to exercise his authority in Philemon’s heart. He pointed to Philemon’s love and faith in Christ, and how he had comforted and refreshed fellow believers, and encouraged him to treat Onesimus the same way. Paul explained, “without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” He knew that using authority to demand a certain action would not bring about Christ’s work. The fellowship of love is the fertile soil for God’s work to come to fruition in the lives of others. 

Appealing to love honors Christ’s authority to work in the lives of others.

3.Accept Responsibility

Third, each person in this situation exercised their authority by bearing their responsibility. Paul accepted his responsibility as an apostle and elder to care for Onesimus as a father would a child. He did so by bearing true testimony to Onesimus’ salvation and offering to repay Philemon for anything he had lost as a result of Onesimus’ actions.

Onesimus accepted responsibility for his actions by returning to serve Philemon. And as a brother who happened to be a bondservant, he had the responsibility to work heartily for the sake of the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:22-25).

Philemon was asked to bear responsibility for Onesimus as a brother by forgiving and restoring him. And as a brother who happened to be a master, he had the responsibility to treat his slaves with justice and fairness (Colossians 4:1). 

It is tragic to have either authority without responsibility, or responsibility without authority. I would go so far as to suggest that authority and responsibility are nearly synonymous. All of these men had responsibilities placed on them under Christ’s absolute authority. Thankfully, they were given authority to carry out their responsibilities. 

Accepting responsibility as those under authority serves Christ.

4. Aim for Fellowship

Last, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as he truly was, an equal, a brother, and fellow heir of the kingdom. He desired that Philemon might “have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). In fact, Paul expressed a certainty that Philemon would do even more than simply restore him as a slave (verse 21). From this, we see that his ultimate aim was not justice or proper social order (it is good to note that slavery is not a proper social order), but fellowship. He knew joyful fellowship could not be demanded, so he handed authority and responsibility to Philemon. He knew that only Christ could bring true reconciliation by establishing the social order of the kingdom. In Christ’s kingdom, all are brothers and sisters, equal heirs to the great promises of God, regardless of social status. 

It helps to note that the word for “appeal” in verse 9 is parakaleo, which means to call to one’s side. It is not simply a request, but a request that includes assurance of comfort. Paul wanted Philemon’s comforting presence side by side with him in his joy and as a co-laborer in the gospel.

Aiming for fellowship acknowledges the goal of the gospel, which is the fellowship of love with God in Christ, and with each other as equal image bearers.

So how does this relate to men and women in a complementarian church?

The Way Forward

All of us have some measure of authority given to us by God. “Complementarianism” recognizes that men and women are equal in complementary ways and have different spheres of authority by God’s design. While I do not wish to quarrel over where those lines are drawn here, I do wish to point out that it’s important to be able to discern and honor spheres of authority. In order to do this, we must first acknowledge that both men and women are made in the image of God and are fellow heirs of the kingdom. From here, we realize that we must acknowledge the authority given to each of us, male or female, as image bearers. No one has absolute authority over another, regardless of the structures of our social systems. 

However small or large our spheres of authority, we are called, both men and women, to use our authority to pave the way for Christ’s absolute authority to work itself out in our fellowship. Instead of demanding obedience, for love’s sake, we appeal to our brothers and sisters to act according to the grace of the gospel. We want them beside us as equals to share our joy as we serve our Lord. 

Our ultimate aim in the church is not proper social order, not really even justice, but fellowship in Christ. Yes, we must work against injustice, but we do so by using our authority for the good of those who are in more vulnerable positions. The elders, men charged with shepherding the flock, must accept responsibility for those entrusted to their care by first acknowledging the spheres of authority given to both men and women, and leading them to accept responsibility within their own spheres. This will take a great deal of discernment. Elders are responsible for using their authority to protect the vulnerable, and there are times when fellowship between offended and offender may not be wise, and this might become a matter of church discipline. In the end, no one who belongs to Christ loses anything by allowing God to use his or her authority to order our lives toward love and fellowship with him and with each other. After all, we know that in the end true justice will be served.

In this day of #metoo and #churchtoo, navigating authority within a complementarian setting is complicated. Trust between men and women has been deeply shaken. Constant suspicion is the best defense the world can offer. However, like Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul, those who belong to Christ have been called to trust. It is not a naïve trust, for we of all people should be aware of the evil in human hearts. Our trust is not in men, but in Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Because of this, we can bank on having everything to gain as we acknowledge authority, appeal to love, accept responsibility, and aim for fellowship under Christ’s ultimate authority. 

Paul, in the 13th chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, urged the believers to see that the more excellent way to interact with each other is the way of love. As men and women seeking to walk faithfully in difficult times, this is the way forward. Love overcomes wrongs and restores far more than human justice ever will. For love’s sake, then, I appeal to all of us in Christ to choose the more excellent way.

Alex Kneen is on that journey described by St. Anselm as “faith seeking understanding.” She lives in Gastonia, NC, is married to David, and mother to two boys, Rowan and Bastion.

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