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Philemon. It’s a short, simple letter written by Paul. He probably wrote it from prison in Rome; around the time he wrote Colossians and Ephesians. Twenty-five verses in total. Not nearly as powerful as Romans or as strongly worded as Galatians on 1 Corinthians. But it is Scripture . . . and that leads me to ask: What’s with this letter? What’s the point in having it in the New Testament? What value could it be to me?

So, I’m thinking through this little letter. It starts the way most of Paul’s letters do–an opening greeting:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)

The “great apostle” sends a simple letter to Philemon . . . who is . . . well, just an “average believer.” There seems almost nothing to mark Philemon out–except (as we’ll see in this letter) that he was slave owner. Paul is in jail “for the sake of the Gospel,” Philemon is apparently living at home, in the comfort of his own house.

And I notice. Paul doesn’t breathe a rarer air than Philemon. At least that’s now how Paul describes himself. He doesn’t lead with “I’m an apostle.” He’s a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” And Paul identifies Timothy as a “brother” and Philemon himself as a “brother” as well as “fellow worker.” Sure, it makes sense to identify Timothy as a “brother” in the ministry and a “fellow worker” (as in 1 Thessalonians 3:2); after all, Timothy was something of an “apostolic delegate” sent by Paul on official apostolic important “stuff.”  But Philemon? “Fellow worker”?

It seems that Paul doesn’t seem himself as “all that.” He’s just “another brother,” a “fellow worker,” one member of the larger community of those who follow Jesus. And he writes to Philemon in such a way that suggests he doesn’t see a gap between himself and this simple home owner and slave keeper.

To me, that’s refreshing! When it is necessary (as when correcting doctrinal error in the letter to the Galatians), Paul might refer to himself as “an apostle.” But Paul doesn’t seem to parade that around–when writing a simple letter such a claim doesn’t matter.

Is it wrong for a church leader to identify himself as “The Right Reverend Doctor Pastor Smith” or “Apostle and Presiding Bishop Jones”? Maybe not . . . maybe not. But if those titles–particularly if leveraged by the claimants to such titles–end up creating distance between the “average saints” and the “saintly leaders,” something is amiss.

The best of saints, the prominently gifted, amazingly used apostle Paul could freely refer to himself as “brother” and “fellow worker,” humbly connecting with an “regular” Christian. And in those opening words in his letter to Philemon I see a “great man of God” modeling for us real and “great” humility.


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