Monday, March 20, 2017

Paul's Approach to Social Change

Sometimes we become aware that the world would be a better place if only society would widely adopt a more moral stance on a certain issue. Depending on your perspective a wide variety of issues may be on your mind right now. So what’s a Christian to do? Lead a revolution? Organize a demonstration? Lobby for better laws? Let your dollars speak with a boycott? Just give up and hide off the grid somewhere?

[Spoiler Alert] I’m not going to tell you the exact strategy that you should employ to enact the social change that you would like to see happen. However, I am going to discuss how Paul dealt with the very sensitive social issue of slavery on one occasion. Slavery was a social norm at the time, but was naturally at odds with various Christian principles – such as the golden rule. This is an area where society needed to change. Nevertheless, leaving behind the values of the world is sometimes a gradual process. How would Paul deal with such a touchy issue? Having made some observations about his tactics, then you can decide if and how to apply them to the social issue that is bothering you.

Philemon was probably a guy who was pretty well off, and he was a leader in the church of Christ in Colossae. However, like many in his time, he was a slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, stole a little seed money and made a break for it. The escaped slave eventually makes his way to Rome where he encounters Paul. Paul converts Onesimus to Christ, and they develop a close friendship. Things are going well, but Paul knows that the situation between Onesimus and Philemon needs to be properly resolved. Onesimus’s freedom is not yet legal. Philemon has been stolen from. The two men might have some pretty hard feelings towards each other as a result. All of those things need to be set right. So Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon! But he doesn’t send him empty-handed; he sends a very powerful little letter back with him. Before we proceed, I do want to offer the caveat that Philemon was a Christian. There would likely have been some differences in how Paul handled the situation if Philemon had been a non-Christian. Now let’s look at that letter to Philemon and observe Paul’s techniques.

After a pretty standard salutation, Paul starts setting the stage for his request:

(Verses 4-7 NASB) “I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

This is not empty politeness, but rather Paul is bringing to Philemon’s mind the very qualities that he would be appealing to in a moment. Philemon had a reputation of love, faith, and hospitality. There is good in Philemon. Remember that it is very rare that a person is all-bad, even if they do some bad things. Looking for their positive traits is a good place to begin in dealing with people.

This is a technique straight out of Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Give someone a good reputation to live up to, and they will often strive to do so. Paul was about to challenge Philemon to live up to his reputation by extending his noteworthy love and hospitality to his runaway slave.


(Verses 8-9) “Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus"

Here Paul employs another Dale Carnegie principle, "No one likes to take orders." This is a very interesting move on Paul's part. He was confident that he had the authority to order Philemon to do what was proper, but he specifically refuses to exercise that authority. Paul was about to appeal to Philemon to voluntarily relinquish the legal authority that he had over Onesimus because of love. So Paul sets the example by voluntarily relinquishing the religious authority that he had over Philemon because of love. In a very Christ-like manner, Paul is leading by example rather than command.


(Verses 10-14) “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; but 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.”
Onesimus, having been converted by Paul, was Paul's child in the faith. By using this terminology, Paul is redefining the relationship. If a person is a son or a brother in the family, then they can't be a slave to that family (Galatians 4:7). Their value is much too high for that.

Value of the other person is the key. I count at least 6 times in 25 verses that Paul points to the value of Onesimus.
  • He's my son - vs 10
  • He's useful - vs 11
  • He's my heart - vs 12
  • I wish he could stay with me - vs 13
  • He has eternal value - vs 15
  • He's equal to me- vs 17

Understanding that other people are inherently valuable is the beginning of treating them the way that they should be treated.

Another Dale Carnegie principle for changing people without causing resentment is to "Let the other person save face." Paul again does just that in giving Philemon the opportunity to do the right thing voluntarily. Paul essentially tells Philemon, “You will deserve credit for doing this good thing, when you follow through with what I’m about to suggest. I don’t want to steal your glory by forcing you to do this.”

Paul is also refusing to do immoral things to achieve a moral end. He will not "steal" Onesimus, such as it were, but rather he will go about this process with everything above board.


(Verses 15-16) “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would 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.

Here is it! This is what the whole letter has been building towards. Paul does not use the specific words, "Will you please set Onesimus free?" That's because Paul is asking for something much bigger that just Onesimus’s freedom. He is asking Philemon to ACCEPT Onesimus as a brother, as an equal. This was a much more transformative request. If he had only asked for freedom, then Philemon could have released Onesimus, but continued to view him with contempt as an inferior – as inherently lesser in some way. Paul doesn’t expressly condemn slavery because he knows that slavery wasn’t the real issue, but rather it was a symptom of the issue. The real issue was how to value one another.

This presents an entirely different model for social change. If slaves were viewed as brothers, then they could no longer be slaves. If they were equal in spiritual value, then why wouldn’t they be equal socially as well? The entire institution of slavery would crumble in upon itself without violence or resentment if this bottom-up approach took root.

(Verses 17-22) “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.
After one more statement of Onesimus’s value (he is to be treated the same as Paul himself), Paul then takes on the role of redeemer in a very Christ-like way. He assumes the debt of Onesimus, if it must be paid. He again refuses to defraud Philemon. He will not use immoral means to achieve a moral end. However, he does mention the great spiritual debt that Philemon owes to him. He is not demanding payment on THAT debt, thereby setting an example that maybe it would be better for Philemon to not demand payment on Onesimus’s debt either.

He then again gives Philemon a good reputation to live up to (verses 20-21), and says that he plans to come visit. This took some faith since he was writing from prison, but it provided some accountability. Paul would see first-hand how Philemon responded. It also gives a time when Paul would be able to pay the debt if Philemon chose to collect it.


(Verse 3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.(Verse 25) The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Grace is the key to it all. The letter begins and ends with pronouncements of grace. Paul had sought grace from Philemon, who had a supply to give because he himself had received the grace of Jesus.

Having examined Paul’s letter to Philemon, let us now reflect on some general principles that we can glean from his example.


1. The means matter.

Paul refused to act immorally, even to right the social injustice suffered by his beloved Onesimus.

It just would have been so easy for Paul to keep Onesimus in Rome and write back to Philemon to order him to let him go. But Paul does it much differently - a more difficult way - but it (presumably) ends up being win-win for Philemon and Onesimus. Onesimus still get's his freedom, but Philemon has the chance to choose to do the right thing himself rather than be forced. It makes the whole thing more loving and removes bitterness from the resolution.

2. Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

I admit that this is the portion of this study that has most deeply challenged my own previous thoughts. I also admit that some of the following thoughts might be a bit idealistic, which is probably why I found them challenging. However, ideals matter and can force us to think differently about our strategies.

Activists for change have sometimes been so stirred by injustices that have been suffered that they are strongly tempted toward using any means at all to correct the situation. They might impatiently want to use coercion or violence to achieve their means more quickly. After all this injustice needs to stop now. Alternately, they might seek to force the desired change through political leverage and top-down authoritarian policies to legislate the change.

However, the New Testament is more supportive of bottom-to-top, inside-out change to individuals that transforms their behaviors and relationships. This then spreads through society and leads to organic change to the legal/political framework of that society rather than forced, unwilling changes.

What if 19th century Christians had solved the problem of slavery in America by the slower, less violent process of transforming relationships to greater equality by learning to value one another as God does? Then allowing laws to be formed that would reflect the new reality. Then as racism (the disease) is destroyed, slavery (the symptom) would have evaporated and there would have been no need for a bloody war and subsequent civil rights movement. As is, the symptom was treated but the disease was left behind and we still feel it 150 years later. However, if slavery had been allowed to dissolve bottom-up, then would our country still have the racial scars that it does?

That said, maybe there were not very many 19th century Christians that were interested in taking this approach. That doesn’t mean that we can’t speculate about a better way, and try to learn for the future. This is especially true in light of the intense divisions in America today.

3. There is a difference between Christians and non-Christians.

As Christians we are responsible for correcting OUR ways, but we do not have the right to FORCE the ways of God upon others who are outside the church. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

That doesn’t mean that we are content with society’s ills. It does not mean that we don’t seek change where needed. It does mean that our primary tool for change is Christ and His gospel’s ability to change hearts and minds.

Read 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and consider Paul’s approach to dealing with the citizens of that immoral society. His tools were not persuasive speech. He did not seek to win them over by superior skills of argumentation and wisdom. His tools were “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Those same tools are the best at our disposal as well.


Ultimately, to change society for the best we must hold up Christ and reflect Him in our lives. This is actually the model that Paul followed. Just as Paul took on Onesimus’s debt, Jesus has taken our debt of sin, and paid it with his own blood. Just as Paul negotiates Onesimus’s freedom, Jesus has provided our freedom from the slavery of sin. Just as Paul asked a lot of Onesimus (going back to his slave-owner) and Philemon (defying social convention by releasing his slave and embracing him as a brother), Jesus does ask a lot from us. However, he gives us so much more back in return. Just as Paul’s plan required great trust from Onesimus, we must trust Jesus completely if we would gain true freedom. Just as Paul gave Philemon a good name to live up to, Jesus gives us His good name to live up to.
It would be hard to identify two people who changed the world more than Jesus and Paul. Let those who wear the name of Christ strive to follow his example. The world will be better off for it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

New Website Launched

Come visit our new site at  

There you'll find regular videos to help with your meditation and prayer life.  Hope you enjoy it!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Why "Jesus is Still King" May Not Be as Comforting as it Sounds

     In times when it seems like Christian values are not enjoying very much political clout, then Christians sometimes comfort each other with statements that are intended to be focusing.  We'll say things like:

  • No matter who is president, Jesus is king.
  • We've just got to trust God.  He knows what's best.
  • Just have faith.
  • Who needs the donkey and the elephant when you've got the Lion and the Lamb.
     All of these pious sounding phrases are true with respect to our spiritual salvation and the cause of Christ.  The church is going to be fine no matter what the political climate is.  In fact, it does just great in the face of persecution.  The church survived Nero and Domitian, and it can survive Clinton or Trump.  Christ's power to save is not encumbered in the least by any political leader.  As a Christian this does give me comfort.

     However as an American,  I find no comfort at all in these ideas.  You see, I do trust God to keep His promises, but God never promised a glorious future for America.  America is not ancient Israel, and it is not the church.  America is not God's special chosen nation.  God has not promised that everything will be "okay" for America.  Yet many Americans presumptuously seem to think so.  In fact, America is becoming increasingly hostile toward God so what makes us think that His favor in the future is in any way guaranteed?  The USA could be completely disbanded and distributed among her enemies, and it would still be true that "Jesus is King". 

      God's control of nations is not in doubt among His followers.  We can rightly point to Romans 13:1 and know that governing authorities have been instituted by God.   However, this does not just apply to America.  He has allowed a great many nations to rise and fall over the centuries.  Why should we think America is any different?  Why assume that the leaders chosen are automatically the ones that God thinks are in America's best interest?

     Most people accept the principle that "choices have consequences" to be a sound, even biblical observation.  Over recent decades it seems that America has made an awful lot of choices with our votes, time, money, priorities, and various other ways that have slowly diverted the country further and further from godliness.  There is eventually a price for that.

    I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, and that is my first loyalty.  However, I am also an American, and I want good things for America's future.  It's not a lack of faith in God that causes me to worry for America.  It's a lack of faith in America based on her recent past.  

     So what should the concerned American do?
  1. Pray - This is the biggie.  Pray for our current leaders.  Pray often and sincerely.  Pray that God will send godly influences into their lives.  Pray that God will give them wisdom to lead well.  Pray for the American electorate to choose wisely.  
  2.  Vote Moral Issues - You live in a country that freely gives you the opportunity to influence its direction through the very easy process of voting.  If all of the God-fearing Americans out there would let their votes be counted, then it would be a blessing to our country.  Why cede control willingly to the ungodly?  I'm not at all saying that you have a christian obligation to vote.  However, I am saying that the country would be better off receiving the counsel of the godly.  I personally wish you would bless us in that way by casting votes guided by godly values.  
  3. Bring Others to Christ - This is one of the most important things we can do in life because it makes a difference that stretches far beyond this life.  This one is much bigger than current events and politics.  However, as a pleasant side-effect, the more godly people there are in the world, the greater capacity they have to influence every aspect of the world in positive ways - including, but not limited to the moral compass of society.  Remember that Sodom and Gomorrah might have been spared if Lot's efforts at evangelism had been only slightly more effective.  
  4. Don't Think That "Politics" Is a Bad Word - Don't be afraid to have civil discussions about political issues and candidates.  It does matter, and it is okay to discuss.  Just keep it civil and respectful.  Godly people will still arrive at different conclusions.  Let's try not to look down our noses at each other even if we don't see eye to eye.  
  5. Care - Some people seem to take pride in not caring about politics as if it makes them somehow superior to those who do pay attention.  They'll say things like, "Why are you so worried about an election when you should be worried about ______________?"  Yes, there are other things that are more important that shouldn't be neglected.   However, we have the capacity to care significantly about more than one thing at a time.   Just because "x" is more important, does not imply that "y" is wholly unimportant.  It is okay to care about the direction of the country that serves as your home on earth while you await your home in heaven.
What are your thoughts on how we can bless our nation's leadership with godly influences?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Defense of Being Blessed

     This is a time of year that many people are focused on the things they are thankful for in their lives.  Sometimes they refer to these things as blessings.  Every now and then a post will make it's rounds through social media that condemns the use of that term, and of thinking of physical things as blessings at all.  I haven't seen that post yet this year, so I wanted to make a preemptive response so that nobody thought I was calling them out individually.
     The criticism of the term is well intended.  People rightly point out that God does not just dispense houses and new cars to His most faithful servants like a parent positively reinforcing their children's behavior with candy.  Also, Jesus plainly teaches that riches can be an obstacle to following him, so how can they be considered blessings?

     They also point out that the term "blessed" can sometimes be used as a tool for false modesty and bragging.  For example, "I can't believe I got another big sale.  So blessed!"  Or, "I love my new boat!  Feeling blessed!"

     These points are not totally invalid, but I don't think that banishing "blessed" from our vocabulary is the answer.  My basic philosophy on this is simple.  According to James 1:17, "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above..."  If you believe that something in your life is a good thing, then the appropriate thing to do is to give God the glory for it.  Referring to something as a "blessing" simply means that we believe it to have been a gift from God.  Everything else in this discussion flows from that basic principle.

     Now it could be that we are mistaken.  We might think that a certain thing is good, but then it turns out to our detriment later.  That does happen when material things distract us from spiritual things.  If that's the case, then that thing was not good, it is not a blessing, and it was not from God.  However so long as we believe the thing to be good, it is entirely appropriate to call it a blessing.

     "What about faithful christians with less???  Isn't calling our material goods "blessings" an insult to them?"  Being a missionary in Africa, I am confronted daily with those who are faithful to God, but live in abject poverty.  I am painfully aware of the struggle that they face.  Referring to material goods as "blessings" is absolutely NOT insulting and offensive to them, UNLESS we mean that we have those things because God loves us more or because we are more deserving.  In that case we are very much mistaken.

     Even a cursory survey of the faithful men and women of the New Testament will show that godliness is not necessarily rewarded with wealth and ease.  All of the apostles (except Judas) experienced great persecution, and all but John were martyred for their faith.  The gospel of health and wealth absolutely does not match observation of the real world.

     That does not mean that God hasn't given you material blessings.  Did God "bless" you with that big raise?  Maybe so.  If He did, then He likely expects you to use those resources to His glory.  Did God "bless" you with a great deal on that new house?  Perhaps so.  If so, then He probably expects you to use it as a tool in His service (i.e. think hospitality and evangelism).  We should think of ourselves as stewards of the possessions that God entrusts to our care, rather than as the owners of those possessions.

     Some might point out that it just seems so unfair that God would bless some Christians with "so much" and others with "so little."  However, here is the really crucial point that people need to understand:  physical blessings are not the ONLY blessings, and are NOT even the BEST blessings.  In fact, on the overall scale, physical blessings are actually of low-end value. Spiritual blessings are of far, far greater value.  My brethren here in Africa are NOT less blessed than their counterparts in America.  They are just blessed differently.  

     God is under no obligation to bless everyone the same way.  He blesses us in the ways that He sees fit in His ultimate wisdom.  His blessings are not one-size-fits-all, but rather are tailored to the individual.  What you need to be equipped to fill your role in His grand plans may be different from what I need to do the same.

     Even hardships can be counted as blessings when they result in improved character that brings about a better spiritual future for ourselves or others (see Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4).  Ultimately, if the poorest man in the world is in Christ, then he is blessed far more than the richest man outside of Christ (Matthew 16:26).  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there will not be a single soul in heaven complaining to God about the inequality of the socio-economic situation they experienced while on earth (Luke 16:19-30).

     But what about those "blessed" braggers?  It's not my place to judge their motives.  If they are truly praising God for what they believe to be a good thing in their life, then more power to them.  That's what they should do.  If it is really self-praise disguised as God-praise, then that's between them and God.  If it inspires jealousy in me, then maybe that's my issue rather than theirs.  Maybe I'm valuing the physical blessings too highly.

     So the next time you encounter someone who is "blessed" join with them in praising God for His activity in the world.  Then get busy thinking about all of the ways that He's blessed you, and contemplate what you have done with those blessings in return.

     May God bless you, my friends.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why I Now Only Pray For One Thing

     Some time ago I was considering my prayer list.  As I reflected on all of the ways that I wanted help for family, my friends, and myself, I had a realization.  They all really came down to one thing: the fruit of the Spirit.  As you'll recall from Galatians 5:22, the fruit of the Spirit is a multifaceted thing comprised of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     Let me explain.  When I prayed for a problem to be resolved, really it was because I wanted peace for myself or my loved one.  When I prayed for a conflict to be resolved, really it meant that the people involved were going to need an increased measure of lovepatience, kindness, and gentleness.  When I prayed for some good thing to happen, really it was because I wanted joy for myself or my loved one.  When I prayed for relief from temptation it was because I wanted faithfulness and goodness for myself or my loved one.  To achieve this faithfulness we would likely need self-control.

     Maybe a more specific example would help.  I have a couple of preacher friends who are looking for jobs, and I've been praying for God's intervention.  But WHY do I want them to find new jobs?  Because I don't want their families to be discouraged and their faithfulness suffer.  Because I want them to experience the peace that comes from a stable work situation.  Because I want them to have the joy that comes from a fulfilling work.  Because I want to see the brethren deal with them with patience and kindness.  Because I want God to continue to use them to increase the goodness in the people that they have the opportunity to minister to.  See what I mean?  Really, I am wanting to see the fruit of the Spirit abound in their lives, and in the lives of those around them.

    Literally, everything that I could think of related in some way to the fruit of the Spirit.  If the fruit of the Spirit was present in sufficient quantities, then the problems would either be resolved or they wouldn't seem as important anymore.  When I made this realization, it changed both my prayer-life and my personal outlook.  Rather than focus as much on the surface situation, I pray that God will increase the fruit of the Spirit in my life and in the lives of the other people for whom I am praying.  Then I trust that God will know the best ways to bring about the result.  The ways that I think things should be resolved might not actually be the best in the long-run, but God always knows what's best.

     The title of this article may be a little hyperbole.  I still pray for many things, but with this one thing in mind.   I try to focus on the real result that I'm looking for and leave more of the "how to get there" up to God's wisdom and discretion.

     I mentioned that it has also changed my personal outlook.  By this I mean that if I want more peace and joy in my home, then I need to work to increase the role of the Spirit in my home.  This emphasizes the need to be a good spiritual leader in the home.  If I want those things for my friends, then I need to try to help them increase the role of the Spirit in their lives.  This emphasizes the need to be evangelistic.  

     My most effective life-tools are Bible study, prayer, fasting, serving, teaching, and other such spiritual disciplines.  When my life seems off-track it is usually because I have slacked in these things.  When I am diligent in these things, then life seems to recenter regardless of the external factors around me.  

     Spirituality is not just a part of a person's well-being.  It is, in fact, the entire supporting structure that holds a life up.  Attempts to have fulfillment in life will be like trying to scratch an itch that we just can't ever quite reach until we realize that love, joy, peace, and all the rest ultimately only come from God's involvement in our lives.

     I pray that you find your life abounding in love, joy, peace, patient, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  What more could you ask for?