I grew up as a peace-loving middle child. Although raised in a relatively peaceful household, I still worked to resolve conflicts between siblings—and sometimes even parents. But when I found myself playing the role of “bridge” between two spatting friends, I was at a loss. I wasn’t their mother or their middle sister, and I figured two adults should be able to handle conflict on their own.
I resolved to remain friends with each of them separately, but their conflict affected me anyway. We stopped shopping together, meeting for coffee and texting movie quotes to each other. Even our larger social sphere was affected—who wants to invite warring parties to dinner?
Years later, I read the book of Philemon and saw this conflict from a new perspective. The letter is addressed to a Colossian man named Philemon—an upstanding member of the church community whom Paul has led to Christ. Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who finds his way to Paul; the apostle introduces this “formerly useless” slave to God. 1 In his letter, Paul claims both master and slave as his spiritual children, making them brothers in faith.
Paul works to heal the rift between these two parties, aware that a feud between two believers could create further division in the community. In his mediation, he uses strategic language. He begins by affirming Philemon’s character as a man of principle. Philemon has “love and faith” for the church and for the Lord, and Paul tells him, “I have derived much love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phlm 7). Taking the time to encourage him in this way shows that, despite the coming rebuke, Philemon has a place in Paul’s heart.
As he moves to requesting reconciliation, Paul does not ignore the harm Onesimus has caused Philemon. We do not know the details of their conflict, but Paul acknowledges that Onesimus has been “useless” to Philemon. He offers to take on the burden of any debt Onesimus owes. He addresses Philemon as the wronged party in the conflict, but he still urges reconciliation.
Before making any demands, Paul appeals to Philemon’s love and good character. He says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will” (Phlm 14). Philemon is offered the opportunity to display his godly character by honoring Paul’s request.
Finally, Paul leverages his status as Philemon’s spiritual father. Although he would prefer Philemon act on his own, Paul is prepared to issue a command for reconciliation. He urges not just a shake-hands-and-be-friends sort of truce, but right acceptance as brothers—as equals in Christ.
Paul’s careful pattern of expressing respect and appealing to love are tools we should use in our practice of mediation among church members today. Paul modeled his letter on another mediator—one he talks about in 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Onesimus is estranged from his master; he needs a third party to make a way for him to come home. In the same way, we were separated from God by wrongs against Him and needed Christ to repair our broken relationship.
We don’t know how Philemon and Onesimus’ story ends. Presumably, Onesimus delivers Paul’s requests to his master. And if Philemon is the man Paul describes, he acts in accordance with them all. As for my situation? Although my friends eventually called an uneasy truce, their friendship was never the same. Sometimes I wonder how things would have worked out if I had mediated like Paul did. And I wonder whether my friends’ conflict could have been more easily resolved if they had considered the work of the perfect mediator.
Biblical references are from the New International Version (NIV).
1. For a look at slavery in the first century, see John D. Barry and Craig A. Smith’s article on pages 36–37.↩