Paul’s Approach to Social Change

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.

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