Relinquishing Rights

The book of Philemon is a short letter written by Paul to Philemon in which he pleads with him to take back his (Philemon’s) runaway slave, Onesimus, who had now become a Christian. The way Paul goes about doing this is something exemplary and contains many lessons for us – out of which we will concentrate on one.
Paul had every right to order Philemon to take back Onesimus (Phm 1:8). He could have done this for the very reason that he was an Apostle. Apostles had a special authority in the NT church. The apostles’ words were considered the very words of God since they were hand-picked by Jesus and given a very special commission (2 Co 2:7). This special authority is also reflected in the letters that got canonized as New Testament. Apostolic authority was one of the criterion.
In addition to this fact, Philemon was one of the beneficiaries of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (most likely he got converted there; Phm 1:19). But despite all these reasons, Paul chooses not to order but rather to appeal. Why? Paul’s says for love’s sake (Phm 1:9). Paul relinquished his right as an apostle and as an elder/mentor to Philemon and chose to rather appeal to him gently. This relinquishing of right is one of the characteristics of acting in love towards others.
Paul’s attitude seen in this letter is not an isolated instance of his relinquishing his apostolic rights. He had done this sort of thing at many other times. Paul founded the Thessalonian Church (Acts 17:4) and ministered to many in that church through Timothy(1 Thes 3:1-2). Yet Paul did not “eat anyone’s bread without paying for it”(3:8). Paul was well within his right (3:9) to expect material favour from Thessalonians as per the command of the Lord (1 Co 9:14). But he chose to relinquish  it so as to not hinder the work of the Gospel. This same thing is taught by Paul when he commanded the stronger brothers to give up their rights to eat certain kinds of food for the sake of weaker brothers (Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8). This according to Paul is “acting in love”(14:15).
Coming back to Philemon — in accordance with this attitude, Paul appeals to Philemon, not as an apostle, not as a mentor, but as an old man and as a prisoner. The reason for appealing as an old man is to evoke sympathy for his greater experience and for his age. The stress on his state as a prisoner was to influence Philemon to grant a favour which pales in comparison to the hardships Paul had endured for the sake of the church. An attitude of love produced gentleness in his speech.
The question for us is this: Do we relinquish our rights in our daily lives in order to act in love towards others? This applies in family life. We may have just reasons to be upset with our spouse/children/father/mother for the foolish things they may have done. But can we relinquish our right to be indignant and rather appeal gently. This can apply in our ministry/office life. We may have grievances against our leaders. But may we rather choose to appeal gently in love rather than criticizing them harshly? Are there any other areas in your life where you may follow Paul’s example?


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