Friday, November 28, 2014

Philemon: Being Boss & Brother

Philem 4-20 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. 

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus,  whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

Some Christian bosses are reluctant to sponsor evangelism in their office for fear that when their employees get converted, they would have to treat them differently than before. Especially those Christian bosses who have adopted a punitive approach to staff discipline. If their employees become Christian, would they now have to be "nicer" to these employees who have become "brothers" or "sisters"? Do they have to modify their current "boss-like" management style towards their employees to adopt a more Christian "servant-leader" approach? The thought of losing control and being manipulated by newly-minted Christians make such bosses uncomfortable. And they are not prepared to change their punitive and power-based approach to running their company.

While their employees were not Christian, they could justify their "wielding the sword" (law) approach towards staff discipline. If these same errant employees become Christians, the Christian boss will find himself in a quandary: should he now change his "law" approach and adopt "grace" approach toward staff discipline? Does it mean he has to counsel his staff instead of punishing them? Such 180 degree change can be too intimidating for some Christian bosses. They are afraid it may mean a loss of power and control over the staff.

Paul's letter to Philemon addressses this concern. Philemon was a Christian "boss" with an errant employee (a runaway slave named Onesimus). Under Roman law, a runaway slave arrested and returned to his owner would face severe penalty: he could be beaten, put to death or sold off in the slave market. The runaway slave's forehead would also be branded when found. Philemon could apply the law's penalties to discourage other slaves from running away. But now that Onesimus has become a brother-in-Christ, it was a new situation to him--should he apply the law or grace in this case?

Paul's answer is that he should apply grace because Onesimus has become a Christian. In fact, he should treat Onesimus like he would have treated Paul himself: "So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account" (v.17-18). Paul was even willing to pay the financial loss incurred by Onesimus' absence. It's like asking Christian bosses to treat their newly converted employees as they would treat their church pastors--with respect and grace. It's schizophrenic and detrimental to the our mental health to behave like an angel in church and like the devil in the office. We have to be consistent in our approach to life--we are called to treat all people (not just Christians) graciously simply because grace defines who we are, not just what we do on Sundays.

Of course, when we have this grace attitude towards our Christian employees, it will rebound back to us: just as Onesimus (who name means "useful"), such employees will become even more productive and useful in our company--provided we demonstrate a servant rather than a boss attitude towards our employees' failings. If the boss treat everyone (Christians and non-Christians alike) with the same grace he shows in church on Sunday, his employees will be more productive and therefore more likely to stay happy and longer in the company. That would be a win-win option for all.

Father, teach us who are Christian bosses to demonstrate grace in our offices. Amen.

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