Titus & Philemon: Leadership Beyond Rank and Power
Note: PRS.work is a plug-and-play video Bible Study. Everything you need to connect the Bible to your work is in the video above. Feel free to press play and just listen. Or follow along with the transcript below.
Welcome to PRS.work, a video series that helps us hear the Bible together at work. In this video you'll hear a brief introduction, a Psalm read as an opening prayer, a long passage from the Bible, and a commentary about what this means for work, workers, and the workplace. When the video ends you can discuss how this applies to your work.
Today’s Public Reading of Scripture covers two of Paul’s letters in their biblical sequence. The first is to Titus, a trusted coworker Paul dispatched to restore order among a network of house churches in Crete. The second is to Philemon, a prosperous Roman citizen from Colossae who was also facing an interpersonal conflict. Philemon’s servant, Onesimus, had run away, and Paul’s letter, like his letter to Titus, highlights the importance of restoring relationships among believers.
In Titus, Paul urges churches to become agents of transformation by rejecting what is corrupt while embracing what is good. If they can learn to live peaceably and devote themselves to Jesus and the common good, Paul says Cretans will communicate God’s salvation to the culture around them.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul calls for a new type of unity among believers, unseen in the wider culture, where all people are brothers in the Messiah, whether free, slave, Jew, or Greek.
Before reading along to dramatic recordings of Paul’s letters to Titus and Philemon, we will open with Psalm 33 in prayer.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!
For praise from the upright is beautiful.
2 Praise the Lord with the harp;
Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.
3 Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
4 For the word of the Lord is right,
And all His work is done in truth.
5 He loves righteousness and justice;
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.
7 He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap;
He lays up the deep in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.
9 For He spoke, and it was done;
He commanded, and it stood fast.
10 The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
The plans of His heart to all generations.
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.
13 The Lord looks from heaven;
He sees all the sons of men.
14 From the place of His dwelling He looks
On all the inhabitants of the earth;
15 He fashions their hearts individually;
He considers all their works.
16 No king is saved by the multitude of an army;
A mighty man is not delivered by great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for safety;
Neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.
18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope in His mercy,
19 To deliver their soul from death,
And to keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
He is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart shall rejoice in Him,
Because we have trusted in His holy name.
22 Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us,
Just as we hope in You.
Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, 3 but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior;
4 To Titus, a true son in our common faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.
5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— 6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
10 For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11 whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth. 15 To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.
But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: 2 that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; 3 the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— 4 that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.
6 Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, 7 in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, 8 sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.
9 Exhort bondservants to be obedient to their own masters, to be well pleasing in all things, not answering back, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good fidelity, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.
11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
15 Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. 3 For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.
9 But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. 10 Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.
12 When I send Artemas to you, or Tychicus, be diligent to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Send Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey with haste, that they may lack nothing. 14 And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.
15 All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith.
Grace be with you all. Amen.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, 5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, 6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.
8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 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.
17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. 20 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.
21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Pause for Reflection
Now we'll take a moment to reflect silently on what we have just read and heard in Scripture.
Leadership Beyond Rank and Power
From the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Philemon
How does faith change work and leadership? On that question this letter says a lot because it treats how Christ impacts relationships, including relationships that exist in a world of social rank. Social rank shows itself and often controls our assessment of relationships in many spheres: work, home, church, and society at large. Here are some relational dynamics that Paul is focused on Philemon grasping and applying that also carry over into a whole host of contexts.
1. Jesus is a leveler when it comes to rank and social status.
Paul asks Philemon to see Onesimus not in the social world’s terms but from within the faith. This changes everything. Paul does not do this once, but three times. The obvious place is where he asks Philemon to consider Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother. However, the second move is where he asks him to receive him as he would Paul, as an apostle. Yet, ironically, the third move is when Paul says he will appeal to Philemon not as an apostle but as a slave of Jesus Christ.
Each one of these appeals has a point. The enhanced status being in Christ gives Onesimus elevates him into a new light. But Paul’s other point is his appeal to Philemon to see the apostle as a slave. This makes the profound observation that we all serve Jesus and any power status we have is very relative. The work we do we do as unto the Lord, serving him. Even apostles serve at the leading and direction of God. This leveling, in both directions, reminds us that behind the rank the world often gives us is our core humanity that makes us all servants of God.
We are called in whatever role we have to serve him well. In fact, one can argue that this is the core appeal that Paul is making here. He is using his stepping back from his authority in humility as the example that sets the stage for what Philemon is being asked to undertake. To say such a perspective is merely a game changer profoundly understates how significant a move this is as the following points show.
2. Leadership ultimately is not primarily about the exercise of power, status, rights, or efficiency but grounds itself in relationships, a participation that leads to the practical good and affirms new potential.
The practical good often does involve following through on commitments and doing one’s job with integrity, but it also, as here, can mean being forgiving and honoring the potential a person has to change and become a new person. Paul ultimately is asking Philemon to grant and acknowledge this change in Onesimus. To see him in a new light, a light that Jesus has ignited that made Onesimus a different person than the one who had run away.
3. As a leader, Paul is willing to bear the cost of the sacrifices he asks others to make.
It is important that Paul, sensing the loss and cost Philemon is asked to bear, is willing to pay for the loss and make sure some sense of justice is maintained as he asks for leniency and compassion. The debt Paul is willing to bear mirrors a parable Jesus tells, where the Good Samaritan not only rescues the man beaten up on the side of the road, but pays the innkeeper for any debt the man will accrue as the man recovers at the inn. This bearing another’s burden is part of the “participation” or demands of fellowship Paul is contending for in this letter.
Of course, the supreme example of bearing such a cost on behalf of another is what Jesus did in dying for our sin and paying our spiritual debt. By injecting himself into the relational equation, Paul also makes himself a participant in this situation, becoming part of the fellowship he is calling for Philemon to display.
4. Good leadership appeals to people to act out of their best choices rather than forcing compulsion.
Paul as a leader is not just seeking for Philemon to make a decision here but to do so with an understanding and appreciation for why it is a good decision. He is appealing to Philemon’s free will so that character is developed.
Paul is not just interested in a bottom line decision. There is a famous saying that “He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In that scenario, nothing really changes. Any act that comes from mere compulsion often is done once and then left behind because the rationale for it is not really grasped. Once the compulsion is removed the behavior reverts back with no gain for character. Paul wants Philemon to act not because he must but because he should. He wants Philemon to get that profound difference.
5. As a leader, Paul can still place moral pressure on those he asks to make a decision.
One of the more interesting features of this letter is how Paul applies “pressure.” There is a (non)use of power. Paul does not do it so much from rank, but he does do it quite intentionally — relationally — by reminding Philemon of the debt he has to Paul. Paul is not appealing as an apostle, but he is appealing to him based on what he has personally done for Philemon.
Granted Philemon is well aware of who Paul is, but Paul is approaching him on another level. In effect, Paul is saying, if you appreciate how I have related to you with you as the beneficiary, then you will see how I am asking you to treat another. If you can be the beneficiary of such relationships, you can contribute to others in the same way. That this appeal is at a relational level underscores the entire approach of the letter to build a relationally strong response from Philemon. The approach matches the goal.
One also is reminded that we are to learn from God’s example with us. Such lessons may be behind what Paul is asking for, something a text like Philippians 2:6-11 also teaches. Jesus did not regard deity a thing to be grasped onto but emptied himself into the form of a servant for us, even to the point of dying as an innocent for us. Jesus also tells a parable where a person forgiven a huge debt fails to forgive another a small debt. That forgiven, non-forgiver is rebuked and rejected in the parable for not showing the same forgiveness he had received. Paul is asking for something similar here. If I can serve you to your benefit, Philemon, then you can serve others. If Jesus or I can empty myself for others, so can you.
6. The final point is that at the core of this request to Philemon was a call to live out one’s relationships not by appeal to status, but with an eye to service.
If Philemon does what Paul asks, then Paul will be refreshed. If Philemon does more than what Paul asks, then Paul will be served in a way that allows Philemon to participate both in Paul’s ministry and in Onesimus’s service.
When we lead out of concern for building relationship and character, when we are willing to see potential and create space for growth and change in another, and when we are willing to sacrifice in the process, we are serving in our leadership, following not only the model of Paul’s request to Philemon but the example of the Lord. That is faith at work, at work in exemplary and sacrificial service that builds relationships and character. Not only does the leader grow, but so do those he or she leads as he or she models how faith works.