The Ministry of Relationships

by Paul Gilbert

We finished up our Philemon sermon series last month, and we have been doing a recap here in the weekly as a way of drawing some final lessons to take with us from this amazing book.

Part of what inspired us to preach this series is how timely the topics of reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness seem to be in our daily lives. Pastor Dave wrote a series of three blog posts last year aimed at pastors and leaders in an effort to help them navigate these very issues in their churches. However, I thought that these posts were so encouraging and insightful that I have decided to repost them one at a time here in the Four Oaks weekly, with a few tweaks to focus the content into our own context at Four Oaks (if you want to access the original posts, you can do so here.

So, without further adieu, here is the final installment of this three-week Philemon recap:

Philemon provides us with both a snapshot of what it means to invest ourselves in gospel relationships as well as the often-unconsidered costs attached to it. Caring for others without awareness of its painful side effects can tempt us towards bitterness and hoarding the relationships we steward. To help fight against those temptations, let’s then consider the Apostle’s costs in sending Onesimus.

The Relational Cost
In our last post, we discussed ministry grounded in relationship. Here we are reminded that those relationships are never an end, but a means. The means is deep fellowship resulting in mature Christians and healthy churches. The end is the gospel-mission of seeing these people that we have invested in go on to themselves invest in others. When ends and means get confused, our relationships can become insulated and God’s kingdom is not prioritized.

God gave Paul a precious resource in Onesimus. Converted under Paul’s ministry, personally invested in by the Apostle, transformed from a useless runaway to a valuable asset, Onesimus was the young up-and-comer with the incredible conversion experience.

But Paul sent him out.

Imagine the difficulty of this decision – sending someone you saw as your “very heart” to the unknown dangers of the future. This illustrates an important principle: Investing ourselves in gospel relationships is inherently sacrificial. Releasing the people we’ve discipled and loved—whether it be to reconcile to others or to the mission field—is one of the most painful realities of personal ministry. As I mentioned before, Paul was willing to trade a trusted ministry ally for the joy of gospel reconciliation and eventually gospel proclamation. As authors Marshall and Payne plainly state,

If you pour your time into people . . . the consequence will often be that some of your best people . . . will leave you. . . . A Commitment to the growth of the gospel will mean that we train people towards maturity not for the benefit of our own churches or fellowships but for the benefit of Christ's kingdom. [1]

Sure, it’s understandable to want your kids to live in the same town and share Sunday meals or to maintain the same small group for the next 20 years. But the mission of God will not advance if we cling too tightly to those gifts. From the onset, we must relate to the people God is having us pour into as if He may one day make a different, radical claim on their lives. We must also prepare our hearts for the ache their release will bring.

Spiritual Cost
We will explore the end of Paul and Onesimus’ wonderful story in a moment. But we should take note that not all of Paul’s sacrifices ended well. In 2 Timothy 4, we read about Demas, another young man Paul had invested in. Unlike Philemon, Demas deserted the Lord and returned to worldly living. In Acts 15, Paul and his dear friend Barnabas separate over another young man, Mark. Apparently, Mark rejected Paul’s invitation to join him on an important missionary endeavor. This was a deep betrayal for Paul, and the ensuing pain appeared to be immense.

In short, not every instance of release will be for pleasant reasons. We will invest in people that eventually turn from the Lord. We may one day experience betrayal by a man or woman for whom we sacrificed much. This kind of pain can easily lead us to dark places. We may be tempted to puff ourselves up with pride, taking great offense at the false accusations made against us. We may fall into despair, wondering if our many hours with Demas were wasted time. We will long for some kind of closure, something that gives it all meaning.

But in a fallen world, closure is overrated. Certainly we can and should pursue unity and reconciliation as much as possible (Rom 12:18). Paul never reconciled with Demas, as far as we can tell. In fact, Paul’s last letter (2 Timothy) seems to be filled with open-ended relationships and situations. At some point, we must be willing to move past the pain.

The health of our souls depends on our ability to release the pain of spiritual desertion to the Lord. There is nothing worse to be said about you than that which the cross has already spoken, and there is no ache that the presence of the resurrected Christ will not soothe.

We must not allow our bad experience with some to color the way we see all. In the same way, we must not let the pain of healthy release overshadow the joy available to us in investing. After the void of sending his very heart away had solidified, after the gaps left in his organization had been revealed, Paul experienced a payoff far greater than his pain. The apostle was later able to send Onesimus to personally deliver his letter to the Colossians.[2] A few decades later, church history speaks of a new bishop in Ephesus named ‘Onesimus’ – reputed to be the ex-slave of Philemon.

May God shape our vision so deeply that his glory casts out the shadows of our pain and disappointments. May God grant us a love for the gospel so great that we can joyfully release those whom we have invested in, no matter the cost. 

[1] The Trellis and the Vine, Marshall, Colin and Tony Payne, (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009), 83.

[2] Colossians 4:9