Following Christ is not a solo journey. When we are saved, we are baptized into a body of believers. We respond to Christ by faith as individuals, but we grow in Christ alongside a community of faith. Paul’s letter to Philemon highlights the importance of koinonia in our walk with Christ. This koinonia is the word translated partnership here in verse six, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” Another way of translating this word is fellowship. This how the word is used in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There is a very real sense in which my relationship with Christ is a shared relationship.
So how does my partnership or fellowship in the church help me to grow in Christlikeness? The church creates the culture in which faith can thrive. When my wife and I were young in our marriage we watched our family grow from two to six in a short amount of time. There were certainly challenges with having four kids six and under, but there were also real advantages. With our first child, everything had to be taught by us. In our home, my wife and I had to give all the instruction and we had to provide all the correction. The family culture had to be set and monitored by us. As our family grew however, we had to do less and less of that. The kids monitored the family culture as much as we, the parents, did. The honor of the family has a strong effect on the behavior of the members of the family for both good and ill.
This is seen profoundly in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a very personal letter asking Philemon to do a very personal thing in the forgiving and freeing of his slave Onesimus. So why does Paul include not only Apphia and Archippus, but also the entire church in this letter? I think it is because Paul understood the incredible sanctifying power of the community. Philemon was a godly and generous man, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t still areas of his life that were being unduly influenced by the world. Slavery was as common in the ancient world as the cell phone is in ours, but that did not make it right. Rather than publicly shaming Philemon, Paul gives him the opportunity to be both shaped by the gospel culture of the church and to reinforce its gospel culture through this very public request. He asks Philemon to not only free Onesimus, but to forgive him and to treat him not as a slave, but as a fellow man and a brother. Instead of Philemon being shamed, Philemon received the honor of modeling Christlikeness for the church and the joy of receiving Onesimus.
Paul was confident of Philemon’s obedience because he knew the character of man. He was godly, but he wasn’t without his cultural blind spots. God graciously provides the otherworldly culture of the church as a check against our own individualism. As we live and worship in community with other Spirit-filled brothers and sisters, God uses those interactions to encourage and correct us. It is my hope that Holy Spirit will shape us through the Word of God both as individuals and as a congregation into the image of Jesus Christ. That together we would not only have friendship, but genuine koinonia in the gospel of Jesus Christ.