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Cultivating Planters in Relationship

Part One, Part Three

The first post in this series examined principles from Philemon that re-shape our perspective on potential pastors in light of the gospel. Now, we return to Philemon to see how Paul personalized his training plan in the way he worked with Onesimus.

F.F. Bruce names Philemon, “One of the two truly personal letters in the New Testament.”[1] This becomes apparent in the affectionate language Paul uses when describing his relationship with the primary characters. Philemon is Paul’s ‘beloved fellow worker’[3] and ‘my brother.’[4] Whenever he thinks of Philemon, Paul says he can’t help but thank God for him. In speaking of Onesimus, Paul calls him my child’[5] and ‘my very heart.’[6]

As we read this epistle, an important principle emerges: For Paul, mission and training were grounded in relationships. This reality re-shapes our perspective on developing pastors in three important ways.


Relationship Means Transformation

Friends change us, for better or worse. Paul told the Corinthians that when good morals meet bad company in a cage fight, bad company always wins (1 Cor. 15:33). But Paul was not bad company; he was awesome, apostolic company. His friendship with Onesimus transformed the man. He went from being pretty useless to being a go-to guy (v. 11).

Not to go old-school on you, but that’s what we used to call ‘discipleship.’ As Dallas Willard puts it,

a disciple… is simply someone who has decided to be with another person… in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.[7]

Paul did not reduce his ministry to sermon prep and pulpit reps. He understood that embodied truth gets transferred through personal connection. A friendship transformed Onesimus from a runaway slave to Paul’s “very heart” who was ‘indeed useful’ for the gospel. Training programs and curriculums can be essential tools, but no system can replace the impact of relationship-based discipleship.

That’s the way it was for me. As a new believer, I learned about what it means to be a husband and father under the training of a leader in our local church. He had tremendous vision for my life, so he spent time helping me to apply the Bible. I’m not talking about merely assigning and discussing books; I mean meals shared, evenings of fellowship with his family, faithful correction, and honest feedback. The relationship with that dear brother transformed me. Just like Onesimus!


Relationship Means Reconciliation

The ‘you’ve-got-to-be-kidding’ moment of this epistle is when Paul announces that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This is not easy for Paul. Onesimus was converted under Paul’s ministry, trained under his watchful eye and became useful to his cause. In fact, Paul tells Philemon he would be “glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.”[8]

But Paul doesn’t keep him. He makes the sacrifice. Onesimus goes back.


Paul values reconciliation. He understands the power of it. Once a murderer and now a forgiven sinner, Paul has seen ultimate reconciliation in the gospel. God values reconciliation so much that God pursued those who hated him with the goal of reconciling to them. That’s a pretty rugged love. Reconciliation matters to God because it reveals the kind of unbounded love at the heart of the gospel.

Paul wanted far more for Onesimus than what he could provide to Paul’s ministry. Paul wanted Onesimus to reconcile to Philemon, enjoying and embodying that gospel experience; to be whole and to be holy. There was another claim upon Onesimus – the pull of unreconciled sin. To Paul, reconciliation was more important than ministry productivity. So Onesimus must go.

Paul valued reconciliation and unity far more than ministry expansion. If Onesimus leaves, Paul’s numbers take a hit. Paul’s heart takes a hit. But Paul wanted deep souls, truly transformed lives and relationships, more than he wanted bigger churches or a trusted companion. It was a sacrifice to send Onesimus back, but Paul loved him and Philemon too much to do otherwise.

When ministry expansion is the predominant motivation of our efforts, people become marginalized and reconciliation is pursued only where it serves damage control. When gospel-grounded relationships are the foundation, though, no sacrifice is too great for reconciliation.


Relationships Means Transfer

Paul’s love was not only for present-tense people, but also for future believers and churches. He knows that God’s global plan from the beginning involved older generations passing the truths of God onto the younger. He told Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” [9]

Philemon was the future. By sowing into him, Paul understood that he was transferring what had been entrusted to him.

If Paul took the time and effort to cultivate future leaders, we should too. It was Paul’s present love for Onesimus and Philemon combined with his future love for the next generation that drove Paul to develop leaders the way he did. Mentoring relationships are not based merely upon convenience or affinity; they are inspired by a love for God’s future mission.

It will even cost money. Paul told Philemon, “if you consider me your partner, receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”[10] For Onesimus, going forward into the future meant that Paul had to invest in his reconciliation to Philemon. For pastors today, it may mean sending a man to seminary; seeding him out to another campus; or attaching a great church planting team to him and sending him out. No matter how you slice it though, transferring to the next generation will cost you.



Paul invested the time, heard Onesimus’ story, and sorted through his baggage. And somehow, in the mess of that tedious process, a relationship was born. Not only that but the future church came away with a beautiful piece of the New Testament and a much needed model for how to love and position the next generation.

Some of you reading have an Onesimus in your life. How will you respond? Some of you are Onesimus and need an older man with whom you can share all your unfinished business. For both the young and old, may we never be content in simply going through the motions as we lead docile, mission-less congregations. Instead, let’s press on towards relationships that matter – ones that transform us; that includes great sacrifices for others; and ultimately, ones that transfer the gospel to the next generation.


[1] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1984), 191.

[3] Philemon 2

[4] Philemon 7

[5] Philemon 10

[6] Philemon 12

[7] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our HIdden Life in God, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 282.

[8] Philemon 12

[9] 2 Tim. 2: 2

[10] Philemon 17-18


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