Close this search box.

The Painful Payoff of Releasing Onesimus

Part One, Part Two

This is the final installment of our series reflecting on Paul’s letter to Philemon. This epistle provides us with both an isolated snapshot of gospel leadership as well as the often-unconsidered costs attached to it. Pastoring without awareness of its painful side affects can tempt us towards bitterness and hoarding the resources 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 church planting, regionally, nationally, and abroad. When ends and means get confused, churches become insulated and the mission suffers.

God gave Paul a precious resource in Onesimus. He was an in-house hire, so to speak. Converted under Paul’s ministry, personally trainded 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: Raising up men for mission is inherently sacrificial. Releasing men 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 leadership in the church. 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]

Becoming a “sending church,” living as a “missional church,” and organizing as a “Great Commission church” will inflict joy-saturated pain. Sure, it’s understandable to want your kids to live in the same town and share Sunday meals; to transfer your pulpit over to the young man you’ve groomed; 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 launch of our first service, we must relate to our best people as if God may one day claim them for the fields. We must also prepare our hearts for the ache their release will bring. 


Organizational Cost

The pain was more than personal for Paul. Onesimus represented the future of his work. Paul could build the future of his mission enterprise around such a man. But Paul did not invest in Onesimus for the sake of his church, but for the sake of the Church. Paul asked, “What is best for Onesimus and God’s purposes, and what is God asking me to sacrifice to get him there?”

The call to lead does not confer the right to build a permanent, unalterable community where the needs of our organization trump everything else. Mission always advances through organizational cost. Before we send, we must consider:

  • How will we replace this person in this role?
  • How will this impact the way our organization functions today?
  • How might this mission initiative change the plans we had for the future?
  • How is God calling us to sacrifice to enable this release?
  • How will we prepare our people for the pain of this person’s absence?


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 men that eventually turn from the Lord. We may one day experience betrayal by a man 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 God’s anointed (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.

Just as the future of the church depends on our ability to release our best to the world, so too 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 sending. 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 send our best people, 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

Share this post