One of the shortest books of the Bible is a book called Philemon. This brief, one-chapter book is a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Philemon about a slave who had run away from Philemon, his master.
While on the run, Onesimus had met Paul who was in prison. Onesimus had not just met Paul, he had become very useful to him. While it was tempting to keep Onesimus with him to help him deal with his imprisonment, Paul knew that the right thing to do was to send Onesimus back to Philemon.
In his letter, Paul explains that Onesimus had become a valuable friend to him while he was in prison and asks Philemon to have mercy on his runaway slave and receive him back just as he would receive Paul.
The danger for Philemon taking back a runaway slave without punishing him was that other slaves would then think it was fine to run away too and not suffer any consequences.
We never learn for certain what Philemon did, whether he welcomed Onesimus back as a brother or punished him and returned him to slavery. Since Paul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus ended up in the Bible the assumption is that Philemon did what Paul asked.
Most churches have runaway members. These are people who joined the church and attended for a while but then stopped attending. There are those who completely stop attending and others who only attend at Christmas and Easter. Churches typically keep them on as members for years, sometimes decades and from time to time make attempts to get them to come back.
What are faithful church members supposed to do when runaway members want to come back? Should they welcome them back, no questions asked? Will that make other church members think that there will be no consequences if they run away too? If the church is too harsh with runaways they might decide not to come back or go to another church.
The main concern is for people to remain believers in Jesus Christ. It is through faith in Christ that we are saved. We can’t assume that people who have been absent from church attendance have necessarily lost their faith. They may very well have been out doing good for others in the name of Christ as Onesimus was doing for Paul.
On the other hand, we can’t assume that those who remain faithful in their church attendance remain in the faith. Yes, they are nourishing their faith by hearing the Word of God and receiving the Lord’ Supper but no one can see into their hearts to see if they truly believe. Thankfully, we don’t have to make judgments about the eternal destiny of peoples’ souls. God does.
Just as Onesimus had Paul to speak up for him, it is always good if runaway church members who want to return have other people speak up for them. And every one of us needs Jesus to speak up for us before our heavenly Father. Without the intervention of Jesus we would all be lost.
When Jesus speaks for us he uses the same approach that Paul does with Philemon. He says to our heavenly Father, “Receive these poor, lost sinners just as you would receive me. I died on the cross to pay for all of their sins so now there is no reason for you not to accept them, Father.” This is why faith in Jesus is so important. It is also why it is hard for faithful church members to understand why anyone would stay away from hearing this blessed good news regularly in worship.
Taking people back can be an issue other areas of life as well. Families, companies and sports teams sometimes have to make decisions about taking people back and the right way to proceed is not always clear.
It’s a lot easier to decide whether or not to take someone back if a third party is willing to speak on their behalf. Jesus speaks on our behalf and we know what the outcome will be; our heavenly Father simply cannot reject those for whom Jesus intercedes.