Because gas had gone up to 33 cents per gallon, I decided to ride to church with my parents. I was a junior in high school and trying to save money. I went to my Sunday school class, and then afterwards, sat down next to my new girl friend for the worship time. My mom had told me not to hold hands with my girlfriend in church. She didn't see how I could keep my mind on the proper things if I did.

During the course of the sermon, I did whisper something to my new girlfriend a time or two. Other than that, I thought I had behaved quite nicely. Oh, and I did twist my arm around so I could hold her hand without my parents being able to tell.

About half way through the sermon, the normally soft-spoken preacher raised his right hand and pointed in my direction. It was just after the second of those two whispers. He said, "If you two kids don't behave, I'm going to have to escort you out."

I let go of my girlfriend's hand. I slid down in my seat. My heart began to pound. My palms got sweaty. I was mortified! I wasn't expecting to be "called out" in church! Then ... I remembered two horrifying things: my parents were sitting a few rows behind me and I was going to have to ride home with them. Uh-oh!

Waiting as long as possible, I finally got into the car for the ride home. I did my best to be invisible in the back seat, but before the car was in gear, my mom said through tight lips, "We know it wasn't you. The two kids sat right in front of us. They were awful. You're off the hook for that ... but, after lunch we will talk about you holding hands during church."

For about an hour, I had thought I had been "called out" in church by the preacher! How would you feel in that position? Yeah, not pleasant, is it?

Well let me share with you a much bigger deal — a time when the leader of the church was called out by the apostle Paul. Not only was it done in church, it is now a book in the Bible!

Paul sent letters of Colossians and Philemon to be read by the church in Colossae. The letter was brought by Tychicus, who was accompanied by Onesimus (4:7-9).

Paul has good things to say about this church. He points to their faith, love, and hope as marks of maturity (Colossians 1:1-5). However, they have a dirty little secret. As soon as Onesimus had walked in the door with Tychicus, the church knew it, and found itself in a moment of brittle attention. So after the letter of Colossians was read, the letter to Philemon was read as well.

The Colossian church met in the house of Apphia and her husband Philemon. The minister for the church was Philemon's son, Archippus. The very life of the Colossian church hinged on the goodwill of this family!

Onesimus had been Philemon's slave. He had run away and appears to have stolen things when he left. Under Roman law, Onesimus was property and Philemon could do anything he wanted to do to punish him. Yet Paul had sent Onesimus back. This was not an accidental moment!

While in prison, Onesimus had become Paul's "son" in the faith. Now Onesimus is back, and Paul wants Philemon to do four hard things:

  • Forgive him.
  • Free him from his slavery.
  • Treat him as a brother in Christ.
  • Send him back to help Paul during his imprisonment.

Nothing in culture or in Roman law would have supported Paul's request. Paul was asking Philemon to do the unthinkable: give up his rights, give up his claim of ownership, give up his retribution for the things taken from him, offer forgiveness, and treat this person as a respected brother in Christ. And, Paul asks all of this in front of the church. (You can read Colossians and Philemon for the nitty-gritty details and deep emotions of both letters!)

Don't get lost in the fine print. Instead, notice the underlying principles:

  • Paul was willing to risk the harmony of this little church and his personal relationship with his dear friend over an issue of integrity. (He believed the grace of God and the love of Christ in people's hearts could prevent it and ensure something redemptive would come of it!)
  • Agent of subversive goodness has a nice ring to it!
  • Paul was not willing to let the church pretend the issue didn't exist: he is asking the church to "get real" and be part of a positive solution. (He believed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the strength of Christian community to help this group of believers live up to it's calling to follow Jesus.)
  • Paul couldn't change culture, but he was counting on these believers to be an outpost of the kingdom: a group willing to buck culture and follow Jesus no matter the cost. (Salt, light, and leaven are real when people are willing to live against the pull of culture and choose the way of Jesus.)

I do not know where the culture of our individual countries or our ever-shrinking world will lead us in the coming years. I do, however, hope we can see the great confidence that God has in us to be a force for good regardless of where our culture goes. I call this being agents of subversive goodness — folks who live godly lives full of Jesus' goodness regardless of the world's values around them.

We don't know for sure how Philemon responded. There are indications, however, that several decades later, a person named Onesimus was a leader of the church in this region. Sounds like the former slave of Philemon, freed, and now deeply respected. Pretty amazing stuff!

So, shouldn't we expect more of each other and our churches? Imagine what would happen if more of us would "get real" and call each other to the way of Christ, regardless of which way our culture decides to go?

Agent of subversive goodness has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

We undervalue the potential power in our congregations. Sometimes this is because we are so aware of our hypocrisy and weakness. Sometimes it is because we know we are not living up to what God has called us to be as a community of Jesus' people. But if we did not have both strengths and weaknesses in our churches, there wouldn't be room for us. So, rather than going on a church bashing fest, let's think of higher things we can and should be calling each other to be as families of faith.

How can we be more effective at being communities of "subversive goodness" — an outpost for the Kingdom of Heaven — in our churches today?

I'd love to hear your ideas! Please post them on my blog: