Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.
“The family that prays together stays together.” This very catchy phrase was created as a motto in 1947 for the Roman Catholic Family Rosary Crusade, which was led by an Irish priest named Patrick Peyton (1909–1992). Inspired by the fact that prior to the world-changing naval Battle of Lepanto (1571), soldiers and sailors of the Holy League — a coalition of Roman Catholic states — had prayed to the Virgin Mary through the rosary for victory over the Muslim fleet of the Ottoman Empire, Peyton came up with the idea of praying the rosary as a way of combatting Communism. An advertising copywriter by the name of Al Scalpone (1913–2000), later a successful television executive, is actually credited with the creation of the motto.
Despite these interesting origins, the phrase does capture an element of the New Testament’s theology of prayer, namely the importance of praying together. Think about Paul’s letter to Philemon in this regard. In the main, it appears to be a private letter, in which the Apostle Paul takes up the subject of Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus with discretion and tact. The opening of the letter teems with familial terms. The letter is being written by Paul and his “brother” Timothy to Philemon, whom they consider a “beloved co-worker” (v 1), as well as to “the sister Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church in your house.” In his commentary on this verse, John Gill (1697–1771) plausibly suggested that Apphia was the wife of Philemon. As for Archippus — was he their son? Archippus is also mentioned in Colossians 4:17, where Paul urges him to “Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it.”
After this salutation and initial benediction, Paul addresses himself in the body of the letter to Philemon. Thus, underlying all of the words translated by the English “you” or “your” from verse 4 to 22a is either a Greek verb in the second person singular or a form of the possessive adjective or personal pronoun in the second person singular. But, without warning, in the middle of verse 22 there is a sudden shift from the second person singular. Paul asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. The Apostle then goes on to give the reason for this request: “I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.” Paul suddenly switches over to using second person plural forms of the personal pronoun. This shift, hidden in nearly all modern English translations of the verse, is not a fortuitous one nor one that is done merely for stylistic effect. Behind it obviously lies a profound appreciation of corporate prayer.
Although the body of the letter is directed to Philemon, since Paul is dealing with a personal matter which primarily concerns him, Paul never forgets the fact that Philemon also belongs to a circle of believers who meet in his family home as a house-church (v 2). And we know the names of four members of this extended family: Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and now, Onesimus. By the way, notice Paul uses familial terms with regard to Onesimus: he is Paul’s spiritual “child” (v 10) and, as such, he is a “beloved brother” (v 16).
At the conclusion of the letter, Paul informs Philemon of his intention to visit him and his assurance that the believers who comprise the house-church which meets in Philemon’s home are regularly remembering him in prayer (v 22): “prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.” The communal context of this letter, reflected in verses 1 and 2, now suddenly re-emerges.
As Paul thinks of Philemon praying for his release from prison and his forthcoming visit to his home, he cannot isolate Philemon’s prayers from those of his “family” of fellow believers in Colossae. Paul’s reliance on other believers in his ministry is here patent as he mentions his assurance that not only Philemon, but also his entire house-church is remembering him in prayer.
Furthermore, the context for these prayers should not be regarded as limited to these believers’ personal times of prayer. Paul’s language envisages the house-church in Philemon’s home praying as a whole and together for his release. As the eighteenth-century Baptist commentator John Gill put it: “the prayer of a righteous man availeth much with God, and is very prevalent with him, and much more the prayers of a whole church.”
Let us pray — both privately and together and as brothers and sisters in the family of God!
Michael A. G. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality and Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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