As the emissaries of Christ commissioned to provide the foundation for the church, the apostles were granted special authority to speak for Jesus to the believing community (Matt. 10:40; John 17:20–21; Acts 2:42; Eph. 2:20; 1 Thess. 2:6). Practically speaking, they had the right to command Christians to act in certain ways, and we often see Paul, Peter, and the other apostles issuing such commands in their writings. The apostle Paul could have ordered Philemon directly to be reconciled to Onesimus and to free him, but he chose not to avail himself of that right in this particular case (Philem. 8). When we consider the biblical teaching on ethics and that which is pleasing to the Lord, it will not be difficult to see why Paul chose not to place a law before Philemon for obedience.
God’s law, of course, is very important for Christian ethics. Thinkers from every theological tradition have recognized the vital role that the Ten Commandments, for instance, play in understanding what is right and wrong. Paul himself alludes to the centrality of our Creator’s moral law in teaching us how to live in light of the gospel (Rom. 13:9; Eph. 6:1–3). Yet as important as God’s law is to Christian ethics, it has its limitations. First, there can never be enough laws to cover every possible scenario. The Lord could reveal such a code, but we would never be able to receive it. If there is no way for U.S. citizens to know every federal regulation, we could by no means know every statute God would have to lay down to address every possible situation, crime, motive, agent, and so on. Second, law has no power to make us obey, as Paul shows us in Romans 7:7–25. Finally, external conformity to the law of the Lord is not enough to please Him. Certainly, it is better to follow the commands even when we lack a desire to do so than it is to ignore the law completely, but a “good” deed is truly and fully good only if it has the right motivation — love for God and neighbor (Luke 10:25–28).
Love, in fact, is primary in Christian ethics. Paul appealed to Philemon to act in love and did not command him to free Onesimus because he wanted to be sure that Philemon’s motives would please the Lord (Philem. 8–10). There is no exhausting what love would have us do in service to God and neighbor; true love always moves us to do more than the letter of the law, encouraging us to go above and beyond duty’s call.