We have been speaking of love as foundational to Christian ethics and of Philemon’s need to do what love required in the situation with Onesimus. Yet drawing such conclusions will not be equally obvious to everyone, for our culture and even many churches misunderstand the applications of true love. Countless people justify the cohabitation of non-married couples, homosexual relationships, covetousness, and other sins with an appeal to love. For example, some may argue that if two people love each other, why should their relationship be frowned upon because it does not fit the pattern of one husband and one wife?
If love is made the foundation of ethics but is not defined according to Scripture, then love can excuse anything. Christian ethicists say the love that must guide our decisions is the love that fulfills God’s moral law (Rom. 13:10); it is the love that concerns itself with bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Love may call us to go above and beyond the basic standards for generosity, respect, and concern for others, but it never demands us to violate the principles for conduct in the moral law of God.
Regarding interpersonal relationships, love often calls us to ignore certain offenses (Prov. 17:9; 1 Peter 4:8). This could be why Paul fails to mention specifically the reason for Onesimus’ flight from Philemon in Philemon 15–16, but it is perhaps more likely that the apostle does not speak of Onesimus’ misdeed directly because Philemon would not have needed a reminder of what led to the problems with his slave.
In any case, Paul continues his argument for Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus through an appeal to God’s providence. True, Onesimus, from what we can gather, sinned against Philemon somehow; nevertheless, this sin did not occur outside of the sovereign will of the Lord. The apostle even suggests the ultimate design in this event was Onesimus’ salvation (vv. 15–16). Paul does this somewhat hesitantly, for while it is clear that Onesimus’ flight and conversion were in God’s sovereign will (after all, they happened), the Lord’s intent in allowing Onesimus’ sin was less plain because the apostle had no special revelation of this design. Seeing God’s providence remains a difficult undertaking, and while we can trust that our Creator has a design behind all that ever happens, we should not be quick to assume we know His intent.