paying-off-debt

The boys and I met before Christmas, and at one point our attention turned to indebtedness, in particular in the light of this verse, which one brother quoted: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Once he had finished, a bevy of thoughts ploughed through my brain. Only one answer arose, but it was a little shaky. As far as I knew, the Lord did not forbid Christians in the New Testament to borrow money or incur debt. Nevertheless, I wanted to poke at this notion. I asked if all of us had had mortgages at one time or another. All of us had. We also revealed that we all had been in trouble with credit card debt earlier in our lives, and that we had learned from that experience. But that we had all been in debt proved nothing. So, this vague feeling of law-breaking hovered over our little group like a misty fog. Is it true that Christians should “owe no one anything” means not being in debt?

Since I didn’t have an immediate scriptural answer for Romans 13:8 that day, I encouraged the brothers to read the verse in context. After we’d all gone home, I remembered, somewhere in my memory-deprived brain, that Jesus talked about lending and loans without condemnation (Luke 7:41–42 and Luke 11:5–7). But before I got around to looking any of that up, sometime during that day, I remembered a foundational truth: All of God’s laws either have to do with loving God or loving your neighbor. Quickly following, I recalled this from Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).1

So, I asked myself, “How does owing people money portray not loving my neighbor?”

It seemed obvious I wouldn’t be loving my neighbor if I didn’t pay my bills and unjustly kept what was owed to them. This is backed up in Proverbs: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you” (Proverbs 3:27–28).

Eventually, I got around to reading the sentence in Romans 13:8 in its context. Having done that, I found that this verse was not about borrowing money at all. Here’s why: Verse 8 is preceded by Paul telling the Romans to be subject to the governing authorities, which in their case, was the emperor, tax-collectors, and law-enforcers. The verse just before the “owe no one anything,” is, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7). It is followed by these verses: “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9–10).

The passage in question, Romans 13:7-10, is about being subject to governing authorities and thus loving one’s neighbors, “paying” them what is “due,” like taxes, revenue, respect, and honor, not about borrowing money. However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to maintain that making monthly payments on a loan is loving one’s neighbor, as well.

It is true that in Deuteronomy 15:6 and 28:12, the Lord told Israel that they shall not borrow, but it seems He is saying that such borrowing would put them in subjection to other nations. “For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you” (Deuteronomy 15:6).

It is also true that Proverbs 22:7 wisely tells us that “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender,” but this seems to be a warning about being impoverished under crushing debt. Both Deuteronomy and Proverbs concern debt that puts us under the “ruling” subjection of others. Borrowing money wisely does not bring this result.

So, no New Testament admonition commands us to not borrow money, and Romans 13:8 cannot be used as law for us. One must take that verse out of context and twist it to make it so. Nevertheless, we should love our neighbor by paying our debts and bills on time.

 

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

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