Romans 13:8 “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”
I hate debt. I have been in personal debt two times in my life (the first time was for medical bills and the second time for taxes). In both cases, the problems went far beyond their original causes and it took several years to get out. The last time we cut back many things (sold our house and rented an old one, went to one older car, got a new job, etc.) in order to get out of debt. To this day I fight like crazy to stay out of new debt. Even the church where I pastor has no debt—not on equipment, land or buildings. My only personal debt is the house mortgage we have and current bills.
What About Romans 13:8?
However, I also hate the blatant misapplication of scripture. Some men are using Romans 13:8 as proof that any debt under any circumstances is a sin. When the Bible says, “Owe no man any thing,” it must mean anything! Right? Well, not necessarily. I am even prepared to prove that these men do not mean anything in a universal sense. They are correct in opposing the evils of excessive debt and easy credit. They are correct in fighting the lack of faith that is usually the hallmark of debt-ridden believers. However, this does not justify the harm done by the serious misinterpretation of this text. Let me explain.
First, look at the text and the context. Paul says, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another.” What has Paul been dealing with in this passage? He has been dealing with the error of some believers who feel no need to pay their taxes because they are not of this world. Paul’s answer is, “Render therefore to all their dues.” Whether tribute, custom, fear or honor; if you owe it to them, then give it as they require.
In other words, if anyone has a proper expectation of us; if we owe them—then we should pay it. This matches the teaching of Proverbs 3:27-28: “Withhold not good from them to who it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbor, Go, and come again, and to morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee.” Do not put someone off when it is their right and they claim it. Give them what you owe them to the best of your ability.
A Sin to Borrow for Any Reason?
But, does this passage also teach that it is a sin to borrow for any reason? Well, just consider. If it is wrong to borrow money, then it is also wrong to borrow a ladder or a saw because as long as it is in my hand, I owe it to the man who really owns it. The verse does not say, “Owe no man any money”; it says, “Owe no man any thing.” If it means, “Do not under any circumstances borrow,” as some have interpreted it, then it would include things as well as money.
Another thing that bothers me about this interpretation is that it makes Romans 13:8 the only verse in the Bible that makes borrowing a sin. Yes, I know, “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). Yet, notice the parallelism. If it is not a sin to be poor, then it must not be a sin to be a borrower. The negative nature of borrowing is akin to the negative nature of being sick. It is not desirable but neither is it a sin. I suppose the person who readily goes into debt when it is not necessary would be like a person who readily exposes himself to various diseases and becomes sick. Both of these men are foolish though not necessarily wicked.
So, as I said, there are no other verses in the Bible that teach the sinfulness of debt. Certainly, any debt entered into out of God’s will is a sin. But this is not the same as calling all debt sin. On several occasions, Jesus used debt in His parables (Matthew 18:23-35; Luke 7:41-43; Luke 16:1-9). In none of these parables is the debtor evil because of his debt—unless you consider the debtor who was condemned because he would not show mercy on those who owed him. Also, why did Elisha not condemn the widow woman of 2 Kings 4 for not having enough faith? Why did he not tell her to repent and seek forgiveness? Rather, he fixed the problem as an answer to her request for help.
Consider the fact that under the law protection was given to those in debt. “If thou at all take thy neighbor’s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down” (Exodus 22:26). The pledge was the poor man’s collateral. Yet, the loaner was not even allowed to keep the man’s pledge over night—even if the debt had not been paid. Now tell me, if going into debt is a sin, why did God protect the sinner in his sin? Did God give this kind of protection to those who lie or murder or worship false gods? Of course not! Would God be a righteous God if He protected sinners in their sin? No! Yet there is more. God commanded those who have money to freely lend to those who are in need. Consider these verses:
Deuteronomy 15:7 - “If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.”
Now if borrowing is a sin, God is commanding His people to help those wanting to commit this sin in their sin. This is like saying that if a man wants to commit murder, give him a gun and show him how to use it; if a man wants to commit adultery, drive him to the red light district and give him the money he needs for the deed. This is terribly inconsistent. My God is not inconsistent.
In conclusion, let me say this. The Bible clearly teaches that financial debt is a negative to be avoided if at all possible. We are to walk by faith and the majority of borrowing done by Christians today is a neon sign revealing their lack of faith and their inability to control their desires. Wisdom leads away from debt and toward debt-free living. In today’s society, many are led into debt by foolishness. Yet, there are also debts incurred for proper causes.
Let me close with one personal example. Early in our marriage, my wife and I stayed pretty much debt-free. (I remember that we bought one small item on credit just to establish some credit.) After three years of marriage, we had our first child on the way. We pulled together the $500 fee for the doctor (it was cheaper back then). We also had insurance. As the time for delivery came close, my wife started having some complications. As it turned out, she had a toxemia pregnancy and labor had to be induced early.
Our insurance only covered a maximum of $500 for the hospital visit. Believer it or not, this would have covered a major portion of a normal delivery. Yet, this was not a normal delivery. In fact, the hospital and doctor bills came to around $5,000. So, did I struggle over this debt I was incurring? Was it a lapse of faith that made me allow the doctors to do whatever they thought necessary to save mother and child? Should I have pulled her out of the hospital and told her that we were going to have faith?
Do not tell me that this is different. I went into debt that week. In fact, I incurred debt to about ten different medical services. It took us several years to get out of this debt. If going into debt is a sin, then I sinned that week. But I do not believe that it was. You can judge me if you want, but I would do it again in a heartbeat and never look back. Please, let us not get into extremes that take us where God would not have us go.