Posted: 09 Feb 2011 11:00 PM PST
"LET NO DEBT REMAIN OUTSTANDING, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law" (Rom. 13:8). Some Christians have used this verse to argue that all debt is wrong and condemned by God. Pay your way as you go. "Let no debt remain outstanding." The strongest voices argue that it is wrong to take a mortgage for a house or for a church building.
The flow of the passage, however, argues against such an interpretation. The opening verses exhort Christians to submit to the civil authorities, not only because they are constituted by God, but also because, when they function properly, they enforce what is right and punish what is wrong (Rom. 13:1–4). So it is important to submit to such authorities, not only so as to avoid punishment, "but also because of conscience" (Rom. 13:5): Christians want to keep a clear conscience by doing what is right. That is also why we pay taxes. The civil authorities are "God's servants, who give their full time to governing" (Rom. 13:6). Like others of God's servants, they are sometimes disobedient and foolish, but in God's ordering of society taxes are God's means of supporting those whose task it is to govern. So we should pay what we owe: "If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue" (Rom. 13:7).
More broadly yet, pay whatever is owed: "If respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another" (Rom. 13:7–8).
"Debt," then, in this context, has only a secondary reference to financial obligation. The passage has everything to do with the ongoing obligations of personal relationships in a society ordered by God. Moreover, insofar as finances are concerned, some financial obligations, such as taxes, are paid again and again; as they come due, we pay them. In precisely the same way, in a contracted mortgage, as the payments come due, we pay them. For all kinds of reasons it may be best to avoid fiscal debt of all kinds. But that is scarcely the point the apostle is making here.
The way Paul talks about love as "the continuing debt" reinforces the point. Some "debts," such as taxes, recur; the debt of love does not so much recur as continue: it is ever with us. The commandments that bear on horizontal relationships (what today we would call social relationships) may be summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Rom. 13:9; Lev. 19:18). Love is thus the "fulfillment" of the Law (Rom. 13:10)—that is, love is that to which the Law points, in this time of eschatological fulfillment (Rom. 13:11–14), and this we always owe.
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