Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8 NIV)
This week someone very kindly, politely, and respectfully challenged me to rethink my position on debt and credit cards. Her belief is that when one uses a credit card (even if it is paid off every month), she is in debt. Romans 13:8 was one of the passages she used to support her opinion.
Since her challenge was so kind, I decided that I should humbly go back to Romans 13:8 to see if there was any validity to her concern.
An Analysis of Romans 13:8
Is this talking about money? It might be. Romans 13:7 just finished up talking about taxes.
Is this talking about credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages? I think that is a stretch.
In this case, I think our understanding of this passage could be improved if we substituted the word ‘obligation’ for debt. When we see the word debt, our North American minds automatically associate it with things like credit cards and mortgages. However, the focus here is obviously any type of IOUs – including some types of financial debt.
Should Christians have obligations to others?
If I visit the mafia and ask them to put pressure on my boss to give me a raise, will I owe them something? Yes. Romans 13:8 teaches that we shouldn’t do something that obligates you to others over and above your obligation to Jesus.
As such, we ALWAYS live our lives in debt and indebtedness. We are in debt to Jesus Christ because he paid a price he did not owe, one that we couldn’t afford. Since he made this payment, he bought me so I now serve him. I am now obligated to serve others in a debt of love. If I make another agreement or commitment to obligate myself to someone else, then I am violating my previous obligation or indebtedness to Jesus.
How does this apply to finances?
I think we need to differentiate between debt and obligation. While every debt is technically an obligation, not every one obligates you to another. In other words, Romans 13:8 certainly doesn’t make a debt sinful until the point it obligates us beyond our indebtedness to Jesus.
Thus, before we can apply Romans 13:8 to our finances, we need to first identify the type of debt we have and ask if that parallels the type described in Romans 13:8. I think some financial debt will count and some will not.
At the point that someone is unable or unwilling to fulfill their Christian obligation due to money owed to others, it falls under the instructions of Romans 13:8.
Example #1: Borrowing Money from Friends
A few months ago, I was trying to buy plane tickets, but my funds from North America were ‘in transit’ floating over the Pacific Ocean. I went to our teammates, and they lent me the money for a few days until my funds cleared.
While I was technically in debt to them, I was not in a position where it threatened my indebtedness to Jesus.
I had the funds available (just not liquid) to pay them back. Had they insisted, I could have taken out a CD or sold something I owned. They couldn’t control my life by holding this debt over me. I was in far too healthy of a financial situation to allow that to happen.
Example #2: Spending Like a King
A young couple graduate college with $80,000 in school debt. They buy a $15,000 car and owe $12,000 on credit cards. Oh, and they make $30,000 per year.
Is this couple in a position where their debt may threaten their indebtedness to Jesus?
I think so.
Let’s imagine this young couple develops an interest (shall I say ‘receives a call’) to missions? Ultimately, they decide they can’t because they owe too much money.
This couple hears about the tragedy in Japan and wants to help, but they can’t because of their payments due.
The stress hits the marriage, and the bill collectors start calling and things go from bad to worse. Every waking moment is focused on how to repay this debt, increase the income, and get collectors off their backs.
I’d call that indebtedness to something other than Jesus.
I think credit card spending (and paying it off every month) falls under the first example. If Chase or AMEX called and said, “We demand our money you lousy creature.” I’d say, “OK, where should I send the check?” There is nothing they can do to control my life or impact my indebtedness to Jesus Christ.
A reasonable mortgage is similar. If necessary, the house can be sold to cover the balance owning.
While I personally can’t understand why people get car loans, I don’t think a reasonable amount of debt with a car loan would result in the type of indebtedness that Romans 13:8 is discussing.
Self-Inflicted Debt and Circumstantial Debt
I believe we must differentiate between self-inflicted and circumstantial debt. We Christians have done a terrible job making our brothers and sisters in Christ feel guilty for being in debt for situations where the person has worked hard to avoid debt, but ultimately, could not keep up.
Yes, I did just write about the liberty of choice, but we cannot choose what happens around us. We can only choose our response. Last week one of our church members got sick. Her trips to the hospital cost K30 ($10 USD). She makes K60 per week. What if she had to be in the hospital for several months and pay those bills.? She would either receive charity help or be indebted to someone.
This kind of debt is different because this person didn’t indebt themselves to someone other than Jesus. Their circumstances were the root cause. They didn’t choose debt.
That’s why I think we need to differentiate different types of debts in order to properly understand Romans 13:8.
A summary of Romans 13:8 in the Craig’s New Revised Possibly Wrong Edition
Do not make a choice to obligate yourselves to others. Do this neither in finances, nor career, nor conscience, nor family. This is because you are already indebted to Jesus Christ. As such, your master, Jesus, obligates you to serve others. This fulfills the will of God.