Christians and Debt: “Owe no man any thing”

The phrase “owe no man any thing” (Rom 13.8) is commonly misquoted as a prohibition on incurring financial debt. This verse is often twisted to mean, “Don’t put that TV on your credit card,” “Only buy used cars,” and “Don’t borrow money from your relatives.” (Strangely, those who misuse it in this fashion almost never take it to mean, “Don’t sign a mortgage to buy a house…”)

Paul says something in the preceding verses that make it impossible to read this verse as a blanket prohibition on “financial debt.” In verse 7, Paul told the Roman believers to “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.” In other words, “pay all your financial obligations.” He uses the words “revenue” and “owed” back-to-back with no qualification. He doesn’t say, “If you happen to be under a financial obligation because you’re a sinner who doesn’t heed the words of Dave Ramsey, pay what you owe.” He assumes that the readers have financial obligations and tells them to pay those assumed debts.

I suppose someone might argue that Paul is just talking about taxes, not car loans and credit cards. To that objection, I’d raise the following questions.

  1. Why did he say “taxes” and “revenue?” Wouldn’t “taxes” have sufficed if he was only talking about them?
  2. There were no car loans back then; of course Paul didn’t identify them.
  3. By stacking the words “taxes,” “revenue,” “respect,” and “honor,” Paul broadens this instruction far beyond car loans and credit cards.

Paul’s point is this: no matter what you owe someone, pay it. From taxes to financial debts to intangible forms of honor for authorities, pay what you are obligated to pay. That means if you sign a car loan or mortgage, pay each payment on time. If you owe recurring forms of financial obligation, like rent, school payments, cell phone bills, or taxes, make each payment on time. He assumes that his readers will have financial obligations; the instruction is to pay them properly, not to judge people whose obligation is different from or heavier than yours.

Of course, don’t take on debt for foolish reasons or in a foolish way. There’s a lot of wisdom about that in Solomon. But also, don’t take Paul’s words to mean something different from what he wrote them to mean.

As long as we’re on the topic of misquoted verses, I’d like to point out that “give honor to whom honor is due” is not really a verse about graduation honors. In its original context, it referred to respect shown to a civil authority, not to a student with a 4.0. I’m not saying it’s heresy to quote that verse during commencement; I’m just pointing out that it means something different.