Dr. Robert R. Seyda



When we take a look, Scripture itself seems to present disobedience of secular rulers as, at least in some cases, a virtue. The classic instance is Peter and John, whom Luke apparently commends for responding to the Sanhedrin’s command not to preach about Jesus with these words: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”1 Moreover, resistance to the Beast’s demands for worship in Revelation is evidence of loyalty to the Lord. We will explore in the next section just how we can bring Scripture into harmony on this matter of obedience to governmental authorities. But first, we need to look at both some ancient and modern issues that will help us to bridge the contexts.2

Jewish scholar David Stern explains these things from his perspective. Since Paul discussed believers’ relationships with each other and with nonbelievers earlier in this letter, Paul naturally turns to how they should relate to the chief external institution, the state.3 His advice, which can be seen as an application of Romans 12:21, corresponds closely to Judaism’s “The Law of the kingdom is Law,” and it is to be obeyed as if God had commanded it.4 Does this mean that believers should obey the wicked Laws of an evil government – the Nazis, the Communists, other totalitarian regimes? No! This type of rule does not represent the form of oversight that God supplies in the Scriptures.

We can also look at it in light of Peter and John’s statement of obeying God rather than men.5 When the will of the State and the will of God are in conflict, God must win. The early Christians refused to offer incense to statues of the Roman emperor because such idolatry would have been disobedience to God; they paid with their lives. Jews too have been martyred for the sake of keeping the Name of God holy6 when they refused conversion to the Roman Catholic’s form of Christianity in the Middle Ages which was incapable of communicating either its truth or its Jewishness. To have done so would have been seen as an act of idolatry. The implications of Scripture for civil disobedience in the modern sense – that is, for a moral cause, also a selfless one – deserves attention.7

This brings us to today and how Christians are responsible for paying their taxes and show respect to their governing authority. What aggravates and frustrates most citizens, not just Christians, is the misuse and waste of their taxes that ends up causing them to be raised. In most states, car registration fees and gasoline taxes are supposed to be used for repairing roads, streets, bridges, and transportation infrastructure. But sadly, politicians who see these taxes as the government’s money, spend them on frivolous things that do not benefit society as a whole, and they do so just to buy votes and increase their popularity to guarantee reelection. There is nothing in God’s Word that would prevent any Christian from expressing their righteous indignation about such waste of their taxes. The best expression of all can be done at the ballot box.

Verse 8: You should owe nothing to anyone, except that you will always owe love to each other. The person who loves others has done all that the Law commands.

Indebtedness has always been a problem. Even Jesus told a story of indebtedness.8 And Paul has just spoken of a Christian’s responsibility to be a good citizen, and that includes paying taxes. But here he uses moral commitments rather than monetary obligations to make his point. We can see this combination in the Torah that says: “You are not to exploit a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether one of your brothers or a foreigner living in your land in your town. You are to pay him his wages the day he earns them, before sunset; for he is poor and looks forward to being paid. Otherwise he will cry out against you to Adonai, and it will be your sin.9

Solomon also expressed the same moral obligation when it came to being kind to those needing help: “Don’t withhold good from someone entitled to it when you have in hand the power to do it. Don’t tell your neighbor, ‘Go away! Come another time; I’ll give it to you tomorrow,’ when you have it now.10 Jesus encapsulated this when He said: “Always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that sums up the teaching of the Torah and the writing of the Prophets.11 So Paul was on good ground when he wrote the Galatians and said: “You obey the whole Law when you do this one thing, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’12 Paul is saying that it is love that makes the difference in how we treat people. That’s why he wrote the Colossians: “And to all these things, you must add love. Love holds everything and everybody together and makes all these good things perfect.13

Paul’s statement that love is a debt we owe to others is also commented on by early church scholars. Chrysostom agrees that love is a debt which we owe to our brothers and sisters in Christ because of our spiritual relationship to them. If love departs from us, the whole body of Christ is torn to pieces. Therefore, love your brother, for if you can fulfill the Law by befriending him, then the benefit you receive puts you in his debt.14 And Augustine echoes the same sentiment, that Paul shows that the fulfillment of the Law is found in love, namely, in charitable giving. The Lord also says that the whole Law and prophets depend on these two principles, the love of God and the love of neighbor. So Christ who came to fulfill the Law gave us love through the Holy Spirit so that giving might accomplish what taking could not.15

In another place, Augustine is convinced that the only way of holding onto that pattern of continually being good to those around you is by love. If we love another because we are all trying to live right, we cannot help but love the way it is done, which shows us what it means to live right in order that we may be right in all we do. In fact, if we did not love the image of God we see in others, we would have no love for that person since our love for them is based on always wanting to help. But on the other hand, if we are not living right ourselves, helping others by itself is not enough for us to claim that we are living right.16 And Pelagius looks at it this way: We should never fail to repay all our debts. But there is one debt we can never pay in full and that is our debt of love. According to the parable of the Lord, who bids us show mercy to everyone without distinction, we must think of every person as our neighbor. Paul mentioned love first because he was writing to the faithful and dealing with behavior proper to righteous living.17

John Calvin is of the opinion that Paul meant to refer the principle of respecting the power of government to the Law of love so that no one would question its validity. It was another way of Paul saying that when believers are required to obey the law and those who enforce it’s because the Law of love demands it. If we really want the government to make it possible for us to enjoy living safe and sound, we should do all we can to see that the Laws and Courts continue to be respected so that those who are charged with maintaining law and order will be dealing with obedient citizens. That way, peace will be provided for everyone. Calvin then adds that we should consider what will happen if there is anarchy. Not only does it violate love, but anarchy automatically leads to total confusion18.19

Adam Clarke also shares his thoughts on this subject. Up until this point, the Apostle Paul has been showing the duty, reverence, and obedience, which all Christians, from the highest to the lowest, owe to the government, whether they are a President, Governor, Mayor, or any local official. But it is a two-way street. Both have obligations to each other. But this is only part of what they owe to the government as a God-ordained institution. When it comes to the government, each citizen owes allegiance, respect, obedience, and tribute. But when it comes to each other and those who have been appointed to carry out their governmental duties, citizens owe nothing but mutual love and respect. Therefore, the Apostle Paul says, don’t be indebted to anyone, it’s another way of saying, you owe to your fellowman nothing but mutual love, and this is what the Law of God requires, and in this the Law is fulfilled. We are not bound in obedience to them as we are to officers of the law, but for conscience sake. By having mutual respect and love for each other, it prevents everyone from doing anything that may cause their neighbor any harm or injury.20

Robert Haldane likes the beautiful way Paul represents love as a debt that is never paid. It is a debt that is always due, but should never be overdue. Christians ought not only to love one another continually, but their love for each other should grow. The more they pay of this debt, the richer will they be because it is an investment. That’s why Paul urges us to love on the ground that it is fulfillment of the Law in all its precepts. The whole Law is grounded on love to God and love to our fellowman. This cannot be violated without violating the Law. For where there is love, it will lead to fulfilling all of God’s commandments. But since there is no such thing as perfect love among humans as the Law requires, that’s why Paul says we are always in debt to one another when it comes to love.21

Charles Hodge believes that we should all try to remain debt free, but when it comes to love, that is a debt that will always be due. Not only is this to be expected of believers, but considering the context that places it among the commands given by Jesus and now Paul, it is the best way to interpret this passage. However, Hodge notes that some Bible scholars take the Greek verb opheilō (to owe) in the indicative mood (something that should be done at one’s convenience), instead of the imperative mood (something that should be done right now), and understand the passage this way: “You should be debt free when it comes to what you owe, but when it comes to love you can never be out of debt to each other, (which includes all other duties,) for they that love one another fulfill the Law.” This gives a good sense when this verse is taken by itself; but viewed in connection with all those verses those which precede and follow this verse, the common interpretation that this is something we must do now is what Paul is really saying.22

1 Acts 4:19-20; cf., 5:29

2 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

3 See also 1 Kings 2:13–17

4 Matthew 22:21

5 Acts of the Apostles 5:29

6 See Acts of the Apostles 7:59-60

7 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Matthew 18:21-35; See 22:39-40

9 Deuteronomy 24:14-15 – Complete Jewish Bible

10 Proverbs 3:27-28

11 Matthew 7:12

12 Galatians 5:14

13 Colossians 3:14

14 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23

15 Augustine: On Romans 75

16 Augustine: The Trinity 8.9

17 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

18 The debt of love is to be always paid, and is always due: for love is ever to be exercised. We are to pay other debts, and we may pay them fully and finally: but the debt of love ever continues, and is to be daily discharged. — Ed.

19 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

20 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 259-260

21 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 588

22 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 635

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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