May Christians Go Into Debt?

by Glenn Conjurske

“Owe no man any thing.” —-Romans 13:8.

This scripture is so plain that it ought to need no comment. Yet many Christians in our day are so accustomed to explaining away Scripture that they have never been able to arrive at the plain and obvious meaning of these words. They have reasoned and explained and twisted and turned and contorted and wrested the words until they have been made to mean anything but “Owe no man any thing.” Now I really suspect that if they were but willing to obey this scripture, they would very soon discover that it means “Owe no man any thing.” I have often heard it objected that if we did not go into debt, we could not buy a house. And I have always given one uniform answer to this objection: God has not told me to buy a house, but he has told me to “Owe no man any thing.” (I do not own a house, by the way, but rent one.) It may be that it will cost something to simply obey this plain command of God—-it may be that you will be forced to rent (and live in) a place you would rather not, for a price you would rather not pay—-but what of that? Where did the modern church ever get the notion that there was no cost involved in obedience to God? We are “pilgrims and strangers on the earth.” This is the present portion of faith, whether we can afford to buy a house or not.

Common sense (and I should think common honesty also) requires us to take these words in their plain and obvious sense. But the modern church has attempted to redefine the word “owe” in such a way as to make it mean to fail to pay what we owe. This is expressed in the New International Version (the most unfaithful of the popular modern versions) by “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another”—-a rendering which is false upon its face, for if language means anything it gives us permission to leave the debt of love unpaid—-to leave it “outstanding.” It is apparently in an endeavor to avoid this stark meaning of their rendering that they thrust in the word “continuing,” without the shadow of a reason in the original. This rendering is a faithful expression of the unfaithfulness of modern evangelicalism, but it is not a translation of the word of God.

Not thus did the saints of the past deal with this text. They did not explain away its plain meaning, though many of them seemed to regard the precept as merely good advice, and not as a binding commandment. And it is true that with the whole Bible before us we cannot regard debt as something sinful in itself. But there are a number of things which were allowed under former dispensations, and which therefore cannot be regarded as in themselves sinful, which are yet forbidden to Christians—-the spiritual nature of the present dispensation requiring things of us which were not required of others. Debt is one such thing. Outward adorning of our persons is another. The Old Testament contains cautions against debt, such as “The borrower is servant to the lender,” but it contains no precept forbidding it. The New Testament, however, does contain such a precept, and a true spirit of devotedness to Christ will not revert to the lower standard of the old economy merely because it is convenient to do so. Yet we can make room for the honest ignorance of those who have regarded the prohibition of the New Testament in no other light than the cautions of the Old Testament. Such a one was George Whitefield, who was most of the time in debt himself, yet never dreamed of trying thus to explain away the plain meaning of this text. With obvious reference to Romans 13:8, he wrote to John Wesley in 1747, “I hope ere long to be delivered from my outward embarrassments. I long to owe no man any thing but love. This is a debt, Reverend Sir, I shall never be able to discharge to you, or your brother.” We believe that the eminent saints who have taken “Owe no man any thing” at face value in its obvious sense, but regarded it merely as good advice, were of an altogether different spirit from those of the modern church who seek to explain away its plain meaning, in order to justify their own course—-especially when the reasons for their debt may usually be summed up in the one word “worldliness.”

I will not contend that debt is evil in itself, or that it is always wrong. Sometimes people are driven to it by what they regard as sheer necessity, as David was driven to eat the shewbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat. Sometimes people are forced into it by circumstances beyond their control, and their debt may rather be regarded as their misfortune than their sin. Yet I will affirm that deliberate going into debt is usually against faith. To borrow money to procure what God has as yet withheld from me is of the same character as it was for Abraham to take Hagar into his bosom in order to obtain the promised seed. It was not of God, and it was not of faith. The way of faith is to wait patiently for the Lord, and to do without what he does not give—-though I do not mean by this to exclude means which God himself sanctions, such as honest industry and frugality.

Numerous examples might be given to show that debt is unwise, for many eminent saints have suffered much because they have chosen to borrow, or to make themselves surety for others who have borrowed. My purpose here, however, is not to show that debt is unwise, but to show that it is forbidden.

The first thing we must deal with is the meaning of the word “owe,” which many in the modern church have sought to redefine. The word is ojfeivlw in the Greek, and is defined as follows by standard Greek lexicons. (I cite only those definitions which are pertinent, or closely related to those which are pertinent. In other connections the word has other connotations, such as “I ought” or “would that!”—-but these are nothing to the purpose).

Liddell and Scott: “to owe, have to pay or account for, to be debtor, and absol[utely], to be in debt; to be bound to render.”

Pickering: “to owe, to be indebted to, to be under an obligation, to be bound by duty, necessity, etc.”

Thayer: “to owe; prop[erly] to owe money, be in debt for; absol[utely] to be a debtor, be bound; to be under obligation, bound by duty or necessity, to do something.”

Cremer: “to be indebted, to owe; to be under obligation to; to have to pay a money debt.”

Abbott-Smith: “to owe, be a debtor; to be bound or obliged.”

Arndt & Gingrich: “owe, be indebted; lit., of financial debts: owe someth. to someone; fig., owe, be indebted (to) someone (for) someth.; be obligated.”

“Owe no man any thing,” then, is a true and accurate translation, and really cannot be improved upon. If any are disposed to defect from this to an explanatory paraphrase, they ought at least to give a true and faithful paraphrase. Such would be “Be in debt to no man for anything.” But “Let no debt remain outstanding” is inaccurate and unfaithful, unless indeed it be taken to mean “have no standing debts,” or in other words, no debts at all—-but neither the framers or the users of this version would allow such a meaning.

I proceed to give a number of statements from men of God of past generations. From these it will plainly appear that they took “Owe no man any thing” at face value in its plain and obvious meaning, and obeyed it.

George Müller (l805-l898). “`Sell that ye have, and give alms.’ Luke xii.33. `Owe no man any thing, but to love one another.’ Rom. xiii.8. It may be said, surely these passages cannot be taken literally, for how then would the people of God be able to pass through the world. The state of mind enjoined in John vii.17, will cause such objections to vanish. WHOSOEVER IS WILLING TO ACT OUT these commandments of the Lord LITERALLY, will, I believe, be led with me to see that, to take them LITERALLY, is the will of God.—-Those who do so take them will doubtless often be brought into difficulties, hard to the flesh to bear, but these will have a tendency to make them constantly feel that they are strangers and pilgrims here, that this world is not their home, and thus to throw them more upon God, who will assuredly help us through any difficulty into which we may be brought by seeking to act in obedience to His word.”

“I would just observe, that we never contract debts, which we believe to be unscriptural (according to Romans xiii,8;) and therefore we have no bills with our tailor, shoemaker, grocer, butcher, baker, &c.; but all we buy we pay for in ready money. The Lord helping us, we would rather suffer privation, than contract debts.”

C. H. Mackintosh (1820-1896). “We take Romans xiii.8 in its plain, broad sense. We believe it teaches us to owe no man anything. Would to God it were more fully carried out. It is painful beyond expression to see the sad lack of conscience among professors, as to the question of debt. We would solemnly call upon all our readers, who are in the habit of going in debt, to judge themselves in this matter, and to get out of a false position at once. It is better far to sit down to a dry crust, and to wear a shabby coat, than live well and dress well at our neighbour’s expense. We regard it as positive unrighteousness. Oh! for an upright mind!”

“The first grand business of a person in debt is to get out of it. We must be just before we are generous.”

C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). At a meeting to raise funds for his Metropolitan Tabernacle, while it was being built, Spurgeon said, “Of all things I do abhor a debt. I shall feel like a guilty sneaking sinner if I come here with even a hundred pounds debt upon the building. `Owe no man anything,’ will stare me in the face whenever I try to address you. I do not believe that Scripture warrants any man in getting into debt. It may stimulate the people to raise more money; but, after all, attention to the simple Word of God is infinitely better than looking at the end which may be attained by the slightest deviation from it. Let us not owe a farthing to any living soul; and when we come here for the opening services, let us find that all has been paid.”

“The Bible never tells us to get out of debt; it tells us we are not to have any.”

J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1895). Hudson Taylor resigned from the Mission Society under which he had gone out to China, because it was in debt. His account follows. “During the latter part of this year my mind was greatly exercised about continued connection with my Society, it being frequently in debt. Personally I had always avoided debt, and kept within my salary, though at times only by very careful economy. Now there was no difficulty in doing this, for my income was larger, and the country being in a more peaceful state, things were not so dear. But the Society itself was in debt. The quarterly bills which I and others were instructed to draw were often met by borrowed money, and a correspondence commenced which terminated in the following year by my resigning from conscientious motives.

“To me it seemed that the teaching of God’s Word was unmistakably clear: `Owe no man any thing.’ To borrow money implied, to my mind, a contradiction of Scripture—-a confession that God had withheld some good thing, and a determination to get for ourselves what He had not given. Could that which was wrong for one Christian to do be right for an association of Christians? Or could any amount of precedents make a wrong course justifiable? If the Word taught me anything, it taught me to have no connection with debt. I could not think that God was poor, that He was short of resources, or unwilling to supply any want of whatever work was really His. It seemed to me that if there were any lack of funds to carry on work, then to that degree, in that special development, or at that time, it could not be the work of God. To satisfy my conscience I was therefore compelled to resign connection with the Society which had hitherto supplied my salary.”

R. A. Torrey (1856-1928). Speaking of a time when he lived without any salary or stated income, Torrey says, “Never one penny of debt was incurred for one single hour; I had taken the ground that I owe no man anything either for myself, the family, or the work, for running into debt is not trusting God, it is disobeying God, for He says, `Owe no man anything.”’

These quotations are all from men well known and highly esteemed in the church of God. It is evident from their words that they took “Owe no man any thing” at face value, believed it, obeyed it, and regarded it as wrong to do otherwise. Know, then, ye Baptists, who admire C. H. Spurgeon, that if he must live in your house or preach in your church, he must regard himself as a “guilty sneaking sinner.” Know, ye open Brethren, that George Müller would rather have suffered privation than to borrow money as many of you do. Know, ye exclusive Brethren, that C. H. Mackintosh regarded the course which many of you take as “positive unrighteousness.” Know, ye fundamentalists, that R. A. Torrey, the greatest of the fundamentalists, regarded contracting debts as “disobeying God.” These testimonies are clear enough, and so is the testimony of the apostle Paul: “Owe no man any thing.”

Those who have acted contrary to this scripture in the past may find themselves in a hard place. They may not be able to get out of debt at once, nor will reasonable men expect it of them, any more than we would expect a man who has been a glutton for twenty years to lose a hundred pounds in a day. We would, however, expect him to go to work at it in good earnest.

Glenn Conjurske

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