Imperative or Indicative?
7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. 8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. 9 For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:7-10, Authorized Version)
Borrowing is not a sin.
Advocates of debt-free living almost always point to verse 8 as a proof text which states (they say) that it is wrong for believers to borrow money. (One wonders if they would also forbid the borrowing of a lawn mower, or a cup of sugar?)
This is untenable, given that loaning to the poor is declared a virtue in the Bible, and since the rule is given in the law that one is not to charge interest on a loan to a poor brother. If it were wrong to borrow, then it would be wrong for us to cause our poor brother to sin by extending a loan to him. But God is not so severe as to place such a burden on people placed in a position of real need.
Does it mean to pay on time?
Other interpreters, seeing that borrowing is not forbidden, read the text as an exhortation – not to avoid incurring debt, but – not to be late in paying our debts, nor to evade them. Certainly, punctuality and conscientiousness are virtues inculcated elsewhere in Scripture; but this represents the importation of an idea foreign to the text; and one that does not fit. Not owing is not at all the same thing as not paying.
Ambiguity in the Greek
In Greek, as well as in English, the same form of a verb may be used to denote either the imperative or the indicative mood. An example of this in our own language appears in verse 6, where the words, “pay ye” can mean either the command, “pay, all of you” or the statement of fact, “ye are paying”. (In this case, the Greek word is unambiguous — it means the latter.)
The Authorized Version renders the verb “to owe” in verse 8 in the imperative mood; but the word may as well be rendered in the indicative; for the Greek is ambiguous. There is no grammatical or syntactical argument that I know of for preferring the imperative.
A Grammatical Problem
Furthermore, the verse, as it stands in the A.V. is ungrammatical: “Owe no one anything… but to love one another”. The infinitive in the second clause, “to love” (Greek agapan) would stand better with an indicative in the first, thus: “Ye owe nothing to anyone, but to love one another.”
On the other hand, if the first verb were an imperative, then we would expect another imperative after the adversative, “but” – “Owe no one anything, but (rather) love one another”. Yet this wouldn’t work anyway; for “but” indicates opposition; yet owe and love are not opposites.
The word is “except”, not “but”.
It should also be noted that the Greek word translated “but” is neither the strong adversative, alla nor the weak adversative, de, but the combination of two words, ei ma which means “except”. Thus, the idea is “You owe no man anything except to love one another.” The various particular obligations are comprehended under one general obligation; so that if we fulfill the general, then we will have fulfilled the particulars. Another way of saying it would be “There is nothing else in addition to love that you owe to anyone.”
Does “do not owe” mean “do not borrow”?
There is also a logical objection to the A.V.’s translation. If the text is indeed intended to prohibit incurring debt by the act of borrowing, why doesn’t it say so? Owing is a consequence – not an act. We owe because we have borrowed. Does it say “Do not borrow”?
What kind of debts?
For the obligations discussed in the context are not voluntary personal debts; but rather such things as the obedience owed to lawful authority, tribute and custom and (verses 1,7). One has no control over these obligations. One does not incur them voluntarily. They arise without our choice. We cannot avoid owing them; and they can never be paid off.
Neither can we avoid the obligation to love all men. There is no evidence that the apostle has in view voluntary debts at all (much less monetary debts). Rather, he is insisting on the point that every obligation inherent in relationships with our fellow-men is comprehended within the rule of love.
Indicative, not Imperative
For all these reasons, the indicative is to be preferred. It satisfies all the demands of the text; and makes the passage a harmonious whole:
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Ye owe no man any thing, except to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Matthew Henry admits that the indicative is allowed, and that it gives a good sense:
Owe no man any thing; opheilete – you do owe no man any thing; so some read it: “Whatever you owe to any relation, or to any with whom you have to do, it is eminently summed up and included in this debt of love.
Adam Clarke’s commentary is to the same effect:
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another – Therefore, the apostle says, Owe no man; as if he had said: Ye owe to your fellow brethren nothing but mutual love, and this is what the law of God requires, and in this the law is fulfilled…
Howard Douglas King
Revised June 23, 2019