Climbing on the Altar
Quarter 3, Lesson 7

Lesson Seven

The Debt We Cannot Eliminate

Text: Romans 13:8-10

Something "self-evident" is obvious. It is "self-evident" the early church used the Old Testament as the scripture to document, explain, and call to responsibility. When the sermons in Acts used scripture, they used statements from Psalms and the prophets. When Paul's letters to the churches bound teachings to God's authority, he used Old Testament scripture. It might be the ten commandments from Exodus 20:1-17 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21 (Romans 13:9); a statement from the major prophets (Romans 14:11 quoting Isaiah 45:23); a statement from the historical books (Romans 15:9 quoting 2 Samuel 22:50); a statement from Deuteronomy (Romans 15:10 quoting Deuteronomy 32:43); or a statement from Psalms (Romans 15:11 quoting Psalm 117:1). Paul in his letters frequently used Old Testament scripture to bind God's authority to a teaching.

When Paul declared Christians at Corinth could not continue to live an idolatrous life style, Old Testament examples were his scriptural authority. "These things happened to them as an example and they were written for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:11). Or, as Paul declared in Romans 4:24, the things written about Abraham [specifically, his faith being reckoned for righteousness] were not just written for Abraham, but "for our sake also."

In first century Roman society, the patron held an essential role in the social system. Clients were dependent on patrons. Patrons made life physically possible for clients. The client was constantly indebted to his patron. He repaid his patron with loyalty. In the patron/client relationship, the client was on retainer to the patron. He frequently paid his respects to his patron. Demonstrating loyalty to a patron was an understood, accepted social obligation.

A patron's house visibly demonstrated the patron's importance. The houses of patrons were designed to (1) impress people, (2) receive clients, and (3) conduct political/social business. Patrons used their homes for meetings, and they presided over those meetings. They maintained status and demonstrated strategic social roles by functioning as prominent heads of households. Wealth and status were the foundation of political power. Patrons aspired to and used political power.

Clients were dependent on patrons financially and socially. Loyalty was expected and required. In a fascinating arrangement, clients were at the mercy of their patrons' power, but the patrons were dependent on their clients' loyalty. Clients were free citizens, not people from society's lower levels. In most Roman cities, everyone was indebted to someone.

Clients "used" patrons' money, power, and influence. Patrons "used" clients to achieve the patrons' purposes. That is the way the system worked. Everyone knew their role in the system and how to use the system.

Relationships within the church should not be structured by, controlled by, or designed by society's forms. Christians do not create a social system and become skilled in exploiting it. Among Christians, it should not be a matter of "knowing how the system works and using it."

For Christians, only one unpayable debt exists. Because of God's mercy, the debt of love will forever remain for each Christian. In mercy, God loved us. In appreciation of God's mercy, we love other people.

Today's text declared two responsibilities to Christians in Rome. Responsibility number one: do not be indebted to the Roman social system. Responsibility number two: because of indebtedness to God's loving mercy, love each other. Christians acknowledge their indebtedness to God's loving mercy by fulfilling the law. Loving people fulfills the law because love refuses to do evil to people.

An evaluation of the ten commandments emphasizes the obvious. Those commands are fulfilled by (1) loving God and (2) loving people. Loving God produced obedience to the first four. Loving people produced obedience to the last six. If you love your father and mother, you will honor them. If you love a person, you will not murder him or her. If you love a person, you will not commit adultery with his wife. If you love a person, you will not steal from him or her. If you love a person, you will not lie about him or her. If you love a person, you will not make him or her a victim of your greed.

Christians refused to "use" people. They did not "play the game" imposed by the Roman social system. Christians helped people. They refused to look at others and ask, "How can they help me achieve my purposes." Rather, they sought the highest good and best interest of others. They did nothing for the "what is in it for me" motive. Their motive was (is) "what will bless you."

Christian behavior was in radical contrast to accepted social behavior. Why did that contrast exist? Christians knew God's mercy. They understood God's love for them expressed itself in God's mercy. They literally were eternally indebted to God's love and mercy. The only way they could acknowledge grateful acceptance of that debt was to love other people. God's love and mercy should be expressed through the love and mercy of God's people.


  1. What scripture did the early church use? How did first century Christians use it?

  2. Explain the role of a patron in first century Roman society.

  3. Explain the role of the client in first century Roman society.

  4. Discuss this statement: "Relationships within the church should not be structured by, controlled by, or designed by society's forms."

  5. For Christians, what is the only unpayable debt to others? Why is that the unpayable debt?

  6. In today's text, what was responsibility number one?

  7. What was responsibility number two?

  8. In what two ways does love fulfill the ten commandments?

  9. Paul emphasized that Christians refuse to do what?

  10. Rather than "using" people, what do Christians do?

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 3, Lesson 7

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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