The Freedom of Rendering unto All their Dues
More of “Scripture Signposts for Hiking through Life:
Happy Trails Guided by God’s Word (Volume 1: 20th century)”
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
“Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honor.”Romans 13:7
As noted previously, by God’s grace I’ve been hiking through life, for more than a half-century, with many happy adventures (and a few, thankfully not many, that were not-so-happy). For decades—since the latter A.D.1980s—many of those adventures have involved courtrooms, most of them being Texas courtrooms.
And, over those years, in part due to courtroom experiences, I have learned that Romans 13:7 (quoted above) is one of the most freeing Scriptures to live by.
Lawyer Advocate ≠ Neutral Magistrate
For many of those years I have served as a lawyer, both litigating (as a courtroom advocate “barrister”) and guiding transactions (as an advisor (“counsellor”), sometimes negotiating transactions on behalf of clients. As a lawyer I have loyalty obligations to clients, balance by obligations to work within the legal boundaries and norms of applicable laws.
However, since A.D.1996 I’ve supplemented that client-serving professional practice with quasi-judicial service, as a part-time (i.e., serving “as-needed”) judicial officer (“certified independent hearing examiner”)—in effect, a trial judge conducting courtroom trials without a jury—which requires “neutral magistrate” obligations of adjudicative impartiality.
Obviously, my role as lawyer (serving as a client’s loyal representative and advocate) is completely opposite of my other role as trial judge (applying the applicable laws, rules of evidence, and courtroom procedural rules with neutrality and impartiality).
Learning and practicing the obligations of a trial judge has been an adventure in thinking and relationships.
Instead of prioritizing client loyalty, to guide my thinking and decision-making (as well as my spoken and written communications), I’ve learned to completely rethink how to analyze situations (and decision-making), and how to interact with those (such as lawyers, witnesses, court reporters, etc.) who are involved with the courtroom cases that I’m assigned to adjudicate.
As a litigator—since A.D.1985 (when I was licensed to practice law in Texas)—my goal was and is to ethically represent my client’s legal interests, within the bounds of the applicable laws. That is not “neutral”.
Put simplistically, that means trying to “win” honestly and fairly (i.e., within boundaries of laws and ethics), for the client’s cause—which assumes that the client’s cause is legitimate.
However, an ethical trial judge cannot have a “favorite”—a judge should not seek to manipulatively skew the trial evidence, in order to “help” one side to “win” over another. Rather, the trial judge’s legal (and ethical) responsibility is to conduct the trial process, without prejudice or partiality, so that the adverse parties receive “due process”, i.e., so that all parties receive a truly fair trial.
If everyone is treated fairly, in a courtroom or elsewhere, the principle of Romans 13:7 is applied—giving everyone what is “due” unto him or her. Yet recognizing what an individual (or a group) is “due” is not always easy to delineate.
Some individuals are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” (e.g., for a handicap, or for religious beliefs), while others are not. Some individuals, because they are “minors” (due to their young ages) are entitled to certain legal protections that others are not entitled to. Some individuals, because of a special identity status (such as being married, or belonging to a parent-child relationship), are entitled to specific treatment under inheritance laws. Even in the federal bankruptcy court process, where a bankruptcy estate is distributed to many creditors, specific status differences are treated with due respect—secured creditors are different from priority unsecured creditors and general unsecured creditors.
Likewise, when obeying the laws of the lands, which are administered by government officials, specificity matters—federal tax-collectors have a different jurisdiction from that of a county sheriff; environmental protection officers have a different purview from that of food and medicine regulators; military laws have different applicabilities than those of commercial or building codes.
Laws themselves are hierarchically related to one another, with jurisdictional limitations defined by factors of geography, industry, timeframe, and government functions. Different sets of laws, rules, and regulations (as well as constitutions, treaties, executive orders, etc.) situationally apply to different “bailiwicks”.
Romans 13:7 Commands Duties, Yet Also Decrees Liberty
But the Holy Bible contained this basic concept long ago! In Romans 13:7, for example, the apostle Paul uses different nouns to illustrate how some folks deserve “dues” that are different from what others are due:
- tribute [φορον] to whom tribute is due;
- custom [τελος] to whom custom;
- fear [φοβον] to whom fear;
- honour [τιμην] to whom honor.
In short, giving “tribute” to whom “custom” is due is wrong. Likewise, giving “fear” to whom “honor” is due is wrong.
For examples of “tribute” [φορον], see Luke 20:22 & 28:2, regarding the “burden” of paying taxes unto Caesar.
For examples of “custom” [τελος], see Matthew 17:25; see also related terms “publican” (e.g., Matthew 10:3; Luke 5:27-30 & 18:10-14) and “receipt of custom” (e.g., Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27).
For examples of “fear” [φοβον], see Jude 1:23.
For examples of “honour” [τιμην], see 1st Timothy 5:17.
So, how can we obey God’s commands, as listed in Romans 13:7, unless we accurately distinguish between those “to whom tribute” is due, in contrast with those “to whom custom is due”, in contrast to those “to whom fear” is due, in contrast to those “to whom honor is due”?
In other words, we must do our analytical/applicational homework—clarifying “dues” matching specific jurisdictions (and proper obligations tied to those jurisdictions)—in order to comply with the imperative duties of Romans 13:7.
Yet, balancing the burdens of Romans 13:7—and perhaps more than balancing those burdens—is the freeing opportunity to always give credit where credit is due. This liberty to “give credit where credit is due” includes how you talk about people you disagree with, how you act toward people whose behaviors you detest, how you interact with people you dislike, how you pray for people who mistreat you, etc.
Obviously, our highest loyalty is to our Lord Jesus Christ, because He is our Creator and our Redeemer. Yet our Lord commands us to be loyal in many secondary relationships, such as family relationships, workplace/business relationships, citizenship/patriotism-based relationships, church relationships, community relationships, friendships, etc.
However, while we can and should recognize and take seriously our secondary loyalty obligations—we remain free to always tell the truth, to always give credit where credit is due. Consequently, if an enemy is good at music, or at painting, we have the liberty (if not alos the duty) to “give credit where credit is due”. Likewise, if an enemy has accomplished something of merit, we have the liberty (if not alos the duty) to “give credit where credit is due”.
Thus, it is not “disloyalty” to commend a competitor for getting something right. (Of course, it is no just to compliment one’s enemy for what is commendable, while failing to simultaneously compliment a teammate for getting something right!)
Every trial judge should judiciously “give credit where credit is due” — that’s what due process is all about! And one of the great liberties, that I now enjoy, is giving credit to whomsoever it is due.
Yet, every Christian—because of God’s command in Romans 13:7—should “give credit where credit is due”.
It’s our duty to do so.
Also, doing so is a great liberty, freeing us from an unduly competitive spirit.