What Does the Bible Say About Debt?
The Truth About Christians in Debt
Living at this moment in a country like America affords a person some unbelievable opportunities and experiences. It is simply staggering if you just think of the technological and financial progress made in the past fifty years alone.
Imagine for a second how simple it is to buy something nowadays. Before, you had to take a trip, bring along something to trade or at least cash and purposely decide what you needed or wanted. Now, you can put nearly anything you can imagine in your Amazon cart and buy it with literally one click.
Credit card debt is number three on the household debt list behind a mortgage and those ever lovable student loans. How should a Christian feel about debt? Is this something that is morally neutral? Scripture is not silent concerning this issue. Debt may be the symptom of something larger at work.
Debt is Paying for Things Today with Tomorrow’s Labor
If you boil debt down to its most basic level you are getting something now for the promise of the fruit of your work in the future. This is not to say that debt is inherently wrong. Dave Ramsey and Larry Burkett made a living combatting a consumerist mentality by calling people out of the shackles that debt had them wrapped up in. Conversely, theologians like Wayne Grudem and Craig Blomberg are quick to mention the inevitability, and sometimes good from using debt responsibly.
From a biblical perspective, debt can be a vehicle of presumption. James 4:13-14 warns about boasting about tomorrow as he reminds the reader that his or her life is but a mist, here today and gone tomorrow. Taking out debts that extend over long periods of time could fly in the face of that wisdom. Now to be fair, many who take out a 30 year mortgage don’t plan on staying in a home for 30 years. Regardless, it is asking a lot of anyone to make a pledge to honor something 30 years in the future. It almost sounds like marriage!
Romans 13:8 is an often quoted verse by Paul that seems to say that all sorts of debt are morally wrong. More than likely, Paul is using hyperbole as he instructs his readers to take out a debt of love for each other. If anything, this verse would indicate that Paul would find long-term debts unwise at best and something that should be avoided. Proverbs 3:28 instructs the reader to pay what you owe if you have it. This could indicate that during this time, debt was not seen as the financial get-ahead tool that it is viewed as today.
All of these passages seem to indicate an exhortation to either avoid debt altogether or at least retire any outstanding debts as quickly as possible. Minimum monthly payments don’t fit the bill. Christians need to be wary of writing checks that their bodies cannot cash. How much of our future labor should we promise away?
Debt is Relational
An interesting facet that isn’t often realized is that debt nearly always involves a relationship. Some sort of relationship is either changed or created through this financial act. Proverbs 22:7 calls the borrower the slave to the lender. That’s quite the relationship change. The Proverbs give a frank and realistic picture of what life is like. Debt may not be that dramatic, but the principle is sound.
Debt changes a relationship in which the one borrowing becomes a slave and the one lending becomes the master. If you have ever lent money to a family member, you can see this principal at work. You see this scenario portrayed in sitcoms where a character lends money to another who is in need only to scrutinize how the borrower spends their generous gift. Debt has the uncanny ability to change relationships unexpectedly into something that feels uncomfortable for both sides.
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus talks about the difficulty of serving two masters. You cannot serve both God and money. Both of these masters want total devotion and we are unable to give attention to both. When a person goes into debt, the relationship changes in a way where loyalties and goals become divided. All of this may seem irrelevant if you are faithful paying debts. It is also the case that many of you don’t desire a relationship with Chase or Citicorp. Regardless of the degree to which you want a relationship or how responsible you have been in the relationship, the entire dynamic changes with the introduction of debt.
Ecclesiastes 5:5 says that it is better to not make a vow than to make a vow and not honor it. Because debt is relational in this way, it should be viewed responsibly and in in view of a Christian’s character and witness. How will debt change your relationships?
Debt is a Gateway to Materialism
David Platt in his book Radical called materialism the blind spot of the modern American church. Simply put, materialism is the worship of the material creation over God. Surely we don’t see churches built around the worship of graven images anymore, right? One of the strongest and most powerful material idols is money. With the addition of money comes an increase of power, a sense of freedom, and the ability to choose your own path. This is obviously a negative spin, but it is the precise way that materialism starts to creep into the mind and heart of an individual. Bills and coins are pretty cool in and of themselves, but what becomes idolatry is the selfish or depraved things we devise to do with it.
Debt is a dangerous vehicle that allows a person to decide his or her own future, often times without having to do the hard work in advance. It is far more difficult and takes more discipline to save up for something and pay cash on the spot rather than financing it.
What Does It All Mean?
To be clear, scripture does not condemn the practice of debt or financing. In the Old Testament, Israel was even instructed to loan money to people from the neighboring countries. But looking at biblical principles for living in today’s society, we can see that debt is not treated in the positive light that we currently see it in. Debt can lead to a sin of presumption. It can adversely change our relationships. It can hurt our character. It can empower us to feed our idolatry. Perhaps it is time for Christians to step back and reexamine our affiliation with this modern-day practice for the sake of the kingdom. Let the Spirit be our guide.
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