Is It Biblical?
For the most part, Christians are not aware of the serious consequences that follow when churches and we as individual Christians go into debt. We are culturally so accustomed to debt that we feel no resistance to getting a loan for a house, a new car, a new washer and dryer, or a new TV set. Everywhere in the world around us are people taking out loans. Our whole economy would collapse without credit. Government is borrowing, industrial corporations are borrowing, and private individuals are borrowing. Credit has been used in this country to the extent that the USA, the richest country in the world, is now the biggest debtor among all nations. Because of our cultural background, we find it quite natural to borrow money. If we lack the funds for a certain project, we believe that it is not wrong to get a loan, as long as we can make the monthly payments. This is what credit institutions have told us all along.
Most churches, unfortunately, have no different attitude towards debt. In this matter, even “Bible believing churches” go with the cultural flow. Church leaders think that they do God’s will when they finance building projects through loans. Usually, church members do not question this practice, because the individual members have taken out loans themselves to buy a house or a car.
Often, a building project is presented to the church body in this way:
“Christ has given us the Great Commission to go into whole world to preach the gospel; therefore, we need to reach out to the people in our city. People will not come to our church if there is not a space left in our parking lot, and if the buildings are already crowded. We cannot turn away anyone who wants to come to our church to worship with us and participate in the study of God’s Word. We need more space in order to reach more people for Christ. Nobody likes debt, but if we have to assume a debt in order to reach out for Christ, then we should be willing to make this sacrifice.”
After hearing a presentation like this, church members feel guilty to vote against the new building project. The members think that if they would vote against the proposed project, they would oppose God’s will for their local church (as revealed through the church’s leadership), and they would, thus, be showing a lack of commitment to Christ and to the church.
Another aspect of building new Sunday School space or a new auditorium is usually not mentioned in promotional presentations. Church leaders calculate that as the congregation grows, the increased giving will soon equal or even exceed the monthly payments on the new debt. In this way, the new project will “pay for itself”; this makes good business sense. “Therefore,” they reason, “it would even be wrong not to follow through with the new project, because without the new buildings, the church would not be able to grow.”
This all sounds very plausible. However, we need to reexamine our attitude toward and our understanding of debt. But some say, “Since there is no command from God that forbids churches to borrow money, it is permissible to go into debt. And since it is permissible, it is wrong to take an exclusive, extreme position in this matter.”
But what do the Scriptures really say about the matter of debt? Can it be God’s will for any church to acquire debt?
The Motive Does Not Justify the Means
The Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means is certainly not taught in the Word of God. If this principle were true, then we could go and steal money or deal drugs and, thereby, boost our outreach program with these newly found resources. The motive, however noble and good, does not justify the means of financing. The debt issue has to be examined on its own. If a church going into debt is wrong in itself, then no good purpose can make it right.
This is not to deny that our motives are important. The Bible certainly teaches that in addition to doing the right thing, we also need to have the right motivation. However, we also find in the Bible that we may not do a wrong thing for whatever right reason. In 2 Sam. 6:6-7, we read the story of how a man died when the people of Israel moved the ark of the Covenant:
“And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.”
Here was a man who wanted to protect the ark of God, and that was a good reason; but he died because he did the wrong thing. He touched the ark. Even David was quite upset that God killed Uzzah (6:8).
In Exodus 25:12-15 and in Numbers 4:5-6,15, instructions are given on how the ark of God was to be moved:
“And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear [it]: but they shall not touch [any] holy thing, lest they die” (Num 4:15).
Those instructions were not followed. The ark should not have been placed on a cart. The Levites should have carried it with the staves on their shoulders. The priests and Levites should have known the Word of God. Lack of knowledge and good intentions did not protect Uzzah. He died because he touched the ark itself, even though he meant to keep the ark from sliding off the cart. We read in 1 Chr. 15:1-15 that David learned his lesson through this experience. Later, when the ark was moved another time, “the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the Lord.” Along with the right motive, we also have to do the right thing.
Again, we have to examine what the Word of God teaches about debt itself. This question cannot be decided by pointing to the right motives for a building project.
Debt Does Not Glorify God
The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans (1:18-21):
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; ... Because that, when they knew God, they glorified [Him] not as God, neither were thankful.”
If God condemns the unbelievers for not glorifying Him, then certainly the church needs to glorify Him. Church debts are not glorifying to God. God has promised that he will provide for all the needs of His people (Philip. 4:19). God does not supply for our need through another need—the need to repay a debt. Debt is a burden, not a provision. Saying that God can provide material needs in the form of debt, would be the same as saying that God provides forgiveness of our sins through sin. Saying that God could provide the funds for a church building through a loan, is grossly distorting the teaching of God’s grace; because it is out of His grace that God provides for all of our needs.
Already the Old Testament testifies to the fact that God is the Provider: “And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said [to] this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen” [Jehovahjireh: that is, The Lord will see, or, provide] (Gen. 22:14). Abraham experienced God’s provision when God supplied the lamb for the sacrifice on mount Moriah, foreshadowing Christ as the Lamb of God. Paul, describing God’s character, writes about God’s provision in Christ:
“He that spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
Jesus says, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). This picture that Jesus paints shows us again that He is the provider for His flock, for His people. Most every Christian can quote from memory: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
God does not only supply our personal needs, he also supplies what we need to serve him. The apostle Peter writes:
“Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, according as His divine power hath given unto us all things that [pertain] unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:2-3).
If God has given us “all things that pertain unto life and godliness,” then all that the church needs to do His will is included in His provision.
The apostle Paul confirms this when he writes:
“And God [is] able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all [things], may abound to every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).
Paul specifically mentions here that God is able to give us enough of everything that we need to do every good work. Having “all sufficiency” and being able to do “every good work” is specifically tied here to God’s grace. Therefore, it is impossible to say that God could provide for the needs of the church through leading His people into debt.
To the Philippians Paul writes:
“But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Now unto God and our Father [be] glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Philp. 4:19-20).
God supplies “according to His riches in glory.” If we go into debt, then we are damaging His image before the world, and we deny that out of His grace we will always have “all sufficiency in all things.” If we go into debt we are in effect saying that God was not able or did not care to provide what His people would need to do His will. Debt does not glorify God. If we try to reach out to the people in our cities that do not know God in a way that is not glorifying God, we lose our message and we become nothing more than a social club.
Some say that if we borrow the money from our own denominational agency (or even from the members of the church itself), then at least the interest that we pay for the loan will be used for the Lord’s work. But there is a problem with this practice also. God forbids taking interest from brethren:
“Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury” (Deut. 23:19).
I do not know of any Christian organization that loans money to churches without taking interest. This is clearly contrary to God’s Word. As well as denying His sufficient provision, disobedience does not glorify God.
The New Testament Forbids Believers to Have Debts
The Apostle Paul wrote: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Some would say that this one verse is not sufficient to keep us from using credit or from acquiring a debt. But the wording of this verse is clear; it does say that we should NOT owe anything to anybody. This certainly includes money. The same word that is used here in the Greek text for “owing” is also used in Matthew 18:25-26. There the word is directly tied to owing money. The Apostle Paul is saying that we should not owe anybody anything, including money; the meaning is clear.
Why do we not find any other passage in the New Testament that speaks to the question of borrowing and debt? The answer to this is quite simple. From the viewpoint of the New Testament, there is no need to speak much about debt, because the New Testament speaks many times about the opposite of borrowing. The opposite of borrowing is GIVING.
Giving is one important side of love: “For God so LOVED the world, that he GAVE His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Paul says that our only debt should be that we love one another. Therefore, the only debt that we can have is the obligation to give. God the Father did not borrow a son somewhere and give a borrowed sacrifice for our redemption. The New Testament does not speak much about borrowing, because it has so much to say about giving. Acquiring a debt is certainly not giving. It is the opposite of giving; it’s taking! Our obligation is to love, and love consists always of some form of giving. We can only give what we have. “Sharing” our debt with new members is certainly not love.
The New Testament has higher standards than the Old Testament. The Sermon on the Mount shows this very clearly. In the Old Testament, divorce was allowed; in the New Testament it is forbidden, with one exception, for reason of fornication. The Old Testament does not forbid borrowing or lending. The New Testament tells us that we should not even expect to be paid back if we lend (Luke 6:34). The Lord upgraded lending; it becomes, in effect, giving. If we are told to lend, and to consider the money already as given away, how can we do the opposite? — How can we borrow and go into debt?
Saying that the Bible does not forbid the New Testament church to go into debt, is not taking seriously what the Bible, and especially the New Testament, teaches about giving. Is it not significant that we do not find in the Bible that the Lord’s work was ever funded through debt? If a church lacks the funds to pay for a building project, then God’s time for that project has not come, or it was never God’s will in the first place.
The Practice of Procuring Loans Encourages Irresponsibility
In Psalm 37:21 we read: “The Wicked borroweth and payeth not again, but the Righteous sheweth mercy, and giveth.” Notice again that God’s Word uses the terms “borrowing” and “giving” as opposites. The way in which churches are getting loans today encourages irresponsibility.
A church member can vote today during a church business meeting for the church to assume a debt, but that same church member can leave the church tomorrow and not be personally responsible for this debt. A church leader can lead the church into debt today, but he can take on a new position in another church and be gone within two weeks, but he will not be personally responsible for the debt that he leaves behind. The church might be burdened with debts for decades to come, and the people who incurred the debt are long gone. The repayment of the loan will be pushed on people who will join the church in the future. In most cases, those people are not even told when they join that there is a debt.
Who of the members that voted for the loan can promise to stay around for the next five, ten, twenty, or thirty years until the last penny is paid off? To vote for a debt, and then let others pay for it, is irresponsible; the Bible calls it wickedness. If every church member who votes for a debt would be held personally responsible and liable, church leaders would not so easily get consenting votes from the church body.
A Church in Debt Loses its Light
Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth. ... You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). The United States of America has been destroyed by debt. It has become a giant slave to the financial institutions that have pushed easy credit on everyone. The greatest credit bubble in the history of mankind exists in the U.S. today. The church needs to be a light in the darkness of the financial world. The church should teach responsibility; the church should demonstrate how to live within its means. But since churches and the individuals in the churches are in debt, we have given up being light in the darkness to the financial world around us.
Waste of God’s Money
The interest paid on a thirty-year loan amounts to approximately twice the amount of the principal that was originally borrowed. Much money that was faithfully given to God for the Lord’s work ends up in the coffers of bankers. If we would look at church borrowing over a period of decades, we would see that a huge amount of capital has been lost from the Lord’s work because of interest payments. If all the money that churches have wasted on interest payments had been given to the missions effort, no missionary would ever have to beg for support!
Contrary to the Character of Christ
The character of Jesus is contrary to debt. Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd does not mortgage the flock, he gives; he even gives His own life for the flock. If a church acquires a loan, she not only mortgages the presently existing flock, she also mortgages away the little lambs that the Father wants to add to the flock.
A Church in Debt Denies the Holiness of God
Where does the money come from when a church gets a loan “to do God’s work”? The money ultimately comes from the world—from unbelievers. True Christians give to the Lord’s work; true believers will not enslave the church to themselves through debt. But if the church asks the world to provide funding for the buildings that she “needs” to worship God and to teach His Word, then she is denying the holiness of God.
Has God ever gone to an unbeliever and begged for money so that His work can be done? The apostle John writes about “brethren” that the church sent out to preach the gospel. He says about them:
“Because that for His name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles” (3 John 7).
To maintain the integrity of His Name, Christian leaders today should trust God and His people alone to supply their needs. A church’s understanding of God’s holiness must be very faint if she has no problem begging the world for loans.
Church Debts are Contrary to the Gospel
If we look into the Old Testament, the matter of church debt does not look any better. The Old Testament teaches that the borrower becomes a slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:21). Looking at debt from this viewpoint, burdening the church with debt is totally contrary to the gospel. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (5:1). Anyone who preaches a “gospel” of debt, and how it supposedly is God’s will to do His work with debt, preaches falsely. Debt is not freedom; it is bondage! Promoting bondage in the church is a severe matter.
Servitude to Another Master
The most damaging aspect of church debt is the spiritual bondage (servanthood) that comes with the debt. Proverb 22:7 states: “The borrower is servant to the lender.” Debt puts any person, any church, into bondage. Some might say: “We can handle the monthly payments easily, so what’s wrong?” In addition to the obvious obligation to service the debt, a church also takes on a spiritual bondage. We started out to serve Christ, and Christ alone; now suddenly we have to also serve another master. We might not be aware of the fact that we now have two masters, we might play it down, we might even deny it, but the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35): “The borrower is servant to the lender.” By signing a mortgage contract, the church has agreed to be servant to another master. The ministry of the church is now divided between two masters: the bank and Christ.
The church’s finances become divided. The interest that is paid on a thirty-year loan accumulates over the years to about twice the amount that was originally borrowed. If $1 million has been borrowed, then about $2 million will be paid in interest. Two thirds of the total payments go to the lender, the new master. One third pays for the building project that the church believed the Lord wanted her to engage. Mortgage payments are so structured that at the beginning of a thirty-year loan, 95% to 98% of the monthly payment consists of the interest portion, and only 2% to 5% of the monthly payment pays off the debt. When the church goes into debt, she definitely is serving two masters.
The church’s motives also become divided. Yes, the church wants new people to join the church, but why? Certainly there can be many good motives why a local church invites new people to join. But the church has now come under pressure to keep up the monthly mortgage payments. Because of that obligation, the single-mindedness of purpose and the purity of heart are gone. The church has to have new people join. There are always members moving away or joining other churches in town. A drop in attendance could mean financial difficulties. Therefore, attendance not only has to be kept up, but newcomers cannot be offended and thus driven away. (And since sound doctrine is always a dividing force, the tendency is also to compromise on doctrine.) The single-mindedness is lost because the people in the church have changed; the pureness of heart is lost because the situation has changed—the church now has to satisfy two masters. The monthly payments are very real.
The church’s loyalty becomes divided. At one point in His ministry, Jesus had a steep drop in attendance. Jesus gave a message that His disciples did not like; the result was that most of His disciples left Him:
“From that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then Jesus said unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” (John 6:66-67).
A church in debt cannot afford to lose attendance that drastically. If the truth will hurt church attendance, then the truth has to be held back. The monthly payments have to be met! The Lord Himself lost attendance, and there was nothing wrong with Him or His preaching. Why do churches think that over the next five, ten, twenty, or thirty years there will never be a drop in attendance? The danger of compromising the truth becomes very real. One cannot be loyal to Christ and at the same time not be loyal to the truth, because Jesus says, “I am the truth.” A church in debt becomes a church of divided loyalty. She tries to stay loyal to the truth, but she also has to meet her financial obligations and, therefore, will do all that is necessary to please the people, so that they will continue to attend and give.
The apostle Paul states simply and plainly that we should not owe anything to anybody, but love. Yes, this is only one verse in the whole Bible. But once we begin looking at the implications of debt, we find an overwhelming support in God’s Word for this seemingly insignificant statement: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another.”