This is a sticky subject for Christians—or at least a very gray one—and it opens up a host of uncomfortable questions. In a world that runs on credit, how much should a believer take on? Should we go into debt at all? Is it possible for us to borrow money on a continuous basis and still remain faithful in our Christian walk?
I’m not sure there are definite answers to these questions, but I do think that debt is one of those “luggage check” issues for Christians. We may not be able to avoid debt entirely, but we probably shouldn’t be borrowing as the world borrows either. After all, we are called to come out and be different (1 Peter 2:9).
Debt in the Bible
Debt is discussed often in the Bible, and most of the pronouncements are not positive. In one of the sharpest warnings against debt, Proverbs 22:7 warns, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”
Flipping the debt arrangement around, in Deuteronomy 28:12, God describes a blessing: “You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.”
In Romans 13:8, Paul says, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” That sounds like a general recommendation to keep our slates clean so we’re free to do the work we’re called to do.
In Habakkuk 2:9 we’re given a warning as to where debt can lead, ”Will not your creditors suddenly arise? Will they not wake up and make you tremble? Then you will become their prey.”
It’s clear from scripture that God is warning us of trouble where debt is concerned.
Debt as bondage
Since debt of all forms has become so common in our time we may not discern its darker implications. Debt is a form of bondage—once you sign on to take a loan you have bonded yourself to pay it off, and there are legal remedies if you don’t. That’s bondage no matter how we sugarcoat it.
If we get too deep in debt we can become so singularly focused on paying it—on top of all the other costs of living—that we’re forced to serve money in general and our creditors in particular. The pursuit of money to pay the debt becomes a driving force—a master.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”—Matthew 6:24
Jesus isn’t talking specifically about debt in this passage, but he is talking about money, and credit is an aspect of money.
Is there really such a thing as ”good debt”?
We sometimes like to think that there’s “good debt”—debt used to acquire something that will have a predictable return in the future. Home mortgages and student loans are the most prominent forms of good debt.
But the flip side of the good debt argument is that both mortgages and student loans are usually very large debts, almost always the largest we have. When we factor loan size into the equation, even good debt can become bad debt—especially if a home drops in value or the expected job doesn’t materialize at graduation as planned.
According to Dictionary.com, the word “mortgage” originally meant “…equivalent to mort dead (< Latin mortuus ) + gage pledge, gage”. Dead pledge, which reads a lot like a debt that would be carried until death. The way it’s become so common to refinance one mortgage into another these days seems to bring us full circle to that original meaning.
Personally, I think borrowing to pay for medical costs or for true necessities during a financial crisis are the only true good debts.
Final thoughts on Christians and credit
The Bible warns us against debt, but at the same time there’s nowhere that it makes a definitive statement that going into debt is in any way a sin. There’s no doubt that debt is the way of the world so perhaps the reaction of the believer is to take the most moderate path.
Recognize that even though debt may not be a sin, being debt-free is the preferred way God would have us live. Debt, after all, impairs our ability to give to the Church and to those in need, and to make provision to provide for our loved ones.
There are times in life when going into debt is close to unavoidable. Starting a family and buying a home would be such a time. Even then, we should never borrow more than we’re absolutely certain we can pay back as quickly as possible, rather than building a life in which debt is a constant traveling companion.
Based on biblical teachings, the attitude of the believer toward debt should be one of general avoidance, if not complete abstinence.
How do we put that into practice?
- If you’re not in debt, make every effort to avoid it.
- If you are in debt already, make every effort to get out as quickly as possible.
- If you’ve recently gotten out of debt, make every effort to keep from going back in.
We are, after all, imperfect people living in an imperfect world. We can’t undo what we’ve already done, but we can always adopt a new way forward and gradually undo the debt entanglements of the past. After all, the Christian walk is all about renewal!
What do you think should be the Christian’s proper attitude toward debt?