We like to think of ourselves as biblical absolutists. Whatever the Bible teaches, we want to accept, straight up the middle, and with no backchat. We don’t want to have any a priori problem passages. Whatever the Bible teaches, that is what we want to do.
But even though there should be no problem passages, there are some challenging passages. But we have to be careful here because there are two kinds of challenging passages. The first is the kind that just challenges our lusts. To reapply what Mark Twain once said, it was not the parts of the Bible that he couldn’t understand that bothered him, it was the parts that he could understand.
“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Matthew 5:28 (KJV)
Jesus sets a high bar here, and nobody really misunderstands the nature of how high it is. There is a conflict, certainly, but it is a conflict between what the Lord says and what it is we would like to be able to continue doing. It is the tension between God not leaving us alone, and us wanting to be left alone.
But there is a different kind of challenging passage, and the prohibitions of things like usury and debt would fall in this category. Let me take an example first from a similar kind of challenging passage. With all such passages, the apparent conflict is not between the biblical standard and our lusts, but rather between one biblical passage and another one. When that happens, what should we do?
Swear Not at All
Jesus apparently teaches us not to swear at all. Right?
“But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.”
Matthew 5:34–36, cf. Jas. 5:12 (KJV)
At first glance, this looks pretty straightforward. Tough, but straightforward, like the prohibition of lust. Where does the challenge come from then? Well, from other passages actually. Here’s one where we are required to swear.
“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name.”
Deuteronomy 10:20 (KJV)
And lest someone rush in to say, “But that’s in the Old Testament . . .” Here is an example of Paul swearing:
“For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers.”
Romans 1:9 (KJV)
And here swearing is commended to New Testament believers as a good way of settling disputes.
“For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.”
Hebrews 6:16 (KJV)
Now there is a certain kind of fastidious tradition in the Christian world that takes the statement of Jesus in isolation, and tries to take the high ground with it, treating it as though it were simply a straightforward moral demand, like the prohibition of lust. This has caused no end of confusion, and at the end of the day it has the effect of undermining our doctrine of Scripture. We arbitrarily prioritize, for example, the “red letter” portions, and the other parts of Scripture fade into the background. But, as someone once observed, he had a special edition of the Bible—the words of the Holy Spirit were all in black.
Now what I want to argue here is that things like debt and interest payments are challenging subjects, like the Lord’s statement about swearing, and not simple but difficult moral demands.
And here’s why.
First, a Brief History
The human race has had a long and complicated history with usury. Aristotle treated money as a consumption item, which meant that it could no more be “rented out” than food could be. He therefore taught that usury was unnatural. Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas followed him in this, treating money as something that was only valuable in the consuming of it. Roman law allowed for usury, but it was carefully regulated. The early church fathers were united in condemning all forms of usury, and medieval canon law developed a very strict set of prohibitions. At the same time, an awareness was growing that a loan in which the lender self-consciously shared in the risk (e.g. a business investment) was in a different category. Luther held to the medieval rejection of usury. In a similar vein, the Islamic world rejects usury, as the Qur’an flatly prohibits it.
But Calvin broke with this general consensus. As a Hebrew scholar, he pointed out that the word usury was a rendering of two different Hebrew words. One was neshek, and means “to bite,” which Calvin took as the prohibited form. We continue this understanding in our phrase “loan shark.” But tarbit referred to the taking of a legitimate return. Thus Calvin argued that business loans were legitimate, that loans to the working poor were expected to be paid back, but without interest. And loans to the impoverished were to be extended without any expectation of repayment at all. This approach is what I am assuming here, and has historically been the approach taken by the Reformed.
“Where the borrower gets, or hopes to get, it is just that the lender should share in the gain; but to him that borrows for his necessary food pity must be shown, and we must lend, hoping for nothing again, if we have wherewithal to do it, Lu. 6:35.”
Matthew Henry, Commentary
You Wicked Lazy Servant
And so now we return to the question of whether Scripture flatly prohibits taking interest on a loan, and so far it is like the prohibition of lust, or if it is an issue more like swearing—sometimes lawful, sometimes not. With that question asked, Scripture is quite clear that lending money at interest can be an ordinary human activity, and not a wicked activity.
““But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers [trapezites], and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest [tokos]. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.”
Matthew 25:26–28 (NKJV)
This is not a parable where the Lord is using a sinful person to make a spiritual point, as He does with the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1ff). The point there is to urge perseverance in presenting a petition. And when Jesus says that He is going to come back like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43), He is talking about the suddenness and unexpected nature of His return, and not that He was going to steal something. In such instances, the fact that He is using a figure of speech that expects us to discount the sinful element is obvious.
Most of the time, the Lord uses images from everyday life, with the assumption that the everyday activities are morally unobjectionable. We read about a farmer sowing seed (Luke 8:5), a woman sweeping a house (Luke 15:8), a father hiring a jazz band (Luke 15:25), a merchant buying a field (Matt. 13:44), a fisherman sorting out fish (Matt. 13:48), and a man collecting interest on money he had put in the bank (Matt. 25:26-28). There are no moral concerns hinted at.
The lawfulness of lending and borrowing can also be seen in the fact that Jesus requires lending of us.
“But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”
Luke 6:35 (KJV)
This would hardly be the case if lending to a person entailed him in some kind of sin. Now it is true that Jesus does teach us that when we lend, our heart has to do so with an open hand. But this is in the heart, not in the loan. If it were understood by all parties that nothing needed to be paid back, then it would not be loan, but rather a gift. What happens is that a person asks to borrow twenty bucks, and the faithful believer—if he has it—lends it gladly, and in his heart, he writes it off. If it comes back, great. If it does not, no blood, no foul.
So what about those passages that seem to condemn usury outright? Are we ever going to get to those? Well, yes. Read on.
Scripture and Payday Loans
The biblical prohibitions of usury are prohibitions that restrict shrewd money managers from taking advantage of those who are impoverished. Whether they are poor because of external circumstances or they are poor because of their own mismanagement of their own resources, in either case, the Bible prohibits making this kind of money off the poor. If you drive down a strip road in any major city, and you take in all the “cash loans” opportunities, and “payday loan” offices, with offers of “cash advances” and “title loans,” and such like, you can see the plain truth as once uttered by a medieval churchman, when he said, “the poor are a gold mine.” The same thing goes for credit cards with jacked up rates.
Incidentally, jacked up rates are a form of thievery, as the Lord indicated when He cleansed the Temple. On that occasion, He called a “den of thieves” (Jer. 7:11; Matt. 22:13). They said that gifts could not be offered with an ordinary “dirty” shekel, and so a Temple shekel had to be used. But the exchange rate was 2 to 1, which is why the Lord scattered their precious coins all over the floor (Matt. 21:12). In short, they were skinning the poor—in the name of Jehovah. In the face of this kind of dirty work, the poor are the most defenseless.
“He that by usury and unjust gain increaseth his substance, He shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.”
Proverbs 28:8 (KJV)
This lender guy, by unjust means, was not pitying the poor. So his wealth is going to be gathered up and passed on to the one who would in fact pity the poor.
“If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.”
Exodus 22:25 (KJV)
This point can be multiplied. What we should be able to see is that there is a world of difference between a man who lends money for groceries to a poor man, charging him 18% interest for it, and a man who invests some money in a promising start-up business—even if the business succeeds wildly and he gets even more than an 18% return. These two practices do not inhabit the same moral universe at all.
Scripture is at this point is protecting the dignity of the poor. Scripture is not waving us off from responsible banking, investing, borrowing, or lending.
“When thou dost lend thy brother any thing, thou shalt not go into his house to fetch his pledge.”
Deuteronomy 24:10 (KJV)
The pledge here is the collateral, and the nature of the collateral is quite telling. The following verses show that the pledge consisted of his cloak that he would use to sleep in. The lender could not go into his dwelling to bring the pledge out himself, and he needed to return the pledge to him in the evening so that he could sleep in it. To go into a man’s house to grab his collateral would be degrading, humiliating.
Now the pledge was obviously worth a great deal to the impoverished man who had taken out the loan, but it would obviously be worth nothing at all to the lender. The lender only took it as a means of keeping some kind of pressure on the borrower. The rich banker does not “get to keep” the ratty garment of the poor man. He does not think of the possibility of coming to own dirty cloaks for himself as one of the perks of the job.
And so this is completely different from way collateral works with a modern home loan. With a home loan, the collateral (that being the house) is worth the amount of the loan, and usually quite a bit more than that. This means the borrower is always in a position to discharge his obligations under the debt. His arm is not extended farther than he can draw it back. He makes the payments and eventually owns the house, or the bank gets the house, which is worth more than the value of the outstanding loan. Now, as we shall see, if the borrower has his wits about him, he will want to make principal payments as possible in order to minimize the amount of interest he will have to pay out, but there is no violation of the biblical principles in the loan itself.
Owe No Man . . .
At the same time, Scripture does teach us to be suspicious of our own hearts. Like so many other things, borrowing can become a high octane fuel for our discontents. If a man is neck deep in violation of the Tenth Commandment, it is quite possible that a lender will be right there at his elbow, urging him to leverage his way into prosperity, and the consequent promised happiness. If he is a grasping soul, this is going to prevent him from loving his neighbor. He is, financially speaking, going to get out over the tips of his skis.
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:8 (KJV)
A Christian should never borrow anything that would make him want to dodge down an alleyway if he sees his creditor coming the other way down the street. If that happens, it means that whatever it was you borrowed is interfering with your obligation to pay your basic debt to him, which is the obligation to love him. The foundational debt that we should owe to all others is the debt of love. And what is love but to treat everyone else lawfully, and do so from the heart?
In our daily interactions with one another, this must never be forgotten. Love one another. As we conduct any kind of financial transaction, there will be opportunities to forget this. A missed payment, slipshod work, delayed deadlines, unexpected costs, miscommunication—all can get in the way of loving a brother. Borrowing money can certainly be one area where someone violates what Paul requires here. But so can any other economic transaction.
And a person who owes money can fulfill what Paul says here while a person who never borrowed anything does not. Say that he needs to pay $100 to a brother by Friday, and the payment is going to be delayed until Monday. He gets on the phone and explains the situation before the creditor starts wondering what is happening. In the Spirit, the debtor chases the creditor. In the flesh, the creditor has to chase the debtor. That is the carnal way.
And a merchant who promised delivery on Friday, discovering it won’t happen until Monday, and who leaves the customer wondering, is not fulfilling his obligation even though he never (technically) borrowed anything.
This should remind us that a lot of our modern financial transactions could technically be considered loans. Why do you pay your utilities bill once a month, instead of paying for everything as you go? Isn’t that the same as having a tab at a store, to be paid off at regular intervals? If we are being strict about this, shouldn’t you have to make a cash deposit before making every phone call? And what would we say about a person who uses a credit card for everything, but then pays it completely off every month? Is he debt free? Actually, no. He is in debt virtually all the time . . . but he is managing it quite honorably, and I think we can accurately say of him that he owes no one anything, except the debt of love.
Someone is going to wonder why I have not brought up a particular verse yet. Lest I disappoint that person completely, let me bring it up now.
“The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
Proverbs 22:7 (KJV)
Lest there be any confusion, I do believe that it is better to be a lender than to be a borrower, just as it is better to be rich than to be poor. One of the Deuteronomic blessings that God promised to Israel was that if they were obedient to Him, He would bless them in this way.
“For the Lord thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee.”
Deuteronomy 15:6 (KJV)
But by the same token, He also promised them wealth. So in what follows, I am not denying that it is better to be warm and dry, sitting by the fire, than to be cold and wet, picking up rocks in the rain. Thus far we agree.
Now some have absolutized the second half of Proverbs 22:7, arguing that it is always a sin for anyone to borrow money, and particularly for a church or Christian organization to do so. The reason given is that the borrower becomes “servant” to the lender. The word for servant there is ebed, and one of the definitions for that word is slave. Christ has set us free, and so let us not become slaves of men (Gal. 5: 1, 13). Whenever you borrow money, the creditor is now the one calling all the shots, and there you are, poor chump.
Not exactly. This understanding skims over the first half of the proverb, which is much to the same effect. “The rich ruleth over the poor . . .” Not only do lenders call the shots, but so do the people with boatloads of money, whether or not you have borrowed anything. Refusing to borrow anything for any reason, because of the necessary and resultant servitude, is like refusing to move from one end of the pool to the other because you are concerned about getting wet.
Most corporations, including banks, are as woke as mid-morning, and so a believer asks why he should go borrow money from those people, thus subjecting himself to them. He thus becomes their servant, right? Why not save up the money he needs to buy whatever it is, and then purchase it without a loan? Because as he is saving that money up, in his savings account, his money is still in their bank, and he is still living in the first half of Prov. 22:7.
Short of God’s judgment day, which must never be forgotten, the rich generally do what they want. They can change the terms of your loan, they can freeze your assets, they can close your account, and they can confiscate the gold coins you were keeping under your mattress. Many Christians are really nervous about having anything to do with financial institutions. That caution is not misguided. What is misguided is thinking you have avoided the problem just by avoiding a loan.
This is a fallen world, and there is no way to have absolute financial security here. We navigate as best we can, trusting in the Lord, stewarding our earthly goods as responsibly as we know how. But we do this, knowing that our only secure hope is to have our ultimate inheritance located on a shelf that they can’t reach (1 Pet. 1:4). Their ladders don’t go that high.
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.”
Matthew 6:19–20 (KJV)