Christians and Credit

We’ve all probably heard the phrase before, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” For most of us living in the modern western world though, the idea of living without being a borrower in at least a few situations is almost unimaginable. Credit, the concept of buying today by using tomorrow’s dollar, is woven into the fabric of our lives. Most businesses and governments are geared to function by spending on credit. Buying a home would be next to impossible for many without credit; it would even seem to be poor stewardship in some cases to spend years paying rent instead of utilizing a mortgage. Everything from the necessities to the niceties find their way onto the credit card statements of the many who have them. So, if common knowledge tells us not to be borrowers, why does pretty much everyone do it? And, more importantly, what does God think about it? All practices – no matter how common or utilitarian – must come under scrutiny if we “test all things” as the Bible teaches (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Since credit cards and some other aspects of buying on credit didn’t exist in the world of the Bible, we have to think in terms of the broader principles at play, namely, lending and borrowing. We’ll start with the idea of lending. The Psalmist made the following observation: “I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lends; And his descendants are blessed” (Psalm 37:25-26). Not only is it right to lend, but it also seems that lending can be an exercise in mercy. Lending was actually a God ordained exercise among Jews; they had to lend to each other without interest but could charge interest to those who were gentiles (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). God certainly doesn’t forbid the lending side of the equation.

God not only gave ordinances for the lender, but He also gave ordinances for the borrower. In contrast with the righteous lender described in Psalm 37, “The wicked borrows and does not repay” (v. 21). God appears to have put a priority on paying back debts rather than extending them with further purchasing. When Elisha miraculously provided a widow with oil that she could sell to sustain herself, he commanded her, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:7). Some might think that Paul’s admonition, “Owe no one anything,” prohibits borrowing altogether (Romans 13:8). However, the context points to rendering our due obligations (v. 7). Whatever is purchased on credit is an obligation; it becomes sin when we utilize it without intending to pay it back.

Herein lies a difficulty: while many no doubt purchase on credit with little to no consideration of repaying their debts, it’s hard to imagine Christians who would do so. Supposedly, people are only extended credit relative to their buying power anyway. Why is it then that so many Christians have amassed crushing mountains of debt? Why is it that an increasing number of Christians find themselves facing bankruptcy?

It may surprise you to know that consumer credit – the idea of buying “stuff” on credit rather than something substantial like land – is a relatively modern idea. I believe that where most Christians get off track is when they get sucked into the trap of this modern practice. The things that we so often buy on credit – cars, clothes, vacations, furnishings, things that have screens (computers, TVs, smartphones, etc.) – are all things that with foresight and planning could be purchased without using credit at all. It is covetousness and greed that says, “I have to have it all, I have to have it new, and I have to have it now.” Dr. Stan Bullington identifies four all too common reasons one might find himself buried by consumer debt: 1) greed, 2) failure to plan for the future, 3) careless financial management, or 4) an unforeseeable catastrophic financial event.[1] Of those four reasons, three of them are avoidable.
 
Having said that, there’s nothing inherently good or godly about paying by cash and avoiding consumer credit. In the United States, access to credit, which can be incredibly useful when making a large purchase like a house or a car, is achieved by making use of the consumer credit system. In fact, the credit card side of consumer credit often rewards your spending with cash back and/or airline miles. While these rewards can be negated by interest payments and fees, those who spend within their means and pay their bills in full when they are due often find that spending via a credit card actually saves them money.

So, should Christians abstain from using credit or carrying any kind of debt? There is no biblical precedent for doing so. A simple proverb for the age though would be this from Solomon “The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower is servant [slave – ESV, NASB] to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). The only way to financial freedom and to ensure that credit does not impact our spiritual freedom is to use credit sparingly and wisely.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
[1] Stan Bullington, Solomon on Wealth (Starkville, MS: Bully Pulpit Press, 2008), 83.

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