Debt and the Local Church

Whether or not a church should borrow to build is a hot topic these days, one that often brings with it a lot of emotion on both sides. I don't always succeed at this, but I do always try to base my position on a particular issue on what the Word says and nothing else. What follows is my understanding of what the Word says on the topic of whether or not a church should borrow money.

The primary passage I intend to work from is Deuteronomy 28. Fundamentally, it is a promise to the nation of Israel that God will bless their obedience and curse their disobedience. It cannot be taken as a literal one-to-one correlation to any other nation, and it certainly cannot be said to follow that an individual believer will receive these specific blessings and curses in response to his or her own individual obedience or disobedience. 

However, while there are certainly ideas and promises that apply to Israel alone, God’s character does not change. When we see that He prescribes certain blessings for obedience and calls down specific curses for disobedience, I believe these can give us some insight and general principles as to what God thinks of the things He uses to bless and to curse. I believe this is important to consider as we look at the topic of debt and the church. 

Deuteronomy 28:1-2 “Now if you faithfully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all His commands I am giving you today, the Lord your God will put you far above all the nations of the earth. 2 All these blessings will come and overtake you, because you obey the Lord your God:

Moses lists many blessings that God will pour forth on the people of Israel in response to their obedience:
  • Victory over their enemies (v. 7)
  • An abundance of food and livestock (v. 4,5,11)
  • An abundance of children (v. 11)
  • Rain on their crops (v. 12)
  • Success in what they purpose to do (v. 8)
  • Lending to many nations (v. 12)
  • Not borrowing from anyone (v. 12)
  • Being the “head” and not the “tail”, or a leader (perhaps ruler) among the nations, not a follower (v. 13)
  • These blessings will be to their descendants as well (v. 4)
He reiterates the need for obedience to obtain these blessings two more times (v. 9, v. 13-14), and in the midst of all these blessings, Moses records a very important thought in verse 10:

Deuteronomy 28:10 Then all the peoples of the earth will see that you are called by Yahweh’s name, and they will stand in awe of you.

God is not promising to bless the nation of Israel for their obedience as an end unto itself. The ultimate purpose of God blessing the nation of Israel is to glorify His Name. And in the same breath, the same thought of having all the food and livestock they could ever need, having victory over their enemies, having success in whatever they do, and being a leader among the nations, God names not borrowing as a blessing He will give to His people.

What is interesting about this last part of verse 12, “You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow,” is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say that Israel will be able to lend to many nations and they will not need to borrow. It says they will lend, and they will not borrow. It is the actuality that God promises, not the potential. We see this again a few chapters earlier in Deuteronomy 15:6

Deuteronomy 15:6 When the Lord your God blesses you as He has promised you, you will lend to many nations but not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.

This brings us to the first principle:

In the eyes of God, lending is a blessing, 
and not borrowing is also a blessing.

Now, let’s consider the second part of Deuteronomy 28.

Deuteronomy 28:15 But if you do not obey the Lord your God by carefully following all His commands and statutes I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overtake you:

Moses recorded nearly 4 times as many curses for disobedience as he did blessings for obedience. There is a lot here. These are the curses God promises for disobedience:
  • Curses, confusion, and rebuke in everything they do (v. 20,29)
  • Pestilence and disease (v. 21-22,27,35,59-61)
  • Burning heat, drought, blight, and mildew (v. 22-24)
  • Defeat by their enemies and an object of horror to the nations (v. 25,37,49-50)
  • Death, and their bodies will provide food for the animals (v. 21,26,48)
  • Madness, blindness, and mental confusion (v. 28-29,34)
  • Oppression and theft of their possessions without help from others (v. 29,31,33)
  • Men will rape their brides to be (v. 30)
  • Fruitless labor (v. 30,33,38-40,42)
  • Their children will be taken from them as prisoners (v. 32,41)
  • Destruction as a nation, exile and idolatry (v. 36,62-64)
  • The foreign resident will prosper in their midst (v. 43)
  • The foreign resident will lend to them (v. 44)
  • They will not lend to the foreign resident (v. 44)
  • The foreign resident will be the head, and they will be the tail (v. 44)
  • Slavery to their enemies, in famine, thirst, nakedness, and lacking everything (v. 48-52)
  • Cannibalism of their own children and of each other (v. 53-57)
  • No peace in exile, but a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a despondent spirit. (v. 65-68)
That is a horrendous list. In the midst of fruitless labor, pestilence, disease, defiled women, defeat, slavery, idolatry, exile, cannibalism, destruction, and death, God lists two curses that seem to our human sensibilities to pale in comparison:

Deuteronomy 28:44a He [the foreign resident] will lend to you, but you won’t lend to him.

That these two curses are found in such horrific company should give us a clue as to what God thinks about them.

In order for someone to lend, there must be a borrower. Given that it is the foreign resident that is the one lending as a curse to Israel, it is reasonable to infer here that these foreign residents would be lending to Israel the way the rest of the world does, with interest. As a curse for their disobedience, Israel would borrow from the foreign resident at interest.

Proverbs 22:7 The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.
Deuteronomy 15:6 When the Lord your God blesses you as He has promised you, you will lend to many nations but not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.

The grammatically parallel structure of these two passages is telling. The one who lends is the ruler, and the one who borrows is enslaved. That is why Jesus said in Luke 6:27-35 that it is an act of love to lend and not expect anything in return.

The second principle we can understand from these passages is this: 

In the eyes of God, not lending to others is a curse, 
borrowing at interest is a curse, 
and all borrowing enslaves the borrower to some degree.

One thing I must highlight is this: Borrowing is described as both slavery and a curse, but not necessarily a sin. So, does this mean you can say that a church should not ever borrow money at interest? Consider the following from my own life:

At one point, my wife and I owed so much money on high-interest credit card debt that the minimum payments were nearly $1000 a month. We were being crushed under the consequences of our own foolish actions. God provided us a consolidation loan offer in the mail one day completely “out of the blue.” It cut my payments in half, and I was able to pay it off in 4 years.

My point is this: The damage was done. We made stupid choices to buy stuff we didn't need with money we didn't have, and as an act of mercy to lighten the load, God provided what He would have preferred that we would never have needed in the first place. If a church is already in debt, it should move to become debt free, and if it can borrow money to pay off one loan that will result in a lower total amount of interest being paid overall (not just a reduced interest rate), then it should do that.

But if your church is debt-free or has never borrowed money and is considering doing so, it is standing on the precipice of setting a dangerous precedent. A deadline is set, and if God doesn't come through via some other means, the church borrows money from a bank. However, not borrowing is a blessing that brings glory to God. Philippians 4:19 says that God will meet our needs “according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Is going to a bank to borrow money relying on God’s riches in glory? And more than that, why voluntarily enter an agreement that is described by God as both a curse and slavery?  Just because there doesn't appear to be an alternative readily available does not necessarily mean that your church should take on debt.

So, what's the alternative? I have two thoughts. First, trust God to provide for your church's needs in His timing and in a way that will unequivocally bring glory to His Name. If your church is truly in need of more space, then it is because God has blessed you. That your church is growing brings glory to His Name. I have not found a single example in scripture of God meeting the needs of His people through borrowing. On the contrary, consider 2 Corinthians 9:7-10 (emphasis mine):

7 Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make every grace overflow to you, so that in every way, always having everything you need, you may excel in every good work. 9 As it is written: He scattered; He gave to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.

10 Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us.

This leads me to my second thought: Give generously and sacrificially to your church. The Old Testament records several "building projects" that God asked the Israelites to accomplish, and in each case, He provided all the materials for the project through the abundant giving of His people. Consider Moses leading the people to build the first tabernacle in Exodus 35-36. In Exodus 35:4-5, Moses tells the people that those who are willing should donate to the building of the tabernacle. The generosity of the people of Israel was so abundant that Moses had to tell them to stop giving (Exodus 36:4-6). In 2 Chronicles 2, when Solomon purposed to build a temple for God, He purchased supplies from the king of Tyre out of the wealth that God had given him (2 Chronicles 1:12,2:10). And when God commanded David to build an altar to Him, David insisted on paying the owner of the land where the altar was to be built full price for the land so that he could offer God an offering that was costly to him (2 Samuel 2:24).

Once you have committed to the debt free path, pray to God for wisdom (James 1:5). I am not a financial expert, but I trust God's Word, and I believe He will honor and bless your commitment to glorify Him. One article that I found useful in getting the creative juices flowing is this: