Financial Debt and Religious Freedom

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A profound social transformation has been taking place right in front of us, and we have barely noticed. Very quietly a revolution in attitude has occurred. It is simply this: debt has been normalized. As a professor I see it every day where students preparing for the (generally underpaid) Christian ministry blithely assume enormous debt to finance their seminary education. They are in effect committing themselves to long-term financial hardship. In some cases their only hope will be to declare chapter 7 bankruptcies. But this is simply a reflection at the personal level of a much larger national disposition. America is staggering toward its own bankruptcy, and we cannot seem to get a handle on the problem. This week I discovered another reasons why our growing debt should be a particular concern for Christians. It came out of a news report from China.

 

During the last several months the government of China is once again flexing its muscle, and exercising brutal control of its population. One of the ways it is doing this is to crack down on Christians who dare to express their God-given freedom to worship according to their consciences. Their churches are being shut down and they are being herded into police stations, detained and intimidated. In the past these ham-fisted reactions have been restrained by a fear of international disapproval, but the new element in the equation is a bold Chinese disregard for what the United States or any human rights organization thinks. As a recent NPR report from Beijing notes, China no longer cares what the United States or the outside world thinks.

 

For the latest abuse of an unregistered church, see:
http://www.npr.org/2011/04/11/135305676/china-cracks-down-on-christians-at-outdoor-service

 

Why is this? It is because China is well on its way to owning us. There is a timeless piece of wisdom in the biblical Book of Proverbs, which reads: “The borrower is slave to the lender” (Prov. 22:7). It’s always been this way—debt is disempowering. The lender always rules over those who owe them money. And this is already having a profound effect on the ability of freedom-loving Christians to speak out effectively against the suppression of the religious freedom of others.

 

Ultimately China is not the enemy. Our debt is, and the spirit of greedy irresponsibility that feeds it. Is debt a moral and religious issue? You bet it is.

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7 Responses to Financial Debt and Religious Freedom

  1. Glen G. Scorgie May 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Don, I think everyone involved in the chain of seminary education (including seminary faculty like me) is vulnerable to some share of the criticism. The big changes in my lifetime have been the rise in educational standards, which has made programs more expensive. When I was young, evangelical students heading for church ministry went to very economical undergraduate Bible schools. I paid $1000 per semester for tuition, room and board. But these sums were subsidized by our denomination, by districts and by individual churches. The conditions were spartan, and while the education was strong in some aspects it was weak in others. Very few of the graduates in my cohort lasted whole careers in the ministry.

    The other variable is that churches and denominations used to financially support ministerial training schools and the students enrolled in them. They understood how important it was to prepare the next generation of church leaders, and were prepared to assign a portion of their annual budgets to the cost. Nowadays denominations and most churches don’t do this (although, happily, some of the healthier and visionary congregations still do). But the result is that the full burden of an education falls mainly on the shoulders of the individual student. The best solution is still to have a church recognize and affirm a student’s potential for ministry, and lend financial support to the student in order to bring this dream to a reality. But many students are not that connected to churches, and enroll more or less on their own and without consultation with, and endorsement from, sending churches. It’s not a good situation we are in, and if the economy tanks the whole model is at risk of collapsing. I’ve thought for some time that one of the things seminaries should do is prioritize student scholarships and financial aid in their fund-raising efforts. Donors tend to like to invest in buildings and tangible resources, but if you visit the Third World you have to be impressed with how believers in poorer countries make use of far less resources and still get the job done.

    The bottom line is that something’s gotta give. Either we will have to give the current model of education more support or we will need to find another one.

  2. Don L. May 2, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    Professor Scorgie,

    Higher education costs, seminaries included, have risen much faster than the rate of inflation. Thus, the cost of getting a seminary degree is much higher than in previous generations. Why do you think that higher education costs have risen so much?

    Cost is one of the major reasons that I’m opting for a two-year M.A. rather than an M.Div. We can fault the students for getting into debt, but shouldn’t some responsibility be placed on the seminaries themselves when it costs over $50,000 in tuition to get an M.Div.?

  3. Dave Harvey April 18, 2011 at 4:19 am #

    Glen,
    Thanks for the response; I too would be shocked to hear any seminarian proclaim that they had no intention of fulfilling their financial obligations – *voluntary* financial obligations, I might add, since presumably no one forced them to go to seminary.

    Too often, Christians seem to have a love/hate relationship with money. We need it to operate in society – to pay for water, gas, food, clothing, etc. – but we feel guilty if we make too much, because then the temptations come to spend it on all sorts of non-essentials, and greed is an insidious enemy.

  4. Glen G. Scorgie April 17, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    I’m grateful for each of these responses, but wanted in particular to respond to David’s. I should have been more careful in my comments to clarify that not all students who go into debt to finance their education are being irresponsible. Some, like David, do have a plausible plan for repaying it. But many don’t, and worse still, don’t seem to care. I had one heavily indebted student once tell me that she actually had no intention whatsoever of ever paying back her debt to the government. I am confident she did not represent the majority–but it was shocking to hear, especially from someone ostensibly preparing for the Christian ministry. I agree that sometimes we borrow money as a sound investment in a greater return–a mortgage, for example, or a line of credit for a small business. But generally speaking we should be much more sobered by our perilous position whenever we assume debt, personally or collectively as a nation. In America it seems that we are willfully looting our children and their futures.

  5. Paul Ferris April 16, 2011 at 12:54 am #

    Good point, Glen.

    But debt period? Or unmanageable debt?

    Wouldn’t spending someone else’s money (using credit) with no intent or reasonable expectation of repaying be tantamount to theft. To what degree is spending money I don’t have a symptom of succumbing to the temptation to “instant gratification?” Your pointing to Proverbs reminds one of several other words of wisdom with respect to one’s self-management (including but not limited to financial matters).

  6. Sam April 16, 2011 at 12:38 am #

    Glen, amen and amen!!! And why is it that so many evangelicals align themselves with the big business -advanced capitalist agenda that has fueled this unprecedented normalization of debt? More to the point for us, what are we doing in our seminaries to train people to think biblically about economic issues and to understand the inherent relationship between money (possessions, et al) and spiritual formation? Jesus said you cannot serve God and money -something we need to think much more seriously about. Thanks for bringing this to our attention! Blessings!

  7. Dave Harvey April 15, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    I’ll admit that I’m a bit confused by the examples you give and the conclusions you draw in your article. On the one hand, you mention the enormous debt that seminary students “blithely” assume in order to finance their education, and on the other you decry the “spirit of greedy irresponsibility” that feeds such debt. I can only speak for myself, but I did not blithely assume anything when I came to Bethel, and I certainly didn’t saddle myself with such a financial burden out of some irresponsible spirit of greed.

    On a national level, what you say is true – we are on the brink of insolvency, and have become financially beholden to China, since they own large amounts of our debt.

    But how does this apply at the personal level? Am I to never go into debt for any reason? Is buying a car, house or education off-limits for me until I can pay in cash? Does having a car payment or mortgage make me an irresponsible, greedy Christian?

    I think part of the answer goes towards the reason one enters into a situation where debt will result. If I’m buying a new car or a house in La Jolla that are beyond my means, then perhaps greed or vanity is the motive – and clearly that’s a bad thing. Even if I could afford it, it would still be questionable because I’m not doing it for the right reasons. However, I think there are times when assuming a debt for something is unavoidable, and for that one should have a plan laid out in advance for how the debt will be repaid.

    In my case, I owe a lot of money for my Bethel education. However, since I plan on becoming a military chaplain, the National Guard will repay a large portion of my student loans. The rest will be paid in installments out of my military salary. Had I waited until I had saved up enough money to pay for my education up front, I would still be waiting.