I am pleased to offer this provocative “guest column” by Bethel San Diego seminarian Matt Jeffreys. It is an abridgment of a research paper Matt recently wrote for a seminary ethics course.
A recent New York Times article described a successful financial advisor who was losing his home due to excessive debt. He said that processing what had happened raised profound ethical questions. Americans have slowly come to accept debt, even extreme debt, as a normal way of life. And Christians appear to be the same. Believers seem to borrow just as much, and just as fast for everything from cars and houses, to furniture and vacations. Churches are now filled with, and led by, people who are often drowning in debt and struggling to think about much else. Even closer to home, debt has reached crisis proportions for those of us who venture to study at America’s expensive seminaries on our own dime. Maybe this is just wrong.
Every year in the U.S., thousands of students enter seminary in the hopes of getting an education that will both aid in maturing their faith and help prepare them for vocational ministry. Most churches of any size still require some kind of theological degree for its ministerial staff. Certainly for those who preach and teach, if not for all their staff. This is a good thing. The demands of ministry are extreme, the culture we lead in complex, and the need for correctly handling Scripture crucial. Local churches rightly expect their leaders to be spiritually formed, passionately committed, and educated enough to be credible.
The costs, however, are extreme. The vast majority of seminary students take out loans to get through, and many still have loans from undergraduate degrees. Typically loan after loan is taken out to pay for each successive quarter or semester. Often there is little thought given to how the loans will be paid back, or the many years it will take. Nor is much thought given to the fairly modest pay most seminary students will earn in early years after graduation. Additionally, very little is done by either seminaries or local churches to help students understand the reality of graduating with thousands in debt. Most seminaries do little to no substantive financial counseling for incoming and current students.
And churches are worse. The overwhelming majority of local churches do relatively nothing, at least nothing significant, to help fund seminaries and make no offers to help pay back seminary loans for staff members who serve them. Churches seem quite content to require years of expensive higher education for their pastors, offer them low salaries starting out, and leave them to spend years paying off loans acquired to better serve the local church. We live in a culture that has adopted debt as a way of life, and unfortunately, the church has followed suit. It is a pitiful system throughout.
I believe the rising cost of theological education is ultimately unsustainable. I’ll go even further. I believe it dishonors God. And it seems, when you look at some of the more innovative and effective churches in America, that God is beginning to provide alternative ways for his servants to be equipped for ministry.
Debt is more than an economic issue. It is fundamentally a moral one. Upon examination it becomes clear that the Bible has much to say directly, or indirectly, to the issue of debt. The challenge to those of us who profess to be Christ-followers is whether we will allow biblical instruction in this area to effect the changes needed in our behavior.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites of what it means to be the people of God. Moses, when speaking about the year for canceling debts, tells the people that the Lord will bless them and they will lend (out of their abundance) to the other nations . . . and will not borrow (Deut. 15:6). Moses is speaking to the reality he anticipates once God’s covenant people are living in the land. The idea is that when God’s people live in faithfulness to him, there should be no need to borrow. God’s provision will not only meet their needs, but supply enough abundance that they can be a blessing to other nations. Part of the truth here is that God would supply more than enough for his people so there would be no need to borrow from surrounding nations and become subject to them. This gets to the very heart of debt. It makes slaves out of the borrower.
This truth is seen quite clearly in the book of Proverbs, God’s great storehouse of wisdom. The borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). In this relationship, the writer of Proverbs 22 says that the “rich” rule over the “poor.” The point is that until the debt is paid back, the borrower lives with a form of slave/master relationship. This runs contrary to the freedom that Christ came to bring. This represents an economic fact that must be faced by those who are to take the Bible seriously. Most who have faced mounting credit card debt or a house payment they’re struggling to pay know the absolute truth of this verse. Even in the closest of relationships, things are different when one is the lender and one is the borrower.
One of the reasons debt is so serious is because it limits our ability to live out certain biblical imperatives. Throughout Scripture believers are exhorted to give back a portion of their earnings to God as a declaration of trust and an act of worship (Lev. 27:30; Mal. 3:10; Matt. 23:23; 2 Cor. 9:6-7). There are countless Christians in America who limit their giving due to the amount of debt they have. I have personally talked with scores of believers over the past 6-8 years who “wish they could give more” but are hampered because they’re so heavily in debt. Debt also limits our ability to be open-handed with those less fortunate. It’s not that believers should sell everything they own and give the money away. The issue is that people live with such debt that they often cannot sell significant things and use the money for kingdom purposes when they see needs. One of the ethical implications of debt is that those weighed down by debt simply cannot fulfill the mandates to give like Scripture teaches.
I’ve often heard Ephesians 5:18 quoted. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” The universal principle here is that believers are to be controlled by the Spirit of God and nothing else. When people live with debt, it becomes a major driving factor in their thinking and decisions. Instead of being free to go, give, and live as the Spirit would lead, those strapped with debt are consumed with making the payments. Many will take on a second job or work extra hours at the expense of their family, kingdom service, and own spiritual health. Debt often causes people to have their minds attentive to their own dire circumstances instead of the Lord himself. It is hard to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, “mind,” and strength when every waking thought is about how much you owe and how you are going to make it. It is virtually impossible to maintain a lifestyle of debt and live a responsive, Spirit-filled life. Debt is a form of bondage, from which we must be set free.
The Bible warns us about debt, calls us to live in ways that are nearly impossible to do with chronic debt, and makes clear that our thoughts and actions should be guided by the Holy Spirit, not how much we owe and how we will meet our obligations. These are real issues that affect the lives people every day. It is a problem in the nation. It is a problem in the church. And it is an acute problem for seminarians in America today.
Accepting debt as a way of life is an unwise and potentially unethical way to live. It has monumental ethical implications for believers. Believers are warned in Scripture about the enslaving power of debt. Christ-followers who embrace a lifestyle of debt are unable to live with the kind of open-handed generosity that is to characterize them. Debt robs us of the peace that Christ offers. Our attitudes and actions are often more directed by the crushing pressure of what we owe, instead of the Spirit of God. The Bible, however, tells us there’s another way. Passages like Proverbs 6:6-8 and 22:9 teach the wisdom of saving for the future. What a thought!
Paul said to the church in Philippi that he had learned to be content in all situations (Philippians 4:11-12). Contentment is one of the best cures for the American debt crisis. Contentment empowers us to live with what God has already given us and trust him for what we hope to have or achieve in the future. Paul also said that “godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim. 6:6, emphasis mine).” I pray that the church in America, myself included, will begin to embrace contentment and shun debt to the glory of God and the good of our nation.