Economic servitude

Should Christians charge interest today? Should the church charge interest? Is it possible to live and work without the use of interest? Author Tollefsen shares Scriptures that are easier to read than to fulfill.

John Tollefsen is managing partner of Tollefsen, Le Chevalier, & Patrick, a business law firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.

Viewpoint is designed to allow readers an opportunity to express opinions regarding matters of interest to their colleagues. The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the MINISTRY staff. You are invited to submit your ideas to Viewpoint on any topic; however, the editors reserve the right to make a final decision regarding the appropriateness or suitability for publication.—Editors.

The message of Jesus is liberty and freedom (John 8:31-36). Not only freedom from sin but also from worldly entanglements. Many forms of slavery have been abolished, but at least one remainsthe servanthood of debtor to creditor. Certainly the debtor prisons are gone. Creditors no longer may take the children of debtors as slaves for payment of debt. We have the most liberal bankruptcy laws since the law of Moses. But the reality of economic servitude remains.

A typical life in the U.S.A. goes something like this: During childhood our minds are bombarded by television, printed advertisements, and pressure from our culture to consume. As children, we are taught to covet Cabbage Patch dolls and robot toys that our parents cannot afford. As we mature we require designer jeans and automobiles. We marry and buy our house with 10 percent down. We can't wait for furniture. We want microwaves and video recorders. Credit cards are given to us freely.

After a few years we are trapped. Our monthly payments are high. Both of us must work. A loss of job creates great pressure on our marriage. As we approach retirement we still have not paid for our home, and our debts are large because we cannot be content with the things we have (Heb. 13:5). Economic freedom remains just out of reach. The only total escape is bankruptcy, a course exposing us to contempt and disdain in our success-driven culture.

If we forgive our debtors, we cannot pay our creditors. Paul's suggestion that it is better to be defrauded than to sue (1 Cor. 6:7) seems outrageous.

Is our debt-based society just? If the presence of the Spirit of the Lord results in liberty, how does God view the burden of debt in our culture?

Biblical perspective

God wanted His people to lend and be able to borrow when in need. He abolished interest or increase (Deut. 23:19, 20). He required those with money to lend to those without (chap. 15:7-10). The entire nation of Israel went through a form of bankruptcy every seven years. Debts were extinguished, and pledged property was returned to its original owners. Loans were required even though the Sabbath year was close at hand (verse 1-9) J3od considered the Sabbath year a time-to proclaim liberty (Jer. 34:14, 17).

The business of borrowing and lending ("banking" as we -know it) could not exist under these rules. So Rabbi Hillel changed this (perhaps with King Herod's encouragement) by reducing the Sabbath-year limitations. Israel then developed a Temple bank (later condemned by Jesus), much as other nations had. In more recent times, Protestant reformers and other theologians have provided Christians with justifications for charging interest in business contexts.

Human perspective

Interest has enticed men and women ever since money replaced the barter system. Those who owned money or controlled the creation of money often had the ability to charge interest. Interest is attractive because it creates power. Money's power is increased if a debtor relationship can result from a loan. A certain percentage of debtors are certain to default. The default gives new powers to the lender/ Under ancient law a defaulting debtor literally became the slave of the lender. Modern servitude of debtors is more subtle but still very real.

Historically" two" means have been used to control the concentration of wealth and power resulting from lending. First, laws were passed to reduce or eliminate interest rates. The human conscience seemed more sensitive to the interest issue: in ancient times. The Roman Twelve Tables (451 B.C.) defined usury for more than nine hundred years. Some laws disallowed charging interest, or exempted certain people from having to pay it. An ancient Babylonian fragment of a letter suggests that interest nor be charged because gentlemen didn't charge interest in transactions between themselves.

Scripture evidence

Looking at the Scripture references to lending with interest, we must first acknowledge that-we do not approach the issue with unbiased minds. Although passage after passage condemns interest, we cannot help believing that there must be an exception. This is no doubt more true in our culture than in others. We realize that condemning interest would condemn our lifestyles of mortgaged homes, car loans, money-market accounts, savings accounts, and pension plans.

The least controversial verses deal with the nation Israel and the poor. Israel would be rewarded for its obedience by becoming a lender and not a borrower (Deut. 2S:-12), but disobedience would turn the nation into a borrower (verse 44}. Scripture repeatedly explains money holders' obligation to lend to the poor for any of their needs (chap. 15:7-11). We are not to charge interest to the poor or even make a profit on food we sell them (Lev. 25:35-37). We are not to consider ourselves creditors when we deal with the poor, and we must return pledges before sundown (Ex. 22:25, 26). When we lend to the poor we lend to Yahweh(Prov. 19:17).

The remaining Scripture references to interest and usury become more controversial as they begin to threaten our lifestyles. We are told that the righteous don't lend with interest (Ps. 15:5; Eze. 18:8). Jesus tells us to lend expecting nothing in return, not even the principal (Luke 6:35). Those who are kind to the poor will receive what those that charge interest accumulated (Prov. 22:8).

Avoiding the status of a borrower is also a theme that is repeated in Scripture. "The borrower is the slave of the lender" (verse 7, R.S.V.). Although physical slavery no longer exists, economic slavery occurs because the borrower must work a certain number of hours per day to earn the money to repay the debt. The borrower's time belongs to another. Paul tells us to owe no one anything except love (Rom. 13:8).

Jesus interprets God's law broadly regarding borrowing and lending. His teaching on who is our "neighbor" implies that a Christian should not charge interest to anyone, even though the Israelite could charge interest to foreigners. We are not to refuse those who want to borrow from us (Matt. 5:42). Jesus' driving the bankers out of the Temple may be an indication that He disagreed with Hillel's interpretation of the Sabbath-year law. Jesus realized that His disciples would not live in societies that forgave debts every seven years. Therefore it is better to avoid creating debtors. We should lend without expecting the money back (Luke 6:35).

Rationalizations

If we admit that we are biased and if we want to open our minds to God's Word, it may be helpful to review our rationalizations.

1. Restrictions on interest do not apply today. Rules for an agrarian society 3,500 years ago couldn't be intended for a modern industrial state. Besides, aren't we under grace and not the law? Parts of the Mosaic laws, we agree, are timeless because they express moral principles built into Creation. Why did God condemn interest? How can He list charging interest with robbery, murder, adultery, and idolatry as worthy of death (Eze. 18:10-13)?

The key to understanding God's anger with charging interest is understanding God's economy. God usually does not provide His children's needs directly. He provides primarily through human distribution channels. Should we refuse the one who wants to borrow from us by reminding him that our God will provide all his needs? Jesus says that we should freely give because that is the way God provides for others. We tend to think that we have earned the right to consume or keep our resources as we wish. God will provide for everyone else. Jesus' teaching on stewardship demands that we acknowledge that our wealth is to be used for God's purpose.

2. The scripture on borrowing means don't borrow and not repay. Only God knows if we can repay. Merely because we have stored up our grain in barns doesn't mean that we are going to be able to repay a debt tomorrow. Borrowing is mortgaging the future. Borrowing is gambling on the future. It is a form of servitude. It can interfere with God's plan for our future.

"The wicked borrows, and cannot pay back" (Ps. 37:21, R.S.Y.V Does this mean that if we are unable to pay our debts we are unrighteous? Or does it mean that those who make a practice of borrowing will eventually find themselves unable to repay the debt and therefore become in the position of the wicked? In either case, is borrowing worth the risk?

3. Scripture prohibits only excess interest charging. This interpretation is so prevalent that even translators seem to follow it. The Hebrew word tarbith, which means "multiply" or "increase," occasionally is translated as "usury." Usury is an English legal word meaning charging excess interest. There is no usury unless there is a maximum interest rate. Scripture does not decry unreasonable, or "usurious," interest rates. There was no maximum interest rate in Hebrew law, and therefore no concept of "usury."

4. To "not owe anyone" refers to past-due or unnecessary debt. This is a good example of cultural bias influencing our interpretation of Scripture.

5. People have to borrow, so they might as well have a Christian lender. This rationalization is clearly handled by Scripture (Neh. 5:3'13). God's people were borrowing from their brothers in order to pay taxes and to eat because of famine. They had mortgaged their houses and vineyards, and some were losing their properties through foreclosure. Nehemiah denounced this evil, and the people repented. The fact that the lenders were fellow Jews made the sin worse.

6. Interest prohibitions apply to people, not businesses. Strict application of interest prohibitions would keep Christians out of business and therefore cannot be applicable to business, some argue. How could these rules apply to corporations? Some of the confusion results from the difficulty of distinguishing debt from equity. There seems to be no scriptural prohibition preventing the pooling of resources for business purposes and the dividing of revenues according to agreement. As the pooling agreements become more restrictive, we approach what we call debt. A reasonable scriptural distinction between debt and equity could be whether or not a personal guarantee is involved. There is no economic servitude where there is no personal liability.

Experience teaches us that a percent age of Christians who guarantee business loans will suffer under the yoke of economic servitude. Does this mean that God was unfaithful or that the business was not founded on God's principles? Or does it merely show that Christians are not immune to the ups and downs of life (Matt. 5:45)? With careful planning, business can be conducted without personal guarantees. Business finance and God's economic system do not have to be incompatible.

Corporate banking institutions are so much a part of our lives that it is hard to be objective about them. What's wrong with putting the church's funds in a savings account guaranteed by the United States Government? The banking institutions have become insulators between our money and the moral dilemmas involved; thus, we rarely experience the suffering caused debtors by our banks. Banks are not in the business of being charitable to debtors who are in need. When a friend loses his job and eventually his house is fore closed, we forget that we are a part of his suffering by our relationship with the bank.

Those of us who want to allow interest in business contexts take comfort from the parable of the talents. The unfaithful servant is told that it would be better to get interest at a bank than to hide his talent (Matt. 25:27; Luke 19:23). We interpret this to mean that interest from a bank is OK. There is another interpretation. The unfaithful servant accuses his master of reaping what he did not sow. The master does not answer this ridiculous accusation, but judges the wicked servant by his own standard.

Why not put the money in the bank, where there is reaping without sowing? This parable cannot be used as a proof text for charging interest.

7. Adherence is difficult. We live in a time of mankind's greatest achievement in the use of debt and interest. All indications point to even more advancements. Our government is setting new records. In this setting we are naturally looking for compromises. Under grace, each of us must make our own choices, knowing that failure to do what is right is sin (James 4:17).

We could choose the path of no debt. We could refuse to support the world's system by avoiding interest-bearing accounts. We could refuse to assume or guarantee loans personally. Most of us can justify the home mortgage because there is no ultimate personal responsibility—we can choose to lose the home. We may justify only the loans that are fully collateralized even if a distress sale is required. We need daily to fight the battle to be good distributors of God's wealth as we choose between conflicting obligations such as whether to give to our brother or to the children's college fund or to our own retirement fund. Yes, it is true; the path is difficult.

An Interpretation

God wants Christians to lend to one another—without interest and without expecting the money back. This is the key to God's economic system. If we fail to obey, we are causing suffering to the body of Christ by blocking distribution channels.

If we believe God will supply our needs, we must be very careful when we borrow. Circumstances may require us to borrow. However, borrowing mortgages the future by requiring us to spend future time to repay the past. Borrowing may be rebelling against God's plan for our future. We sometimes borrow from fear of the future or fear of man. We borrow to maintain our lifestyle. Our lifestyle becomes so habitual that we don't believe we can live with less. We borrow to fulfill our ambitions. If we believe that God does not want us to borrow, we must accept the consequences—loss of our homes, our businesses, our lifestyles.

Since the Biblical principle is to lend freely and yet not to be in debt, we also have an obligation not to create debtors. Jesus says lend and expect nothing in return. Jesus recognizes that wealth will not be evenly distributed. We will always have the poor with us (Matt. 26:11). They will need to borrow for survival. When we lend, we must not place ourselves in a position where we are forced to collect the debt. When we lend, we are not to be creditors, and the person who borrows from us is not to be a debtor.

When we come into harmony with God's will we will be able to pray without hypocrisy, "Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Then we will be free. 

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John Tollefsen is managing partner of Tollefsen, Le Chevalier, & Patrick, a business law firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.

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