Excessive Debt and Our Tendency to Read Into Scripture

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I have written several articles about (what I believe to be) our misuse of Proverbs 22:7a.  You can read those here and here.

As a reminder, here’s the Scripture in question: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”

My argument against the direct transference of this phrase into our culture is three-fold:

  1. I believe we’re being melodramatic when we apply that text directly to our cultural situation.
  2. I believe we’re misrepresenting the dramatic difference between our lending system and the lending system years before Christ.
  3. As such, we’re reading into the text our modern situation and thus standing above the Text rather than standing under the Text.

Each time I address this topic, I must clarify that I’m not pro-debt.  I don’t write these articles because I want to encourage people to go out and get loans.  I personally don’t owe a penny to anyone.  I wouldn’t change that for a moment.  Still, I don’t think we can take the statement that the borrower is slave to the lender without filtering it to apply it to our context.

We are rich people who borrow excessive amounts of money.

Our situation is different than the original context.

Would you agree or disagree with this statement? The person with a million dollar net worth who owes $50 to his dad (that he borrowed last week when they went out to dinner because he forgot his wallet) is a slave to his dad.

Would you agree with the following statement? A person who has a million dollar net worth who borrowed $40,000 for a piece of investment property is a slave to the lending institution.

Since most of us have never been debt-free, we define debt by our personal situation – owing a lot of money to a lot of different people.  Thus, our experiences want to affirm that the borrower is slave to the lender, and so we’re ready to proclaim the inappropriateness or even sinfulness of any debt.

Does a debt – any debt – of any amount, lead to slavery?

My contention is no.

As such, I think we usually infer that Prov. 22:7a infers an excessive amount of debt.

However, when this passage was written, borrowing was an action of the poor and never the rich. That’s the key cultural difference.

For them, a debt - any debt – could lead to slavery because only the poor who has no or little assets would borrow and offer their last items of ownership as collateral.  Today, we have rich people who borrow in a way to extend their investments.  That’s a dramatically different type of borrowing than addressed in Prov. 22:7.

In our society today, the rich borrow money.  I think that concept would have been shocking in the BC era.  During that time, I believe (unless there are any studies to show anything to the contrary) only the poor borrowed.  They borrowed for one reason: they didn’t have the assets necessary for survival.  If they were unable to pay, they would become slaves – loss of personal rights – of the one who lent them the money.

I argue that this is in no way similar to our modern culture where we have highly regulated debt laws.

Is there any debtor situation in America whereby a person could be imprisoned or enslaved by someone if they didn’t repay a loan?  I’m not aware of any.

But, isn’t my emotional stress on an equal plain as ancient slavery?  

If you’re in this situation,it  is not a debt that has led you into bondage, but an excessive amount of debt.  Consider one of our illustrations above.  The man with a million dollar net worth owes his dad $50.  Would the emotional toil he experiences be equal to slavery?  I simply cannot see that because his debt is reasonable in proportion to his income.

Yes, you may be in a situation where your debt feels like slavery, but it’s probably because of excessive debt, not a single minimal debt.  However, during the BC era, a debt – just one – could lead to slavery.

For them, a debt could lead to slavery, and thus, the borrower is slave to the lender.  In our culture, it is possible to borrow and not to be a slave as long as the borrowing is minimal and reasonable according to your income and net worth.

Borrowing doesn’t always lead to slavery.

Still, borrowing is not something I do nor something I promote.  We just need to stop applying Prov. 22:7 with a ‘flat’ interpretation that doesn’t consider situations where the Bible would in no way condemn a reasonable and proportional debt.

Debt may be dumb, but that doesn’t make it a sin, nor is it prohibited in Scripture.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent article, and I agree completely. In a recent post I wrote about how being a slave to debt depends on the borrowers money situation. If they are borrowing out of control they have a problem, and if they are borrowing responsibly with the ability to pay it back in advance if they choose to in my book is okay. I too hope to one day be debt free

  2. Bill in NC says

    It’s not just people who get into trouble borrowing.

    Thanks to the flavor of the day, several years ago my current church borrowed 8 figures to add a ‘satellite’ campus, which to be blunt will probably be shut down given attendance & receipts from those attending are not anywhere near what was projected.

    The church, of course, will still be paying to service the debt incurred for the next 20 years no matter what happens.

  3. Andy Pike says

    Craig,

    I’m new to your blog and really liked this article. I would submit one “counter” to your post. When a person has debt, regardless of the amount, they have a moral and legal obligation to pay that debt. In the eyes of the law, as I understand it (I’m a financial advisor, not a lawyer), the requirement to pay debts actually comes ahead of everything related to lifestyle. In that sense, I think we can be seen as “slaves” to the lender, mainly because they have to be paid back, pretty much, right after our obligations to pay taxes.

    I also think the issue of how we feel about our debt (someone with $4,000,000 net worth and a $40k car loan) is personal an in direct relation to our walk with God. Clearly, God has written that debt is not in our best interest…it keeps us from a close relationship with Him. Some people stress about any amount of debt and others don’t have a concern in the world about their debt…hence my belief that how we feel about our debt is mostly a personal thing.

    Thanks for the blog…I’m already enjoying reading…

    God Bless!

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