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A scriptural approach to church borrowing

  • Larry Burkett Co-CEO of Crown Financial Ministries
  • Published Jan 10, 2000
A scriptural approach to church borrowing
Church borrowing is an emotional and controversial topic. It is difficult to teach on this subject directly, because it is primarily an attitude rather than an absolute. However, anything taken to excess is destructive, and that is most certainly true of debt.

For the sake of simplicity, a church debt is defined as any borrowing by a church that carries with it a contingent liability. This means that the lender expects the money to be repaid, no matter what. This would include building loans, bonds, and the like. A debt would be regarded in the Scriptures as surety: "to deposit a pledge, either in money, goods, or part payment as security for a bargain."

It is no more abnormal for a church to finance a building program today than for a business to do so. Approximately 90 percent of all church building programs carry debts ranging from one to 20 years. The use of debt to build or expand the outreach of a church is so common a practice today that to even challenge the idea can create an air of animosity. However, just because a practice is normal does not mean it is scriptural or that it is best. It should be noted that most churches repay their debts according to contract. So the discussion is not whether a church can repay, because they must; it is whether churches should borrow even if they can repay.

Scriptural guidelines
Borrowing is not prohibited in Scripture. It is discouraged. There are no positive references to borrowing; in fact, there are explicit warnings to avoid it. "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave" (Proverbs 22:7). Thus the Word indicates that an unnecessary authority is created by borrowing.

The question is often asked, "If borrowing is allowable for individuals, why shouldn't churches also be able to borrow?" The answer is twofold. One, churches can borrow; the evidence is abundant around us. Second, just because they can borrow doesn't mean they should. As an entity, the church comes under a more stringent judgment from God's Word because of its visible position. "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment" (James 3:1). I would interpret this condition to mean the visible church as well.

The church as a physical entity exists for just one purpose: to glorify God. It stands as the visible image of God's best--not subject to worldly compromise. It seems contradictory to profess the belief that God can heal the sick, feed the poor, and even transform the very hearts of the corrupt, but He can't supply the funds (in advance) with which to do these things. "And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19). Money is no different from any other promise that God gives us, except that it is physical, visible, and measurable. Many of the other promises are subject to feelings, interpretations, and visions, but money is a rare absolute; you either have it or you don't.

The argument that if individual Christians can borrow money so should the church is not valid. In the first place, much of the borrowing that individual Christians do is, in itself, unscriptural because it is done in excess. This can be witnessed in the current level of divorce and bankruptcy, both of which are primarily motivated by the excessive use of credit. It is clear that the standards for leaders in the church are more stringent than for the individual members (see 1 Timothy 3:1-2). If this is so (and it is), then it would seem obvious that the standards of the church organization must be higher than that of its individual members.

Scriptural precedent
In doing a survey of this subject, I tried to be as objective as possible, knowing that I rarely observe the good side of credit. Few families (or churches) share with us the great successes they have had when using credit, but many share their failures. However, the mere fact that others have misused credit does not necessarily make it wrong. Only Scripture has the guidelines we are to follow--not opinion, no matter how normal it may seem.

After reviewing the references to borrowing in Scripture, I came to several conclusions. One, it is always presented in the negative (for example see Proverbs 17:18). Two, God never once made a promise to anyone and fulfilled it through a loan. Three, God promised His people that if they would obey His commandment, they would not have to borrow (see Deuteronomy 28:12). Four, God had worship structures built at least three times in the Bible, and no credit was used. "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Tell the sons of Israel to raise a contribution for Me; from every man whose heart moves him you shall raise My contribution' " (Exodus 25:1-2). "O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided to build Thee a house for Thy holy name, it is from Thy hand, and all is Thine" (1 Chronicles 29:16). (Also see 1 Kings 6; 2 Kings 12.)

It might be said that these aren't valid examples, because borrowing was not a normal practice during these times. If not, then Solomon wasted a great many parables dealing with the dangers of too much credit.

In the New Testament, there are no direct references to church buildings or to their funding. It would have seemed very out of character for the leaders of the first-century church, who risked (and gave) their very lives to deliver God's Word, to condone or even permit their churches to borrow. The basic attitudes reflected in Acts 4 and 2 Corinthians 8 indicate a commitment to giving whatever was needed.

Why not borrow?
"If money to do God's work is borrowed by a church and is repaid on time, then what's the harm?" This question is logical and is frequently asked. There is no single answer but rather a series of answers.
  1. Each church leader and member must search God's Word with an open mind and heart and determine if God does or does not desire churches to be funded with debt. If it is determined that to borrow is a compromise to God's will, then to do so is to sin. "Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17).

  2. Borrowing denies God's people the opportunity to experience His overwhelming blessings in response to giving what is clearly within God's will (2 Corinthians 9:10). We are told in 1 John 3:22 that we can ask of God and expect to receive. Certainly, this would be true of the needs of the church. The experience of seeing God provide through His people is a witness to those within the church and to those looking at us.
  3. A debt within a church restricts the member's ability to serve God. Quite often, the controlling decisions are based on the need to meet the debt payments rather than God's redirection of funds to current needs.
  4. Often, the ability to repay the debt is dependent on the ability of the pastor to preach. In many instances, lenders have required a signed contract from the pastor that he would not leave while the debt existed and would maintain an insurance policy to pay off the debt in the event of his death. "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit' " (James 4:13).
  5. Huge sums of believers' money go to meet interest payments. This money could be used to further God's kingdom rather than Satan's. Many major denominations spend more on interest payments than on foreign missions.

Other Christian ministries
There certainly can be no distinction between churches borrowing or other ministries borrowing. If an organization holds itself out to be an instrument of Jesus Christ, then it must be striving to meet God's standards. Certainly, there are no perfect ministries or churches, and try as we might we will continue to fall below God's measure. Borrowing is not the only area of laxness; it just happens to be one of the most visible (and correctable).

Having faced the same choices in a ministry, I find the need to wait upon God's provision in advance to be confining; however, it is also tremendously freeing. If God can direct us by providing, then He also can direct by withholding. Many ministries have borrowed to do things God never intended them to do. Others have borrowed to do God's will but have missed one of God's greatest areas of testimony. Very few nonbelievers could be convinced that there is anything supernatural or miraculous about a loan. Few would deny that there is something at least "unique" about a debt-free ministry.

I trust that this brief survey will not be viewed as any kind of indictment of churches or other ministries, because it is not. The purpose is to show church and ministry leaders, as well as their members, that God can and will provide (through His people) whatever is necessary to do His will. One of our greatest assets is that God doesn't have a whole lot of talent with which to work, but He will work with anyone willing to totally trust Him.

Obviously, overnight changes are rarely possible, but God's people should always be aiming toward the "mark." It is not a lack of funds that requires a church's borrowing. It is a lack of commitment on the part of God's people to give and to trust.

"So Moses issued a command, and a proclamation was circulated throughout the camp, saying, 'Let neither man nor woman any longer perform work for the contributions of the sanctuary.' Thus the people were restrained from bringing any more. For the material they had was sufficient and more than enough for all the work, to perform it" (Exodus 36:6-7).

To read other articles by Larry Burkett, click here.