Proverbs 14:12 “There is a way that seems right to a man but its end is the way of death.”
It is not a comfortable thing to write from the minority position. Despite all the examples and platitudes our culture has about the underdog, the reality is that it is a very difficult thing to go against the grain. In terms of the argument, the minority position typically has the burden of proof, and is thus required to provide more evidence and reason for its position. In terms of persuasion, one not only finds himself arguing against the individual arguments but also the looming shadow of group think. This ethereal thought process, not having any one foci, is constantly shifting, making coming to grips with it all but impossible. Deeper than all of this is a third issue, one which revolves around the possibility of actually being right in the minority. The irony to being right is that often our sin tendency becomes disparaging, condescending, and sometimes explicitly violent at being instructed and reproved. So you either are proven wrong, despite all of your hard work, or you prove yourself right and open yourself to the full wrath of vexed human nature.
Thus it is not surprising that many of us find taking a stand, for anything, a very daunting prospect. Yet there are moments in our lives when such a stand is necessary. This post is in reference to such a scenario. It is not written in malice, nor do I have some morbid desire to critique the church on every little issue that it faces. Indeed, the church is often maligned from without by the culture and from within by its own members far too often. But that does not mean there are no legitimate issues at stake, or that decisions within the church should not be weighed and measured against Scripture. If anything, I believe the church’s position in today’s society requires us to be more conscientious of what Scripture actually says, and to strive to develop a thorough Biblical worldview of everything. We do not need less Biblical theology but more.
The issue at stake concerns the use of credit within the church. Specifically, the use of credit as ‘payment’ for tithes and offerings. I put payment in quotes, as I believe that one of the problems is a conflation of terms, namely, ‘payment’ and ‘giving’. To some this may seem an innocuous issue (I confess it has only been brought to my attention in recent weeks by the adoption of the practice by my own church). When placed alongside such theological debates such as the ‘New Perspective’ or the Emerging Church Movement, it hardly ranks as being all that important. Yet the old adage is true: the Devil is in the details. More than once it has been the small issues on which much has rested, and it is often in these issues that one’s theological convictions are often engaged and shaped on a daily basis.
Despite its apparent lack of gravitas, I would like to argue that it is actually far more important than some of us give it *ahem* credit. While much ink has been spilled on the merits and demerits of credit and debt from an economic standpoint, I would like to focus my attention solely on the legitimacy of credit as a medium for giving within the church. As such, my arguments will be Biblically focused and theological in nature, though by the nature of the discussion I will discuss some economic issues. I will first canvas the Old Testament, examine the Mosaic institution of a tithe as well as examine the Sabbatical pattern found within the Mosaic Law. I will then address ancillary verses in other parts of the Old Testament, particularly the Wisdom literature, and finally I will conclude that section by addressing possible objections. I will follow this by a look at the New Testament in the same format as above, and conclude with the arguments I have heard for using credit and my rebuttals.
The practice of tithes and offerings first appears in the Old Testament with Abraham in Genesis 14. Following Abraham’s defeat of Chedorlaomer, he returns to Canaan with his kinsmen and the spoils. On the way the King of Salem, a priest, greets him with a blessing, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand (Gen. 14: 19-20)!” Abraham’s immediate response is to give Melchizedek a tenth of all he had won. What I would like to draw attention to in this passage is the fact that Melchizedek makes two claims: that God owns everything, and that He has given some of this to Abraham. Giving is seen as a return to God of some of what He has given out of gratitude. This may seem a simple concept, and one that many of us heard throughout Sunday school. Yet I believe it is the fundamental understanding that will shape our view of credit in the church today.
This concept of giving back to God is not diminished but enhanced in the Mosaic Covenant. One of the striking things throughout Exodus and Leviticus is that we never see the people of Israel borrowing from another for their tithes, sacrifices, or offerings. In fact, on numerous occasions we see the opposite. In Exodus 35 we see that the furnishings of the Tabernacle were procured by the willing gifts of the Israelites (see especially verses 4-9, 20-29; also 36:1-7). In these passages we see that not only were they free will gifts out of the ‘possession’ of the Israelites, but that those who gave did so because of the desire of their hearts. This introduces another important aspect, that giving should be done out of desire of one’s heart, not out of a sense of duty and obligation. Leviticus is also filled with the theme of giving out of what God has given. In fact, the whole basis of the Firstfruits offerings (found throughout Leviticus interwoven in many of the sacrifices and offerings) is that you give out of the abundance of what God has given you. While these are not definitive, I believe that a broad picture emerges about God’s attitude toward giving.
Much more can be gleaned from the Pentateuch in regards to the idea of debt, but for now I would like to move on to some very important passages in the Wisdom literature. The first is in Proverbs 22:7, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” This passage is often used in this debate, but I have yet to see anyone acknowledge the structure of this verse. Verse 7 is constructed as a chiasm, where you usually have four points, the two anterior points and the two interior points. In this verse, the ‘rich’ and the ‘lender’ are equated, while the ‘poor’ and the ‘borrower’ or ‘slave’ are equated. On the surface this makes sense: only the rich have enough resources to lend, and the poor are the ones who are need of extra wealth. This is common practice today, but we find warnings later in the chapter that should make us stop and think. The first is found in verse 16, “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” Then we find verses 22-23, “Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” Finally, verses 26-27, “Be not one of those who give pledges, who put up security for debts. If you have nothing with which to pay why should your bed new taken from under you?”
The larger story of this chapter in Proverbs seems clear: debt is a form of slavery. If one increases another’s debt, is he not ‘oppressing the poor’ by increasing his slavery? In regards to using credit as a means for giving within the church, this sounds very similar to the warning in verse 16. The church gains wealth while increasing the poverty of its members. This does not strike me as particularly just or right. While I do not believe we are necessarily “robbing” people by practicing this, but we are adding to their weight of debt and obligation. Indeed, I think an argument can be made that we are “crushing the afflicted at the gate.” When we look back at the Mosaic Law, we see that contained within the Sabbatical pattern of years, we have a process of reconciliation and liberty to captives and slaves, as well as those who have debt (see Leviticus 25 for the full description). The tenor of the Law, especially in light of the coming of Jesus, is one of freedom and liberation, not captivity. While this theme might be primarily spiritual in nature, shouldn’t our physical lives reflect the spiritual reality within?
As with any line of reasoning, there are possible objections to what I have said thus far. The first is that we are no longer under the Old Testament Law, and are therefore free from its obligations. This is patently false, as we see in the New Testament Christ coming to fulfill the Law on our behalf, not abrogate it. I do concede that we no longer relate to God via the Law, yet I find the arguments contained within the chapter in Proverbs convincing. In regards to the Sabbatical pattern, I would argue that Christ is our true Sabbath and year of Jubilee, thus his person and work encapsulates these ideas. Subsequently, these themes are passed to His people, who should be living reflections of them.
A second objection is that none of the passages above specifically speak about using credit or borrowed assets to pay tithes or give sacrifices. Am I not making an argument from silence? This may be the case, but I am persuaded that when one examines the broad tone of Scripture, as well as specific passages such as Proverbs 22 which deal with money and debt, a very clear image appears. If taken individually, these verses are probably not persuasive. If taken as a whole, they take on much more weight. I am convinced by the overall image of Scripture in the Old Testament concerning these topics.
When we move into the New Testament, I believe these themes become even clearer. Jesus establishes Himself as Lord of the Sabbath in Matthew, “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”(Matthew 12:8 ESV) Given our understanding of the Sabbatical pattern in Leviticus 25, I would also argue that Christ fulfills the year of Jubilee as well. It is interesting that the end of chapter 11 in Matthew is Christ promising to give rest to those who follow him (Matthew 11:25-30). Earlier on in the same chapter we read:
And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Matthew 11:4–6
This is a fascinating passage, as Jesus is in part quoting Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
Notice that contained within this passage is the theme of giving liberty to those in captivity. In addition, we also have a veiled reference to the year of Jubilee, “…proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”. I do not believe this is accidental, but a deliberate allusion by Jesus to explain His purpose and mission. The connection comes when we realize we are His people, ordained to perform good works and reflect His glory and mission. We may claim that this is primarily spiritual, yet why the incarnation? Why a New Heavens and New Earth? Why a physical resurrection? The spiritual reality is always manifested in the physical. Why would the use of credit and financial slavery be exempt?
Paul continues this train of thought in Romans. Romans 13:7-8 states:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
One could argue that Paul is simply saying to pay our debts. Isn’t this compatible with using credit for giving? Paul is indeed saying to pay our debts, but I think there is a deeper pattern here than first meets the eye. In the first 4 chapter of Romans, Paul establishes that we are all in debt to God by breaking His Law. We cannot fulfill it, and even those who tried, the Jews, did so only out of a sense of duty thereby missing the point. Only a willing heart can truly love and thus fulfill the Law. This is accomplished through the Gospel, which frees us from duty and obligation because our standing and relationship with God is not dependent on anything we do, either good or bad. Jesus is the only basis for our relationship with God. This frees us to truly love God and love people. Notice the parallel. Debt is a form of slavery, in which we operate out of a sense of duty. How then can we truly love with our giving? According to Paul, we can’t, which is why he admonishes the Romans to owe no one anything, but to love one another in fulfillment of the Law. You cannot do this if you are giving out of a sense of duty!
The objections to these passages are similar to the ones used for the Old Testament. However, I think that my responses apply just as easily in this case as before, if not more so. The whole tenor of the New Testament is one of liberation from captivity. Granted, this is spiritual, but again I truly think we should reflect the spiritual reality in our daily lives. Anyone who has had enormous amounts of debt would agree it is a form of duty-bound slavery. I myself have felt this at various times in my life. There are few things as liberating as becoming debt free! I believe that these verses, again, are not conclusive individually. But when taken together as a whole form a complete pattern that we can model our lives by.
I confess that this look at Scripture is incredibly light, but I hope that it serves the purpose of painting a picture that we can understand and follow. I also believe that God created certain economic laws, weaving them into the fabric of creation. These are just as true as scientific laws, though we do not always see them that way. Based on this, I would like to make an extra-Biblical argument against the use of credit. I do not believe this carries as much weight as Scripture, but should serve to support my position above. My thesis is that by using credit, an individual is not actually giving, but is engaging in payment, which is a market activity. This is important, as the church regularly call tithes and offerings ‘gifts’. I contend that by using credit, we are not actually in the process of giving, thus misleading our members who believe they are giving back to God’s work.
When we look at giving in Scripture, properly speaking, it involves at least two parties. One party, the giver, sacrificially gives out of what he actually and directly possesses, receiving nothing in exchange for the gift. The receiver receives the gift graciously, that is, without having merited it. This is a system of inequality, whereby the giver loses something and the receiver gains something, with neither meriting the exchange. It is made freely and lovingly.
An economic market is similar to this in that it involves at least two parties. But whereas giving is based on inequality, markets are based upon the concept of indemnity or equality, an equal exchange of goods and services, leaving the parties involved at relatively the same value that they were prior to the transaction. This is common sense. If I am a farmer and I own a goat, and that goat is worth 3 chickens, then my neighbor would have to give me 3 chickens to purchase my goat. By giving him the goat, he is in my debt. By giving me the chickens, he repays his debt with an equal amount. This is a basic economic transaction. Definitionally it is not giving, as each party is in essence equal at the beginning and at the end of the transaction.
When you use credit as your method of giving, you are not actually giving. The credit company pays the desired sum to the church. This is a service rendered, putting you, the credit holder, in their debt. They expect you to pay them back. They did not ‘give’ the money to the church, they paid the church with the understanding that they will be repaid in full. When you pay them, regardless of whether you have any interest, you are paying for services rendered. This is a market transaction, as the parties involved are basically equal after the transaction. But hold on, how is the church in an equal state? They have received money that they did not merit! see, it is a gift.
I can understand this line of thinking, but it is really not true. From the church’s perspective, this could be the case. But what is the perspective of the credit holder? Is it not a duty to pay off your credit card bills? What about the company? Are they not bound by the agreement to pay when you ask them to? The unfortunate reality is that what could occur and does occur is the attitude that the church provides me, the credit holder, with spiritual and emotional goods, that I then pay back with my credit card. This is not giving, definitionally, but a market transaction. The church has also provided you the service of enabling you to use your credit. You are paying them for the service of paying your tithes! I believe that this is a major travesty, as we tell our members they are ‘giving’ when they are really merely making payments in an economic market. This is deceptive, and can lead to confusion about what the Bible really says about giving, loans, and debt. It also portrays to our members and visitors and sense that we only care about their spiritual states, and that their physical existence is secondary or inconsequential. This is not a Christian idea, but a Platonic dualistic notion that should be resisted at all costs.
Over the course of this discussion in our church, I have heard four arguments in favor of allowing credit as a payment method. I will take these arguments in turn, highlighting their basic tenets, and then concluding with my rebuttal. My rebuttals will be short, as I do not believe that these arguments are very strong.
The first argument says that by allowing the use of credit, we make it easier for those members (of whom there are apparently many) who channel their personal finances through a credit card to streamline their expense payments. These payments come out automatically every couple of weeks, which makes bill payment hassle free. This argument is logical fallacy called argument ad populam, which says that because an argument is popular or held by the majority it must be true. Whether or not many people use their credit cards in this manner does not address whether credit is a legitimate form of giving. This is simply illustrated by supposing that the argument for abortion becomes exceedingly popular. Should the church then adopt it? Hardly.
The second argument concerns those who travel, as there are many people in our church who do. It is far easier for them to pay their tithes electronically online when they are away. This too is a logical fallacy known as a non sequiter. The fact that it is easier for those folks who travel does not logically follow to the validity of credit as a means of giving. This argument is also invalid.
The third argument states that we become culturally relevant and sensitive to technological generations by allowing credit. This argument suffers from the fallacy of argument 2, and possibly could lead to the fallacy of argument 1. This argument is invalid.
The final argument I have heard is the most concerning. The argument states that because there are many benefits for credit card users today, such as frequent flier miles, we should use our credit cards to glean these benefits. The benefit I heard used was the flier miles, as the particular member arguing this way has family all across the country that they want to be in contact with. On the surface, this simply does not follow and is illogical. But there is a more concerning trend here. There is a popular heresy circulating America called the ‘health and wealth’ gospel. This pernicious heresy claims that Christ was physically poor so that we could be physically rich. The process is facilitated by ‘giving’ to a specific ministry or ministries, that God will in turn bless you for. First of all, this is clearly a market system being advocated, not a giving system. Second, it has as its basis a mechanism that we can use to manipulate God. This is a form of sorcery, and should not be tolerated.* I do not think anyone in my church actually thinks this way, or holds to the health and wealth gospel, but it does lay the framework for later generations to build upon. This is an invalid and dangerous argument to hold to.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I think electronic giving is perfectly acceptable, if it is your actual money that you are giving. The credit mechanism bypasses this entirely, and should be avoided. I understand I may be in the minority, and probably have stepped on a few toes, but please consider my arguments. My goal is to help the church prosper and spread the message of the Gospel throughout the earth while thinking these things through Biblically and theologically. To God alone be the Glory.
*This definition of sorcery is taken from the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. http://carm.org/dictionary-sorcery, accessed December 10, 2013 at 2:13pm.