How the Elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church Decided That It Was Biblical and Wise to Borrow Money to Purchase the North Campus
On July 24 I preached on Romans 13:8a, "Owe no one anything, except to love each other." I raised the question whether this command ruled out all borrowing for Christians—borrowing a rake from a neighbor, fifty cents for a coke, or $150,000 for a house. I argued that it does not teach that, but teaches that whatever we owe, we should pay, and that all our paying should be done with love. I said that the elders of Bethlehem had not moved precipitously to borrow money to purchase our North Campus. We studied much and prayed more. I promised that I would put some of the results of that study on the Fresh Words page. That’s what this is.
Here are a few texts about the dangers of borrowing money.
The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower is the lender’s slave.
Deuteronomy 28:44-45 (part of the list of curses for disobedience)
[The sojourner who dwells among you] shall lend to you, but you will not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you will be the tail. So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the Lord your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you.
Deuteronomy 28:12 (part of the list of blessings for obedience)
The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.
In other words, it is a great blessing from God to be in a position in which you do not have to borrow. But does that mean that the Bible teaches that all borrowing is unwise?
1. Why do we think it is sometimes biblically permissible to borrow money?
1.1. The apparent prohibitions of debt are not absolute prohibitions.
For example, George Mueller repeatedly cited Romans 13:8 as the decisive verse for not going into debt. It says, “Owe no one anything except to love each other; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Was Mueller right to use the text to rule out all borrowing? We don’t think so. Why?
1.1.1. If we take it absolutely, it not only rules out borrowing a rake from your neighbor, but also contradicts texts in the Bible that give instruction for how to lend, since lending makes you complicit in someone’s borrowing. For example, Psalm 37:26: “[The righteous] is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing.” Or Psalm 112:5: “It is well with a man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice.” (See also Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 28:12; 23:19.) If lending only put borrowers in the position of sinning, would it be righteous to be “ever lending”?
1.1.2. But the context suggests that we should not take Romans 13:8 as an absolute prohibition of borrowing. Notice the parallels between verses 7 and 8: “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. 8Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Take note of the words “what is owed” in verse 7, which we are to pay back, and the words “Owe no one anything” in verse 8. The words “owed” (v. 7) and “owe” (v.8) are related in Greek just as they are in English:
apodote pasin tas opheilas (“Pay to all what is owed”)
mëdeni mëden opheilete (“Owe no one anything”)
Verse 7 says it is right to “owe” “taxes,” “revenue,” etc., provided we “pay what is owed.” Since verse 8 uses the same kind of word for “what is owed,” we should take it to mean: Yes, when you have a debt, pay it. End your obligations each time they arise. Every time the bill comes in the mail, pay it and be done with it so that it is not owed anymore. Except in the case of love! Never end that obligation. When you pay your bill (or your mortgage payment!) you are done with it until another comes. You have kept your obligation. But when we have loved someone, we are just as much in debt to love them again immediately as we were before—or we should be!
But in the sermon I preached on July 24 I pointed out that this is not all verse 8 is saying. Since the debt of “honor” is in verse 7 as well as the debt of “taxes,” and since honoring people is not a debt that can be paid up and put away like taxes, therefore verse 8 can’t merely mean: Love is in a category different from the debts of verse 7, namely, it can’t be paid up. No, that won’t work because verse 7 also has debts like “respect” and “honor,” not just taxes and revenue, and like love, honor and respect also can’t be paid up. So we would have to hear verse 8 like this: “Owe no one honor . . . except to love each other.” In other words, the way to owe honor is to do it lovingly. That is, let every debt you pay be an act of love. (See the sermon for July 24 for more on this.)
1.2. The warnings against the dangers of debt describe what may happen, not what must happen, and usually picture the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Our situation is very different.
1.2.1. For example, Proverbs 22:7 says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the lender’s slave.” Both halves of this proverb describe what often happens, but do not condone either result. The rich are often harsh and oppress the poor; the lender often extorts slave labor from a poor borrower who has no collateral but must sell himself, or precious things, to pay. The fact that both of these situations often happened was a warning to keep ourselves from the kind of poverty that must depend on the rich for life.
1.2.2. This is not our situation at Bethlehem. We are not poor by biblical standards, but rich. We are not borrowing out of distress or desperation, but out of strategic planning from a position of economic strength, not weakness (consider the worth of the downtown campus owned debt free, and the resources behind several thousand supporters). We are not without collateral but have a building that can be sold to pay the debt at any time. No one’s food and shelter or job is put at risk by the loan we have taken on the North Campus.
1.2.3. The threat of foreclosure and loss in the event of our inability to pay off the loan is not serious for two reasons. First, there is no reason to believe it will happen, if we are obedient to God’s call on our lives (“No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly,” Psalm 84:11). Second, even if it does happen, we sell the building and move back into a leasing situation or bring everyone back to the Downtown Campus for a short season with more services till we figure out God’s next step. In all of this we are never in a situation envisioned in the biblical warnings against debt.
1.3. The Bible condones and regulates some lending and borrowing.
For example, Jesus said to a man who squandered his “one talent”: “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest” (Matthew 25:27). We realize that Jesus is not focusing his teaching here on the legitimacy of banking. Nevertheless we assume he did not illustrate his point with an unlawful suggestion—namely, investing money with banks that pay interest, and presumably make loans to earn the money to pay the interest.
Also Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor . . . you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Even more directly to the point of borrowing, Exodus 22:14 says, “If a man borrows anything of his neighbor, and it is injured or dies, the owner not being with it, he shall make full restitution.” And Deuteronomy 24:10 says, “When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge.” And in 2 Kings 4:3 Elisha instructs the widow, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not too few.”
1.4. The biblical opposition to charging interest does not seem to be absolute and seems to be mainly not a condemnation of banking, but of personally profiteering at another’s expense.
The text cited in 1.3 from Matthew 25:27 seems to say that Jesus did not oppose banking that charged interest. This is probably because he saw a difference between the lending among brothers in need (as in Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19) and the strategic borrowing and lending as part of an economy that sometimes needs large capital outlays for construction and purchasing. We don’t think the Bible had anything like modern banking in view when it forbade interest-charging.
1.5. Conclusion: For these reasons, we do not think the Bible forbids borrowing and lending in all circumstances, neither among brothers and sisters in need, nor at the level of strategic business or ministry decisions.
2. Since borrowing is biblically permissible, the question becomes: Is borrowing now a wise, strategic, God-honoring decision?
There are several factors that put us in a significantly different situation now in purchasing the North Campus than we were in 1998 when planning for the Education for Exultation building (now completed debt free downtown).
2.1. Keeping the launching pad (Downtown Campus) debt free is strategic so that we can do just what we have done in the North Campus plan. A debt-free downtown launching pad for church planting and multiple campuses enables us to take on the short-term debt without the kind of risk that would be involved in mortgaging the launching pad itself.
2.2. Unlike our situation in 1998 we cannot continue now with business as usual while we accumulate money for a building five years from now. We were paying no rent in those days for our buildings. When the North Campus was purchased we were paying $171,000 a year in rent to Northwestern College to handle the people in worship. It seemed good to us that this money would be better invested in equity than in rent.
2.3. Moreover, we were not allowed to stay at Northwestern indefinitely, and there were no good rental alternatives for a church our size in the vicinity.
2.4. The energy for ministry and growth at the North Campus was strong and ready to move forward. A 3–5 year wait would have been depleting and unduly constraining to the ministry and its potential.
2.5. As we said above (1.2.2.) the risk of borrowing to purchase the proposed building did not put us at any undue risk. The asset we borrow to buy is always there and can be sold to repay the loan. We did not do what the Bible calls foolish, namely, give up something life-sustaining as collateral. There are ways the church could continue in ministry if we had to sell the building to repay the loan. In other words, borrowing money does not fall under the condemnation of presumption (like jumping off the temple) or failing to count the cost. No one would be put out on the street. But in the end we trust God, not our rational escape plans.
2.6. God’s promises of provision are as relevant and trustworthy for paying mortgage payments over five years as they are for raising money for a future building over five years. We will be utterly dependent on God’s mercy in paying our bills, just as we are now for paying all the staff and mission and building bills. All of our money comes voluntarily from the people, and there is no guarantee, except God’s mercy and power, that the people of Bethlehem will keep paying the $6 million budget or the payments on an $8+ million loan. We are utterly dependent on God’s mercy. But that is the way it has always been. And it is good for us that nothing is guaranteed. We are glad that there is no forced Kirchensteuer (the German state tax that funds the churches).
2.7. We do not intend to stay in debt to the lender longer than we need to. We pray and plan to seek God’s help in raising all the money within five years to pay off the loan. If we grow as God may be bless, the number of people in the church at that time will be perhaps 4,000 or 5,000 which makes a payoff of the loan seem very doable. But our trust remains in God, not our guesses about numbers.
2.8. When we contemplate a possible South Campus in the fall of 2006, we do not think in terms of another purchase immediately. We pray that a school or theater or other venue will be available for less money than we had to pay Northwestern during the two years and nine months we were there. Thus the plan would be for us to rent for several years while the South Congregation forms and all three campuses grow to the point where we can manage a South Campus purchase in a wise and timely way.
2.9. Above all, we believe God led us in the purchase of the North Campus and in the wider vision of Treasuring Christ Together. Therefore, under his mercy and power we are counting on his remarkable help all along the way. Our hope is not in our planning or thinking. Our hope is in the Word of God:
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all contentment in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
“For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” (Psalm 84:11)
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6)