The Financial Seminary
A Perspective on Biblical Financial Wisdom
Tithing is Unbiblical. Debt Can Be Good. And I Am Not a Heretic.
By Robert Schwarzwalder
President, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
Go to any bookstore and you will find shelves loaded with titles on personal finance. More than half of all Americans now own stock and with the Dow reaching historic highs, they want to take greater control of their investments and learn how they, too, can benefit from the nation’s burgeoning prosperity.
This trend is not limited to the broader secular audience. As millions of Evangelicals consider their financial futures, they look for counsel from Godly men and women who seek to apply what they regard as biblical principles to personal financial decisions. Thus, the growing phenomenon of overtly Christian budget, debt and investment advisors.
Wisely, these counselors urge the elimination of personal debt, generous giving to churches and ministries and prudent management of the resources entrusted to the believer by God. They preach – rightly and consistently – for sound stewardship of finances and a strong work ethic and against consumerism, credit card debt, materialism and any sense of financial entitlement. They have helped millions of people, Christians and non-believers alike, get their financial houses in much better order and also provide more of their resources to God’s work.
At the same time, they sometimes run into danger with rhetorical overreach, dubious assertions about Scriptural instruction and uninformed macroeconomic projections.
Many of Evangelical financial counselors lack theological training and economic education. They have limited understanding of macroeconomic policy, either domestic or international. They are as susceptible to influence by isolated economic data as their clients are by appeals from “get rich quick” schemes. Their approach to Scripture is to select specific verses that buttress their wariness of indebtedness, the importance of “tithing,” etc. and then dogmatically proclaim such things as the following:
These assertions merit challenge, both from the standpoint of good economics and, more importantly, as matters of theology.
Virtually all Christian financial ministries stress the importance of given ten percent of whatever one earns to “the storehouse” – the local church. Consider these words of exhortation from “Crown Ministries,” one of the leading Christian financial counseling services:
We pay the tithe, or 10 percent, of whatever we receive from Him. That tithe should be paid on our gross salary ... The tithe is an indicator of obedience to all of God’s laws ... In the Old Testament book of Malachi we’re told that God wants us to direct our entire tithe into the storehouse ... However, the equivalent of the Old Testament storehouse in the New Testament, as well as in our present day society, is the local church. God’s Word tells us to bring our tithes into the storehouse (Malachi 3:10). When we obey Him and pay our tithes to the church, God holds the leaders of the church responsible for the distribution of the tithes (Nehemiah 12:44-45, 13:5,13). If we associate the functions of the Old Testament storehouse to the New Testament and current local church, its fourfold function would be to provide for the needs of (1) the pastor and staff, (2) missionaries and evangelists, (3) widows, orphans, single parents, and invalids in the local church, and (4) the unsaved who surround the local church.
From “The Use of Tithes,” Crown Financial Ministries, October 30, 2004
This exposition is questionable, at best. First, in the Old Testament, church/cult and state/rulership were synonymous. Thus, mandatory support of what amounted to the national government and the religious establishment were intertwined. This is wholly non-analogous to the era of the New Covenant, in which the civil demands of the Mosaic Law has been rendered inoperative (the Judah and Israel are no more) and the differentiation between church and state is transparent (Romans 13:1-7).
In other words, theocratic and monarchical Israel (and later Judah) is not precise models for the current relationship between members of the Body of Christ and their local churches.
Additionally, the leadership of the Jewish worship system also served civil and administrative roles, including systematic provision for those among the people who were destitute. Functionally, they were, under dynastic auspices, the state itself. This simply is not true for the church in our time.
Moreover, a careful analysis of the Pentateuch demonstrates that the people of Israel were required to give substantially more than ten percent. The work of such New Testament scholars as Andreas Kostenberger (editor of The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) and David Croteau establishes beyond question that (a) ten percent was only part of a much larger contribution of personal income (at least 23.35 percent, given the Levitical, Festival and Poor Tithe amounts enjoined in the Law of Moses) and (b) that tithing was “an integral part of the Old Testament sacrificial system that has been once and for all fulfilled in Christ” (“Will a Man Rob God? [Malachi 3:8]: A Study of Tithing in the Old and New Testaments” and “Reconstructing a Biblical Model for Giving: A Discussion of Relevant Systematic Issues and New Testament Principles,” Bulletin of Biblical Research, vol.issue.pp).
Put another way, tithing was symbolic of man’s obligation to God as much as a partial support system for the cultic state. That obligation has been fulfilled in Christ. It is part of the Law that no longer informs Christian behavior.
So, then, what are the standards by which we should measure our giving? What should characterize God’s people as they give to various ministries and charities?
Generosity: As Paul reminds, the Lord of all creation became poor that we might become rich beyond imagination (II Corinthians 8:9). If Jesus gave this example, we ought to follow it. Our giving should not be wild or arbitrary – to do so would violate the biblical commands to provide for one’s family and oneself (II Thessalonians 3:10, I Timothy 5:8). But it should be generous – an ample amount of our income.
Sacrifice: The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the widow who, in giving a tiny coin, gave with the greatest sacrifice because she gave all she had (Mark 12:41-44). We remember and honor her, not those who Jesus observed ostentatiously and un-sacrificially giving out of their abundance. The greatest example of sacrifice, of course, is Jesus Himself – eternal God incarnate, murdered on an instrument of torture as the atonement for our sin. Our giving should hurt our pocketbooks, reminding us both of His sacrifice and of the need to give up some of the things we want or even think we might need for Jesus’ sake.
Joy: God loves – delights in – a “cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:6-8). It is a privilege to give to His redemptive work in our fallen world. By doing so, we become co-laborers with Christ. Can there be anything more exhilarating? Or more inducing of gratitude and even hilarity?
Humility: Everything belongs to God. Everything (Psalm 24:1). When we give, we are merely devoting that part of what He already owns that He is calling us to invest in some specific ministries. Giving according to God’s will is a matter of servants obeying their Master, in loyal service and devoted love.
These standards – combined with prayerful consideration of one’s resources and ability to give of them – are much more convicting and enlivening, both, than any percentage standard imposed by a legalistic reading of the law of the Old Covenant.
No one should dispute that excessive credit card spending or wanton outlays of cash are dangerous to the financial well-being of individuals and families. Debt chokes off the ability to meet the necessities of life and provide a comfortable standard of living for oneself and one’s family.
Yet some incurred debt can be beneficial: If paid off promptly, it can strengthen one’s credit rating – essential for major purchases like cars and homes – and also provide a measure of security should a rapid infusion of cash into the family budget be suddenly and urgently needed.
While most Christian financial counselors recognize this, some oppose debt with a zeal that is disturbing. For example, consider a recent statement by Christian financial counselor and talk-show host Dave Ramsey: “It’s not my job to tell people they’re going to hell if they have a home mortgage, but I can’t find in the Bible that it’s okay” (“The Debt Slayers,” Christianity Today, May 2006).
Ramsey’s advice about personal finance is often excellent and common-sensical. In this instance, however, it is simply silly. Home mortgages have been perhaps the single greatest contributor to personal wealth-accrual in human history. By enabling people of modest means to purchase homes and build financial worth through appreciation, home mortgages have been decisive in the remarkable story of American prosperity.
Ramsey and others argue that paying off a mortgage as quickly as possible enables a family to devote greater resources to giving and investing. Yet in the short-term, the home mortgage deduction is substantial and self-penalization through fanatical loan repayment not only curbs one’s abilities to provide for one’s family but also prevents families from investing in the stock market, whose historic rate of return far exceeds the home loan percentage paid to a lending institution.
What of personal debt? Is it not the financial equivalent of a boa constrictor, squeezing the possibility of prosperity from credit card-using Americans?
On occasion, yes. But not too often. In data derived from the Federal Reserve’s 2001 Survey of Consumer Finance, columnist Liz Pulliam Weston, writing on “MSN Money,” notes:
Limited personal debt, paid off faithfully, establishes credit and also allows families and individuals to make prudent choices about purchasing decisions that can benefit them. For example, if a child needs dental surgery, paying for it with a credit card or a small loan not only will improve the well-being of the child but also keep the family from experiencing extreme and undue financial hardship in the short-term.
Personal debt should be modest and short-term. Yet as the Christian financial analyst Gary More has noted, Jesus encouraged His disciples to “lend unto even those who cannot repay,” and the Mosaic Law had a provision for debt-cancellation every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1). The primary biblical teaching on lending is not that it is a sin, but rather that the lender should not take advantage of the poor by charging them interest.
Debt, wisely incurred and consistently paid-down, can be a blessing, not a curse. No one can foresee the future but God, and thus we should be cautious about financial over-extension. Yet financial decisions made on the basis of wisely calculated assumptions – the stability of one’s employment, realistic expectations about compensation increases, the overall state of the economy, etc. – can allow for some debt, which can be liberating and affirming.
The National Debt and Economic Stability:
In the single year 2005, the World Bank estimates that U.S. gross domestic product was $12.4 trillion. Yet total publicly held debt* is about $4.9 trillion and our total gross national debt is around $8.3 trillion. This is the amount the federal government has borrowed and not yet repaid since the inception of the Republic.
Yet this amount - $8.3 trillion, a huge amount in its own right, is only 7.2 percent of our total national assets (public and private) of $116.283 trillion. Put more simply, the United States is managing a substantively large national debt with little real difficulty because our aggregate wealth is, in human terms, almost incalculable and growing ever larger.
Of course, federal spending is undisciplined. From 1980 to 2006, federal tax revenues soared from $517 billion to $2.312 trillion – yet our annual deficit in 2006 will be around $420 billion. In other words, the federal government is spending more than $400 billion than it collects, even though over the past quarter century federal tax revenues have nearly quintupled.
Yet even so, the federal budget accounts for only about 20 percent of our total annual GDP, and given the enormity of our economic resources overall, our total debt – public and private – is quite modest.
Borrowing in times of crisis has enabled America to fight and win wars and thereby sustain our freedoms and very existence. For example, as many observers have noted, deficit spending enabled the United States to triumph in the Cold War: the former Soviet Union simply could not keep up with our ability to have both guns and butter while experiencing a historic economic boom, and by attempting to do so ground its already crumbling economy into the ash heap of history.
* According to the federal Bureau of the Public Debt, such debt is “all Federal debt held by individuals, corporations, state or local governments, foreign governments, and other entities outside of the United States Government less Federal Financing Bank securities. Types of securities held by the public include, but are not limited to, Treasury Bills, Notes, Bonds, TIPS, United States Savings Bonds, and State and Local Government Series.”
Robert Schwarzwalder served on Capital Hill and the Bush Administration for more than a decade. He was director of corporate communications at the National Association of Manufacturers and an Abraham Lincoln Fellow in Constitutional Government with the Claremont Institute. Currently president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, he is a long-time member of the Evangelical Theological Society. The views expressed in this paper are his own.