American student loan debt has risen to about $1.56 trillion as of 2019. The average student loan debt per borrower is around $32,000. Meanwhile, the Bible tells us, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). This leads to the question: Should Christians take out student loans?
What the Bible Says About Borrowing
The Bible has a lot to say on the topic of money, though surprisingly little on the topic of borrowing.
“The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously” (Psalm 37:21).
This verse makes clear what the Bible says about debt repayment: if we have debts, we are to repay them to the best of our ability.
The same idea is set out in Exodus 22:14 in more agricultural terms: “If anyone borrows an animal from their neighbor and it is injured or dies while the owner is not present, they must make restitution.”
As we observed above in Proverbs 22:7, borrowing establishes a unique and not necessarily healthy relationship between the borrower and the lender.
What the Bible Says About Lending
The Bible has more to say about lenders than borrowers. Here are a few examples:
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).
“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5).
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
The Levitical law did have stipulations, however, for debt forgiveness and rules against charging interest. For example: “You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess” (Deuteronomy 23:20).
What the Bible Doesn’t Say About Debt
While the Bible doesn’t endorse borrowing, it doesn’t forbid it either.
We might gain more insight by looking at the passages about lending. The verses listed above clearly direct the righteous to lend. A lender implies a borrower. Thus, it would be reasonable to assume borrowing is not condemned.
However, in God’s plan for the Israelites, it appears that charging interest was not part of his design for borrowing and lending, making it very different than our current financial system, especially involving student loans. Borrowing in this intended system in the Bible, then, was lower risk.
However, financial practices have changed over the past 3,000 years. Like much of Levitical law, these directives are not necessarily applicable today and may have been intended only for the nation of Israel. Therefore, the only thing we can say with certainty on this point is that the Bible does not condemn borrowing in general. The issue seems to be more nuanced.
What the Bible Does Say About Debt
Though there are no absolutes on borrowing in the Bible, there are some financial directives that are nonnegotiable.
1. Take care of others.
1 Timothy 5:8 states, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
If a Christian chooses not to take care of their family, it is a grievous error. If taking out loans and going into debt will prevent us from taking care of our family, we should not do so.
2. Work hard.
Colossians 3:23 directs, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
If taking out loans is an excuse not to work hard now, this is not biblical.
3. Be wise with money.
In Luke 14:28-30, Jesus teaches a spiritual lesson based on the assumption that a wise person would count the cost of an endeavor before embarking upon it. Taking out meaningless debt for things we don’t need or accumulating debt we see no way of repaying is not a wise use of money.
4. Be generous.
There are dozens of verses in the Bible about generosity (e.g. 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Proverbs 11:25). It’s worth considering whether going into debt will hurt our ability to help others.
Practical Tips for Parents (and Grandparents, Family Members, Guardians, Etc.)
We’ve established it’s permissible for a Christian to take out student loans. Let’s suppose you’ve decided you want to help your student pay for college. What should you do if tuition costs more than you are able to pay out of pocket?
As outlined for students below, going into debt should be the last resort after pursuing scholarships, side hustles, saving, etc. Also, the Bible warns against becoming part of the debt of others. “One who has no sense shakes hands in pledge and puts up security for a neighbor” (Proverbs 17:18).
Passages about generosity are also limited to giving what you have. Nowhere does the Bible instruct us to go into debt for others. However, the Bible also advocates taking care of one’s household (see 1 Timothy 5:8 above).
The above concerns of being able to provide for the rest of your family and being wise with money must come first. If neither of these suffer, it is no sin and can in fact be a great blessing to assist a student, though the student should be doing everything in their power to pay their own way first (Exodus 20:12).
However, the Bible often reminds lenders to assume that borrowers will not repay (whether in the interest of generosity or just practicality). Assume you will have to pay it back and be pleasantly surprised when the student repays you. Do you have the funds to pay back the debt yourself?
Practical Tips for Students
Before taking out a loan, consider the following.
1. Are you able, through scholarships, to go to any schools for free (or nearly free)? These schools should take precedence over others that require more money from you. (Though, whether the school offers a major in your intended career path is also important.)
2. Are there ways you can make money honestly before taking out loans? Extra jobs? Outside scholarships you can apply for?
3. Is going to college really your best option? If you have no idea what career you want to pursue, you may want to work for a year or two and save up money while you decide. Or maybe you do know, but it’s a career that only needs a certificate or no post-secondary education at all. There’s little sense in going into debt for a degree you don’t need.
4. How much of a burden are you putting on your family? Recall 1 Timothy 5:8 above. College can wait. Your family might need you now.
5. Can you realistically pay back your loans? The Bible is clear that we are expected to repay our debts. Many financial advisors suggest taking out no more than your expected starting annual salary. (And no, that’s not the salary for your dream job.)
The Idol of Education
Taking out student loans isn’t a sin. However, worshipping the idol of education is. The greatest commandments are to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). The third greatest commandment, no matter what educators may tell you, is not “Thou shalt earn a degree.”
In the end, if through prayerful consideration you have decided taking out a student loan will best help you serve God and others, do it. But if you believe it will be detrimental to your obligations to God and others, or is just fiscally unfeasible, then the debt is not worth that diploma.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/Damir Khabirov