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Thrift and the Christian

In recent discussions with other Christians on the subject of finances, I have begun to realize that we Christians, myself included, are habituated to debt.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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In recent discussions with other Christians on the subject of finances, I have begun to realize that we Christians, myself included, are habituated to debt. While Christians ought to be known as sources of productive capital, we are frequently just as indebted as the unbeliever.

We ought to know better. The character produced by the Christian faith is one of diligence and thrift. Without that character, Christians will not be the ones capitalizing society. Rather, we will be in the undesirable situation presented in Deuteronomy 28:43, 44, in which the foreigner lends to God’s people while God’s people are financially incapable of lending. This is the antithesis of godly Christian dominion, for it places the borrowing believer in servitude to those outside the faith. R.J. Rushdoony once wrote, in an essay now contained in Roots of Reconstruction, that social capitalization “depends, in its best and clearest form, on that character produced by Biblical Christianity.” Christians are not capitalizing society as we should be, because we have adopted the rest of the world’s antagonism toward thrift.

Our modern society regards extensive consumer debt as normal, and has no apparent desire to be rid of it. Far from seeking to “owe no one anything…” (Romans 13:8), we make an art of carefully balancing debt against assets so as to achieve the maximum current pleasure possible. Someone with forty or fifty percent equity in a home is thought of as being a bit foggy-headed for not taking out a home equity loan to buy more goodies.

This is hardly surprising, as those in authority over us have led the way into debt. The federal government borrows astounding amounts of money, and the money itself is based on debt. The Federal Reserve System increases the money supply by buying government bonds (with checks that can never bounce, for the check itself represents newly created money). Member banks further expand the money supply by making loans to businesses and individuals. The lower interest rates caused by the “easy money” encourage more borrowing. Economists of the “Austrian” school, such as Ludwig von Mises, pointed out that the monetary manipulation distorted investment decisions so that eventually a corrective recession must occur. But when a recession does strike, politicians try to place the blame on anyone but themselves. They and their hangers-on berate the public for not spending enough.

During the mild recession of the early 1990s, George Bush (the elder) was to be observed on television with a pair of socks, telling Americans that they needed to follow his example, do their patriotic duty, and spend money. Spending money, his advisers were no doubt telling him, would mean higher incomes for the merchants who saw increased sales, and the merchants would therefore spend more, creating a spending boost for the whole economy. Thrift was out. Credit card spending sprees were in.

Yet no one seemed to see that thrift produces its own sort of economic boom. More money saved means more money available for investment in growing businesses. It may not be immediate, and Bush may not have been able to wait for thrift to produce results before the election he faced in 1992, but in the long run it consistently produces economic prosperity.

While our civil magistrates promote deficit spending from their capital cities, churches have set an example of indebtedness by borrowing for building projects. In an earlier article, I addressed the issue of church debt. I contended first, that churches are too quick to borrow from outside the body of Christ instead of seeking funding from the people of God; second, that they frequently borrow to fund activities that are arguably not among the “core” responsibilities of the church; and third, that when borrowing does occur, it sometimes involves unbiblical methods such as surety. In addition to these problems, church debt would make it difficult for a church elder or deacon to counsel a member to avoid the servanthood of debt. Why are churches not doing the opposite — serving as well-capitalized “storehouses” for the benefit of the poor, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow?

To promote capitalization, Rushdoony recommends a return to the “Puritan disposition,” which is “the willingness to forego present pleasures to accumulate some wealth for future purposes (Proverbs 14:23).” Some would condemn this attitude as being too worldly. Gathering wealth seems too much like the rich fool of Luke 12:16-21, who thought that security was found in barns packed with his produce. It is true enough that trusting in wealth is a fatal mistake (Proverbs 11:28; 23:4, 5), but saving in anticipation of future scarcity, or for investment in a business, can be done while maintaining a humble reliance upon God. Setting aside wealth during times of plenty is simply wise stewardship, and is the mark of the diligent man. Consider Proverbs 6:6-8: “Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, Which, having no captain, Overseer or ruler, Provides her supplies in the summer, And gathers her food in the harvest.” It would be foolish indeed not to save for the months of no harvest, or to fail to set aside seed for the following year.

Thrift is linked to the Biblical virtue of self-discipline. The man who wants to consume all the fruit of his labor immediately, and is lacking in self-control, is a man who is on the road to poverty (Proverbs 21:5). The disciplined man’s thrift is not only sufficient for his own investment, but allows him to be generous to others and to lay up an inheritance for his descendants.

Indeed, this attitude of self-discipline and thrift should be inculcated in Christians as a matter of routine. This can be done through the church, but should be the primary responsibility of the family. While I myself am a seriously flawed example of thrifty behavior, I hope that my children will learn — along with me — the benefits of capitalizing the Christian family.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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