by Levi Minderhoud
Months after governments declared public health emergencies, COVID still dominates headlines and lifestyles. We at ARPA have tried to respectfully explain the essential nature of worship services and urge respect for fundamental freedoms. We’ve also evaluated the impact of government policies on long-term-care residents and workers. But there is another piece of the COVID puzzle that Christians must address: its monetary cost to our government and country.
This blog post initiates a four-part series on the monetary cost of the “COVID Crisis.” This first post aims to articulate a general Christian perspective on deficits, debt, and the government’s responsibility to the poor. The second post compares Canada’s current fiscal situation to our country’s situation in other major crises (World War I, World War II, and the 2008 Financial Crisis). The third installment will evaluate current programs and responses by the federal government. The final piece will look at the future financial implications of today’s policies.
Is debt immoral?
Many people have a visceral aversion to debt as something inherently bad. Where does this aversion to debt come from? Is debt evil?
Although not a dominant theme in Scripture, the Bible mentions debt and borrowing numerous times. In almost every situation, borrowing or being indebted is an undesirable position to be in. For example, when David escaped to the wilderness from the clutches of Saul, “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul” joined him (1 Samuel 22:2). These were people who were struggling.
The accumulation of debt can put someone in a precarious position. Habakkuk 2:6-7 pronounces, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own – for how long? – and loads himself with pledges! Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble?” Proverbs 22:7 states that “the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Both of these verses illustrate that an indebted person lives in uncertainty and in a type of servitude to his creditor.
Jesus (Matthew 6:12 and Matthew 18:32) and Paul (Romans 13:8) both speak about the forgiveness of debt or call upon people not to let a state of indebtedness continue. Although the forgiveness of debt implies that debt has at least some moral component, Scripture implies that it is not the act of borrowing itself that is immoral – though it may be unwise, depending on the amount borrowed and the motivation for borrowing. Rather, it is the failure to repay debts that is wrong. Psalm 37:21 states that “the wicked borrows but does not pay back.”
Borrowing is often a statement of need, a condition which is not sinful in and of itself. Neglecting to repay a loan, however, is a form of theft (contravening the eighth commandment), an act that is repeatedly condemned by God. Failing to repay a loan is also a form of lying (contravening the ninth commandment), as a condition of borrowing is generally that you will pay that loan back along a specified timetable. Borrowing may also be a symptom of covetousness (contravening the tenth commandment), fueling the accumulation of possessions or experiences that God has not given you the means to attain. The act of incurring debt does become immoral when the borrower has no intention or ability to repay that debt or when the accumulation of debt threatens this ability.
Christians act upon these principles in their personal day-to-day lives. We take out mortgages, use credit cards, or may make it our vocation to aid in the lending and borrowing of money. All these activities are morally justifiable from Scripture. However, a failure to repay these debts or incurring debt that we cannot repay is justly frowned upon.
These principles apply similarly to governments. Governments may borrow money, especially in times of great need or crisis, even though this debt places them in a less-than-ideal situation. But the goal of every government and administration should be to run a balanced or surplus budget and to pay down existing debt. Governments must strive to maintain a relatively low level of debt so that it may incur debt during bad economic times without risking its ability to pay off that debt in the future. It is wrong for governments to default on their loans or to borrow money when there is a high likelihood that they might not be able to repay those loans in the future.
Does the government have any responsibility to aid the financially vulnerable?
A major part of the current government’s response to the COVID Crisis is distributing borrowed money to various segments of society. I’ll delve into the specifics of these policies in our third installment, but broader questions on the role of the state face Christians. Does the federal government have the responsibility to financially aid or redistribute wealth to any particular class of people? Should governments provide welfare? Employment insurance? A working income tax benefit? The Canada Child Benefit? Charitable tax benefits?
Before answering these questions, we should identify who the “first responders” should be to problems of poverty or lack of employment. It is not the government. Dr. Cornelis van Dam, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, states that, for such problems, the “government should be the last institution of society to which one should need to turn for help.” As far as possible, every individual should work and prepare for times of financial hardship (2 Thess. 3:10, Eph. 4:28). We might call individual initiative the first line of defence. The second line of defence is a person’s family (1 Timothy 5:4). The third line of defence is fellow Church members and the institutional Church (the diaconate). Van Dam suggests that the government should only intervene if the individual, the family, or the Church are unable or unwilling to help.
Nevertheless, the government does have some responsibility to seek the general welfare of its citizens. Psalm 72:4, 12-13 declares that the king should “defend the cause of the poor of the people [and] give deliverance to the children of the needy… he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy.”
Christians have a responsibility to work, both to provide for ourselves and to help those in need. We see Biblically that debt is not inherently wrong but is something to incur cautiously and with honest intent to repay. As we move into the next installments of this blog series and examine the federal government’s fiscal response to COVID, we must keep these fundamental principles in mind. The government may legitimately incur debt and does have a role in aiding the unemployed. That does not mean, however, that all debt or assistance policies are beyond scrutiny. On the contrary, these policies should be scrutinized and understood well by Christians. This blog series, to be continued over the next three weeks, aims to do just that.
 Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government (USA: Wipf, 2011), 153–54.
 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 281; Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 153–54.
Levi Minderhoud is the British Columbia Manager for ARPA Canada