In response to inquiry by a brother in the Lord about my position on usury I wrote a seven page paper that I subsequently put up in audio format, with the same title, on this web-site. This is part 1 of this paper. Part 2 follows in a second blog entry. It is hard to measure the negative impact of the popular, but incorrect, view that usury means excessive interest and that the charging and receiving of interest/usury is justified by the Scriptures. It is not as I explain in the message with the above name.
“Thou Shalt Not Bite Thy Brother” By Ron Johnson, Pastor
Introduction: The purpose of this paper is to establish the conviction, from the Scriptures, that the popular practice of charging interest or usury to another person, made in the image of God, is not something that a confessing believer in the Lord Jesus Christ should do, if he desires to testify to the truth that loving God and his fellow man is more important to him than money. The author of this paper did not always hold to this Biblical position. He grew up believing, as the majority in the world, and sadly most in the visible church do today that charging or receiving interest or usury is not wrong but actually allowed and endorsed by God. However, as this paper will show, such a view is not supportable by the written Word of God, the Holy Bible regardless of how acceptable men, whether believer or non-believer, think it to be.
Part 1: Usury and Interest are Synonyms.
One of the first things that needs to be established is the meaning of the words usury and interest. For the purposes of this paper, as well as it being the conviction of the author, interest and usury mean the same thing. They are synonyms. The popular idea that usury is excessive interest is something that is imported into the discussions on this subject as a means to justify the practice of receiving interest. But there are no verses in Scripture that justify saying that usury is excessive interest. Since the Bible is its own dictionary, one should search the Scriptures to see if there is any passage that defines usury. There is such a passage. It is in the book of Nehemiah chapter 5 where Nehemiah rebukes his fellow countrymen because they are being unloving towards their brethren by charging them usury. In verse 10 he tells his fellow brethren to stop charging usury. Then at the end of verse 11 Nehemiah reveals the amount of usury that they were wrongly charging their brothers:
Nehemiah 5:10-11 I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them. (Emphasis added)
Notice that Nehemiah is telling them to return the hundredth part that they were charging as usury. Therefore if one was looking for a Biblical definition of usury, it is 1%! I know of no one today that would see a 1% interest charge as being excessive. They would probably see it as a bargain! Therefore the idea that usury means excessive interest is not supportable by the Word of God. It is not hard to see 1% as being the smallest level of usury considered in ancient Israel as they most likely would not have dealt in fractions of percentages as is possible today with our “digital” money. This simply means that requiring repayment of any amount over what was originally loaned is usury.
Part 2: Usury or Interest is a Negative and Unloving Action
If one was to base his opinion on usury/interest from the teachings of the world, and the majority of the visible church today, it would be seen as a beneficial and even wise monetary practice. But that is only if you are on the receiving end of the usury. For little thought is given, by those receiving the usury, to the burden that it causes to those who are required to pay back more than what was originally loaned. Few who receive usury stop and think about how much longer it takes a student to repay a loan for his education, or a family to repay a mortgage, or the level of the usury that is consuming the taxes they pay. And it is a burden as seen by how the only other form of the word that is translated usury in the Old Testament has reference to the bite of a snake. It is not surprising that no one enjoys being charged interest just as no one enjoys being bitten by a snake. For example:
Genesis 49:17 Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. (Emphasis added)
Numbers 21:6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. (Emphasis added)
Proverbs 23:32 At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. (Emphasis added)
There are many other verses that could be quoted, that show the same truth, but the above show that the uniform use of the word from which the word translated usury is derived refers to the biting of a snake. A person who is being charged usury or interest is being bitten, not unlike a horse or a person who is being bitten by a snake. The person who is charging or receiving the usury is the one who is biting his fellow man like a snake! It is a negative and unloving action.
Part 3: John Calvin’s Arbitrary Division Is No Justification for Usury
Despite the clear teaching of the Bible, as to the negative and unloving action, of receiving interest, many embrace the idea put forward by one no less than John Calvin to justify it. John Calvin developed the idea that there is a difference between business usury and private usury. Business usury is charged to those in business who needed a loan. Private usury is charged to a private person who needed a loan. The idea being that if usury is charged to a needy business man there was nothing wrong with it. But charging usury to someone who was in need privately was wrong. But there is nothing in Scripture to justify this arbitrary and artificial division! It is imported into the Scriptures. It cannot be derived from the Scriptures. And it is easy to see why it is not! Many, if not the majority, of businesses in Ancient Israel, were private or home based businesses. An ancient Israeli business man working out of his home, or on his farm, would not have understood this arbitrary distinction between personal and business loans - the personal loan without usury and the business loan with it. For, how many of those being charged usury in Nehemiah’s day were simply trying to establish their business or farm? Therefore based on this arbitrary division Nehemiah could not have rebuked all those who were charging interest to their brethren. But even if this false division was allowed, it would still condemn the whole personal loan business that is engaged in by professing Christians today. Because, why does a person seek out a loan? Because he is poor and does not have the money he needs to purchase the things he needs like a car to go to work or a home to live in with his family.
Part 4: Another Arbitrary Division: Usury is Unlawful Only if Charged to the Poor
There is no denying the fact that the poor are often singled out when the subject of usury is mentioned in the Scriptures:
Exodus 22:25 If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.(Emphasis added)
Leviticus 25:35-36 And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee.(Emphasis added)
The argument from verses such as those above is that it is only the poor that are not to be charged usury. It is alright to charge usury to someone who is not poor. There is more than one problem with this line of reasoning. The first is that there are passages of Scripture that prohibit the charging of usury without any reference to the poor:
Deuteronomy 23:19 Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:(Emphasis added)
Psalm 15:1 & 5 LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?... He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.(Emphasis added)
A second problem is that seeing the texts that mention the poor as legitimizing charging usury to the “non-poor” is reading an interpretation into the these verses to justify charging usury to the “non-poor”. For, rather than seeing the texts that mention the poor as legitimizing charging usury to the “non-poor” they should be seen as describing those who are most likely to be the ones who are going to need a loan. For, a person with money does not need to borrow money unless he is unwilling to wait for something he desires or is coveting. If it is something that he legitimately needs and cannot afford it, then he would fall under the poor category to whom the non usury restriction applies.