In name of God, Christians pay off bills

December 03, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Forget about sex and rock 'n' roll. In the financially strapped '90s, debt has hit the sin list as one of the top no-nos for some Christians.

It's your Christian duty to get out of debt and stay that way, a number of theologically conservative churches have started teaching parishioners.

Religious bookstores have stocked their shelves with tomes extolling the Christian virtue of debt-free living, and churches are bringing in financial analysts to help parishioners straighten out their finances.

"We can be freer and happier if we live by sound economic principles," says Janie Gaskins, program coordinator of the Heritage Church of God in Severn, which this month sponsored a seminar on debt reduction.

Timonium Presbyterian Church, which has held similar seminars for its members, focuses on the idea that "God really owns everything, and we're accountable to him for how we spend it," says administrator Larry Russell.

Bethel AME church in Druid Hill tries to help debtors change their habits by keeping a financial counselor on staff and offering new members financial advice when they join.

"The temptation to spend more than one makes is extremely high," says the pastor, the Rev. Frank Reid. "We try to educate people to the fact that the reason many of us are in debt over our heads is because we put what we want first, instead of putting God first.

"Unless we can begin to teach our members how to be disciplined, how to be financially free, how not to believe the TV hype, then the debt, especially of African-Americans, is going to get worse and worse."

Proponents of financial freedom differ on whether that means never borrowing money at all.

While a few hard-liners say owing money to anyone is morally wrong, most Christian groups simply emphasize living within your means -- making a budget and sticking to it.

"The Bible gives many warnings about being in debt," explains Ronald Blue, an Atlanta-based Christian financial analyst. "If you borrow money, you have no alternative but to repay all the amounts borrowed. If you don't, by definition, you're what the Bible calls wicked."

Books such as "Obedience in Finances" by Christian money guru Larry Burkett teach basic financial principles of getting organized, creating a master plan to manage your money and staying out of debt permanently.

The emphasis is on disciplined spending. If you have an old car that runs and you can't afford to pay cash for a new one, don't buy one, Mr. Burkett suggests. Running up credit card bills you don't immediately pay is considered both bad money-management and bad Christian living.

The economic principles espoused by Christian financial analysts are sound advice, though not uniquely religious, say secular counselors.

Henry Bahne, assistant executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Agency in Baltimore, a nonprofit financial counseling group, says Mr. Burkett is considered an expert in the field of money management and provides "state of the art" budgeting materials.

Moral imperative

What makes the Christian groups unique is their insistence that it's a moral duty to manage your money well, that it's a sin to run up a credit card bill you can't pay.

Because a Christian's money actually belongs to God, believers ought not waste money or lose money through interest payments incurred through unnecessary debt, says Mr. Burkett, who has a national radio talk show called "Money Matters."

"Huge sums of God's peoples' money go to meet interest payments. That money could otherwise be used to further God's kingdom rather than Satan's," Mr. Burkett writes in another of his books, "Using Your Money Wisely."

"Many major denominations spend more on interest payments than on foreign missions," he writes.

Mr. Burkett teaches that borrowing always is presented as a negative in the Bible.

"The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave," he quotes from the book of Proverbs.

Interest in Christian money management is growing.

Mr. Burkett's organization, Christian Financial Concepts, last year held seminars for 18,600 people around the country, nearly a 10 percent increase over the previous year, says CFC seminar manager Kathy Anderson. More than 900 people a month buy materials from the organization, and dozens of Maryland churches are using financial freedom programs by Mr. Burkett and other Christian analysts, such as Mr. Blue.

Ron Blue & Co. has grown in 14 years from a one-man operation in Atlanta to a large organization with six offices from Florida to California.

Cynthia Knudsen, a marketing specialist with the company, says the Bible-based financial principles Mr. Blue espouses have been around for a long time, but the growth of financial planners -- both secular and sacred -- is recent.

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