What Does the Bible Say about Student Loan Forgiveness?
By Dale Chamberlain, Crosswalk.com
On August 24, President Biden announced that the federal government would be forgiving up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt for Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for other qualifying borrowers.
Reactions to the announcement of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, which represents the partial fulfillment of a promise Biden made while running for president, have been mixed.
Some have celebrated the move as a win for the economy and the roughly 42 million borrowers who are struggling to pay off their student debt.
Others see the plan, which is set to cost $1.6 trillion, as an unfair scheme that unnecessarily burdens taxpayers, many of whom will not benefit from the program.
Initially, the Department of Education opened up applications for borrowers to request loan forgiveness. However, the plan is currently in limbo, as it has become the subject of two high-profile lawsuits. In one of the suits, six states claimed that the program would plunder their tax revenue.
In another, two plaintiffs have argued that the Department of Education overstepped its legal authority by enacting the program by way of Executive Order rather than through congressional legislation.
Regardless of the political and legal ramifications, many Christians are seeking to understand what, if anything, the Bible has to say about sweeping loan forgiveness programs. And, somewhat predictably, Christian leaders and theologians have fallen on either side of the argument.
Here is a closer look at some of the Christian arguments for and against student loan forgiveness and how Christians can think biblically about President Biden’s plan.
Christian Arguments for Student Loan Forgiveness
Those making a Christian case for student loan forgiveness argue that the entire Christian faith is built around the idea of forgiveness of debts that cannot be paid. After all, Jesus has paid our ultimate debt of sin.
He did not deserve to pay the penalty, and we could never afford to satisfy it. Yet, Jesus has freely given to us what we did not earn and could never deserve.
Indeed, this is the message of the gospel.
The idea of forgiveness for financial debts was also built into the Law given to Moses for the people of Israel. In fact, there were multiple rhythms of debt forgiveness: one every seven years and then another every 50 years, known as the Year of Jubilee.
As an agrarian society, the relative wealth or poverty of the people in Israel was almost entirely determined by matters out of their control, such as the amount of rain, sun, and other factors that would affect the yield of their crops.
If a drought hit or a serious infestation of pestilence ravaged crops, some families literally could not survive. So, loans became essential.
Nevertheless, farmers often did not have a single bad season but a series of bad seasons, causing their debt to increase to a point where it would be nearly impossible to pay back.
And since bankruptcy court wasn’t a thing back then, the debt would be transferred to successive generations of the family. Without intervention, the result would eventually be that certain families would be functionally enslaved to others.
Thus, debt relief provided important safeguards to those who were the poorest and most marginalized in society.
To draw a direct connection between Jubilee and Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan, Christians would need to argue that student loan forgiveness is the best way to benefit the poorest and most financially vulnerable in American society, something that most arguments have failed to do.
From a New Testament perspective, Christians for student loan forgiveness turn to the words of Jesus himself. In one parable, Jesus describes a servant who was forgiven an unpayable debt to a wealthy ruler.
However, despite being given so much, the servant immediately throws another man in prison for owing him a far smaller, albeit sizable, sum.
Upon hearing about the servant’s actions, the reaction of the ruler is swift and stern.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to” (Matthew 18:32).
For his unforgiveness, the servant is locked away in prison until such a time as he could repay his debt.
The moral of the story is that if we are unwilling to forgive others when they are indebted to us, we ought not to expect that God should forgive our debt to him. This message is echoed in Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
The weakness of this argument is in drawing a direct connection between the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debts. Treating the two as interchangeable seems to stretch the words beyond their originally intended meaning, oversimplifying the concept.
In other words, Jesus didn’t die to cancel your student debt, but rather the eternal debt of sin for which God would otherwise rightly call you to account.
While Jesus used the language of debt forgiveness to speak about the forgiveness of sins, what he is mainly referring to is moral and relational transgressions rather than back payments.
While it could be argued that such a concept ought to be extended to financial debts, the context of what Jesus is speaking to is still more relational in nature rather than institutional or governmental.
Christian Arguments Against Student Loan Forgiveness
Whereas Christian arguments for student loan forgiveness emphasize where the Bible speaks to social structures that will alleviate poverty, Christian arguments against student loan forgiveness emphasize where the Bible speaks to personal accountability and moral responsibility.
Arguments against loan forgiveness may cite some or all of the following Bible passages.
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:7-8).
It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay (Ecclesiastes 5:5).
If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:2).
The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives (Psalm 37:21).
What these passages establish is that the Bible clearly and consistently teaches that Christians have a moral obligation to pay back what they have borrowed. Knowingly taking out a loan that you have no intention of paying back is not only irresponsible but sinful.
If we take the Bible seriously, this is irrefutable. Further, we don’t want to create public policies or government programs that encourage such behavior.
The question at hand is whether student loan borrowers knowingly took on student debt with no intention of paying it back. Perhaps for some, this was the case.
Nevertheless, it has been well documented that the student loan industry has, for years, behaved in a way that is predatory toward young high school graduates, misleading them and pressuring them to take on debt that they are unlikely to be able to pay back anytime soon.
In this case, those who are suffering under the weight of their student debt are not necessarily wicked borrowers seeking to void their personal responsibility.
Rather, they may be the victims of powerful entities who took advantage of them. If we look at the larger context of Psalm 37 (one verse of which is quoted above), what we will find is that David composed the psalm as a condemnation of such wicked oppressors.
A Biblical Response to Student Loan Forgiveness Plan
In the end, this issue is not as cut and dry as either side has the tendency to make it seem. In the Bible, we find the repeated theme of care for the marginalized, as well as an emphasis on personal responsibility.
God advocates for societal-level systems of generosity that get people out of binds that otherwise would have ruined their lives, as well as for wisdom that keeps people from finding themselves in such a situation in the first place.
The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not give us a clear moral answer to whether we ought to support President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
Even still, it does provide Christians with a shared set of moral and theological assumptions that help us discuss and debate the program in a way that is healthy and productive.
For example, all Christians can agree that we should advocate for policies that are aimed at decreasing extreme poverty, giving special care and attention to the most vulnerable without negating the need for personal responsibility.
We should look for solutions that will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people and that enact regulations and restrictions that will protect vulnerable people from powerful people who would take advantage of them.
Once we agree on those points, which are spoken to clearly in Scripture, we can begin to discuss the best way to go about accomplishing these goals.
It’s just that we must proceed with the understanding that the debate we are now having is political and governmental in nature, not theological.
And that means that if other Christians, arguing in good faith, disagree with us about the best way to tackle our shared goals, we can gainsay their arguments, even with strong conviction and fiery passion, without resorting to accusations of weak faith or poor moral character. And that’s because it’s not “us” versus “them.” We are all on the same team.
In so doing, our debate about the policy particulars that we feel will best accomplish our goals can become far less confrontational and much more collaborative.
When it comes to Biden’s plan for student loan forgiveness, whether it will provide a much-needed boost to the economy and benefit the most financially vulnerable people in our society is an open question, and it’s a question that should be discussed.
Some Christians may reasonably support this program, and others may reasonably argue against it. However, we must continue to remain united in our faith and resolute that we should faithfully pursue programs that address needs and issues that are close to the heart of God.
For further reading:
What Does it Mean That Our Debt Has Been Forgiven?
What Should Christians Consider before Taking On Student Loan Debt?
What Does the Bible Say about Finances?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Image Plus/Andrii Dodonov
Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.