Read Chapter IX - Practice of the disciples of Usury A Scriptural‚ Ethical and Economic View , free online book, by Calvin Elliott, on

The conditions in the very early church were not such as to make prominent the sin of usury. Many of the disciples were very poor and from the humblest walks of life. I Co:27-28: “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty; and the base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and the things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.”

The practice of the disciples was, however, in entire harmony with the teachings of Moses and the Master, and in accord with the prohibition of usury. Later, in the time of the apostolic fathers when the church came face to face with this sin, there was but one voice and that in the denunciation, for the fathers were unanimous in its condemnation.

(1) The first disciples did not loan, but gave to their needy brethren. The early converts held their property so subject to a general call that some have thought they had a community of goods.

Acts 2:44, 45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

It is evident they did not assist their brethren with “loans,” but with gifts; much less did they take the opportunity to secure increase on loans.

The suffering poor were their especial care. They gave of their poverty for the relief of the suffering. Many called by the Spirit were in want, and many came to want through the severe persecutions to which they were subjected. This was especially true of the converts in Jerusalem. For these large collections were received from the churches in Macedonia and in Corinth.

They were commanded to care for the needy of their own house. I Ti:8: “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Paul, in giving directions to Timothy, as to the care of their poor, requires aid to be given to “widows indeed,” those who have no children; but those who have children or nephews are to look to them and be supported by them, and if any person refuses to care for his widowed mother or grandmother or dependent aunt, “he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.”

(2) They were diligent in business. They provided things honest in the sight of all men.

Paul set the example during his itinerate ministry by working at his trade to secure his support and his dictum has been accepted as both divine and human wisdom ever since. “If any will not work neither shall he eat.”

Diligence was enjoined for self-support, and that others might be helped. Ep:28: “Let him that stole, steal no more; but rather let him labor, working with his hands, the things which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” The effort was first by labor to be independent and then also to come to the relief of the feeble, the sick, the poor, and the needy. That a man could honestly secure a livelihood without productive labor was foreign to their way of thinking. If any did not work he did not deserve a living, nor was he an honest man. No one was at liberty to be idle. Productive effort must not be relaxed. There was no retiring for the enjoyment of a competency.

There was no thought of such a provision to free them from the effort for the daily bread. The surplus product was given for the aid of others, to those who had claims of kinship first, then to all who had need.

The instant a man failed to produce he began to consume. There is no hint anywhere that it entered any of their minds that they could stop production and live in ease from the increase of what they had produced and the supply grow no less; that the meal and oil should not fail, but be handed down unimpaired to their children.

(3) Covetousness was hated and denounced and classed with the most flagrant violations of the moral law.

Covetousness is an inordinate regard for wealth of any kind. This may be shown in the greed of seeking it, without proper regard for the rights of others; or in parsimony or stinginess in holding it, when there are rightful claims upon it.

James 5:1-6: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. You have heaped treasure together for the last days.

“Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabbath.

“Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just, and he doth not resist you.”

Covetousness may also be shown in undue respect for wealth when in the hands of others. This is reproved in James 2:1-7. “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor man, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and become the judges of evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised them that love him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?”

Covetousness was a secret sin often indulged when the outward forms of righteousness were observed. Usurers were the open representatives of flagrant covetousness in all the ages. Usury was not named among them as becometh saints.

(4) The early disciples kept out of debt. The early Christians were not borrowers. In both dispensations borrowing was only resorted to in hard necessity. The borrower was second to the beggar. The borrowing was but for a short time, and the loan was returned as soon as absolute wants were supplied.

The doctrine and practice of the early church was to owe no man anything. Ro:8: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”

Indebtedness was to be avoided as compromising the faith in the eyes of others and detrimental to the development of grace in the disciples.

This was the direct command of Paul. This commandment required the payment of all honest obligations. The Christian then as now who failed to acknowledge his obligations and meet them in full as he was able was wanting in the spirit of righteousness and unfaithful to his own convictions of right and duty.

The payment of a debt was the return in full of the loan received.

Any Christian conscience at that time would have been satisfied with the settlement approved and commanded by Nehemiah. The debt was fully discharged when payments equaled the loan by whatever name those payments were called.

This text also required that they keep out of debt. By no distortion of the text can it be made to mean less. Chalmers on this passage comments as follows: “But though to press the duty of our text in the extreme and rigorous sense of it yet I would fain aspire towards the full and practical establishment of it, so that the habit might become at length universal, not only paying all debts, but even by making conscience never to contract, and therefore never to owe any. For although this might never be reached, it is well it should be looked at, nay moved forward to, as a sort of optimism, every approximation to which were a distinct step in advance, both for the moral and economic good of society. For, first, in the world of trade, one can not be insensible to the dire mischief that ensues from the spirit often so rampant, of an excessive and unwarrantable speculation so as to make it the most desirable of all consummations that the system of credit should at length give way, and what has been termed the ready-money system, the system of immediate payments in every commercial transaction, should be substituted in its place. The adventurer who, in the walks of merchandise, trades beyond his means is often actuated by a passion as intense, and we fear too, as criminal, as is the gamester, who in the haunts of fashionable dissipation, stakes beyond his fortune. But it is not the injury alone, which the ambition that precipitates him into such deep and desperate hazards, brings upon his own character, neither is it the ruin that the splendid bankruptcy in which it terminates brings upon his own family.

These are not the only evils which we deprecate for over and above these there is a far heavier disaster, a consequence in the train of such proceedings, of greatly wider and more malignant operation still, on the habit and condition of the working classes, gathered in hundreds around the mushroom establishment, and then thrown adrift among the other wrecks of its overthrow, in utter helplessness and destitution on society. This frenzy of men hasting to be rich, like fever in the body natural, is a truly sore distemper in the body politic. No doubt they are also sufferers themselves, piercing their own hearts through with many sorrows; but it is the contemplation of this suffering in masses, which the sons and daughters of industry in humble life so often earn at their hands, that has ever led me to rank them among the chief pests and disturbers of a commonwealth.”

To this may be added an extract from “Short Instructions for Early Masses by the Paulist Fathers.” “The fact of the matter is, dear brethren, that there is too much laxity of conscience among our people on this question of contracting debts, of borrowing money, of running up bills with little or no hope of ever paying them. We have all of us no doubt come across people who consider themselves quite religious who owe money to their neighbors for years, and never make an effort to pay what they owe or even to offer an excuse for their negligence in such important matters.

There are some professional debtors who think the world owes them a living, and who spend a good part of their time figuring out how much they can get out of the land and from those who dwell thereon. To have to pay rent is their greatest grievance, and after being trusted for a few months, they find it much cheaper to move to other quarters than to pay what they owe.

Then there are others who must dress extravagantly, no matter what it costs, and in consequence have nothing left to pay for the things they eat or drink. Do they on this account deny themselves any of the good things of this life? Not at all; on the contrary, every business man will tell you the same story these people want the best and are the most exacting in their demands.

Now, I repeat, there is too much laxity about contracting debts and too little conscience about the necessity of paying for what we use. St. Paul’s warning should ring in the ears of every debtor: “Owe no man anything.” It will not do for such people to come to confession and say they contracted debts and are not able to pay what they owe. Confession will not relieve them of their obligation, and they must begin at once and make an effort to lessen the debts they owe in the past and learn a lesson in economy and strive against contracting new burdens. This will help us to clear off the old ones.

It is not edifying, nor is it conducive to good fellowship, nor does it help to make our religion better known and better loved, to find people, dressed in the finest, coming Sunday after Sunday to mass while they are heavily in debt to their grocer or butcher or landlord, who may be in the very same pew with them. This is certain, it convinces such men in business that the debtor’s religion is not very sincere.

In a word, brethren, it is far better to live in less pretentious dwellings, dress more soberly and eat more sparingly than to owe any man anything. Pay what thou owest, and then you may walk honestly among all men.”

Freedom from debt is necessary to the independence of the man who does right and answers only to God. Struggle as he may the man is not free who is under obligations to others. He is hindered in his conduct; he is not always conscious of it, but nevertheless there is a real binding or fettering of his actions. It influences his gifts, for what he holds is not his own and the owner may criticize his benevolence.

An easy conscience and sound sleep is the portion of the man who is under no obligations to another. He looks the whole world in the face, who owes no man a cent.

He is free from distracting business relations with his brethren and brotherly love may abound. The exhortation of Paul is in connection with brotherly love, and of all external relations, debt hinders the free flow of sympathy among brethren.

The early disciples endeavored to avoid all debt. Much less did they pay a premium for the privilege. They only borrowed in hard necessity; but borrowing on usury to make a profit by it was as repellant to the Christian conscience then as complicity with theft or fraud. It marked a man as anxious to share in unrighteous gain. His own conscience placed him among those who are discontented with their lawful estate and guilty of that covetousness which is idolatry. I Ti:6-11: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred in the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.”