The bait with an unshakeable hook: A biblical answer to predatory payday lending practices

November 22, 2013

Catching a fish is a fairly simple act. You catch a fish by disguising the hook in something it likes to eat. The fish becomes so excited about the prospects of getting a good meal that it bites first and looks later. Many fine meals have landed on my plate by that simple act of subterfuge.

 Regrettably, this practice isn’t used only to catch fish. It also works on desperate people. Today the practice of baiting the hook to catch the unsuspecting has been honed to a science by some unscrupulous people involved in the practice of so-called payday lending. In payday lending the lender offers to the desperate person what looks like an easy way out of his or her momentary financial dilemma: take out a loan and pay it back in a couple of weeks, with a little bit of interest. The bait is too good to pass up, and the next thing the unsuspecting borrower knows is that he or she is paying that little bit of interest every two weeks with no end in sight, in some cases paying out 360 percent in annual interest.

Lending money at obscene levels of interest to those who demonstrate no ability to repay that money can only be described as a predatory activity. The practice of payday lending violates multiple biblical teachings. In what follows, I will use only the first four chapters of the book of Genesis to demonstrate that payday lending as it is practiced by most businesses today is an affront to man and God. Here are four reasons to oppose payday lending:

1. Human dignity. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that humans are created in God’s image. In fact, humans are the only species mentioned in the creation account as being created in the image of God. While scholars are divided in their opinions of what this “image” is, they are agreed that it means humans share something of the divine not possessed by any of earth’s other creatures. That affords them a unique dignity by virtue of their very existence. Human dignity leads us to insist that humans be treated as people of inestimable worth regardless of their social, economic, physical, or any other condition. The predatory activity involved in much of payday lending fails to respect the dignity of the person created in the image of God. It treats fellow humans as prey rather than fellow image-bearers.

2. God’s design. God’s expectations for humanity at creation were very high. The book of Genesis states that He gave humans authority over all creation as His stewards (1:26-31; 2:15). They were in partnership with Him in tending to the needs of creation. The expectation was that they would work together to achieve this task. That calling still exists. We are still intended by God to play a part in the respectful stewarding of His creation. Adequately achieving that task requires a mutual beneficence among humans that empowers each person to fulfill his or her potential. The predatory practice of much of payday lending actually interferes with human flourishing. It holds some in a perpetual state of impoverishment for personal gain. There is no partnership for mutual benefit here. Not only do fellow humans suffer as a result, but God’s design for human stewardship of His creation is affected as this predation crushes people.

3. Human nature. It didn’t take long in the biblical narrative for humans to rebel against God’s plan for them. Chapter three of the book of Genesis describes humanity’s rebellion against God. The result of their rebellion brought them separation from God and one another (Gen. 3:7-19). It produced a selfishness that saw fellow humans as objects to be used for personal gain rather than subjects with whom to enjoy rich, mutually beneficial relationships. Predatory payday lending represents some of the worst of fallen human nature at work. Greed for material gain is the ultimate value in this practice. Other humans are no more than objects for personal enrichment.

4. Social responsibility. Chapter four of the book of Genesis introduces us to God’s expectation of human social responsibility. After Cain has killed his brother Abel, God asks him where his brother is. Cain responds with the devastating, revelatory question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The answer is so obvious that God does not even bother to answer. Cain was indeed his brother’s keeper. Jesus developed this point further by reminding us that we are each other’s neighbors. As such we have a responsibility to assist each other (Luke 10:30-37). 

There is no room for predatory behavior in God’s plan for human relationships. In fact, where this does occur in Scripture, God makes sure to eventually balance the scale. So, for example, the people of Israel plundered their Egyptian masters upon their departure from Egypt (Exod. 3:21-22). On a more universal level, God calls on people to be just in their business dealings with each other. He calls for just scales and fair prices (Lev. 19:35-36; Prov. 11:1). He denounces usurious lending practices on multiple occasions (Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-37; Neh. 5:1-13). 

God is not opposed to profit. Jesus even spoke well of it (Matt. 25:14-30). But God is opposed to those who take advantage of the weak and vulnerable (Exod. 22:21-24; Deut. 24:10-22; Zech. 7:8-14). There is no other way to describe predatory payday lending than oppressive. Its very business model is based on the inability of the borrower to ever be free of his or her indebtedness. Business must operate with a heart if it is to be respected as a valued member of society. It must see itself deriving a reasonable profit because it contributes to the well-being of those it serves, not simply deriving as much profit as possible because it manages to plunder an unsuspecting public. 

Chapter four of the book of Genesis also introduces us to part of the solution for dealing with predatory payday lending — the civil magistrate. The chapter reveals God’s commitment to regulating broader human relationships. After God confronts Cain over his murder of Abel, he condemns him to a life of wandering. Cain complains that God’s punishment is too great. He fears that “whoever finds me will kill me” (4:14). In response, God says that He will exact a heavy penalty from anyone who kills Cain. In this interaction, we can see the seed of God’s institution of the civil magistrate. He is placing boundaries on how humans are to treat one another. 

God instituted government to help humans live together in harmony. Even if humans were not fallen and sinful, we would still need government to help us organize our lives together. But because of our fallenness, government is essential. As the Apostle Paul states, government’s task is to reward good and to punish evil (Rom. 13:1-7). The divinely ordained task of government is to help humans live within God’s moral standards. Government should not abuse this authority, but it must intervene at times. 

Predatory payday lending exhibits all of the features that make government intervention necessary. Its business model elevates greed as the ultimate value. It devalues humans and puts the very economic system of free markets that have pulled more people out of poverty than any other system known to man at risk of rejection by a public that is tired of being taken advantage of and treated as nothing more than cattle. When people fail to act responsibly toward each other, government is there to ensure the balance.

At times, people may need some emergency financial assistance. Those who make this type of service available are in a high-risk activity. Consequently, to cover their higher risks, they must charge a higher interest rate. But surely there must be a limit to this risk management. A lender should not be able to take advantage of a person’s plight for predatory gain. Some reasonable regulations should be adopted that will ensure that lenders work within appropriate limits and that guarantee borrowers are not trapped in an endless debt spiral that drives them further into the poverty from which they are desperately trying to escape.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He is the former vice president for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24