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Rendering to Caesar, God, and MasterCard

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A press release from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, linked over at WorldMagBlog, claims that the bankruptcy reform legislation passed last year is being “reluctantly” interpreted by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York to mean that “those going through bankruptcy may not tithe to their church or make other charitable donations … until after they have paid off credit card companies and other creditors. Before the new law went into effect, bankruptcy court judges were required to permit debtors to tithe a portion of their income on a regular basis.”

Those are some pretty strong claims, and you can see the generally negative reaction that this announcement is getting from Christians at WorldMagBlog. Henry Sommer, president of the NACBA, said: “For religious Americans who find themselves deeply in debt due to job loss, catastrophic medical expenses or other circumstances, the 2005 reform legislation didn’t just reword the federal bankruptcy code, it also effectively rewrote Exodus and Deuteronomy. Many who practice their faith and believe that they are bound by creed to tithe a portion of their income will find that Congress effectively decided that what credit cards want is more important than the deeply personal religious practices of Americans.”

Sommer added: “Our nation’s founding fathers who envisioned a separation of church and state never imagined that this division would be used to engorge the profits of moneylenders at the expense of churches.”

If the New York courts interpretation is legitimate, that “this change [under the 2005 law] effectively closes the door for debtors who are above the median income from deducting charitable contributions as an expense unless they can establish the contributions fall under the IRS guidelines,” then what are Christians to do? Is it morally valid for Christians to violate the terms of bankruptcy to continue to tithe?

At the very least, Christians need to be educated about the effects of filing for bankruptcy, one of which apparently may be some infringement on religious practice. As it stands, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Littlefield, Jr. also seems to be calling for some clarification from Congress: “Whether tithing is or is not reasonable for a debtor in bankruptcy is for Washington to decide…. Until Congress amends [the 2005 Act], the court’s hands are tied and the tithing principles that this court once applied pre BAPCPA (the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005) have been effectively mooted.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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