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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Toward a Theology of Home Ownership” (article: Presbyterian Journal)

Presbyterian Journal
March 7, 1984

John and Mary Smith own their own home. They now need to sell and a realtor tells them it is worth $100,000 in today’s real estate market. Since they bought it five years ago for only $60,000 and haven’t put any money into it, they are overjoyed about the upcoming profit they will make on their house. They will now be able to afford their dream house.

Fred and Joan Adams have both been working for three years to save enough money to put down on their first home. But just as soon as they pay for the last purchased appliance, the price of entry level housing in their area takes another jump just out of their reach. They never seem to be able to make that initial step. They lament that they seem to be doomed to renting for the rest of their lives.

The two families are characteristic of many families in America today who are thinking about home ownership. I want to explore tentatively the notion of home ownership for the Christian. I approach the subject as a professional realtor.

With the average price of a home in the United States hovering around $90,000, the nation’s average mortgage rate approaching 17%, and NBC television telling the nation that only one in eleven families can now afford to own its own home, is it any wonder that people are beginning to realize that home ownership in the United States is becoming more of a fantasy than a reality? One political reality must be immediately appreciated: “Universal” home ownership is a distinctly 20th Century American ideal (two out of three American families currently own their own home). The rest of the world, by and large, must be rather content to lease their sheltering needs. That is, home ownership is a distinct and unique privilege of the American economic and political system. And it’s a privilege which I believe will be lost, in a great measure, to future generations.

Home ownership is evidenced in both the Old and New Testaments, but there is also evidence that some leased their housing needs—e.g., Paul in Rome (Acts 28:30). The Talmud also speaks often of rental housing. In fact, the whole idea of tenancy is inherent in the relationship between God, the lord of the land (landlord) and his people, tenants of the land (Lev. 25:23-24).

A Christian homeowner currently thinking about buying or selling a home should be aware of the fact that the federal government has never classified the personal residence as an “investment” in the customary sense of the term. That is, the government has not afforded the homeowner with all the incentives given to other forms of economic enterprise, i.e., depreciation, front-end tax credits, employment subsidies, favorable zoning laws, environmental lee ways, import protection, etc.

Rather, the family dwelling is to be a place of shelter and refuge for the family members. Even the federal government recognizes that. The Christian dwelling, even more so, is to reflect a family’s personality and attributes (see Psa. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20, etc. for a divine example of the importance of dwelling reflection).

The purchase of a home by a Christian family should not be approached as a cold, calculated investment. Rather, the Christian dwelling is to be foremost a place of ministry, of hospitality, and of worship—not a profit center (e.g., Matt. 9:9-22; Acts 16:14-15; Rom. 16:5).

But turning to some practical real estate matters, the Christian home¬owner like anyone else has the right to expect a fair market price for his or her real estate interests. “Fair market price” can be defined as the highest price which a property would bring if it is offered for sale for a reasonable period of time in a negotiated market, to a buyer who is willing but not compelled to buy, from a seller, willing but not compelled to sell, both parties being fully informed of all the purposes to which the property is best adapted and capable of being used.

The real estate market is a nego¬tiated market, much like the market place in Biblical times (See 2 Kings 7:1; Neh. 13:15-20; Matt. 20:1-8; James 4:13; Acts 28:15; for some examples of Biblical market places). In many respects it is a unique and pure market place. A buyer wants to buy as much product (house) for as little as possible, while the seller wants to receive as much for his or her product as possible. A sale can take place only if buyer and seller agree on the terms. Without agreement, there is no sale and the buyer must buy cheaper housing or pay more for the housing he or she wants, and the seller must either lower the price of the house or risk not being able to sell the product.

In the market place, one buys what one can afford (Gen. 47:13-25; Luke 16:1-8; Rom 13:8). No one is entitled to a certain level of housing beyond the minimum of safe and sound construction, and safe location (Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 22:8; I Tim. 2:1-3). That is, there is no amenity minimum, no neighborhood quality minimum, no size minimum (Isa. 5:8; Jer. 22:13-15).

Indeed, Calvin writes in his Institutes: “Therefore, even though the freedom of believers in external matters is not to be restricted to a fixed formula, yet it is surely subject to this law: To indulge oneself as little possible; but on the contrary, with unflagging effort of mind, to insist upon cutting off all show of superfluous wealth, not to mention licentiousness, and diligently to guard against turning helps into hindrances.”

On the other hand, if a Christian is negotiating with another Christian, then a different market place principle may be established. (For separate, but analogous actions, see I Cor. 6:1-8). The key concept of this market place principle is “need” and not “value.” Christians may deem it important to disregard value considerations and deal with need. In which case, the terms of the transaction will be based more on the needs of the more needy of the parties and not on what fair market value considerations might dictate (I Peter 4:7-10; Romans 15:1; I Thess. 5:14).

In short, the strong party (in the monetary sense) in the transaction defers to the weak party so that a common good might result (I Cor. 13:7; 24-26) with the end being the advance of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 11:12). Normally a “fair market” value for real estate would also be a “fair market” value in the Christian ethic. However, there may well be times when a Christian shifts to that different marketplace principle and deals not with “value” but rather “need.” In that case a lower price, easier terms, different property, etc., may be the order of the day.

One final observation. In recent years it has been possible for people passively to own their own home and simply let inflation reap huge unearned benefits for them. From the standpoint of Biblical stewardship, this is idle speculation and not a godly husbandry of one’s material gifts. The general thrust of Scripture is that economic rewards (equity) are based on godly stew¬ardship and the worth of one’s output of production (Matt. 10:10; I Tim. 5:18; Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11-12).

If a homeowner makes no improvements to his property in order to en¬hance the value, he cannot justly ex¬pect a huge profit when he sells that property (Lev. 25:13-16, 25-28; Prov. 24:30-34; 12:11; 28:23-27). Dr. Henry Meeter points out that in Genesis 2:15, the words “cultivate” and “keep” have inherent in their root meanings “improvement.” He writes, “It is im¬portant to notice that culture always implies the thought of improvement, not just development. All work that improves, that brings out the possibilities for good, aids in its way the great task of culture” (The Basic Ideas of Calvinism).

A question then arises: Should a sensitive Christian take less than the market value for his home just because inflation is the main source of increased value? Probably not. There would be no reason to counteract the effects of inflation unless one was operating on a different market place principle, i.e., “need” vs. “value.” What one must keep in mind is that unearned value gained through inflation can disappear as quickly as it appears. And when that happens it is a “just rainfall” (Matt. 5:45) that affects every owner of real estate, Christian or not. Paul writes, “But this I say, brethren, the time has been short¬ened, so that from now on those who buy (ought to be) as though they did not possess and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of the world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:24-31).

My point is not that the Christian home owner should forego the inflated benefits of real estate ownership in favor of some obtuse and contrived Christian “need” approach. Rather, Christians, more than others, should appreciate their tenuous hold on land ownership and should correspondingly appreciate that home ownership (at any level) is a divine privilege of stewardship which can be justly taken away by God as quickly as He gives it (Job 1:21; Psa. 49:16-20).

Consequently, Christians should be the most humane and understanding of all parties in a selling or buying situation. And if the Christian has to take less for his house or buy less house with his money, then he should above all see God’s hand in the transaction and therefore negotiate with a grace and a dignity that befits our heavenly calling (I Cor. 10:23-24; Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:12).

For any Christian to own his or her own shelter has always been a privilege which God, in His patient forbearance, has allowed:

“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. . . . Jesus told him, Follow me” (Matt. 8:20-22a).

Ultimately, we must remember the only truly real estate is the inheritance Christians receive from God and which is ready for us in heaven (John 14:1-3).

In the meantime, we can rest secure and peaceful in our temporal shelter promised in Psalm 91:1-2, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ “And we know this house has been purchased with the blood of the Lamb.”

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