Lottery Winnings in Offering Plates [ethics.hack]

an ethics.hack (read more about it here) is an examination of how the Church operates at the intersection of church and world.   By revisiting conventional wisdom and standard operating procedures, we seek to unveil a clearer response in the midst of murkiness.

This isn't something you see everyday: a church refuses an offering.  The specifics are that a Baptist Church in Florida refused a $600,000 donation from.....a lottery winner.
After Robert Powell hit the Florida Lottery jackpot last month and took home more than $6 million, he thought of his church.
And he offered to drop his tithe, around $600,000, in the collection plate of First Baptist Orange Park.
But the church and Pastor David Tarkington politely declined and told Powell they will not accept the lottery winnings.
Quite the dilemma!  If the church deems the origins of a donation unacceptable, then how can they accept the money...even if it is used for God?  Read on for more...

It's a little known tradition that churches can reject large donations.  For example, any UMC can choose to reject a donation from an individual if the person puts restrictions on it ("Must be used to buy more cowbell") that the church deems out-of-sync with their mission. 

There's a lively discussion on the article comments about the church's actions being dumb, hubris, and steeped in utilitarianism: who cares where it came from if it can do good?  From the article:
Many churches do not approve of the lottery and gambling but on the other hand Pastor Dr. Lorenzo Hall of the El-Beth-El Divine Holiness Church says $600,000 can do a lot of good.
"I'm against the lottery, but if one of my members won the lottery, I wish and I hope he would give 10% to the church, we could do a lot of things with that money," says Hall.
As a Holiness minister, Dr. Hall says he does not ask where members get the money they decide to donate.
In the comments and from the Holiness minister above, there's a lot of "I don't agree with gambling, but the money could do good" which smacks of a double standard: how can you oppose gambling but will accept the benefits?

To get at the heart of this dilemma, one has to decide what one thinks about gambling.  Me?  Glad you asked!  For me, lottery money is blood money: a tax on those who are poor that is disguised as a chance to achieve the American Dream.  And it is out of that ethic that I support this church's actions.  There are many people in my life who have shown to me the example of rejecting the benefits of injustice.
  • A college theology professor refuses to eat bananas knowing the reason that they are so cheap is that they often are picked by children who earn 17 cents a day.  Cheaper bananas abuse the working poor.
  • A seminary friend refuses to buy diamonds because while there's all sorts of guarantees that particular ones are not blood diamonds, the entire industry rewards such practices.  Cheaper diamonds kill people.
  • A fellow colleague actually refuses to buy ethanol gasoline, not because she hates the environment, but she knows that ethanol consumption has tripled the prices of tortillas in Mexico, burdening the working poor.  Cheaper gas leaves people hungry.
This dilemma strikes at the heart of what Boston University School of Theology professor Bryan Stone means by a means-end paradigm:
Ours is a world in which excellence is typically configured within a means-end paradigm where (a) ends are external to means [and] (b) means are merely instrumental relative to those external ends...the judgment that winning is "all that matters" is a judgment inappropriate to a practice.
Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom (2007), 50-51
If the means are external and instrumental to the goals of the church, then accepting the money makes sense.  But if the practice of the church includes evaluation of the means, then considering the origins of the donation (the lottery) and our ethical stance on the origins must be considered.

So I applaud this church for considering the origins of their donations.  They had to decide if it is more important to have money to advance the kingdom of God or to bear witness to the kingdom of God's stand against injustice.

It is true that I don't know if any money in my church's offering plates is lottery money; some of it may be!  But in this situation, silent tithes are a bit different than the spectacle of a large offering. When the lottery winner made the gift a spectacle, then the origins are very important.  In this case, if the church's conscience is clear and steeped in prayer, then rejecting it out of principle is clearly the right thing to do in my book.  I don't mean to say that people should be dishonest in how they got money, but making a spectacle out of it exacerbated this situation.

Which will does God value more: money or witness against injustice that makes people say "huh..I wonder why they did that?"

But I'm not the only voice.  What do you think?  If a person won a buncha money in the lottery and wanted to give it to the church.  Or say they got it from the sale of drugs or online poker or prostitution. 
  • If they got money by the means which you deem unethical, can you ethically accept the donation to the church?
Discuss.  Welcome to our first-time visitors and thank you for your comments!


Stresspenguin August 15, 2008 at 9:49 AM  

Well...I was gonna blog about this, but you pretty much covered what I was gonna say. Perhaps I'll just link to ya.

blake August 15, 2008 at 12:25 PM  

there's an aspect of this that is -- at least to me -- very interesting. i've had some experience with churches refusing to accept lottery/gambling money, but they have also actively stroked the pocketbooks of corporate CEOs and career politicians. in my mind, that's "blood money" as well, perhaps even more so. then again i guess one could also argue that under our economic system all money is blood money.

Matt Shafer August 15, 2008 at 1:36 PM  

I like the distinction at the end between a silent offering and a spectacle offering. And it strikes me that perhaps this is the way to navigate the dilemma. Churches can accept lottery money, but only if it is not a spectacle - only if it is done in silence. For then, the money can be viewed redemptively: "Just as Christ pulls us from our sin and darkness and uses us to transform the world, so too can we use this money (even with its origin in "blood") to transform." Blood money can be cleansed, and the paradigm of redemption in which God enfolds us is thus extended to all parts of our life.

David August 15, 2008 at 4:42 PM  

I wonder about the "morality code" of accepting offerings. I think about the prostitute or stripper who gives to the church, and is not spurned for their giving. More to the blood money side of things, what about the person who owns the conglomerate who owns the strip bar, or the defense contracts that manufacture bombs. Let alone the person on the lines in the defense contractor factories who make the bombs. Do we declare soldiers' tithes as immoral because they are earned in the service during war, and we have been very clear about calling war "incompatible with Christian Teachings".
I expect that the God who is capable of redeeming people who are by nature corrupt is very capable of redeeming things that have no nature, except that of the user.

IMA WAHM August 15, 2008 at 6:42 PM  

I agree with David. I think that if this church is going to care so much about where one offering comes from, it should be doing it with all of them. Unfortunately, no church has the time for this.

=^..^= WAHM Brenda =^..^=
Published Freelance Nonfiction Writer
Author of: A Godly Woman -

aprisonerofconscience August 15, 2008 at 7:08 PM  

I can agree on redeeming the gift / tithe and using it for a greater good. It is all God's anyways, right?

Does the giver receive the blessing though?
For the drug dealer, stripper, other carnal minded person, I would think not. From the lottery winner, why not?

I don't agree with making a presentaion about giving the gift, because the attention is your only reward.

Mr. Marc August 15, 2008 at 9:17 PM  

Regarding the ethics of accepting lottery winnings, I do not agree with the characterization of these winnings as blood money of the poor. Some of those who play the lottery may be motivated or fooled by a false hope of winning, but they are not coerced (compulsive gamblers aside). There won’t ever be a state official knocking on Johnny’s door asking why it has been a week since he’s gone to the corner store to buy scratch tickets. Also, if the occasion arises, why not give a portion of that money back to the poor or to those who support the poor? Why can’t a church official accept the donation, but at the same time, speak about his/her misgivings about the lottery? I am of the mind, “Do the best you can with what you have at all times.” As long as a church does not reinvest or somehow support practices it deems unethical, I don’t think it is wrong to accept lottery winnings. Of course, anonymous or silent donations would greatly decrease possible appearances of impropriety (and quid pro quo expectations) on actions of the church when and after accepting these donations.

Rev. Jeremy Smith August 17, 2008 at 1:28 PM  

Lots of comments have wondered about the slippery slope: what about military money, casino workers' paychecks, and other source of income. I think they are valid points, but there is a simple answer.

There's a difference between a private and a public event. If people silently put their lotto winnings or john money or government war salaries in the plate, that is between them and God. I'm not here to play the church police.

But when the spectacle of giving comes from an obvious source, then the church has to ask whether or not the ends of ministry are worth justifying the means. That church made their choice, and I support them in it.

If a church values mission money more than a moral witness against gambling, then valuing the ends over the means is their choice. But to the Baptist church in question, clearly their moral witness demands that the means to achieve the kingdom are more valuable than the ends.

Kevin B. Johnson,  August 17, 2008 at 7:30 PM  

Satan has had it long enough, why not let God have it? Why not take it and put it to good use. I am sure the homeless and hungry don't care where the money came from to feed and shelter them. They will appreciate it no matter where it came from. It would be insane in my opinion to let someone suffer and not help them because you don't have the money and the only money you would have came from the lottery.

Kevin B. Johnson,  August 17, 2008 at 7:30 PM  

Satan has had it long enough, why not let God have it? Why not take it and put it to good use. I am sure the homeless and hungry don't care where the money came from to feed and shelter them. They will appreciate it no matter where it came from. It would be insane in my opinion to let someone suffer and not help them because you don't have the money and the only money you would have came from the lottery.

Dan,  August 18, 2008 at 9:10 AM  

Here's something else to think about: Just out of high school, I accepted a lottery-funded scholarship to pay for my undergrad. So, I feel guilty saying bad things about the lottery. In my opinion, that's a lottery trick... in addition to taxing the poor, it makes us dependent on it for our education. It is quite an elaborate system of dependency.

carolynsinger August 18, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

@ Dan: the lottery doesn't actually help the overall cause of education. The government uses that setup as an excused to take money out of the overall education budget (the amount of money the state expects to earn from the lottery). If that amount is not actually made, or if it's reallocated, the people who suffer are the students. Thus, government student loans are financed not by the lottery but by the small portions from the budgets of every elementary school, middle school, and high school in the state.

That said, I will openly admit that I am forced to depend on government loans to provide myself and my husband with food, shelter, and transportation. I, a person with almost no resources, benefits from the oppression of others but can do nothing to change my situation. Figure that for a moral dilemma!

Larry B,  August 18, 2008 at 9:34 PM  

I think it makes sense to look at how you view gambling to determine the morality of accepting the money. It does however leave one in the position of having to accept both alternatives if a church finds no particular moral issue with gambling.

I had a particularly hard time finding anything in the scriptures that directly addresses gambling in and of itself as morally deficient. The notion that gambling is blood money from the poor is a particularly difficult stretch for me to make, I don't see the logical connection here. There is no compulsion by the state. If someone with limited means chooses to participate that is a personal decision. I don't see how the state can be held responsible for "blood" money. You would have to count anyone who sold a person of limited means any form of frivolous (other than a necessity) item as a participant in "blood" money.

The other thing that I question about this line of reasoning would be the implicit assumption that a poor person is somehow in an economic state that must be fixed in order for there to be "justice". My own understanding of the scriptures is that Jesus and his ministry held special significance for poor people because despite their economic position, they were specially blessed by God. His ministry didn't mandate their removal from their economic circumstances. Perhaps I have a misunderstanding on this point.

So given those particular views, I don't find a particular hard point to declare all forms of gambling immoral and would expect that a church who didn't find gambling immoral to also be willing to accept money from a lottery. (I also grew up catholic where we had casino nights to raise money so perhaps I'm a little colored by that also).

The Layman January 18, 2009 at 8:22 AM  

I understand a church not accepting lottery winnings, but there is a better reason than is discussed above.

When King David numbered the people to size his army, God sent an angel to kill many of his men. When David got God to stop the angel at the thrashing floor, David paid FULL PRICE for the property. Throughout the Bible are similar examples. Even in the New Testament writings, the priests would not put the betrayal money into the Temple but bought Potter's Field instead.

God does not need your money. The Church, as well as the members, should be depending on God for their needs. We should not make the mistake of thinking that God needs us.

I believe the church in question did the right thing. Keep the focus of the congregation on God and depend on Him to provide your needs. May 19, 2009 at 9:38 AM  

God said to tithe, he didn't say tithe unless its money from the lotto, $600,000 could help lots of people. Maybe I would give it to needy
families, there are sure a lot of them!

Anonymous,  August 4, 2009 at 12:23 PM  

I live in Las Vegas. All the churches and the whole community depend on the casinos for employment and for bringing money into our city for schools, hospitals, roads & churches. Gambling is our live line here. If the casinos went away the whole community would go down. All donations given to the churches here have somehow came from the gambling here. I believe that if god somehow sends you the winning lottery ticket it is up to the you to use a portion of the money for the greater good like giving to your church, your hospital or your favorite charity. I believe that god will ultimately judge us on how we use the money to help others in your community and your country and on this planet. I believe that by winning the lottery or a big jackpot in a casino is gods way of testing us to see what we will do with the money and if we will use it for good or evil. A church that would refuse gambing money here would have no donations at all because all the money here comes somehow from gambling in one way or another. A church should not worry about where the money came from its job is to do gods work by using its money to help others.

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