Must Christians Accept Money Earned Corruptly or Unethically?

Indonesia’s Catholic community learned last year that the thousands of dollars it had received as a donation from public official Johnny Gerard Plate were proceeds from a multimillion-dollar telecom bribery case.

Plate, a cabinet minister before he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term, had a history of donating to his religious community in Indonesia’s Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province.

The court’s decision stated that a portion of these graft funds had been allocated to church institutions, including the Kupang archdiocese, Widya Mandira Catholic University, and the Timor Evangelical Christian Church, a Protestant group in Kupang. Following Plate’s conviction, Catholic authorities have pledged to return these donations, emphasizing their commitment to ethical financial practices.

This is not the first time Christian officials involved in corruption cases have donated illegal funds to religious organizations. In 2017, former transportation minister Antonius Tonny Budiono was found guilty of accepting bribes. During the trial, he stated to the judges that he used the funds for orphan care and for renovating a damaged church and school. In response to this case, the Indonesian government (KPK) challenged religious institutions, including churches, to conduct financial audits to promote transparency.

In a country where the corruption situation has seemingly only deteriorated in recent years, CT asked Indonesian church and ministry leaders, “Should a Christian organization ever accept a donation gained from an unethical source?” Answers are arranged from firm to more nuanced.

Jimmy Kawilarang, director of Torchbearers Indonesia, West Java

Churches and ministries should reject all activities that do not reflect the glory of God, including unethical ways of seeking and accepting donations that do not align with the teachings of the Bible. God’s Word condemns money obtained through deception, cheating, corruption, theft, or usury.

When an individual or organization intends to make a significant donation to the church, it is respectful and, for the sake of transparency and accountability, necessary to ask for an explanation of the origin of the donated money. The church can set guidelines to identify donation sources and request more details when donations exceed a certain amount.

To balance financial needs and moral integrity, churches and ministries should make financial reports public, involve the church council or board of trustees when making financial decisions, and build a strong internal supervision system to ensure accountability and openness to external oversight or independent audits.

Fostering a culture of transparency, accountability, and good governance in the financial context of the church or ministry is also the primary responsibility of Christian leaders. The apostle Paul speaks about the criteria for selecting someone to be a leader or servant of God (1 Tim. 3:1–10). A culture of transparency and accountability can only occur when church and ministry leaders have personal integrity and where their words and actions are consistent, motivating others to follow suit.

T. Christian Sulistio, lecturer at Southeast Asia Bible Seminary (SAAT), Malang, East Java

The church has limitations when tracing the origin of funds or knowing all the motivations of Christians who give offerings. To prevent Christians from giving offerings or donations from work that does not align with God’s will, the church can communicate that offerings first and foremost are presenting oneself first to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5), meaning our entire lives are living offerings, holy and pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1).

Offerings originating from money obtained unethically contradict the nature and will of God and are abominations to God. Deuteronomy 23:18 says, “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God to pay any vow, because the Lord your God detests them both.” In The Book of Deuteronomy, Peter C. Craigie writes that “money that had been acquired by sinful means could not be a part of God’s gift, and therefore could not be used in paying a vow to him.”

In another passage, Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” We see that offerings to our Lord must also be based on the lives of Christians with these attributes.

Wahyu Pramudya, pastor at Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) Ngagel, Surabaya, East Java

I had an interesting experience regarding these “problematic” offerings. Once, when I was guest preaching, someone handed me a check after a sermon. It was not a common occurrence, so I checked the name on the check via Google. I was surprised to find that the name was on the list of the popular Panama Papers at that time.

I contacted the local church minister to inquire about his involvement in the Panama Papers. But I did not receive a response regarding this matter from the minister of the church where I preached. I decided to cash the check and give it to one of my acquaintances (who was a church minister) who needed funds for his child’s school tuition fee.

I explained the origin of the money, and he was willing to accept it. He felt that this money might not necessarily come from unethical business. Personally, I felt uncomfortable accepting it because I couldn’t communicate with the giver of the check to clarify the source of the funds they were offering for my ministry.

In our church, congregation members and attendees can access financial reports, where the reports are examined by public accountants to ensure that the income and expenditures are reasonable and accountable. This is possible because our church adheres to a collective leadership system and is not held by only one pastor.

At times, such as when someone pays in cash, it can be challenging for us to know the identity of the donor and what their occupation is. Even knowing this information about our members comes at their own discretion.

If proven in court, [I feel] the church is obliged to return unlawfully obtained offerings. However, the number of cases that go to court is very minimal. And what about offerings clearly originating from businesses that pose health problems, such as smoking? This business is legal and one of the largest taxpayers in Indonesia. In general, the church will reject sponsorships (from this type of donor), which take the form of printed advertisements in bulletins, but still accept offerings that do not require the donor to be listed in print.

In my opinion, what pastors or churches should not do is to exploit the congregation’s guilt by demanding offerings as “redemption” from lifestyles that are displeasing to God, as if through these donations, the forgiveness and redemption of God can be “bought.” This behavior has occurred in the history of the church and has been one of the triggers for the church’s reformation. Pastors and churches must teach that offerings are expressions of gratitude, with a broken heart thanking God’s mercy amidst one’s own sinfulness, and not as a substitute for ongoing, unending sin.

Ryadi Pramana, founder of the EFOD, a ministry that serves and equips pastors in rural areas, Jakarta

Our organization’s principle in accepting donations is knowing the background of the donor and whether the donor is a Christian with the heart of a servant or just a nominal Christian. A Christian with the heart of a servant will give wholeheartedly without any hidden motives.

When it comes to an organization’s financial needs, the more ambitious the desired outcome, the greater the need for funds, and this often causes us to become short-sighted. An organization that has over faith [an excessive belief that its ambitious wants will be met] does not first ask God whether it is what he desires or what one desires. If we follow our own will, the result will be accepting donations indiscriminately.

There are several things we do if we doubt the origin of a donation. Firstly, we advise the donor to directly give their money to those in need so that we are relieved from worrying about the origin of the funds. Secondly, we avoid using donations to purchase assets. This is because people tend to remember the money they have donated, so they feel very entitled in the journey of the church/foundation. This is contradictory to the principle of giving, where we consciously release what we have to others and the money no longer belongs to us.

Many churches and Christian foundations are destroyed because they do not have good financial management. In our ministry, our organization uses financial software that facilitates God’s servants in preparing good and proper financial reports according to accounting standards. If the system and the steward are good, then the result is very good.

Daniel Andy Hoffmann Sinaga, pastor at Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) Medan Sudirman, North Sumatera

Because this is an election year in Indonesia, many churches are receiving funds from legislative candidates in this year’s elections. It may be difficult for the church to know whether these funds are personal donations or campaign funds from their supporting party. However, church leaders should inquire further about the source of large donations, communicating with the individual in a friendly manner and private setting.

To validate the source of donations, Christian leaders should communicate their offering ethics in written form or verbal communication during worship. They don’t have to necessarily write these from scratch. Instead, they can use existing banking system procedures, like asking people to write a statement on the deposit form about where their money comes from, including from one’s salary, savings, investments, inheritance, and so on. These guidelines should come from biblical convictions but also be combined with legal principles regulating the source of funds, such as anticorruption and anti-money-laundering laws.

That said, the church cannot automatically prohibit itself from accepting money from a source of funds regardless of whether it was obtained ethically or not. The story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil (Luke 7:36–50) is an apt illustration. Much to the disdain of the Pharisees, a woman who is a prostitute pours expensive oil on Jesus and washes his feet with her tears and hair. Jesus’ response is remarkable; he forgives her sins—not because of the expensive oil she uses but because her heart was moved toward God and he accepts the woman’s service and offering.

Similarly, the church that accepts funds that come from unethical means does not necessarily have to be rejected. I have visited churches located in the midst of red-light districts, and on Sundays, many prostitutes come to worship and give their offerings. So are we becoming like the Pharisees who are reluctant with the offering of the sinful woman? Again, the Lord sees the heart and love far more than the giving and offerings.

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