By Ray McAllister
Would you choose to mount a sixteen-foot maraschino cherry on the roof of your church? You probably wouldn’t, but would you consider doing so if it were part of a deal where your church would receive a large donation? This situation may seem ridiculous, but many times money offered to religious institutions has very troubling “strings” attached. This often happens when the money comes from government agencies. In this article, we consider two significant situations where this may be happening and lay down principles from the Bible that can guide one toward a wise decision. Sometimes it may be wise to receive state aid, and other times, such aid would only place one in unnecessary bondage.
The first situation concerns guidelines that Canada is placing on religious organizations that request state funding to assist in paying for student internships under the Canada Summer Jobs Program. Under the new directives, any church’s core mandate (or mission statement) cannot oppose access to abortion. Access to abortion is interpreted, now, as being a right guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Similar to the “Bill of Rights” in the United States.) Religious institutions who are morally opposed to abortion perceive this as a way to strong-arm organizations into supporting a pro-choice position. Other people say that if one’s core mandate is to distribute Bibles, the issue of abortion isn’t relevant to the discussion. The core mandate concerns merely passing out Bibles. Opponents of the new guidelines are suing, arguing that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also guarantees freedom of conscience.
The other situation, in the state of Missouri, United States, is a case known as Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, which was argued before the United States Supreme Court in April 2017. Trinity Lutheran Church sued for access to state funds earmarked for non-profit organizations that wanted to resurface their playgrounds with rubber from recycled tires. The state argued its constitution prohibited state funds from being used for religious institutions. The church contended that the function of the playground is secular as it is merely a place for children to play as they would in a public park. The Supreme Court ruled that the church had the right to participate in the program, subject to its restrictions.
Biblical and Ethical Guidelines
Both cases concern the issue of how intertwined religious organizations should be with state agencies. There are many principles that one can use when pondering these situations, and many of them are right in the Bible, which many of these religious institutions hold dear.
Ezra 1:1-4 quotes a decree by Cyrus, king of the Persian Empire, offering funds to help the Jews rebuild the temple which had been destroyed seventy years earlier. Since the Jews were part of the Persian Empire, this decree could be understood as involving state funding for religious institutions. The Jews, in accepting this money (vs 5 and following) show that there can be a time and place for a religious organization to receive such aid. It should be noted, though, that there was nothing in Cyrus’ decree that would be objectionable to the Jews. There was no hidden clause about making offerings to pagan gods, for example.
Then, there is Genesis 23. In this story, Abraham negotiates with the Hittites to acquire a burial plot for his recently-deceased wife, Sarah. Abraham outright refuses the Hittites’ offer to give him the land for free, and he pays the four hundred shekels of silver which the Hittites name as the price.
A twenty-first century American may not understand the cultural reasons why Abraham would refuse such a gift. In ancient Near-Eastern culture, though, if Abraham received that donation he would have been placing himself under the dominion of the Hittites. They give the land, and he gives allegiance. Even today many people are nervous about receiving large gifts from those they don’t know because of what may be asked in return. According to Genesis 23, then, it may not always be wise to accept such donations.
The story of Gideon contains guidance concerning what to do with people who don’t want to aid a cause. In Judges 7 The Israelite leader, Gideon, prepares to lead his people into battle against the oppressive army of the Midianites. In verse 3, God tells Gideon to reduce the size of the army by sending home anyone who is afraid, and 22,000 people leave. Gideon, then, would be left with only the people who were willing and able to help. He would be victorious with the small army who would support him. There may be value in saying, then, that if a state agency does not wish to truly and unconditionally assist a religious institution, that institution should trust God to provide by other means.
A final ethical issue concerns the use of funds earmarked for a particular purpose. When I studied church policy in college and seminary, my class was reminded over and over that one is not permitted to spend earmarked money on something other than what it is earmarked for. This is where the maraschino cherry example comes into the discussion. If someone makes a donation to a church and earmarks it for the mounting of a sixteen-foot plastic maraschino cherry, with thirty-foot stem, on the roof, that church must necessarily spend the money on that specific project or return the funds. If this means that the church is not eligible for more money from that contributor, then so be it. Any other action is unethical.
Money, today, may be earmarked for organizations with a particular stance on abortion. Money may be allocated only for entirely secular uses. Some scholarships are to be used just for non-religious degrees or for people going into a specific profession. In such cases, using the funds for something different is unethical.
The Practical Side
American money bears the saying, “in God we trust.” It seems that, often, the church lives by the saying, “in money we trust.” It is not always wise to fight for money just because one is desperate for it. Sometimes God can provide for a church’s needs by raising up leaders, like Cyrus, who donate unconditionally toward the church’s cause. In other cases joining with a secular power could involve what 2 Corinthians 6:14 refers to as being “unequally yoked with unbelievers,” and that only produces chaos and bondage for the religious entity.
If a church wishes to sue for access to funds, and if the church believes there is a justifiable, legal reason for those funds, it may be prudent to take the matter to court. In reality, though, the church may have to decide if it is worth the trouble to demand funds from those who don’t wish to give them freely. The church may need to prayerfully seek wisdom concerning whether or not it is Cyrus or the Hittites giving the money. In reality, it is better to trust God to supply one’s needs some other way than to be stuck with a giant maraschino cherry on one’s roof.
Dr. Ray McAllister is passionate about his relationship with God. He enjoys spending time in prayer and Bible study, writing poetry, and serving others. Dr. McAllister is totally blind, and in 2010 was the first blind person to earn a Ph.D. from the seminary at Andrews University and and the first totally blind person in the world to earn a doctorate in Hebrew Scriptures. He teaches distance education religion classes for Andrews University and works as a licensed massage therapist in Michigan. In July 2016, Dr. McAllister and two other visually impaired Biblical scholars received the National Federation of the Blind’s Jacob Bolotin Award for their work making Biblical language materials accessible to the blind. Dr. McAllister sees his blindness as an opportunity to more deeply see the beauty of God’s love and guide others to do the same.