Pastor John Gray's recent move to allow members of his church to take cash from the offering baskets has stirred discussion, with some applauding him for helping those in need and others expressing caution.
Praising Gray, Bishop Alphonza Gadsden of Cummins Memorial Theological Seminary in Summerville, South Carolina, told The Christian Post on Friday that he believes the church should be doing more to help the needy.
“Having felt as if he is led by the Spirit of God to do this then I think it’s a great gesture,” Gadsden commented. “I believe that the church needs to play a more active role within the community and if it means helping those who are indigent and don’t have a means of support then by all means the church should be able to do that.”
In his sermon on Sunday, Gray, who leads Relentless Church in South Carolina, reminded his congregation that “the role of the church … is not only to receive from the people of God but to meet the needs of the people of God.” He then invited members of his church in need to help themselves to only what they need from the cash offerings donated that day.
“For too long people have stood in a pulpit and told you to give, give, give. Very rarely have I seen churches stop and said ‘leave the baskets out, let the people get what they need.’ We’ve got too many pulpit pimps who want to get fat off people but don’t want to meet the needs of the poor people. And Jesus said that’s who you supposed to be taking care of. We got widows, we got orphans, we’ve got single moms in here. We might not be able to do everything but we can do something. I wish we could do more but it’s the best we can do right now,” Gray said.
While admitting that the church needs money to operate and not every church can afford to help members and their community in all the ways that they would like, Gadsden agrees with Gray that too many churches have abandoned the call to serve those in need.
“I realize that the church needs finances to operate but I say this with much reservation because I don’t think that churches are designed to build up great bank accounts and build financial empires. What I believe God intends for us to do as a church is not to build empires but to meet the needs of God’s people,” he said. “Of late, I think the church has relinquished that role to the government or the state and what have you and I believe that we as part of the church should be helping to meet the needs of the people.”
Zachary Groff, director of advancement and admissions at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in South Carolina, also praised Gray’s gesture but cautioned against “reckless” administration of assistance to the needy.
“Here at Greenville Seminary and in the Presbyterian and Reformed theological tradition, we have a very high regard for the diaconal function of the church. We take very seriously the example set by the Apostolic church in caring for widows and orphans and those in need both within the community of faith, but also outside of the church, in our local communities. And so I can applaud the intentions behind what Mr. Gray has done in terms of showing in a very emotionally moving picture of how the church helps those in need,” Groff said.
He noted that while he did not know much about Gray or his ministry he would not have advised allowing people to just take money from the offering baskets.
“I would seriously caution against doing that kind of distribution method in the church,” he said.
“It looks like a free for all, and I really think that the example we’re given in the New Testament and even in the Old Testament in terms of the administration of funds and caring for the flock and those in need is one of orderliness and accountability and responsibility. I don’t see any of that in what Mr. Gray has done.
“Now there might have been some things behind the scenes where leaders in his church had things planned and knew this was coming but on the face of it, it looks like a pretty reckless move in Relentless Church.”
A corporate and nonprofit tax law expert agreed that it would be better for the church to have a more formal process to assist the needy.
“In principle, providing support to needy single mothers, widows, etc. is consistent with a church's 501(c)(3) charitable purposes. Applicable Treasury regulations define ‘charitable’ to include ‘relief of the poor and distressed or of the underprivileged,’” John Montague, senior associate at leading global international law firm Hogan Lovells, told CP.
“However, the practice of allowing church members to simply take money from the offering basket on the basis of self-declared need is, at the least, not consistent with best practices. Instead, churches that want to provide such relief would be well-advised to establish formal procedures for overseeing and directing donations to needy individuals. For instance, such procedures might include a written application for funds, methods to verify and document the individual's need, and a designated body to oversee approval and distribution of the funds. In the absence of formal procedures, the system is open to abuse, and the church has no means of tracking money coming in or going out,” he continued.
“Many churches have benevolence or deacons' funds that are administered by a committee of deacons or other members of the congregation. These funds might lack the flashiness of allowing congregants to come to the front and take money from the offering basket, but they are able to meet congregational needs while ensuring that the church is acting consistently with its 501(c)(3) purposes."
In explaining his decision on Sunday, Gray said he was simply following what God asked him to do.
“These people don’t know what it took for me to do this. We are a six-month-old church with no savings account. We believe God every week but the Lord told me to do this because if I trust Him, whatever is left over would have to be enough,” he said.
He then explained that as God blesses the church they will make it their mission to continue blessing those in need.
“Just know as the Lord keeps blessing us, we’re going to do it more and more. We’re going to start buying cars for women who are catching the bus. We’re going to buy houses for people who’ve been renting. We’re going to have more than what we need and God’s going to raise up entrepreneurs and they’re going to have so much that they’re going to sow into the vision. And we won’t have to worry about offering. Offering will be extra,” he said.
Gadsden said Gray’s effort to obey the Holy Spirit is a very “valid” one.
He said while he would not have advised Gray to allow congregants to take money from the offering baskets, if that was what God told him to do it wasn’t his place to dispute it.
“I don’t know how God spoke to him or how God directed him to do this but I feel that if he is led by the Spirit, heard the voice of the Lord telling him to do it then God has a plan and a purpose directing him in that manner,” Gadsden said. “If God directed him to handle it that way then who am I to say that he did it incorrectly?”
Still, he also would advise a different manner of distributing funds. “From a personal standpoint, I think … we as human beings have a tendency to legislate too many things. At the same time, I have come to understand that there are people who are needy and there are people who are greedy. So when you look at it from that standpoint, from that perspective, I think that an organized manner of handling it would be far more efficient than just allowing people to come to the basket and take out what they need.”