Should A Church Return A Tithe?

Orginally published on Friday, October 14, 2005 at 8:39 AM
by Todd Rhoades

Now here’s an interesting dilemma… should your church return money received in its offerings from someone who got the money from activity that wasn’t above board (or legal)?  More specifically:  Should Corona, CA’s largest church return $144,735 it received from a man who has since pleaded guilty to fraud?  This article is from PE.com.  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Church leaders have declined to comment, but ethicists, churchgoers and watchdogs say the money given by Randall Harding and his wife, Alice, puts Crossroads Christian Church in a morally murky position. Some want to see the money go back to investors; others say the church has no duty to return it.

Harding regularly attended Crossroads and sang in its choir while he ran JTL Financial Group -- also known as Just the Lord. JTL closed in 2004.

Authorities say he funneled the cash to Riverside-based MX Factors and paid early investors with money from later ones -- a classic Ponzi scheme. MX investors still are owed $39.4 million, according to court-appointed receiver Robb Evans & Associates.

In more than a year, Robb Evans has recovered about $3 million to reimburse investors and has not decided whether it will pursue the church. The receiver collects bank accounts, sells homes and sometimes pursues salesmen and those who have profited from such schemes to repay investors.

Whatever money comes in will be dispersed as a judge determines to the hundreds owed, said Kenton Johnson, executive vice president at Robb Evans.

Senior Pastor Barry McMurtrie said through his assistant, Kim McGuire, that he would have no comment for this article. He did not answer an e-mail or a letter requesting an interview. Neither did Executive Pastor Mark Gantt.

Harding agreed in a September e-mail to answer a reporter's questions if his attorney gave him the go-ahead. Harding's attorney, Jim Henderson of Santa Monica, did not return three phone calls made in the past two weeks.

Harding pleaded guilty in January to wire fraud and money laundering. He has not yet been sentenced and could face as much as 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

Crossroads hosts about 5,000 churchgoers at weekend services, according to its Web site. Sitting on 36 acres, the church property is valued at $9.3 million, according to Riverside County Assessor Larry Ward.

This year, the evangelical megachurch opened a new sanctuary, where thousands of seats come with cup holders to hold Starbucks drinks from its cafe.

Regardless of what the church decides to do with Harding's gifts, Crossroads should debate the options to show it has seriously considered an important ethical issue, said Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles.

"If they took it in good faith, as I assume they did, and they used it, do they become another victim?" he asked.

Arguments can be made for keeping the money and for giving it back, Josephson said.

But he knows what he'd do. "If it's ill-gotten gain, I would vote to return it," he said.

Recruiting Investors

For years, Harding operated The Packaging Store in Rancho Cucamonga, where his mother-in-law also worked, according to former employee Bob McLean. The store sold packing supplies and crate-shipped items and, by 2002, was used to pitch investors on JTL, McLean said.

Reports by the receiver show that in the nearly two years JTL operated, Harding paid himself $2.7 million. The money went to loans for The Packaging Store, cars, travel and the gifts to Crossroads, the receiver says.

Harding used the congregation to recruit investors, including at least three pastors, according to court records.

Worship Pastor Adam Price, who sings on stage at services, put in $154,165, according to a lawsuit he filed seeking the return of his money.

Price also raised money for Harding, investors said. Price declined to comment when reached by phone at his home and did not respond to e-mail requests for an interview.

Ties, such as religion or ethnicity, are used to exploit common interests when conmen raise cash for Ponzi schemes, said Susan Wyderko, the Security and Exchange Commission's director of investor education. Often, perpetrators enlist religious leaders to spread the word, she said.

"Leaders become unwitting victims of the scam and assist in bringing others in to be similarly victimized," she said.

Just because investors made a bad call, Crossroads isn't necessarily obligated to bail them out, said Paul Nelson, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a watchdog group. But having church leaders invested and raising money for JTL does make the burden heavier for Crossroads, he said.

"I can't say whether the church should give the money back, but the church should be saying, 'What is the right thing to do?' " Nelson said.

Brian Goodwin, who has attended Crossroads for four years, said one of the church's pastors approached him a few times about investing with JTL. He came close to putting in $200,000, money that he instead invested in real estate and his Corona graphics company.

Goodwin, though, is unsure whether Crossroads should repay Harding's victims.

"What if someone stole $5 and gave it to the church? How are they going to know and what are they going to do about it?" asked Goodwin, 46.

The choice is clear-cut to Charles Crites, who said he invested a six-figure amount with JTL. Crites previously attended Crossroads but declined to say why he left the church.

He wants Crossroads to hand over what Harding donated.

"It wasn't Harding's to give," said Crites, who also participated in a Bible study with Harding for several months.

Some people wonder if Harding made donations beyond the $144,735.

Crites said Harding told him that he had pledged $1 million to a Crossroads school-building fund. Others confirmed that the pledge was announced at a church auction.

Trust Fund

Sometimes churches give back money they made from investments in Ponzi schemes. A group of religious organizations started a trust fund last year after they learned their investments profited from what authorities say was a Ponzi scheme ran by Gregory Setser's International Product Investment Corp. Based in Ontario, IPIC owes investors close to $75 million.

So far, the fund has brought in more than $3.5 million, which has already been given out to hundreds of jilted investors, said Nick Roossien, an accountant who works for the company reimbursing investors.

But getting back money donated to nonprofits can be difficult, said Scott Cormode, the George Butler professor of church leadership at the Claremont School of Theology.

Often, he said, it's no longer there.

"If it's $144,000 to build a new room on a building project, the room's built. It's not like they can liquidate a room," he said.

Cormode said he would counsel the church to evaluate its range of obligations, including its congregation, the community and JTL investors.

Because the $144,735 came from someone who has admitted to fraud, the church should return it, said Christian ethics professor Glen H. Stassen at the Fuller Theological Seminary.

He suggested that Crossroads write to investors explaining what it has done and ask whether it's OK to keep it.

"I think the church does have some obligation to the people who've been defrauded, but that's a mutual thing," he said. "It's certainly for the people who've been defrauded to say, 'Thank you for your kindness, and we think you should use the money for these good purposes.' "

It's unusual to find that a Ponzi perpetrator has given the money to a church, Robb Evans' executive Johnson said. But in another case, the receiver located more than $500,000 in tithing and donations made to a Mormon temple.

Last year, the receiver asked the Salt Lake City headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to return the money, Johnson said. It did so, with interest, he said.

But Johnson declined to discuss whether the receiver would try to retrieve the $144,735 from Crossroads.

Though it would mean an average of only $204 per investor if it were spread among those owed, Ken Schwartz of Spokane, Wash., said the church should return what it got from Harding.

"If it wasn't his property to begin with, it shouldn't be the church's property either," said Schwartz, 46, who invested $45,000 in savings.

After losing money to JTL, J.D. Walker left Corona and Crossroads last year to move to his home state of Arizona.

But Walker, who fondly remembers Crossroads, doesn't expect the church to reimburse investors.

"If some of my money went to do some good, it's better than Randy getting it all," he said.

So... would you give it back?

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  There are 17 Comments:

  • Posted by

    The church should absolutely return the $144k. If not, someone will find a way to attack their ministry and question their integrity.

  • Posted by


    Just to be able to avoid any appearance of impropriety, the money should be returned. But that may be easier said than done…

  • Posted by

    I think it would be best to return the money.  Additionally, pastors should avoid giving investing advice unless they are licensed to do so.  We all know someone in our congregations who have the ability to charm and make money, but who are not always following God’s leadership.

  • Posted by Al


    I would think it would be an easy decision for a church his size.  It should never have even got to this point and he could have made it into an object lesson on the value of integrity, now if he does so there will always be the thought, “he did it under pressure.” The object lesson now is, if no one knows about something, it must be ok.

    “Coffee holders on their seats?” What is next, chairs with massage units in them.  Can we see now why the “seeker sensitive” movement is getting a bad rap, maybe the self indulgent thing is the reason?

  • Posted by

    I think the church should return it.  Avoid all appreances of evil right?

  • Posted by Jason Fletchrer

    I agree with the previous posts.  Hands down no questions the church should return the money.

  • Posted by BryonM

    If this guy paid himself $2.7 million, then he still owes God $125,265 in order for it to be a true tithe. Should a man rob God? (Malachi 3:8-10)(hee-hee)

    Actually, the church should find a way to settle if the donor/criminal lacks the assetts. The church needs to have the same attitude in a situation like this as Peter had when confronting Ananias and Saphira (see Acts 5:1-10).

    Isn’t God able to bring in over and above what is returned? Or am I just being way too spiritual?

  • Posted by Michael Rew

    If possible, confidentially survey those who have been bilked by this scam artist. Ask which of them do not want the church to return their money. Divide the shares of those who do not want their money back among those who want their money back.

  • Posted by Bernie Dehler

    I would have imagined that the church already spend most of it… if so, they wouldn’t have it to return…

  • Posted by

    I was an active member of this church for more than 20 years and left just before being approached to participate in JTL, but I was approached.

    Yes, the leadership should be responsible and accountable for returning any and all money it received from Mr Harding, with interest.  The money should first go to the people sitting in the pew who were led astray by the leadership.  That is the right thing to do, it is what Jesus would advise them to do.

    Some of the best lessons we learn can also be the most painful.  Thank God it doesn’t require money to get into Heaven!

  • Posted by

    I’m sure glad that James cleared up Jesus’ perspective on things...we should go to him more often to clear things up!

    Should churches accept money given from lottery winnings or other gambling ventures?  What about the spouse who gives money without the knowledge of the other spouse, who doesn’t want any money going to the church?

    It seems like this could be an opportunity for the church to reach out to people who were bilked in a scam, returning a sense of truth and justice to the situation.

  • Posted by

    I’m sure glad that James cleared up Jesus’ perspective on things...we should go to him more often to clear things up!

    Why should the people in the congregation be the only ones who have the chance to get money back?  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Any why, James, do you think that’s Jesus’ answer?

    Should churches accept money given from lottery winnings or other gambling ventures?  What about the spouse who gives money without the knowledge of the other spouse, who doesn’t want any money going to the church?

    It seems like this could be an opportunity for the church to reach out to people who were bilked in a scam, returning a sense of truth and justice to the situation.

  • Posted by

    Dear Matt,

    I think you know that I do not speak for Jesus, I only share what I think Jesus would advise based upon my knowledge of Him.  I suppose He could just as easily say tough luck, you all got what you deserve for being so hungry for earthly wealth.  I think the bible makes it pretty clear though that the leadership of the church is held to a stricter judgement.  The leadership should not seek to regain anything for themselves until those in the pew have been fully reimbursed.  That is where their concern and compassion for their flock should lead them.

    The reason I said they should “start” with the person sitting in the pew is because the leadership seems to have encouraged the person in the pew to participate.  If there is enough for the leaders to regain their losses to, fine, but demonstrate some leadership and “start” with the person in the pew.

    As far as lottery winnings go, the lottery is a lawful game, gambling yes, but lawful all the same. Abortion is murder, lawful yes, but murder all the same. The church, in my opinion, should not accept money from either one.

    Ponzi/Pyramid schemes are not legal, nor are they ethical. They cannot under any reasonable circumstances be called “investments”.

    Money earned in a 401K, or IRA, or Real Estate sale, these are investments that are both ethical and legal. I believe the church has no obligation to return tithes resulting from these.

    What about a spouse.....
    I guess we could come up with all kinds of scenario’s.  It reminds me of the “for the health of the mother” argument.  Sure, there may be some infinitesemal percentage of cases where this maybe might possibly somehow occur perhaps, but comeon!


  • Posted by

    Revwilly wrote: [They should give the money back] “If not, someone will find a way to attack their ministry and question their integrity.”

    Even if they don’t, this can and will happen, as is does to all who follow Christ.  Sure, there will be less controversy if the church gives the money back, but they are not obligated to do so.  I read that the church’s pastors who encouraged others to invest were also victims.  I could see if they knowingly asked others to invest, but they were operating in good faith.

    Also, why only the congregation members?  If they decide to return the money, why not be a good witness to those outside the church and reimburse the unbelievers who were victimized first?

  • Posted by Sam

    It’s pretty sad when the Mormons know to give back money (with interest) and this church is debating the issue. We could probably have more people in more churchs if those on the outside didn’t see the church/leaders as a bunch of money-grubbers. The behavior of this church just re-enforces that idea.

  • Posted by

    My friends… The LOVE of money IS the root of all EVIL.

    It sounds like the Hardings loved the life style that the sin was bringing them and the church was profiting from that desire to build bigger and better barns. Their eyes saw $$$ and they were able to facilitate the dream/vision of the people to sustain the “Corona, CA’s largest church” appearance.

    Give back the money? Don’t know. Keep the money? Already used.

    The Mormons have no problem giving back $500,000 with interest because they get the repayment from the ???18,0000,000+??? members world wide. What’s that about a quarter each?

    May be a little harder for the church family to come up with $144,000+ on a regular Sunday. Arbitration could be done and the church abide by the deal.

    I know if it were our church, I would have really have been skeptical about cashing a $144,000 check to start out with… Bells and red flags all over the place! RevJay

  • Posted by

    Matt. 6:1.  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
    2.  “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
    3.  “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
    4.  so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.(NAS)

    Today, our Internal Revenue Service causes churches and individuals to violate this admonition of Jesus. Churches keep records of each persons giving and mail out an accounting to the members at the end of the year so that people can take a tax deduction for what they have given to the church.

    How would a church handle a Blind Trust? Ie; A person wins several million dollars in the Power Ball Lottery and wants to tithe. He finds out who the church banks with and their checking account number and sets up a Blind Trust. Only the donor and the bank have access to the identity of the donor. So the church has no idea who gave the money or where it came from. But the money is there for the church to use in any way they deem fit. Would the church accept and use the money to God’s glory, or let it sit int the Trust and gather interest, or seek a court order to force the bank to disclose the identity of the donor before deciding how to dispose of the funds?

    Suppose Joe won the money and later passed away leaving the money to Joe Jr. and Joe Jr. wanted to tithe his inheritance?

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