Churches face dilemmas if lottery is approved in Tenn., pastor says

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--When Scott Thomas was pastor of a church near Lake Charles, La., he learned churches and Christians will face dilemmas and struggles if a state lottery wins a statewide vote Nov. 5.

Thomas, at the time a recent graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was enjoying his ministry and seeing people respond to the gospel. In the three years he had served the church, it had grown from about 75 to 200 in Sunday morning worship services. This was true despite the predominate Catholic tradition of many residents.

Even the mayor, who also was Catholic, attended the church often, Thomas said. And although he attended when invited and in an official capacity, Thomas felt the man was developing an interest in Christianity.

Then Thomas received a phone call from the mayor. He accused the church of being hypocritical in receiving money from a member who had won a lottery. He said he had thought about attending the church regularly but wouldn't ever attend again.

Soon Thomas learned a deacon of the church and his wife had won several million dollars through the lottery. They also had given 10 percent of their first check of $65,000 to the church. It was reported by the media.

Thomas visited the couple and learned the news was true. Then he called a deacons' meeting. He and the deacons met and decided the church must refuse the money and ask the man to resign as a deacon and Sunday School teacher.

Several days later the deacons met again without Thomas and reconsidered their decision. They decided the whole church should decide whether money from the lottery should be received.

The congregation voted to receive the lottery money and then a month later reversed the decision.

Thomas explained the church reversed the decision partly because of input from associational leaders who counseled against receiving the money although the association decided not to disfellowship the church over the matter.

The church also received a negative reaction to accepting the money from the pastor of the French Creole congregation the church cosponsored. The mission pastor explained that accepting the funds would make it difficult to continue developing support for the congregation from Baptists who might object to the lottery money. The mission pastor objected so much he resigned until the decision was reversed.

But now the congregation was divided on the question, and that is the worst position for a church, Thomas said, noting that lack of unity affects everything the church tries to do.

Several months later, Thomas was forced to leave as pastor. And many other members left the church because of the turmoil and resulting lack of focus on God, said Thomas, who is now pastor of Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.

Today he still suffers as he thinks back to the situation. So many people, including his family, were hurt, Thomas said.

"I couldn't forgive them on my own," he stated, referring to God's help in forgiving some church members. He recalled meetings during which people were weeping and "everyone was broken."

Thomas admits he was a young man without a lot of ministry experience although he was working to gain that experience. He was working on his doctorate in ministry while pastor of the church.

At one point he told the couple who won the lottery that to do the right thing they should return all of the money to the lottery company. Looking back, he realizes that was the right thing for a Christian church leader to do, but it would have been very difficult. And he, as pastor, may not have been the right person to suggest it since he only had been their pastor for three years.

The church and Thomas were forced to face other difficult questions. For instance, at one point a church member suggested by accepting the lottery proceeds the church was taking the money from the devil and using it for good. Such an argument is difficult to counter, Thomas said.

Another example of a difficult situation was that Thomas discovered another church leader probably had been giving gambling proceeds to the church for many years because he was in business with gambling companies.

A pastor shouldn't investigate anything about the financial gifts of members -- even where they come from -- said Thomas, but he and other church leaders must make decisions about church leaders and members based on their actions, including business dealings.

During his time at the church, Thomas wrote his doctor of philosophy dissertation that referred to the role of the church in the discipline of members. He learned through his research and the situation at the church that the Bible provides for church discipline that he described as "godly, caring discipline."

Thomas also learned from his experiences that what people are doing when they gamble is "they are stepping out of their faith in God and turning to chance or winning [over someone else]."

Gamblers are greedy because they are trying to take money from other people without working for it, he explained. If greed is removed from gambling, "it falls apart," he noted.

Just recently a young lady sat in his office with her young child and asked Beaver Dam Baptist Church for money for food. The reason she needed the help, she explained, was that her husband had gambled in Tunica, Miss. In fact, he had gambled away her grant from the government for college.

On Nov. 5, Thomas asked, why should Tennessee residents embrace the pain and increase it by legalizing gambling?


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