Is It Really Theft?
ABIODUN was a senior waiter in a big hotel in Nigeria. While locking up the banquet hall one evening, he found a bag of cash containing the equivalent of $1,827, U.S. Without delay he turned in the money, which was later claimed by its owner, a guest at the hotel. The hotel management rewarded Abiodun with a double promotion and gave him their “best worker of the year” award. The owner of the money also rewarded him.
Quality, a local newsmagazine, featured the story, calling Abiodun a “Good Samaritan.” When asked by Quality if he was tempted to keep the money for himself, Abiodun said: ‘I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So if I find anything that does not belong to me, I give it back to the owner.’
Many in the community were surprised by Abiodun’s display of honesty. Abiodun’s fellow Witnesses were pleased by what happened, but they were not surprised. Throughout the earth Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for their high principles. Among them honesty is not the exception; it is the rule, an essential part of true Christianity.
Occasionally, however, circumstances may seem to blur the line between what is honest and what is not. Consider this situation. Festus, who cared for the contributions and accounts in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Africa, was in desperate need of money.* His wife needed a serious operation that her doctors said should not be delayed. The hospital demanded half the money in advance.
Festus lacked the money. When he approached several people for a loan, he was turned down. Then he thought of the money in his care and reasoned, ‘Is it right for me to let my wife risk death when I can do something to prevent it? Why not “borrow” from the congregation cash? I can return it when some people pay me what they owe me.’
Festus used that money that was not his to pay the hospital. Was his reasoning correct? Was his action justifiable in view of the emergency situation he faced?
Whose Money Is It?
In analyzing these questions, let us briefly review a few points concerning the source and purpose of money such as Festus took. The funds come through voluntary contributions made by members of the congregation who want to further Jehovah’s pure worship. (2 Corinthians 9:7) It is not used to pay salaries, since no one is paid for what they do in the congregation. On the contrary, the contributed money is used mainly to obtain and care for a meeting place, usually a Kingdom Hall. This provides a convenient and comfortable location where people—young and old, rich and poor—can meet for Bible instruction.
Whose money is it? It belongs to the congregation collectively. No individual member determines how the money is to be spent. While the body of elders directs payment of routine congregational expenses, when an unusual payment is called for, the elders present the matter to the entire congregation for approval.
Borrowing or Theft?
Because of his plan to replace the money as quickly as possible, Festus viewed his action as borrowing. However, Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms uses other words regarding “the taking and removing of another’s property usually by stealth or without his knowledge and always without his consent.” The words are “theft” and “thief.” Without permission or authorization, Festus took money that belonged to the congregation. So, yes, he was guilty of theft. He was a thief.
Of course, there are degrees of reprehensibility in the motivation behind theft. We can see that from the example of Judas Iscariot, who was entrusted with caring for the money held by Jesus and the faithful apostles. The Bible says: “[Judas] was a thief and had the money box and used to carry off the monies put in it.” (John 12:6) Motivated by a bad heart and outright greed, Judas went from bad to worse. Eventually he sank to betraying the Son of God—for 30 pieces of silver.—Matthew 26:14-16.
Festus, however, was motivated by concern for his ailing wife. Does this mean that he was without blame? By no means. Consider what the Bible says about theft in another seeming emergency situation: “People do not despise a thief just because he commits thievery to fill his soul when he is hungry. But, when found, he will make it good with seven times as much; all the valuables of his house he will give.” (Proverbs 6:30, 31) In other words, when caught, the thief must face the full penalty of the law. According to the Mosaic Law, a thief was to pay for his crime. So rather than encourage or excuse theft, the Bible warns that even in emergency situations, stealing can result in economic loss, disgrace, and most seriously, a loss of God’s approval.
As Witnesses of Jehovah, all true Christians, especially those entrusted with responsibilities within the congregation, must be exemplary, “free from accusation.” (1 Timothy 3:10) Festus did not receive the money he was expecting, and thus he was not able to replace the money he had taken. What he had done became known. What happened to him? Had he been an unrepentant thief, he would have been expelled from the clean Christian congregation. (1 Peter 4:15) But he was cut to the heart and did repent. Hence, he could remain in the congregation, although he lost his privileges of service.
Trusting in God
The apostle Paul warned that stealing by a person who claims to serve Jehovah can bring reproach on God’s name and His name people. Paul wrote: “Do you, . . . the one teaching someone else, not teach yourself? You, the one preaching ‘Do not steal,’ do you steal? For ‘the name of God is being blasphemed on account of you people.’”—Romans 2:21, 24.
Agur, a wise man of ancient times, made the same point. In his prayer he asked that he might “not come to poverty and . . . actually steal and assail the name of [his] God.” (Proverbs 30:9) Notice that the wise man acknowledged that poverty can bring about circumstances that might tempt even a righteous person to steal. Yes, hard times can test a Christian’s faith in Jehovah’s ability to care for the needs of his people.
Yet, loyal Witnesses of Jehovah, including those who are poor, have faith that God “becomes the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.” (Hebrews 11:6) They know that Jehovah rewards his faithful ones by helping them to care for their needs. Jesus made that clear in his Sermon on the Mount, saying: “Never be anxious and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or, ‘What are we to drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ . . . For your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”—Matthew 6:31-33.
How does God provide for needy ones in the Christian congregation? In many ways. One is through fellow believers. God’s people display genuine love for one another. They take seriously the Biblical admonition: “Whoever has this world’s means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? Little children, let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”—1 John 3:17, 18.
Throughout the world, in more than 73,000 congregations, over four and a half million Witnesses of Jehovah diligently strive to serve God according to his righteous principles. They know that God will never abandon his loyal ones. Those who have served Jehovah for many years raise their voices in agreement with King David, who wrote: “A young man I used to be, I have also grown old, and yet I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”—Psalm 37:25.
How much better to put faith in the God who inspired those words, rather than ever let oneself be tempted to steal and possibly lose God’s favor forever!—1 Corinthians 6:9, 10.
The name has been changed.