Every time[fn1] I write about the church’s investments, I get pushback. Usually that pushback involves asserting that there is something immoral or wrong about the church accumulating wealth. The implication is something like, it’s not that the church can’t have money, but it should use its money to promote good things,[fn2] and it should promote those good things now.
Often the justification for this mindset consists of scriptural exhortations to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc.
The thing is, I don’t find that kind of argumentation convincing. And I don’t for a simple reason: in Mormonism, we haven’t come up with a satisfying theology of institutional monetary duties.
That’s not to say that the scriptures don’t talk about financial responsibilities. But they talk about the financial responsibilities of individuals; they largely don’t anticipate institutions. And frankly, institutions have different duties and responsibilities than individuals do.
An analogy: pretty much every discussion of the federal budget will hit a point where somebody asserts that households have to stick to budgets, so the federal government should have to do the same thing.[fn3]
The thing is, that’s stupid. There are substantive differences between the federal government and individual households. (For example, the federal government can print money; my family, at least, can’t. The federal government has to worry about the effects of its policies on the economy at large. My family’s spending has very little impact on the economy at large.)
Similarly, there are substantive differences between individual Mormons and the Mormon church. The things that I’m obligated to do are different from the things the church is obligated to do. That’s as true in the financial realm as in any other.
That’s not to say that the church can do whatever it wants with its money. But the proposition that a church having and managing money is de facto immoral and wrong strikes me as just as naive and reductive as the proposition that everything the church does in the financial realm is per se right and endorsed of God. Neither represents a careful or nuanced understanding of money, of institutions, or of the difference between individual and institutional obligations.
So what is are the church’s moral obligations with respect to its money? I don’t know. I’ve been delaying writing this post in hopes of being able to assemble a theology of institutional money, but, it turns out, I have a family and a day job and I haven’t worked out any kind of framework yet.
That’s not to say that no frameworks exist: the EFCA has established “Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship” for churches and other Christian organizations.
But here’s an important thing: while these standards are derived from scripture, they’re not self-evident. The EFCA had to use scripture, look at the world we live in, and adjust the standards so that they were relevant to the mission of churches, a mission that differs from the mission of individual Christians.
And to the extent we discuss the church’s money, we need to do the same thing. It’s not enough to say that Jesus said to sell all we have and give to the poor. Yes He did, but he was talking to an individual, not an institution.[fn4]
How do we translate that command to institutional monies? With fear and trembling, and a real dose of humility, I hope.
[fn1] (Note that this is probably slightly hyperbolic—it’s very possible that you can find a time I wrote about the church and money and didn’t get pushback. But I often do.
[fn2] Those good things might be feeding the poor, or they might be building temples. It doesn’t really matter for this post—what’s important is the idea that investment is bad, while current expenditures are good.
[fn3] And the assertion is bipartisan. E.g., Pres. Obama:
Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget. They understand what it takes to make ends meet without forgoing important investments like education. Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.
Every family in America has to balance their budget. Washington should too.
[fn4] And frankly, of all the imperatives He gave to individuals, I suspect that’s one of the most-not-followed.