It’s the ecclesiology, stupid.
Calls for the church to be more transparent in its finances are often based on the justification that transparency is an obligation of any organization to its stakeholders. This is a reasonable and understandable argument, but it entails a slight misunderstanding of the relationship between the church and its members, and financial transparency would be at least slightly detrimental to me spiritually.
Stakeholder is the concept we use to think about how to balance the legitimate interests of all involved in some endeavor. In a university, students and their families are properly understood as stakeholders rather than as customers, for example. Alumni, administrators, faculty and staff members are also included among the stakeholders who contribute to and benefit from the communal endeavor.
Stakeholder is a useful concept, but it’s misapplied to the church because of what this church aspires and claims to be. My fundamental identity within the church is not that of a stakeholder, but of a cross-bearer, working out my salvation in fear and trembling. I may have desires and interests, but my role as cross-bearer is to interrogate to what extent my desires are selfish, fallen or sinful.
The church was not established to be a mere meeting-together of Christians where we can learn from or support each other. There are churches who understand themselves that way, and they do wonderful things, and have done so for centuries. But the world does not need (and in 1830, did not need) simply one more gathering of like-minded Christians that would express our collective desires within the world and where we would be properly understood as stakeholders. Nor have we merely been called to bear our cross on the path of the church. Instead, the church’s claim is to provide the authoritative covenants that constitute an essential element in the working out of our salvation. As is made clear to us in the temple, we do not negotiate our covenants with God from a position of strength. It is only by the grace of God that he accepts us as partners in covenant-making in the first place. To presume to have legitimate interests as stakeholders that need to be balanced in that covenant relationship would suggest either monstrous arrogance or raving madness.
Where we have been given opportunities for action within the church is instead as stewardship-holders. We’ve been delegated particular areas of responsibility as church members, and we are accountable not to other stakeholders, but to a much narrower set of people. I have (redundant and overlapping) stewardship over my family, as a ministering brother, and over an auxiliary organization (annual budget: $0.00). I certainly try to be aware of the wants and needs of the people within my stewardship, but I don’t approach them as fellow stakeholders. The question is not: how can I best balance their interests and mine or other institutional interests, but rather: in the confines of my stewardship, what is God’s will for them and for me? Likewise, I am depending on the people with stewardship over me, from the apostles to my bishop and elders quorum president and ministering brothers and wife, not to try to balance my needs and theirs, but to earnestly seek to know God’s will for me.
So calls for financial transparency are subtle but unwelcome calls for me to define my relationship with the church not as a cross-bearer and covenant-maker and stewardship-holder, but as something that it is not and that I do not wish for it to become. There are plenty of options for Christians to gather and negotiate their various interests as stakeholders. But there would have been no need for a Restoration if that’s all we’re doing, and a church of stakeholders is not the church I’m looking for. Abraham did not ask Melchizedek about future resource allocations before he brought his tithes, and the widow did not wait for the temple’s FY XXXVI financial report before she offered her mite. I would prefer to be able to do the same.