Safeguards for Church Funds: Understanding the Theology of Fraud
Published in Insight - Summer 2016
By Nathan Salsbery, CPA, CFE, CGMA
Fraud is an unavoidable reality in the Church. In 15 years of working on forensic engagements with churches, Christian ministries, and other nonprofit organizations victimized by fraud, I have come to the conclusion that fraud is fundamentally a theological issue. Furthermore, I believe sound theological reflection supports my position. Please fasten your seat-belt for an exciting theological journey through the topic of fraud.
My theological statement on fraud is this:
Fraud is a symptom of the fallen human heart; therefore, everyone has an inherent capacity to commit it. Recognizing this capacity is a necessary component of biblical stewardship; therefore, church leaders have a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to prevent and detect it.
Now on to theological reflection. I have a diverse theological heritage, so please do not take offense to the approach I have selected if you are of a different tradition. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is an approach to theological reflection I found very helpful during seminary. It offers a well-ordered methodology by filtering theological statements through the following questions:
- What does Scripture have to say?
- What does Church history (tradition) have to say?
- Is the position reasonable?
- Is the position in conflict with experience?
What does Scripture have to say about fraud? In short, a lot, but I will reference just one verse to support my position, Exodus 20:15: Thou shalt not steal. The command not to steal even made it onto God’s top ten list of commands. In technical fraud language, the command reads as, “Thou shalt not misappropriate assets.” It seems reasonable that God included this command on the tablets given to Moses because of the inherent capacity in every fallen individual to steal.
What does Church history have to say about fraud? Unfortunately, a lot, and even more unfortunate is the reality that fraud has been present in every era of the Church. Even Jesus’s ministry was victimized by the fraudulent acts of Judas Iscariot (read John 12:1-6). In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of fraudulent financial reporting to Apostle Peter regarding the funds they received from the sale of their land. They were then struck dead by the Holy Spirit... talk about an effective internal control! Moving through Church history, we see the monastic reformers of the 10th – 13th centuries countering a culture of corruption, and the revolutionary protest of Martin Luther’s 95 theses directly in response to a corrupt papacy. Still today, the Church makes headlines when certain televangelists intentionally deceive for selfish gain. It is nothing short of miraculous that God continues to use the Church in spite of ourselves.
Is my theological position on fraud reasonable? Based on the occurrence of fraud throughout every time period and across demographic breakdowns, it seems reasonable to conclude everyone has an inherent capacity to commit fraud. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) 2016 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse supports this argument by presenting acts of fraud committed among all socio-economic classes, regions of the world, genders, and industries. Where humans are present, fraud is present.
Finally, is my theological position in conflict with my experience? Not at all. My experience supports it. In my years investigating fraud, I have found evidence of fraudulent acts committed by men and women, black and white, young and old, rich and poor. While attempts are made to create a profile of a fraudster, ACFE data and my experience would support the conclusion that, to a degree, everyone is suspect.
Now that we have reflected theologically, I offer the following practical applications:
Every penny given to the Lord is a sacred trust. It is of eternal significance that you have a proper theological view of stewardship by safeguarding church funds through efforts of fraud prevention and timely detection, in the unfortunate event your church becomes a victim.
Nathan D. Salsbery is Partner and National Director of Talent Development at CapinCrouse LLP. He can be reached at email@example.com