If a person asks for money, is it bad to ask them what they need it for?
For sake of this reply I’ll assume the financial inquiry is in the context of someone requesting money from the church. In the OPC (and many other denominations) such requests are directed to the church deacons. Certainly some of this same approach could be applied if providing personal assistance to someone, but this response is geared toward a reply from a church to an inquiry for support.
When the diaconate was established (Acts 6), it was done initially in response to the unequal distribution of food to the needy. While we certainly don’t know all the details of this distribution, it appears it was a general benevolence to widows and others who were lacking in food/money. In this context, food seems to have been given freely to whoever was in need, insomuch as it was gathered and available. There are a number of churches and other organizations that do this today as well—they distribute without much (if any) stipulation on who receives the food. That is by design for particular services and locations for widespread distribution and is a wonderful endeavor, without any significant qualification or questioning of the people being fed. This is why, following natural disasters (such as hurricanes, flooding, or tornados), the Disaster Response teams we send help whoever and wherever they can by passing out water and ice, etc., and doing debris clearance.
The case of someone asking the church for money is somewhat different in nature, however, in that it is being prompted by an individual in a case where a general means like their work, support systems, or food distribution (like the example above) does not meet the concerns of the individual for any number of reasons. The inquiry is one of exceptional, not standard, support. Officers of the church are called in Scripture to be stewards of what they are entrusted with (as are all Christians). This means acting wisely with the gifts the Lord has provided, not being wasteful, but also not being inactive (burying the talent in the ground, Matt. 25:25). We are to put the gifts and graces from the Lord to use for his kingdom.
The application of this stewardship can vary, and there isn’t a denominationally-wide standard in the OPC for how distribution of funds is conducted at a local church. However, all of us are sinners and there are those who seek to take advantage of others. So it is wise—and, we believe, good stewardship—to not offer financial help in all cases without some further discovery. The church where I am a member has a local policy of limiting the amount of funds that can be provided without additional information. We allow the option to simply give (limited) money when requested, however we still make practice of asking some general questions. If the request is a larger amount or is a repeated action by the same person(s), then we will deliberately require more details. This could include discovery of the reason for the money, the nature of their financial support system and even what other means they may have available to them (you may recall that in 1 Timothy 5, there is specific reference to family supporting family as well). We seek to ascertain if they have been attending church regularly (and if so, where), so that we can work with that local church to provide a fuller assistance plan, including their spiritual health. We also may choose to work in concert with other local agencies (local or widespread, independent or governmental) where they may provide additional assistance.
So it is common practice and good stewardship to ask the reasons behind the request for money as well as their overall financial picture. We wish to serve the immediate needs as best we are able, but also see if there is a larger way in which we can aid through other programs, through guidance on financial management, through spiritual attention and support, or through general counsel and advice where appropriate. This way we seek to aid both in the short-term and in the longer run. While very few people really enjoy discussing their own financial challenges or personal matters, we do keep these things private and seek to use them to aid the individual in a fuller manner, while still protecting the local flock from those that may wish to “break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19) and take advantage of the church.
So to put it more succinctly, no, we do not believe it is bad to ask why people are asking for help. In fact, we believe it prudent to do so. It allows us to potentially serve the individual more robustly in the short and long term, while helping to guard from those who want to take advantage of the church.
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