Friday, December 03, 2004

The sacred treasury

One of the most divisive doctrines restoration movement churches have had is the notion that the treasury--the money donated by congregants--is somehow a sacred fund, or the "Lord's Treasury." This belief naturally creates an explosive cache of ammunition with which to shell "the enemy" over every difference in opinion on the use of this fund. Unfortunately, the enemy becomes fellow brothers and sisters in Christ whose consciences and intellects differ on the proper use of the treasury.

Here are a few issues related to this one belief that have created schisms among Christians:

  • Kitchens and fellowship halls built with the "Lord's money"
  • Christian colleges supported with the "Lord's money," individually, or not at all
  • Bake sales and other fund raisers
  • "Second collections"

But the idea that the "treasury" (never once is it called that, by the way) is sacred is foreign to the New Testament scriptures. So is the idea that we're giving our money to God in order for it to be redistributed according to legalistic rules. The fact is, there is zero evidence that the New Testament church was even intended to maintain a standing treasury, much less own property and build buildings. I am not necessarily opposed to these practices, but we have to be honest that they are innovations.

Part of the problem may be the misunderstanding that "the collection" referred to by Paul is the money collected, rather than the process of collecting the money in the first place. It is a subtle difference, but one that may give us an "a-ha" moment when we understand it properly.

    1 Corinthians 16:1-2 - Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. (NKJV)
This verse is commonly understood "Now concerning the treasury for the saints...," which seems to take for granted that there will always be one. But a proper understanding is this: "Now concerning the gathering of funds for the saints..." This puts it in a different light, and suggests that Paul is simply giving instructions for dealing with a particular need. The misunderstanding has caused us to be too quick to seize these verses as a legal precedent for a standing "treasury" for the church.

Ah, but if these verses command a standing treasury, then what do we do with verse 3?

    3 And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.
We'll be waiting a long time for Paul to show up in our congregations to bring our liberality to Jerusalem. Of course, that's absurd, but my point is this: Where do we get the idea that Galatian and Corinthian churches we're meant to keep donating to a standing fund after Paul picked up the benevolence for the Jerusalem brethren? Certainly not from the New Testament. Possibly from whole cloth.

Now it's true that the apostles also maintained a common fund in Jerusalem, at least for a period of time. But I would point out that there is no indication that the common fund that was amassed by the apostles was anything more than a means to accomplish the desired end of supplying the needs of saints who suddenly converted to a new faith on Pentecost while miles away from their homes. Needs were great, and the saints pitched in to help each other out. That's all there is to it.

When our country was formed, many were adamantly opposed to the creation of a standing army. They felt that it was just asking for trouble to place too much power in the hands of a military force that would not be needed very often. What does it do when there is no war? They had just shaken off one tyrannical ruler who used his army against his own people, and they did not want another one.

The same fears are somewhat correlative in the creation of a standing "church treasury." By having a ready supply of money, the question naturally follows "What are we going to do with it?" Enter diverse opinions and human-derived doctrinal disputes, and voila, we have all of the fruitless debates we see today in Christendom.

Instead, we should re-examine our opinions and realize that the church treasury is nothing more or less than a fund created by and for a congregation to use in a way that they believe advances the cause of Christ. We have no right to create artificial laws and regulations governing the use of other congregation's money. We can offer our opinions. We can suggest the wisdom of one use over another. But it is their money, donated by them for the purpose of funding their own work. We certainly can't "disfellowship" them for not using their money as we might think best.

No doubt, this "back off" approach will create some consternation among those of us who have believed that there was some legal codebook for the use of the "Lord's money." But we should not grow weary in re-examining our presuppositions any more than we should grow weary in well doing.