It costs money to be a Christian. This is not to suggest that salvation is some kind of holy product marketed by God and purchased by man. It is not. What Jesus offers does not come with a price tag attached. It is not for sale at any price. It cannot be bought outright, neither can it be rented by the week. Still, the Christian faith touches every vital element of life, including that which a man has deposited in the bank. As far as I know there is universal agreement on this point.
Most of what is said in the New Testament on the subject of money concerns the individual disciple, his attitude toward and handling of material possessions. The purpose of this study, however, is not to examine the personal obligation each Christian has to be faithful in his management of finances. Our purpose is to consider what might be called mutual money; that is, the financial obligations and opportunities that are of equal interest to many Christians and in which many Christians jointly participate. We have a familiar expression that deals with this concept. We speak of the "Church Treasury."
The New Testament, of course, says nothing about a Church Treasury. And considering the host of problems generated by this concept it is questionable that the fiscal system represented by the expression is in the scriptures. Yet most of us are well enough schooled in the modern system to understand the terminology and all that goes with it. The collection plate is passed in the Sunday assembly and Christians put money in. The money is then transferred to the bank under the "Church account." This money is now in the "Church Treasury." It has become "the Lord's money!" Now we are ready for the confusion to commence.
First, there is a lot of fuzzy thinking involved. Giving to this Treasury is referred to as "giving to the Church." But this quickly gets confusing, because, while we talk about giving TO the church, we also talk about how much the church gives! We say, "Christians here ought to give more to the church." Then we say, "The church here is not giving as much as it should." So, what we have is the church giving money to the church, which makes the church both the giver and the receiver in the same transaction. The circular motion makes you wonder if the church is only changing its money from one pocket (or account) to another. To make matters worse, we have made the Church Treasury represent the Lord, Himself. Have we not all been drilled with the idea that when "we lay by in store" on the first day of the week we are "giving to the Lord?" This might not be bad except for the implication that this is the ONLY time we give to the Lord. It seems to me we have so stressed the importance of Sunday morning giving until we have left the impression, intentionally or not, that money given to anyone else, at any other time, under any other circumstances, does not quite qualify as "giving to the Lord." But this is not the way Jesus taught it. He said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matt. 25:40). It may well be that the money we put in the collection plate on Sunday is given to the Lord. But the money we give a hungry brother on Monday morning is also given to the Lord.
While there are many problems related to the contemporary Church Treasury, there is no question but that the early disciples did solicit, collect and gather money together from time to time. They called their common fund a "liberality" (1 Cor. 16:3) or a bounty (2 Cor. 9:5), and we call ours a "treasury." Although the word treasury implies a permanency these other words do not suggest. Perhaps there is no real need to argue over what a common fund should be called. In spite of a lot of confusion and unwarranted conclusions about the Church Treasury, there are both natural and scriptural reasons to justify the use of a common fund by Christian people.
To begin with, the world being constructed as it is, it is extremely difficult to do anything without spending money. Anytime people associate for the purpose of action, regardless of the kind, sooner or later it will involve money. If it is nothing but an extended fishing trip taken by a group of friends, it will require provisions that cost money. The normal way to take care of financial needs involving a group like this is for the participating parties to "chip in" and pay for what is needed. Likewise, when Christians are associated for the purpose of doing something together for the cause of Christ it is perfectly natural that they take care of any financial need that comes up by contributing to a common fund. The only way to avoid this common fund would be (1) to avoid expenses of any kind, or (2) to have one person foot the whole bill.
The New Testament precedent for pooling money begins in the gospels. Jesus and the apostles traveled the land of Canaan for about three years, living a rather itinerant life. We know that part of this time they had a "bag" of money carried by Judas Iscariot, in which they all had an interest. (John 12:6) We are not told exactly how money came to be in this bag, though it is a little doubtful that they met on Sunday and each "laid by in store." Perhaps certain disciples sold valuable items from time to time and put money in the bag, as the suggestion of Judas implies. In any event, though we do not know exactly how this bag was replenished along the way we do know a little about how they used this money. They spent some of it to help the poor (John 12:5), and they spent some to buy provisions for their religious feasts (John 13:29). The example is a good one. We today do not live together like Jesus and the apostles, but as Christians we do have a similar concern for the poor and like them we must make provisions for our memorial feast. It is perfectly natural, therefore, that we engage in some sort of pooling of resources to take care of these mutual interests.
As more evidence along this line we find that the very first disciples pooled some of their money in order to help their poor brethren. "For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostle's feet; and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need" (Acts 4:34-35). This contribution came from many Christians into one fund, and distribution out of this fund was made to the needy. This practice continued long enough to become a burden on the apostles and be the occasion of the first internal squabble among the disciples.
Later, when the physical needs of the saints in Judea persisted, Christians as far away as Galatia and Achaia were instructed to gather money together. The most famous verse on giving in all the Bible (1 Cor. 16:2) has to do with this circumstance. Whether this money was "put aside at home" as some contend or whether it was put into a common pot to start with has no bearing on the principle. Either way the money eventually came together into one fund and was taken as a single "liberality" to its destination. The conclusion is this. It is proper and perfectly scriptural for Christians in a community to put money into a common fund. This kind of giving is not a substitute for individual response to opportunities to feed the hungry (Jas. 2: 15-16) or to support those who teach the good Word of God. (Gal. 6:6). It is merely the recognition that there are instances where we are equally related to financial needs. Under such circumstances the logical and scriptural thing to do is to put our money together and alleviate those needs.
Now comes the hard part. There has never been a great deal of disagreement among brethren over the matters discussed so far. Christians generally agree that it is right to contribute to a general fund to take care of mutual obligations and opportunities. The problems arise over what this public money, once it has been contributed, can or cannot be used for. In fact this is the BIG bone of contention – What can money in the "Church Treasury" be spent for? It is safe to say that few questions have ever been the occasion for more conversation, controversy and division than this one. This is rather strange. Consider. In the entire Bible there is but ONE verse that makes specific reference to a first day of the week contribution (1 Cor. 16:2), yet the spending of this weekly collection has been the prime and perpetual battling ground in the major divisions in our history. Why is this? It makes one wonder if all the conflict is over New Testament teaching on the subject, or over our own assumptions, deductions and conclusions about it.
In the first place it has always been assumed that "church support" is equal to Church Treasury support. A few generations ago there was a great conflict over church support of the missionary society. But this had to do, among other things, with the right or wrong of sending money from the Church Treasury to the society. Later there was a hot battle over church support of benevolent societies. Here again the argument was over sending "collection plate money" to human institutions. Also there has been a periodic push to "put the college in the church budget." This effort has been repeatedly challenged and more or less stymied. But once again the issue has been the same: church support of colleges, meaning, of course, Church TREASURY support. In all these cases "Church support" has been equated to money coming out of the Church bank account.
It occurs to me that the controversies based on this reasoning have missed the point. In all this we have not really been concerned with the basic concept of institutionalism, or with the problems created by efforts to NATIONALIZE the kingdom of God on earth. Nor have we been especially concerned about whether an institutional production of righteousness ought to be supported by God's people. We have been hung up on the METHOD of the support, not the support itself. For according to practically everyone the body of Christ may indeed, down to and including its last member, support human religious organizations. Christians may individually and collectively give human institutions their time, energy, devotion and money, but as long as the "Church Treasury" is not directly involved it is thought to be well and good. This kind of thinking hangs the whole question, not on whether or not God's people should create and support a world-wide institutional system, but on the technicality of the technique of this support. For example: If Christians support a Christian college out of the Sunday morning collection money, this is said to be "church support" and therefore wrong; but if the same Christians, motivated by the same faith, support the same college for exactly the same reasons, even if they do it collectively through an alumni fund instead of a church fund, this is not considered "church support" and is, therefore, right. This means, I guess, that the only way the church can support any cause is by spending the first day of the week collection money. My, my, how clever we are in our distinctions! Almost as clever as the Pharisees who said. "Whosoever shall swear by the temple it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor" (Matt. 23: 16).
I mention these things here merely to show how the spending of the "church money" has figured so prominently in many of our brotherly disagreements and not-so-brotherly divisions. Everyone seems to have a different idea about what the Church Treasury is and how it should be used. What does the New Testament say? Anyone who has given the question the slightest thought realizes there is no itemized list to go by. That is, you cannot find a scriptural catalog of legitimate Church Treasury expenditures, stating that collection money may be spent for this, this and this, but not for that, that and that. Such would be convenient, but it just is not there. Remember, there is just ONE verse in the whole Bible dealing with a first day of the week setting aside of money, and if we allow this verse alone to determine how such money must be spent we will be limited to helping poor saints, specifically in Jerusalem! Yet we all agree that collected money has other legitimate uses. What are they? How can we decide what the proper uses of this money are? Are there any limitations at all on how this public money may be spent? If so, what are they? If these questions could be resolved, if some determination could be reached on what restrictions, if any, are on this collected money, many internal brotherhood problems would evaporate. After all, this is what much of the racket is about. I have no idea whether these thoughts will clear the muddy water any, but following are a few principles which seem to bear on the subject.
1. SPENDING CONTRIBUTED MONEY IS RESTRICTED BY THE SAME PRINCIPLES THAT LIMIT THE SPENDING OF AN INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIAN'S MONEY.
First, I cannot believe that there is such a thing as money possessed by Christians which does not have certain limitations on its use. A Christian, no matter how well off, is not at liberty to spend money as he pleases. He lives by faith. He cannot spend his money for sinful purposes. He should not be wasteful or throw money away merely because he has more than he happens to need. Neither should he be extravagant or vain in his buying of "things." It is not always easy for us to know when we are being wasteful, or excessive, or vain, in our spending, but we all realize that we may be guilty of mishandling our money (or should I say "the Lord's money?") in each of these ways.
Why should money possessed by a group of Christians be free from the restraints of the same principles? Personally I cannot see why it would be sinful for an individual disciple to squander a few thousand dollars on a useless status symbol, but right for a congregation to do it. It seems logical that the spending of "church money" should be limited first by whatever principles of righteousness govern the spending of a disciple's money. Can a congregation of people be guilty of waste, extravagance and vanity in spending their collected funds? Certainly. It may not be any easier for a congregation to know where the line is than it is for the Christian, but who can doubt that the line is there?
But is this all? Are there no differences to be made between the contribution money and the Christian's money? Is the collection money subject to any restrictive principles that do not apply to yours and mine? I believe so, because ...
2. SPENDING CONTRIBUTED MONEY IS RESTRICTED TO THOSE PURPOSES FOR WHICH IT IS GIVEN.
This may not sound important until you realize that all the money given by Christians was for some specific, well-understood purpose. This is an uncomfortable fact for many to accept, but it is undeniable. Check it out and you will find that EVERY time the early Christians were called upon to give money they knew IN ADVANCE where the money was going. When the disciples in Jerusalem laid money at the apostle's feet they KNEW the specific purpose of their giving (Acts 4, 5). When the disciples at Antioch put money in the hands of Barnabas and Saul they KNEW where that money would end up. (Acts 11). Even in that great passage of passages on the subject of giving (1 Cor. 16:2) the Corinthians KNEW at the time they "laid by in store" the destination of their donation. There are no exceptions to this rule. In New Testament times there was no such practice as giving into an unspecified, unallocated fund. This does not necessarily mean, as in the instances above, that they always knew the precise person who would get the precise coin: but it certainly does mean that they knew at the time of their giving the purpose that was to be accomplished by their gift.
How much do we miss this principle of purposeful giving today? In many places not very much. Generally speaking, Christians who meet together regularly and put money into a collection plate have a pretty clear understanding of where the money will go. They know there is a special Deacon of the congregation (though they prefer to call him "Minister" instead) whose salary will be paid; they know a building payment will be met; supplies will be bought, etc. While they may not know which dollar will go where, they do know rather definitely what items will be taken care of with the gathered-up money. As long as this is the case few serious problems arise. But when we leave the practice of purposeful giving we create unnecessary problems for ourselves. Unfortunately, this seems to be the trend. It seems that we have developed a financial system that practically demands that Christians make a regular donation to an unspecified account that will be allocated later by someone else's arbitrary decision. Herein lies the root of much trouble. Problems begin to crop up when someone decides, AFTER money is contributed, to spend it for purposes not understood by the donors at the time of their donation. This kind of problem could never have occurred in New Testament times.
The principle involved here is simply this. Money contributed for stated purposes is automatically restricted; it must be spent for those purposes only. This is nothing but right. Any time money given for one purpose is redirected to another purpose without the consent of those who gave it, an inherent wrong has been committed. If a person in charge of a local cemetery fund decides, without the knowledge of the contributors, to give the cemetery fund to his favorite charity, he has misappropriated funds. It does not matter how worthy the charity may be. A wrong has been done.
Here is a better example. Suppose after the money had been given in Jerusalem for the purpose of aiding the poor saints, Peter and John bad reasoned like this: "We have money on hand not being used. And right now, since we plan to travel far and wide preaching the gospel, we really do need a dependable means of transportation. Let's take part of this money and buy a new chariot to help in the work of the Lord." This would have been wrong, would it not? Why? Not because buying a chariot is wrong, but because they would have been using money for a purpose different from that for which the disciples gave it. It is never right to do this.
The early Christians always gave their money for well-defined purposes. It should be so today. If all Christians knew ahead of time the purposes of their giving, and if all money thus collected was always used for those purposes only, it would go a long way in ending the conflicts over collection plate money.
3. SPENDING CONTRIBUTED MONEY IS RESTRICTED BY THE SPIRITUAL NATURE OF OUR ASSOCIATION AS CHRISTIANS.
The wording above may not be the best, but perhaps it can be adequately explained. In the world men associate themselves together for various reasons – social, political, religious, etc. They do not assemble often, however, without passing the hat or in some way relieving the attendants of money. It goes without saying that money raised in any kind of "meeting" is to be used in connection with the CAUSE that has created that meeting. Everyone understands this. If it is a Booster Club gathering, the money taken will go for the athletic program. If it is a political rally everyone knows the money taken up will be used to promote the interests of the party involved. The question just now is, what CAUSE brings Christians together in the name of the Lord? What is the nature of our association together in Christ? The answer surely will have something to say about how our collective money should be spent.
Without hesitation I say that Christians join together for spiritual reasons. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus said (John 18:36). As Christians we meet together to remember the Lord's death. (1 Cor. 11:20-29). We come together for edification, exhortation and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3). We assemble that we might provoke one another unto love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). Everything we do, in fact, is concerned in one way or another with our spiritual and eternal relationship with God. Therefore the money we collect and spend should by all means reflect our spiritual concerns. If our association is physically based, we might well spend our collected money on diet drinks and dumbbells. If our association is strictly of a social nature we might use our collected monies to build a nice after dinner theater. If our association is of a political nature we might be justified in making a congregational donation to the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party if we prefer. Well, you get the point.
The fact is, our common FAITH in Christ is what brings us together. This same faith is what should bring our money together. Everything we do, financially or otherwise, should be concerned with either the practice or the promotion of that faith. Usually we recognize this fact and abide by it. Why is it that we do not teach modern math or American History in our Christian assemblies? Not because the subjects are evil, but because they fall outside of the cause that concerns us. Why is it that we do not sing "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You" on Sunday morning? Not because it is a sinful song, but because it is out of harmony with the occasion. In the same way, and for the same reasons, we do not spend the contribution money to buy bubble gum for the assembled saints. Not that it is especially bad for Christians to blow bubbles, but because such is out of character with the spiritual interests that bring us and our money together. If indeed our association together as children of God is spiritually oriented, and most of us would agree that it is, then the associated money ought to be used in that connection. As I see it, the restriction that comes on the use of the "Church Treasury" is not due to a sudden change in the ownership of the money (once it was ours, but now it is the Lord’s), but is due simply to the fact that the money we put together like every other aspect of our fellowship in Christ is part of our "striving together for the faith of the gospel" (Phil. 1:27). Its USE should always reflect this fact.
One further thought comes to mind. It has nothing to do with the spending of church-going money, but rather is a scriptural truth that tends to reduce the importance of the whole issue. I refer to the fact that all New Testament giving was of a "free will" kind. Not only did the early Christians always know why they were giving, but after the financial need was explained to them they were always left to make their own decision as to how, or whether, to respond.
Notice this principle of free will in the recorded instances of giving. When the disciples were laying money at the apostle's feet, it is clear that there was no absolute law requiring the practice. Ananias was told, "While it remained was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?" (Acts 5:4). This meant that Ananias did not have to sell his land. After he sold it he did not have to give the money. What he did was his decision alone. When the disciples in Antioch sent relief to the brethren in Judea it was on this basis: "Every man according to his ability determined to send relief... " (Acts 11:29). No one set or suggested a quota for these disciples to meet. Each Christian, having had the situation made known by Agabus, made a personal decision about what to give. Even in his lengthy admonition to the Corinthians Paul made it clear that there was no absolute law concerning the "collection for the saints." He urged them, "As you abound in faith ... and knowledge ... see that ye abound in this grace also." But then he added, "I speak not by commandment, but by the occasion of the forwardness of others, and to prove the sincerity of your love" (2 Cor. 8:7-8). All of which seems to make the matter of giving, not a fixed church law to be perpetually obeyed regardless of the circumstances, but an occasion to prove something about our faith and love. Every giving situation should, therefore, offer sufficient knowledge of the need and sufficient freedom of choice so that each person may have the privilege of proving or disproving himself in that instance.
How would this freedom of choice help calm the battle over church money? Easy. Having a clear knowledge of the financial need at hand, each Christian would be allowed to give or not give to that need without being "churched," if for some reason he decides in the negative. Under this arrangement no Christian would ever be constrained to support a cause with which he disagrees, and no Christian would ever have reason to complain about the misappropriation of funds. Each Christian would retain control and full responsibility for the use of his own money. If others choose to give to some unworthy cause, he will not be held guilty. If he selfishly refuses to give to a worthy cause, he alone will bear the blame. In this way each believer would be free to work out his own salvation with reference to his money. It is hard to have any big division as a result of this arrangement.
1. It is right for Christians to contribute to a common fund to pay for items of mutual interest and obligation.
2. There are great differences of opinion as to how contributed money can be spent. There is no list to follow, but there are certain Bible principles that govern it.
3. Collective money is subject to the same roles of responsibility as any other money in our possession. It should be spent with the same care and caution as personal money.
4. Christians should never send money out not knowing whither it goeth. Money should be contributed for clearly defined purposes, and should be used only for those proposes.
5. Christians are in a spiritually oriented fellowship. The use of any common fund they create should always reflect the spiritual objectives that bring them together.
6. Every case of giving should provide each Christian the opportunity of proving himself. To do this he must have the option of giving or not giving as his personal faith dictates.
It seems certain that most of our problems over "church money" are the result of our financial system, not God's. While these few thoughts obviously do not provide an answer to all questions, I am well convinced that if these simple New Testament principles were carefully observed it would be extremely hard for Christians to have a big falling out over what we call the "Church Treasury."