One of the most divisive doctrines churches in the Stone/Campbell movement have come up with is the notion that the treasury—the money donated by church members—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 of opinion on how to use those funds. Stanton is not the only group to fall into this error; it’s also common in mainline and conservative factions of the churches of Christ.
Here are a few disputes that have created schisms among believers:
- Can a church build kitchens and fellowship halls with the “Lord’s money?”
- Can churches support Christian colleges with the “Lord’s money,” individually, or not at all?
- Can members hold bake sales and other fund raisers to supplement the “Lord’s Treasury?”
- Is it OK to take up a second collection of any sort for any purpose (like Sunday afternoon)?
But the idea that the “treasury” (never once does the New Testament call it that, by the way) is a sacred fund is foreign to the scriptures. In fact, you may be shocked to learn that that nowhere does the New Testament teach us that we’re even to give our money to the Lord in order for it to be redistributed according to all the rules various factions have laid out.
How many times have we all heard the phrase “We’re now going to give back to the Lord a portion of what he’s blessed us with?” Giving every week for all time is foreign to scripture, and was never said to be the Lord’s money. Really, all of our money is the Lord’s:
Psalm 24:1 – The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…
Some will say the church can donate to any cause they want, as long as it’s run through Biblical channels of authority (meaning elders—whoops, Stanton doesn’t have any). Others say even that wouldn’t allow supporting Bible colleges, orphanages, or other types of ministries with this “Lord’s money.”
The fact is, there is zero evidence that the New Testament church was ever intended to maintain a standing treasury, much less own property, build buildings, or regularly collect and disburse funds. I am not necessarily opposed to these practices, but let’s just be honest—they are innovations. They are foreign to New Testament scripture, at the very least.
Part of the problem may be the misunderstanding that “the collection” referred to by Paul is the money, rather than the act of collecting it. It is a subtle difference, but one that has huge implications 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)
Note that he did not say “Now concerning the treasury of the saints…,” which seems to take for granted that there will always be one. Instead, he’s saying “Now concerning the gathering of funds for the saints….”
This is grammatically and contextually correct, and it makes it clear that Paul is simply giving instructions for dealing with a particular need. This silly misunderstanding has caused us to be too quick to seize these verses as a legal precedent for a standing “treasury” for the church.
But if these verses command a standing treasury, then what do we do with verse 3?
1 Corinthians 16:3 – 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. That’s our own interpretation added to what the scriptures actually say.
Now it’s true that the apostles, in the days following Pentecost in Acts 2, created a common fund in Jerusalem:
Acts 4:32-37 – Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But I would point out that there is no indication that the common fund 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 hundreds of miles away from their own 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 applicable to the creation of a standing “church treasury.” By having a common purse, the question naturally follows “How can we fund it?” and “How are we going to spend it?” Enter diverse opinions and doctrinal disputes, and voila, we have all of the fruitless debates we see today in some factions of Christendom.
Instead, we just need to realize that the church treasury is simply a fund created by and for a congregation to use in a way that they believe advances the cause of Christ. We may be as conservative or as “liberal” as we like in our own congregation, but we have no right to create our own laws and regulations governing the use of another congregation’s money. We can offer our opinions. We can suggest the wisdom of one approach over another. But it is their money, entrusted to them by the Lord, donated for the purpose of funding their own congregation’s work as they understand to be the wisest use.
In fact, when we properly understand the Christian faith and the liberty we have in Jesus Christ, we will understand that we are not confined by some convoluted legal framework of “command, example, and necessary inference.” No, Jesus’ love doesn’t confine us, it liberates us to serve God and our fellow man creatively. We should be looking for new, different, and more effective ways to use the resources God gives us to serve God and serve people, not looking for ways to restrict ourselves and others.