By Virgil Vogt
Sept. 16, 1983
The common treasury is a vehicle providing corporate support for Christians who want to live out the more radical economic teachings of Jesus. By sharing our economic life, we hope to encourage one another to go beyond the steps we might take if we were each on our own.
Over the centuries the church has preserved Jesus’ radical teachings and sometimes embodied them corporately (e.g. Franciscans, Hutterites, Moravians), but usually it has left the responsibility for administration of finances to individual Christians. The track record for this approach leaves much to be desired. Finances are a difficult area. The teachings of Jesus are so bold and unusual and rationalizing our self-interest is so easy. And we are constantly under the pressure of a materialistic societymore so in our own time and culture than at any other period of history.
Thus the Gospel has a number of economic concepts which cry out for better expression. The common treasury is our acknowledgement as individuals that we need help to carry out these teachings. We want strong support and encouragement to carry out the radical teachings of Jesus.
However, the corporate approach does not guarantee results. Each one of us must deal with the spiritual issues in a personal way. We can become selfish and materialistic within the framework of a common treasury. On the other hand, if we are sincerely trying to express the thing which the common treasury is designed to accomplish, the corporate structure does enhance our individual experience.
The common treasury as we have known it at Reba Place is still a basic or elementary expression of Kingdom principles. We should not imagine that this is the fullest, best or strongest expression of Kingdom finances. We still have much to learn in fulfilling the teachings of Jesus.
Furthermore, we must always keep clear that persons outside the common treasury, administering their own finances, can certainly duplicate and surpass the common treasury in the extent to which Kingdom principles are expressed in economic life. We should not assume that those who administer their own finances are operating at an inferior level. We hope the common treasury helps us do better than we would be doing on our own, but we do not translate this into a comparative reflection about how others are doing who are not part of the common treasury.
What are the specific Kingdom principles which the common treasury is designed to express?
1) Renunciation. Jesus said, “Unless you renounce all that you have you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14). On other occasions and in other ways, he often made the same point. Among the early Christians who were under the strong influence of his teaching, “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own” (Acts 4). The link between ownership and utilization had been broken. Possession did not imply exclusive rights of utilization. Instead whatever anyone possessed was available to all.
The common treasury is a vehicle for those who want to express this kind of renunciation, setting aside the normal claims of ownership. As people join the common treasury they are encouraged to do so in the manner described in the New Testamenteither by selling what they have and giving to the poor, or by bringing all of their assets and putting them at the disposal of God’s people, as was done in Jerusalem.
This renunciation finds ongoing expression as we continue to bring all of our income or inherited wealth and turn it over to the common treasury. The twofold experience of renunciation is well expressed by Paul (Phil. 3): “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (past tense). Indeed I count (present-continuing) everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
While the common treasury has helped many individuals to experience this kind of renunciation, there are others who have experienced something different. The same transactions can be seen in a different light with different results. Instead of renunciation, the initial step can be viewed as a move from individual to corporate finances. In this view, one is not giving up his own possessions as much as he is joining them with the possessions of others to form a kind of partnership. Similarly, the ongoing investment of funds in the common treasury is not seen in terms of individual renunciation; rather it is understood as group management of personal finances. Individual accounts are carefully kept and personal ownership is maintained. And the only contribution an individual makes to the corporate well-being is the net gain of income over expense as totaled up at the end of the year. This is the IRS view of things.
As communities we have often fallen into this individual ownership view, not only to satisfy the IRS, but in order to foster an appropriate level of responsibility and economic motivation. This has had unfortunate results. The perception we cultivate shapes our experience. And our experience of Kingdom economics has sometimes been diminished because we have embraced major elements of the traditional individualistic way of looking at financial reality.
One significant difference between the two views is that in the renunciation approach what one contributes and what one receives have no relationship to each other. You contribute all that you have, and you receive whatever you need. In this respect all participants are equal. No one gives more, none receives less. This has been most characteristic of our common treasury experience over the years. In the IRS view, what you receive is always related to what you have given, and the net result is carefully calculated. In this approach there is great diversity. Some are big givers, and some are dependent. While we may need to keep records of this sort to satisfy the government, we do not need to accept this way of interpreting a Kingdom experience which actually moves on other assumptions.
In spite of its limitations, the common treasury has been amazing in the extent to which a large number of ordinary Christians have been encouraged to profound experiences of “renouncing all” for the sake of Christ.
2) God will provide life’s basic necessities (Matt.6). Common treasury members agree to settle for the basic necessities of life and give up other economic claims and ambitions. This puts us in a kind of “life-time voluntary service” stance, a most significant step. There are times when this does not seem to differ a great deal from what we would be doing in any case, since many of us go through periods in life when we are barely able to provide the basic necessities. However, many of us go through other periods when our productivity far exceeds that which is required for the basic necessities. In such periods the common treasury stance produces amazing results. And even when the external situation is little changed by this understanding, internal attitudes are profoundly affected by a systematic readjustment of economic goals.
How are the basic necessities provided? Not by seeking for them in the manner common to people throughout the world, but by seeking first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. Whenever we are diligently seeking first the Kingdom we have the promise of Jesus that the necessities will be “added”. Our experience in the common treasury has confirmed this time and time again.
3) Seeking first the Kingdom of God. In a common treasury situation, members are encouraged to base their life decisions upon Kingdom principles, first and foremost. Economic considerations are deliberately moved into a secondary role. The common treasury has created a situation in which many individuals, moved by the Spirit of God, have been courageous in shaping an alternative approach to life. While economic considerations can still have an unwarranted determining effect upon Kingdom decisions, the fact that all of the money is already located in a bank account which is dedicated to Kingdom priorities helps to keep things in proper perspective.
4) Laying up treasure in Heaven. This is a positive goal towards which other renunciations and disciplines move. Jesus intends that his disciples should be eagerly diverting their resources into Kingdom efforts and Kingdom investments. Where this is working properly, money will be set free for giving to the poor, making friends, giving where there is no hope of earthly return, helping people and investing in Christian world mission.
The common treasury has certainly helped many of us realize a sustained level of Kingdom investment which surpasses what we would have done without the corporate support. In fact, the level of giving within the common treasury over the years has been phenomenal. So many ministries have been sustained, people helped and Kingdom efforts carried forward because of this generous giving.
5) Preparing for the future. People in the common treasury sometimes think that we are not preparing for the future. This is not true. It is rather a question of which future we prepare for. Picking up on the teachings of Jesus, we have tried to put future funds into the big picture, the eternal Kingdom. We have not put aside money for the intermediate future,–the next one to fifty years which may remain for us upon the earth. Yet we are, as Jesus explained, “providing purses that do not grow old” (Luke 12). We expect these purses to cover our intermediate future as well as the eternal one. Thus we have encouraged one another to divert funds from savings, insurance and pension plans, making these monies available for current utilization in a Kingdom sense. So far the promises of Jesus concerning the intermediate future have worked out well.
6) Loans. The common treasury has encouraged us to follow Biblical teachings which apply to borrowing and lending. These might be briefly summarized as follows: be slow to borrow, quick to loan. Do not charge interest. Do not insist upon repayment of the principal.
These have been life-giving ideas, particularly at this point in American history. I am grateful for brothers and sisters who want to maintain a stand on these issues.