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9) Common Purse

1. What was the Common Purse?  Although we have had to read between some lines in the Bible to tease this out, it is fairly clear that the Common Purse began with Jesus and his closest disciples, the Twelve. It was what it sounds like; the group behaved like a family; they lived from a shared, single pool of probably carried in a leather bag.

The practice did not end after Jesus ascended into Heaven. The apostles continued the practice and extended it to the other disciples of Jesus; then, after Pentecost, to the many, many converts to the New Way. As N. T. Wright observed in Acts for Everyone, Part One:

The early Christian impulse was to see things exactly like [a family]. We are family! We are brothers and sisters! Our baptism, our shared faith, our fellowship at ‘the bread-breaking’, all point in this direction. When the Twelve (with their larger company of friends and followers, as in Luke 8:1-3) were going about with Jesus, they had a common purse; various people contributed to it out of their resources; they behaved as a single family. How do you continue with them that when, quite suddenly, several thousand join the movement? With difficulty, it seems. 

But they were determined to do it. Not to do it would be to deny something basic about who they were. (On Acts 2:42-47, page 46.)

Interestingly, although the apostles found the administration of the common purse to be difficult, they managed it by creating a separate level of leadership to oversee and ensure just distribution of the suddenly swollen purse, to and from a much larger group of people.

It appears the common purse became a part of all the churches founded by St. Paul[1] and likely by others as well. Christians did, it seems, live in houses which they individually owned although it is not clear whether separate home-ownership was true everywhere. What is clear is that in many Christian communities the entire church lived daily from pooled resources.

The Common Purse continued well beyond the generation of the apostles. The Christian apologist, Tertullian discusses it as normal Christian practice in the mid-second century and it appears to have remained an aspect of normal Christian fellowship in some communities well into the third century.

2. What happened to the Common Purse?  When the western Roman empire was reduced to chaos and its cities and towns were destroyed by Vandals and Goths in the fifth century the Common Purse apparently retreated into the monasteries, as did many Christian practices.

Religious orders had been formed by Christians who were fleeing their societies and especially the temptations of sexual relations. So, instead of being central to the lifestyle of Christian communities, the Common Purse became an extraordinary practice of “special” Christians, those with a perceived “higher,” celibate calling.

In the eastern half of the empire where cities and towns did not experience such upheaval until later centuries, it appears that the Common Purse shrunk over time until it became little more or even less than the Old Testament/old creation practice of tithing.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, besides the monasteries, several communal groups adopted the Common Purse, including the Albigensies and Waldensians. During the Reformation period, both the Hutterites and Mennonites and similar groups adopted structures of communal living, including the Common Purse. As largely world-flight communities, these intentional groups have had little interest in transforming their societies.

There is an exception to that rule, however. In previous posts I have written of a large, diverse and powerful community located near the southern border of Evanston and northern edge of Chicago, Illinois, called Reba Place Fellowship. What is so special about Mennonite-inspired Reba is that unlike the communities from which its original members came, this community is urban and is deeply involved in the issues which plague urban environments. Reba Place Fellowship has become a viable model for Christian communities in non-rural settings.

3. Should the Common Purse be reclaimed?  After writing all I have in this series of posts, I am tempted to say that perhaps Christians who come together around a sense of a renewal of their Calling to be kingdom-bringers, Peace-lovers and thus Restorers of Creation, in their Mutual Submission and as a step toward entering into Simplicity, might want, as a part of their participation together in a Homileo over the Word of God, to seek the Lord together in Worship, looking for Guidance as to whether some expression of a Common Purse might be a Healing experience for them. You never know how the Spirit of God will blow if you show up…

I have no doubt that Christian communities were always intended to pool their financial resources in order to change the world. The offering we collect during public worship is a pale reflection of that ancient practice. I can look all around at Christian efforts in our society and uniformly I see organizations with vision, hope and energy which are starved for cash.

I have a cousin who has been involved for some years with the funding of worthy mission projects outside the U.S. One time during a conversation, I told him that (at the time) Studies in Grace was doing fairly well financially but that our base of support was too small; too much of our income was coming from just a few people. He smiled and said, “Trace, every organization I work with says the same thing; their base of support is always too small.”

Why is that so? Or to put it another way, what would happen if we Christians pooled our resources as intentional communities at the front end and then decided together how to use our resources, again, utilizing the Discipline of Guidance to seek God’s will for how our funds should be used?

Would each member of each Christian community get more done for the kingdom or less? Would we find that as a people we were being more obedient, more responsive to the will of God or not?

Even though most of us can answer that we believe more would get done for the kingdom than now and we would experience ourselves as being far more obedient to God’s will, more responsive to the needs around us, more truly Simple in our lifestyle, much closer to the Discipline of Mutual Submission, discoverers together of Service, Healing and many other gifts, disciplines and practices, we do not do this thing.

Why? I am sure that there are as many reasons as there are people but I think most of us are afraid. I know I am. Afraid of losing myself. Afraid of an unknown future — as though the future is known now — afraid of radical change.

And like many people in my generation, to paraphrase the words of tune-smith, Joni Mitchell, “We love our loving [of God and each other] but not like we love our freedom!”

Or, as an irate father once said to Tony Campolo, “Come on, Campolo! I mean, I believe in Jesus and all that, up to a point!”

What is God doing in our day? What are we being called to do and be? I do not know but the times are a-changin’ and what we leave behind will likely last for many centuries.

Yet, we are so confused, so splintered in our hearts, in our loyalties, in our dreams.

Come, Spirit of God and awake us with your fiery breath. We can see you are shaking the world again; we need you to shake us, your deeply divided people, to consciousness, to wholeness and a Spirit-led unity of life and purpose.

Good Spirit of God, fall afresh on us, your people; that we might again be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming Body of Christ, bringing heaven down to earth, just as King Jesus taught us to pray:

Our Father, may your name be made whole and majestic all over the earth! May your kingdom finally come fully to the earth! May your will be done on the earth, as it already is done throughout heaven! Please give us what we need for today, that we might be good stewards, daily. And do forgive our slowness of heart and meanness of spirit toward ourselves and you and all creation. And even as you forgive us, rescue us from the legalism that assumes it is ours to judge. Empower us to be utterly forgiving of ourselves and of those around us.

Lord, the Evil One is more subtle than we are so please keep us clear of it so that we may freely seek and evermore establish your kingdom on this earth, where you shall reign forever and ever.
So be it!

Any thoughts or comments or prayers?

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1 Back to Post If any of Paul’s churches had not begun to pool its resources, it was the Corinthian church, the one Paul refers to as carnal (fleshly or materialistic) in their outlook: I Corinthians 3:1-4.