Why We Hold a Common Purse

by Peter Hoover
July 2010

For the last twenty-five years or longer I have been hearing from people that feel drawn to life in Christian community, but who have become convinced that something less than a common purse arrangement would be ideal. Others, who have tried life in total community but did not get along well within it, have given up and settled for any one of a wide variety of semi-communal alternatives. Between the two of these groups quite a list of questions and logical reasons in support of the "half-way" approach to communal living has taken shape. Now I shall answer them all together, not with what I think is the last word on the matter, but simply with how we see it. How it has worked for us.

Hopefully this can be of benefit to those of you that keep asking me about these things:

Is the common purse necessary to communal living? Or couldn't we have a more peaceful, stress-free time together by just setting up a co-operative community — everyone still having their own money and trade, but all living and working close together, perhaps sharing vehicles, perhaps on communally owned land?

We have not seen the "half-way approach" to communal living as anything at all convincing or functional over a period of time. Many have tried it, during the two thousand years of Christian history. Many even tried it right while our communities took shape in South Tyrol and Moravia five hundred years ago. But all the "half-way communities" quickly got bogged down in endless wrangling and tangling over material things, and all of them quickly disappeared. Sharing everything we own (including our time and money) on the other hand, works beautifully for us. It opens for us a complete new set of frontiers. In total community the good manager can manage as well as he likes but never get too rich, and the poor manager does not need to manage at all. In total community the family with many sons is no better off than the family with no sons. Suddenly it makes no difference whether one is widowed, old, single, or married. We do not live in a common-purse community because we think it will save us. Rather we choose this way because it works, because it brings us great peace, joy and fulfilment as we share our lives one with another.

Wouldn't a co-operative community be more attractive to seekers, making it easier for them to come into contact with the church before they are ready to jump into a total commitment?

We believe the success or failure of living in community depends entirely on the earnestness and the commitment of those that enter it. People that are still teetering on the fence, just willing to try it for a little, but not really convinced in their hearts, make poor communitarians, no matter where one puts them. On the other hand, once seekers capture the vision of the Kingdom of God and want to throw everything into following Christ, it is not hard for them to give everything up and go for the real thing.

Wouldn't it be easier, within a co-operative community, to teach children a proper concept of responsibility, taking care of what they have (because they know what it cost), and putting things back where they belong?

Oddly, the people of Hutterite background in our community are far better at putting things back where they belong, and caring for tools, vehicles, etc., than those of us that have come in from the outside. Working one with another in community makes it even much more necessary to care for things and put them back where they belong, because if people don't it is soon virtually impossible to find anything at all.

What about teaching children the concept of respecting the property of others? Couldn't that be easier done in a co-operative community?

We find that with so many people living close together, the children have a heightened awareness of whose bike is whose, etc. During five centuries of communal living, Hutterite people have developed a curious sense of order and possession. Every vehicle, every tool, every toy, belongs to a certain department of the community, and to take it from there would quickly be seen as stealing. The hog man would soon be in trouble for taking the turkey man's truck without asking, or vice versa. But all it would take is for their jobs to get switched in a brother's meeting, and they would switch trucks without thinking twice. Everyone has a concept of "our house," and "my bedroom," etc. But when asked to switch, people ordinarily do it in good humour, without protest.

How does it work to have young people grow up without any money of their own? Do they have any concept on how to use money? Doesn't it place temptations to thievery in front of them?

I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that the people with the best financial sense I have ever seen live on Hutterite colonies. Some of our teenagers, if in a management position at the barns or the feed mill, handle large sums of money all the time. My own fifteen-year-old earns three times as much, per hour, as I ever earned in my life before joining a Hutterite colony. But does he see any of that money? Only when he needs it. Does he get an allowance? No. And neither has it ever occurred to him to ask for one. Quite to the contrary, nothing gives him greater joy than to contribute as a man to the welfare of all the brothers and sisters. He will never own a car or a house. But he knows full well that when the time comes for him to marry and start of a family, the Lord will supply what he needs through the brotherhood. He sees a future in this way of life, and that, in raising teenagers, is of inestimable worth.

Doesn't belonging to a common purse community make you more vulnerable? What if the community goes bad and you want to get out, but have no funds with which to do so?

Yes, it makes you totally vulnerable. Totally dependent on the grace of God. And that, when it comes to living for Jesus, and living together, is the key to it all. "Half-way communities" do not know this level of commitment, and consequently only last for a few years, or one or two generations at the most.

From the reports one reads it looks like many people get hurt in common-purse communities. At least those that leave, always sound really injured and it seems for the rest of their lives they are still suffering and sore about things.

That is true, one cannot live and work this closely together without getting deeply involved, emotionally, spiritually, one with another. Then, when things go wrong and one decides to leave, it really hurts. Both ways. Before we came to community we rarely felt much emotion, if any, when someone stopped coming to church. In fact, in some of the larger churches we belonged to, it could take a month or longer for us to even notice that it had happened. To cover up their own sense of failure at not having made a go of it in community, virtually all people that leave spend the rest of their lives blaming others and exonerating themselves for what happened.

Couldn't we reach out better, and be more flexible if we set up co-operative communities instead of common-purse ones? Isn't it hard to find a large enough piece of land, or a large enough facility to house a whole community at one place?

It would, indeed, be easier in some ways to just have a group of families go it on their own — like conservative Mennonites, for instance, start new church outreaches all the time. But what is easy in one sense is much more difficult in another. We are only a small group of people here. But we all earn our living together. We have one gardener, and fruit and vegetable project for everyone. One truck, one ute (pickup), one van, one car to be used by everyone as needed. We make one trip to town a week to buy the groceries that go into one pantry for one dining hall. It makes us dizzy to think of how complicated we would have it if every home were trying to start a business of its own, doing its own shopping every week, running its own vehicles, teaching its own children. All we would get done, it seems, would be to duplicate one another. Or worse yet, compete with one another — and guess how I know. Been there, done that.

What about morality and decency? Isn't it easier to raise your children if they are not all running around together, often unsupervised?

We find it is just as possible, and even easier in some respects, to have socially well-adjusted and morally sound children, living in community, as anywhere else. This issue depends on the parents and the home. If parents are not doing a good job they will fail both within or outside Christian community, and vice versa. If parents and children stand in a close good relationship, it is a great pleasure to raise children in community. In fact, with many other stresses out of the picture, communities are great places for parents and children to interact. Yes, children need supervision (both within our without community). But having decent children does not lie in constant surveillance. It lies in what they have learned from home.

What about the family table, family projects and family time? Isn't it easier to raise your children within your own family setting in a co-operative community, rather than entrust them to the group as a whole in a common-purse setting? Since when is it the church's job to raise the children?

God did not call the church to raise our children. But the only way we parents can raise them correctly is if we also submit, blend in, and know how to co-operate with those around us. Shall I use that old African proverb again? "It takes the whole village to raise one child." Independent do-it-yourselfer parents raise socially non-functional children. We find that the best way to raise a family is within a group setting where our children learn from us, as parents, but also from the other brothers and sisters around us. No Dad, no Mom, is capable of teaching their sons and daughters everything they need to know. In our community our children have lots of chance to interact with other parents and teachers, but we also have lots of family time. Every evening, and many times throughout the day.

Since having a common-purse community is not commanded in the Bible, and since most believers through the ages have not lived this way, surely another alternative can be found that is just as acceptable to God.

All we know is that Jesus and his disciples lived in total community of goods. The apostles, and the first believers in Jerusalem had a common purse, both before and after Christ's work on Calvary. Yes, it is true that many believers have chosen not to follow Christ and the apostles in this area, and many will no doubt continue to do so. But what is that to us? We believe that if Jesus did anything, it is the safest and best way to go. He called us to follow him.

What about setting up an "inner core" community that operates with a common purse, while enjoying a wider fellowship of supportive people still living with a degree of autonomy? Sort of a two-tiered membership?

Christians throughout the ages have kept trying this arrangement. There is no Scriptural reason, perhaps, why it should not work. The Mediaeval Church was full of this idea. So were the the Albigenses (with their common and "perfect" members), the Moravians and the Ephrata Community in 18th Century Pennyslvania, and Reba Place Fellowship, with many others like it in modern times. But the results are nothing too convincing. Certainly, this has not proven to be a trouble-free arrangement for anyone. It seems to work much better if the communitarians build one place up together while the Sunday-morning crowd does their thing somewhere else. Don't try mixing water with oil.

Shouldn't people be given the option as to whether they want to live in a common purse arrangement, or whether they want to belong to the church but just as "autonomous members"?

We see this issue a lot like we see the question of divorce and remarriage. In our communities we do not accept remarriage after divorce. What does this mean? Very simply, it means that if you are divorced and remarried, and plan on continuing that way, you will want to look for somewhere else to find your fellowship. In the same way, if you do not want to live in total common-purse community, don't ask to move to Rocky Cape. Yes, everyone has an option on what they want to do, but we have only one thing to offer. Is that unfair?

We tried it once, but it didn't work. How do we know if it will work this time?

Living in community, if your attitude is right, is easy. Jesus said his yoke (pulling together in community with him) is easy and his burden is light. Do not look for the perfect community, and if you join one, wait at least five years before suggesting any changes. Then, if you are humble and love Jesus, it ought to work.

We would love to live in a common-purse community but do not know of any we could join. All the ones we know about are either already full, or in some other country, far away.

This is the cry of a shocking number of people in our time. Our society has produced a generation of hungry, thirsty, seeking souls. Spiritually and socially unfulfilled. The harvest is white but the labourers are few.

Jesus said we should pray.

Is that all we should do, or does the Lord expect more of us? If you have the answer for this question, please let me know about it. If at all possible, today.

May our Lord Jesus help us, in whatever situation we find ourselves, to draw closer to him week after week, year after year, until we all become like him. One with him as he and the Father are one (John 17).


P.S. Attached to this letter you will find a document. Do not bother reading it all. Simply take your mouse and scroll down, all the way to the end. Does this tell you anything? (Download it here)

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