Christian Stewardship: Responsible Freedom
1985 Church of the Brethren Statement
“Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom [the] master will set over [the] household,
to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” (Luke 12:42)
As human beings, we have the ability and freedom to make choices. Some choices are essentially ours, such as what to believe or what to do next. Most choices, though, are only partially under our control: what physical or mental activities to excel in, whether or not to work for a living, what we want other people to do.
One choice we do not have is whether or not to be stewards. A steward is one who has been given the responsibility to manage the property and affairs of another. Though we have the use and enjoyment of the earth and its bounty during our mortal lifetimes, we do not own anything. The beauty and joy that is life, the things we create or nurture, everything we accumulate – all this is ours but for a season. We are, however, entrusted with its management during our lifetime. We are stewards.
What we can choose is what kind of steward we will be. Whether we are “faithful and wise” stewards is told by the way we relate to God, other people, the covenant community, and the rest of creation.
I. BIBLICAL CONCEPT OF STEWARD
The concept of steward is biblical. Many Christians equate it with church finances and management, but that is too narrow. The steward is actually a symbolic model of the meaning of life: who we are in relation to God, self, others, and the physical universe.
The term is first used in the Bible to describe the assistant to Joseph, the second in command in Pharoah’s court (Gen. 43:16-44:13). That steward was given great responsibility and accorded the authority of Joseph himself during his absence. In Chronicles 27 and 28, the stewards of King David’s property and kingdom are mentioned by name along with the commanders and other persons of prominence. The steward appointed over Daniel while he was a prisoner made the decision to alter the diet of the prisoners, seemingly without need to consult with anyone (Dan. 1:8-16). However, Isaiah 22:15-25 makes clear that stewards do not have final authority, but are accountable and replaceable. Thus a steward, though closely identified with the master and often acting with authority, is not in total control but must justify choices made and actions taken.
In the New Testament, the concept of steward is used as a symbol in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul. The theme of servant/manager with responsibility over resources until the time of accounting to the owner is present in numerous parables. See the parables of the three servants (Matt. 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-28), the faithful and unfaithful servants (Luke 12:42-48), and the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-18). In these lessons, the owner entrusts property to the steward to manage with a large degree of freedom. However, the steward is expected to be faithful to the interests of the owner, and ultimately to account to the owner for whatever has transpired.
Paul used the term steward to describe his role and that of his associates as apostles of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 4:1-2: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” In Ephesians 3:2, Paul wrote, “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Eph. 3:2). The writer of 1 Peter extended this image to include everyone: “As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
The meaning of the New Testament symbolism is clear. God is the creator and therefore the owner and ultimate authority over all; we mortals are the stewards or trustees of all that God has entrusted to us. We have freedom in managing God’s resources and affairs, but it is freedom with responsibility. Individually and corporately, we are ultimately accountable for the priorities we set, the choices we make, the energies we expend, and our faithfulness in sharing and carrying out God’s mission. To understand this is to understand who we are in relation to God and the rest of creation.
II. LIVING AS STEWARDS
Understanding the biblical concept of steward, and realizing its value as a relational model, can help us understand the various dimensions of life and how they interrelate and interconnect into a meaningful whole.
We are all stewards. We acknowledge God as the Creator and Redeemer. The resources we have to work with come from God. The design for how things are to be and ought to be comes from God. We are the people of God, and are accountable to God for our actions and non-actions. We are given great freedom in managing and caring for earthly concerns. Freedom with accountability is an indication that God values us. We are called to act in covenant with God and others for bringing to be the kind of human community God intends. We are managers and co-laborers for the sake of God’s world.
We are also heirs of God with Christ. A steward is more than a servant or slave, more than a manager. A steward is part of the household community, sharing the bounty and blessings with other members of the human family. A steward shares the vision of the household. The best interests of the household are also the best interests of the steward. The well-being of the community is also the well-being of the steward. Stewards are accountable to each other. The needs change, the tasks of the members of the body change, but all believe and participate in the mission of the whole. Christ set the example of serving and sharing. The steward seeks to share that example, to live it, and to preserve it.
Living as faithful stewards, then, is no small task. Stewardship is caring and sharing in depth. Stewardship is a total orientation of working for God and with God and others for peace, wholeness, and the glory of creation. Stewardship is the Christian’s way of being.
III. STEWARDSHIP OF ALL LIFE
We have been given much: life, bodies, and abilities. The natural resources to sustain life are available to us in trust for our use now and for the use of generations to come. The knowledge of what God has done and continues to do for us through Christ is a most precious gift.
All we have has been given to us in trust. The implications of this for the “faithful and wise steward” are considerable. We are accountable to God for all that has been entrusted to us, and we are accountable to each other for our faithfulness to God. Stewardship means conscious, thoughtful, and purposeful decisions about the use of everything.
Every day, every moment of life is an account to be used to the fullest. The number of days we each have is not allocated evenly. As with the talents in the parable of the three servants (Matt. 25:14-30), it is not the amount of time we are allocated, but the use that is made of the allocation that is significant. The irreplaceable resource of time is not to be spent casually.
Our physical bodies are marvelous gifts from the Creator: unique, everchanging, with expandable capabilities. The care of our bodies affects our ability to function as stewards. Balanced nutrition, proper exercise, adequate rest and relaxation, temperance in all things, and avoidance of harmful or dangerous circumstances are concerns of the responsible steward. As stewards, we also consider opportunities to give blood, donate needed organs at death, and observe funeral practices marked by dignity and simplicity.
Every living being is unique. The skills and creative abilities of each of us are woven into the fabric of life. To lose the contribution of any one person because of apathy, feelings of inferiority, or fear of failure is to reduce the whole. God’s plan calls for the full use of the gifts that we have been given.
Stewardship of our energies becomes increasingly important as the community calls forth our gifts. One person cannot do everything, but every person can do some things. Living as a member of the household of God means careful apportionment of responsibilities. Finely honed energies are more effective than random ones.
Earth and its resources are delicately balanced. Much of nature is finite and non-renewable. Faithful stewardship calls for the careful and respectful use of what God has provided in the natural order for the enhancement and continuance of the natural systems. Stewards care about the preservation of the environment, clean air and water, the soil, plants, animals, and every other aspect of creation. Resources are to be used considerately, valued above profit, and shared with the rest of the world. As stewards, we care for and preserve the physical universe.
More fundamentally, stewards are entrusted with the preservation of life itself. Environmental pollution, toxic contamination, and the existence of life-destroying weapons are contrary to that trust. Human good and the good of the rest of creation are bound together. Stewards are the caretakers of life.
Stewardship of the gospel is a natural response of the stewards of God. The opportunity to know and study the good news of God’s love is a gift to be shared. The faithful steward does not leave that to happenstance, but joyfully witnesses through word and deed with other members of the faith community.
IV. STEWARDSHIP OF FINANCIAL RESOURCES
For the wise and faithful steward, material possessions and money become instruments of service to others, to further the human community God intends. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). This is true as a reality of life as well as a challenge for sharing for all of us.
Sharing material possessions and money to any degree nearing sacrificial giving is difficult for most people. So often security, sense of self-worth, and comparative value as an individual are based on what we have rather than on who we are as children of God and members of the household. The ultimate test of Christian stewardship, however, is how we relate to God and the covenant community, and how we live out that understanding in service and sharing.
There are several reasons we share our material possessions and money. We share as a response of gratitude for the love and blessings received from God. How else could we respond? God’s love and caring for us is boundless. The natural response to such good news is to share joyfully and unselfishly.
We share our wealth also as a ministry of love in helping to supply the material needs of others. As children of God, we are loved and valued equally. Every being contributes to God’s plan and should have the opportunity to develop full potential. As stewards of God, we work together to feed the hungry and oppressed, to befriend the friendless, to work for peace and justice, to work for the equitable distribution of the earth’s bounty.
Sharing possessions is also a personal journey of discipline and maturity in faith. Jesus’ teachings and life of total commitment and sharing are examples to us and challenge us to love our neighbors and serve their needs. Through tithing and proportionate giving we are freed to grow and reach beyond ourselves, to simplify standards of living and keep materialism in perspective.
As stewards of God we come together in the faith community to live for the sake of the world. The church is called to continue Christ’s work in community, to share in showing God’s love and grace to all peoples. Through the church, our resources are used for enacting the gospel in word and deed. We unite our unique abilities, our labors, and the fruit of our labor, which is our money, and bring them to God who blesses them and distributes them in the name and service of Christ. As the people of God, we look beyond our own salvation and security and deal with God’s yearning that all the peoples of the earth know and accept divine love. It is the call to mission beyond ourselves.
Clearly, we are called to share. How then do we know how and how much of our material possessions to share?
There are several models for financial stewardship in scripture. When Jesus called his first disciples, “they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Jesus told the rich ruler, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Luke 18:22). Another New Testament model is that of the early Christians living in community in Jerusalem with shared possessions and goods (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-35). In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul calls for regular and proportionate giving: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come.” Yet another model is the collection which Paul took up among the Gentile churches to assist believers in Jerusalem, a model emphasizing the responsibility of the well-off for the economically distressed (2 Cor. 8-9)
The Old Testament models for financial stewardship include tithing or the giving of the tenth (Lev. 27:30-32), offering of the first fruits (Prov. 3:9), and the time of jubilee or restoration (Lev. 25). Thus stewards were to share the tenth part of certain possessions as an offering, to give from the best, and to observe a time when all were restored to the condition God gave them. This was a part of Jewish law and culture.
The obvious difference between the New Testament and Old Testament models is that Christian stewardship requires more. Jesus was concerned with all of a person’s life and possessions. Sharing is to be as one “may prosper”and in response to the need of others. Sharing is to be joyful, celebrative, and out of a response of gratitude. Stewardship is total.
That is not to say that the Old Testament model of tithing is irrelevant for today. As a part of Jewish law and culture, the biblical material on tithing remains valuable as an illustration of how the people of God in an earlier period took stewardship seriously. Tithing has illustrative value for us as it provides a model of defining measurable standards of performance for our giving. Tithing is an appropriate first-step discipline in deciding how much is enough to share.
As Christian stewards, we do not have the ease of a law or formula to determine whether or not we are “faithful and wise.” There is no percentage of our income and accumulated wealth that, if shared with the church, automatically discharges our obligation to God, other persons, and the faith community. We must be aware of the use of all of our resources, even those we use to maintain ourselves. We have freedom to choose the portion we share with the church, but it is freedom with responsibility. We are ultimately accountable to God.
Our stewardship of wealth must begin somewhere. Through a discipline such as tithing we take the first step in responsible freedom as God’s stewards. As followers of Christ, and believers of the Word, with knowledge of the inequities and injustices in the world today, we can do no less.
In response to a query from the Shenandoah District, the 1984 Annual Conference requested an update of the 1963 statement on “Tithing and Christian Stewardship.” The task was assigned to the General Board, who charged the staff Stewardship Team with the assignment.
To assure broad input into the new statement, especially with regard to the issue of tithing, requests were sent to several persons throughout the denomination inviting their thoughts and suggestions. Responses were received from pastors, seminary professors, a district executive, lay persons, ecumenical colleagues, and General Board staff persons.
Using these responses, along with other resources listed at the end of the statement, a paper was approved for presentation to the 1985 Annual Conference, which voted approval of the paper without amendment.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
Brattgard, Helge, God’s Stewards: A Theological Study of the Principles and Practices of Stewardship, Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publish House, 1963.
Cunningham, Richard B., Creative Stewardship (Creative Leadership Series edited by Lyle E. Schaller), Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1979.
Hall, Douglas John, The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age, New York, N.Y.: Friendship Press, 1982
Johnson, Douglas W., The Tithe: Challenge or Legalism? (Creative Leadership Series edited by Lyle E. Schaller), Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1984.
Johnson, Luke T., Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith, Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1981
Longacre, Doris Janzen, Living More With Less, Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1980.
Petry, Ronald D., Partners in Creation, Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1980.