Responsible to Take Care
The word stewardship, unfortunately, has some negative associations in the church because we’re accustomed to churches having “Stewardship Sunday.” When you hear it’s “Stewardship Sunday,” you put your hand on your wallet because you know what they’re after. But, if you look throughout history, the “Stewardship Sunday” practice goes back a century to a time when the concept of stewardship had a much broader meaning.
It meant that human beings—as image bearers of the God who made the world—are responsible to take care of the world and to use their time, talent, and treasure, not just on Sunday morning and not just in giving to the church, but twenty-four hours a day and in everything they do for the Lord. And that was the hook on which the request for money was hung.
But, unfortunately, the stewardship word left our theology except on “Stewardship Sunday,” and we need to recapture a big vision of human beings as made to be stewards over creation.
We Need a Bigger Vision
Not long ago, I was in a church in which the pastor said, “You should give money to the church because God wants you to use some of your money for his purposes.” I sat there just dumbfounded that a pastor in a pulpit would say God wants you to use some of your money for his purposes. I shared that with an ethics professor friend of mine and I asked, “What does one say?” and he said, “Rend your garment.” So I wish I could go back and just stand up in the pew and rend my garment in outrage at this limited view of what we’re made for.
We need to recapture a big vision of human beings as made to be stewards over creation.
God makes Adam and Eve and puts them in the garden and gives them a commission not only to take care of the garden but to be fruitful and fill the world and take good care of it. Subdue it and take good care of it, ruling the world as God’s stewards—that is, as kings under God, the High King, as God’s priests under God the High Priest, as prophets under God who is the revealer of truth.
If you don’t like the word “stewardship” you can just say we’re responsible for what happens to the world. And each of us has a little domain where we are the responsible person. I can’t invade your domain and take over what has been given to you for your stewardship because you’re made in God’s image like I am. At the same time if I neglect my own domain, if I fail to act as a prophet, priest, and king of the Lord in the domain that I have rightly been given as my responsibility, I’m turning away from what God made me for.
Both Over and Under
In a very real sense, it’s the call to be God’s stewards of the world that Adam and Eve fell from when they fell. They disobeyed a verbal command of God, but at a deeper level, they refused the role that God had made them for: to be rulers of the world under God. The word stewardship is useful because it reminds us that we are both over something and under something or someone. We are stewards.
A steward is someone who does not have the final ownership of the thing but is responsible for managing it on behalf of the ultimate owner. So you look at Jesus’s parables where he talks about stewards who are left in charge of things while the owner is away, and there are a number of parables in which this is an image and there are other parables in which people are responsible for things that they don’t themselves own. This is a theme, it’s a pattern.
We’re made to be responsible for the created universe even though it’s God who ultimately owns it. We own property in a secondary sense. We do own it. God does protect people’s right to their property—because if people don’t have property protected, then they can’t live their own lives as stewards. When the kings take away poor people’s farms and leave them destitute, this is a heinous injustice, but that property is only at a secondary level. It’s really God who owns it all. The psalms say that the cattle of a thousand hills are his and, “If I am hungry I will not tell you,” reminding us that God is ultimately in charge of everything.
When we reduce the Christian life to merely performing specific religious activities—where you’re a Christian if you show up at church on Sunday, and if you’re a super Christian when you show up to Bible study on Wednesday night—then we haven’t really given people a gospel that shapes their life. The concept of stewardship in which Adam and Eve were made to be stewards of the world is going to be fully restored when Jesus comes back. We live in the intermediate time when we’re being restored, but we’re not yet fully restored. We’re looking forward to, we’re anticipating, the restoration of our stewardship in a full sense. That gives you a gospel that shapes your whole life and everything that you do as well as giving you a reason to give money to the church, which you really ought to do.
Greg Forster is the author of Economics: A Student’s Guide.
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