Should ‘steward’ be the principle biblical category we use when describing the Christian, especially with regard to his or her giving?
My answer is no, though by answering in the negative I certainly don’t intend to imply that Christians should think of themselves as ‘not-stewards’.
Rather, my point is simply that I am not a proponent of the kind of thinking one encounters in the movement we might call ‘Christian stewardship’–well represented in books like Wes Wilmer’s A Revolution in Generosity: Transforming Stewards to be Rich Towards God or in the comments from Dave, a Mission Increase Foundation workshop attendee, in our previous post.
(Not that the two would consider themselves identical or even similar. That estimation is totally my own.)
More today from Dave, for whom I have tremendous respect but am taking this opportunity to respectfully disagree in the hope of stimulating all of us, myself included, to new insights.
In Dave’s conversation with Mission Increase Foundation Colorado Giving and Training Officer Suzanne Dubois, Dave wrote:
If there is any cause in the Bible that is obvious, it is those who are disadvantaged (the poor, widows, and orphans). But for some reason, there are very few stories about people who are poor. Most of them are about how we are supposed to care for those people and each other, which in essence is being rich toward God. Why else would there be over 2,300 verses dealing with money and possessions? It’s because that is part of God’s nature, and He wants us to be like His example, Jesus, the best example of being generous toward God.
Please understand here that I do not go out and teach people that they are stingy, as mentioned in Mr. Foley’s blog. [Editor’s note: the post that Dave is referencing can be found here.] The job of conviction belongs to the Holy Spirit, but it is also certain that today’s average Christian doesn’t understand his or her obligation as God’s steward, basically because the church has avoided teaching that, and as is readily admitted at some seminaries, pastors haven’t been taught that either. If you don’t understand that you are obligated to steward everything you have and are, then you really don’t have the whole counsel of God. Our stewardship has to involve our relationship with God, with our self, with our neighbors, and with that part of our creation over which we have influence. If we avoid that, then stewardship is just a church word for ‘the church wants more of my money.’
I find so much to like in what Dave is written, but I love the quote from the rabbi in Spangler and Tverberg’s Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, who, exasperated when no one would say anything to rebut his teaching, groaned, ‘Come on, people! Somebody disagree with me! How can we learn anything if no one will disagree?’
So I owe Dave the courtesy of disagreeing with him.
That steward is a helpful and important concept I wholeheartedly agree (as do Luke 16, 1 Corinthians 4:1-3, Titus 1:6-8, and 1 Peter 4:9-11, several of which are especially interesting in that they refer explicitly to stewarding the ‘mysteries of God’ and the ‘manifold grace’ of God).
That steward is the fundamental concept around which you want to build your approach to giving I have the severest reservations. Four, to wit:
- Jesus is primarily identified in the scriptures as God’s son, rather than God’s steward. That he stewards both the mysteries and things of God is without question. That son is a better descriptor than steward ought to be equally so. Same with us. We are best understood as the sons and daughters of God, gradually being conformed to the image of His son. The overwhelming corpus of scripture treats discipleship in this way rather than in a stewardship context.
- Steward is typically understood as an individual image. That is, I am stewarding what has been given to me. But a major, major (and, in our day, wildly underrepresented) part of the biblical framework about giving is corporate, that is, body oriented. And by this we mean something more than ‘I am giving to the church’. This is why TG talks about personal and corporate assets. Our network, our body, our sphere of influence–biblically, we give embedded in a framework greater than the individual. (The emergence of giving circles in secular fundraising attests to the naturalness of thinking in these terms.) The image of the steward obscures that reality.
- Of the 2,300 verses dealing with money and possessions, it’s interesting in how few of those Jesus holds up the image of the steward when he refers to our purpose and role. When he admonishes care for the poor, he uses the images of neighbor, brother, friend, and even shepherd. This creates a far more compelling, direct, and personal relationship than is necessitated by the stewardship language that Jesus does not use. You’d almost think he was doing this on purpose.
- The importation of steward language (I say ‘importation’ because stewardship is only explicitly referenced in the New Testament in the scripture passages I noted above, though certainly the concept is not alien to other scriptural allusions) as the primary identifier of the Christian runs the risk of overlooking the reality of the Lord’s indwelling presence within us. We are not stewarding the Lord’s time, talent, and treasure in his absence; rather, we are embodying him corporately because he is present. That’s why images and phrases like ‘body’ and ‘temple’ and ‘living stones’ appear much more frequently than the image of the steward.
Jesus clearly makes much of our relationship with money, and so should we as we are mutually accountable to each other before him. But when I buy shoes for my son, I would hope my actions are not best characterized as me stewarding my time, talent, and treasure. Rather, I would suggest that I am best understood as doing what a father does when he loves his son (which reminds me of a certain verse that contains the word ‘gave’ but somehow omits the word ‘steward’…).