Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day.
The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.
What does the Bible say about stewardship?
Whenever asked, “What does the Bible say about [fill in the blank],” my first instinct is to respond, “Well, it depends.”
The Bible is a library of 66 books, spanning many centuries and reflecting (and omitting) many voices. We all know topics for which the Bible is quoted to support diametrically opposed positions. But on the topic of stewardship, the Bible is remarkably consistent in asserting that our relationship with possessions is an integral part of our relationship with God.
In the Gospels, Jesus talks about money more than any other topic except the kingdom of God — more than sin, more than love, more than heaven and hell. And, of course, what Jesus says about money is not unrelated to what he says about the kingdom of God. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus moves seamlessly from being generous to loving our enemies to giving alms to praying to fasting (Matthew 5:38–6:18). All our attitudes and actions are caught up in our relationship with God.
The Greek word for stewardship is oikonomia, literally “household management,” from which we get the English word economy. The person who manages the household economy is the oikonomos or steward. Hebrew uses the phrase “over the household” to mean the same thing. When we study these words, we can find three categories of stewardship.
The first is related to the management of property, where a steward manager is left in charge of the estate while the master is elsewhere. Note that the steward isn’t the owner of the property — the steward is the manager or caretaker of someone else’s property. The steward’s authority derives from the owner and is in place to benefit others in the household. The steward is to be faithful, wise, watchful and honest, for the master requires accountability.
The second category of stewardship shifts from the management of human property to that of God’s property, if we can use such a phrase. In these texts we are “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1) and “stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). God’s gift of the gospel is given to each of us to steward faithfully for the benefit of others. Notice that there is no restriction on the stewardship of the gospel to those who are officially rostered in the church.
The third category of stewardship in the New Testament elevates our thinking even more. Consider these texts: God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a stewardship for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10); to make everyone see what is the stewardship of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things (Ephesians 3:9). I use the word stewardship in these texts to describe God’s management of the cosmic household of all time and all space.
When we look outside the New Testament, we find that ancient Greek writers used the word stewardship to describe the human body and the solar system. While this may seem strange to those who have narrowed the meaning of stewardship to the congregation’s fall campaign to raise money, the ancient writers are actually very consistent with the New Testament use.
In my way of thinking, “stewardship” means the arrangement of parts to make the whole system work according to its purpose. Stewards are those who are authorized by the master to make sure the system works faithfully for the benefit of all. Stewards are to be wise, trustworthy and accountable.
Since money is such an integral part of life today, stewardship necessarily involves our decisions about money. For most of us, money is the way we engage in furthering God’s mission in the world. As stewards, we serve as conduits for God’s gifts to flow through us and into the world. And money is the most efficient way for the conduit of gifts to keep flowing.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers