Stewardship – the use of money, property and resources

  • Question from CM, United Kingdom

    Dear Freelance Theology,
    Can you give a brief explanation of Stewardship and tell me your thoughts on how far it should apply in our lives. Does it only apply to our finances or to all material things in our life?

    In a previous answer, specifically about whether Christians should own stocks and shares, I wrote the following: “We are stewards of the money and resources given to us, not the sole owners, therefore God has a legitimate claim on everything in our life, including our money.”

    In the Old Testament the Israelites are constantly reminded that everything they have is from God, including the land of Israel. The institution of the ‘Year of Jubilee’ (in Leviticus ch25 vs8 and following) was to show that human beings had no claim of ownership regarding the land – it belonged to God.

    In the New Testament Jesus had an offhand attitude towards money. He warned against the ‘danger’ of riches. He also took direct action against religious fraud in the infamous encounter with the Temple moneychangers (e.g. Matthew 21:12-13, also in the other 3 gospels).

    In terms of stewardship we are given three main gifts (beside life itself): wealth, time and responsibility. Jesus seemed to view wealth as neutral, it was what a person did with it and a person’s priorities in life which affected that person’s eternal standing. People who ‘loved money’ or sought security in it were often described as fools. When it came to trust, Jesus instructed his followers to store up treasure in Heaven; the treasures of Earth were at risk from theft and decay, but heavenly treasures were secure and eternal (Matthew 6 vs19-21).

    Time and responsibility are often glossed over by Christians, but the amount of time spent doing what God calls you to do is important. Setting out your own plans and being self-indulgent are not hallmarks of authentic Christian life. The parable of the man who built himself huge barns without reference to God’s intentions (Luke 12 vs16-21) is designed to remind us that our own plans will come to nothing if God intends otherwise.

    Responsibility is another aspect of stewardship – one that has been popularised by the Christian ecological movement over the past few decades. As humans we are responsible for the care of the earth, the care of each other and the care of those who have nobody to speak for them. Wayward parenting, unjust trade, idleness, ‘opting out’ by living a life of addiction (debauchery) – these are all repeatedly used in the Bible as hallmarks of a sinner.

    We have a responsibility to provide for and properly raise our children. We have a responsibility to make sure that the poor do not become an underclass. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustice. These are all aspects of stewardship. Admittedly some Christians have taken this to mean they have a right to condemn everybody around them, or have taken it upon themselves to act as the moral guardians of society. This sometimes misses the point as real stewardship means living a life of sacrificial example – shepherds who live out in the wilds with the flock and are willing to lay down their lives for them, as opposed to herding the sheep along and poking them with sticks.

    However it is the stewardship of money that many Christians in the rich countries of the West focus on. There are two main aspects to be discussed here. One is the over-consumption of the privileged minority that live in Europe and North America. The other is the perennial favourite topic of tithing.

    The first aspect is the easiest to talk about. The crass consumerism practised as a lifestyle in Europe and America, and preached as a gospel by ‘prosperity teachers’, does not sit squarely with even a superficial reading of the Bible. The noted teachers and evangelists who seek to justify ‘health-and-wealth’ or ‘name-it-and-claim-it’ doctrines are usually poorly-read, third-rate scholars derided by the majority of theologians for their facetious and downright wrong application of Scripture. In fact this sort of bad theology is not new, it has always been used by the ‘haves’ to make them feel better about ignoring the needs of the ‘have nots’.

    Tithing is a more complex subject. It is generally agreed that tithing is a good principle on a practical level, although under the terms of the ‘New Covenant’ it should not be regarded as mandatory. The big danger with any preaching on tithing is that it encourages an attitude of ‘I’ve given my tenth, so I’ve done what I need to.’ This was never the intention of tithing.

    Tithing was designed to fund the huge Levitical priesthood and keep the Temple running in the Old Testament. The ten per cent rule was a minimum to be adhered to. ‘Free will offerings’ and other offerings supplemented the tithe. On that note, the tithe was not a tenth of your yearly income, but a tenth of the value of everything you owned, including property. This was then given to the Temple at Passover time for a celebration that everybody was invited to, including the poor who could contribute little to the running costs.

    Tony Campolo describes the use of the tithe at Passover time in the following way: “…it was not used for some noble charity or to support a missionary program. Instead it was blown on a party! Among the purposes for this celebration was to give the people of Israel a small foretaste of what the Kingdom of God would be like… the biblical principle of tithing is a prescription for celebration rather than for charity… one tenth for the party and the other nine tenths to be used with careful scrutiny as to ways it can bless others.” (20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch, Word Books 1988, pp98-9)

    The question of giving ‘to the Lord’s work’ (to borrow a stock evangelical phrase) is not high on the priority-list of the earliest church. The needs of those within the fellowship were attended to, possessions were kept in common and widows and orphans were to be cared for. There was no ‘building fund’ or other project to swallow up the money; it was used to help those in need or missionary endeavours.

    As Christians we need to be self-aware and not self-seeking. In terms of practical application of the ten per cent rule, it might be helpful for Christians to ask themselves the following questions before deciding to tithe their income.
    1) Is my tithe a minimum basis for giving, or should I give more?
    2) If I give ten per cent will I neglect other aspects of stewardship, such as the responsibility to put food on the table for my family?
    3) Is the destination of my tithe really ‘the Lord’s work’ (which leads onto another question: is the church I’m giving to serving the interests of its own members or is it interested in fulfilling the Great Commission?)
    4) How much of my income am I justified in keeping and spending ‘on myself’, given that I am dependent on God for all of it?

    I hope this goes some way to answering your question, CM. Stewardship is a huge topic and one that is hard to address concisely. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology. If you would like to comment on this post, please email freelance theology using the button on the sidebar.

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