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Questions about God’s Ownership and Man’s Stewardship
- What do you mean when you say God owns my money? How can he?
When we say that God owns everything, we are acknowledging his rights as creator in accordance with the Scriptures. The Bible says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Whatever we have has come from the Lord’s hand, and only indirectly by our earning it (1 Chronicles 29:14). Our wealth belongs to us in the same way that a child’s bedroom belongs to the child. The room actually belongs to the parent, but the child is given temporary, accountable charge over it. This is especially the case for Christians, who have been bought at the price of Jesus’ death (1 Corinthians 6:20). Our lives and all our stuff is utterly at the disposal of the God who bought us.
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- What is stewardship?
“Stewardship” is such a buzzword in Christian circles these days as to have lost a great deal of its meaning. Often it is simply used as shorthand for church finance. But what does it really mean? The first recorded uses of the English word “steward” are from the 11th century, referring to an official who controlled the domestic affairs of a household. Etymologically, it most likely comes from the roots stig (a house or part of a house) and ward (keeper), thus meaning “keeper of the house.” (It has been suggested that “steward” comes from the roots sty and ward and so means “keeper of the pig sties,” but the historical data do not bear this out.) A steward was an official with control over the domestic affairs of a house, and stewardship was the exercise of that function. Used of Christians in relation to God, then, the term suggests that we are servants or officials given charge over God’s house. God’s “house” is the world and all that is in it, and we are his caretakers. In a sense, all sin is poor stewardship, and the gospel restores us to good stewardship. “Stewardship” is a wonderfully biblical word, provided we know what we mean when we say it.
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- If God owns everything and I am simply his steward, then what does he want me to do with his stuff?
The Bible gives a number of answers to this question, including saving (Proverbs 6:6-8), investing (Matthew 25:14-30), providing for family (Proverbs 13:22), staying out of debt (Proverbs 22:7; Romans 13:8) and more. But the Bible gives special attention to one use in particular: giving. To give (especially to the poor) is equivalent to lending to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17). To give (especially to the poor) is equivalent to investing your money in heaven itself (Luke 12:33). Giving is the fitting response to God’s gift of his Son to us (2 Corinthians 8:7-9). Giving (especially to our enemies) is a way of imitating the redeeming love of God (Luke 6:35). In the end, each of us will give an account to the Lord for how we handled his stuff in the time we had on earth.
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- Is generous giving essential to good stewardship?
Yes. In fact, generosity is arguably the highest form of biblical stewardship. Stewardship is a lifestyle based on the biblical belief that God is the rightful owner of everything and that we are stewards (i.e. caretakers) of his stuff, responsible to do with it what he wants done. So the stewardship question is: “What does God want me to do with his stuff?” While the Bible gives a number of answers to this question, it gives special attention to one use in particular: giving. To give (especially to the poor) is equivalent to lending to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17). To give (especially to the poor) is equivalent to investing your money in heaven itself (Luke 12:33). Giving is the fitting response to God’s gift of his Son to us (2 Corinthians 8:7-9). Giving (especially to our enemies) is a way of imitating the redeeming love of God (Luke 6:35). Biblical stewardship includes many things, but giving stands out from other aspects. Therefore, any concept of stewardship that does not give a special place to generosity (e.g. “health-and-wealth gospel”) is not fully biblical.
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- Are there non-financial types of stewardship, and do they relate to giving?
Yes. Stewardship is a lot more than money although it is never less than money. Stewardship is a lifestyle based on the biblical belief that God is the rightful owner of everything and that we are stewards (i.e. caretakers) of his stuff, responsible to do with it what he wants done. So the stewardship question is: “What does God want me to do with his stuff?” But God’s “stuff” includes not only money but “the earth and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). God owns everything that exists, and from the very beginning he has made human beings his caretakers. The many things, apart from money, of which we are stewards include: the earth (Genesis 2:15), our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19), our talents (1 Peter 4:10) and the gospel itself (1 Corinthians 4:1). But of all the things of which we are stewards, money gets the most scriptural attention, and for good reason. It is quite possible, and all too common, to give many other things to the Lord, but to withhold money for oneself. And in this case, the person’s heart is not with the Lord at all (Matthew 6:21). There are many other types of stewardship, but stewardship of money is the one telltale sign of a person’s loyalties.
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- Why would God hold me accountable at the last judgment for the way I spend my money now?
Because it is his money that we are spending now (Psalm 24:1). We sometimes have the idea that the last judgment will only involve so-called big sinners like murderers and dictators, and that God doesn’t see or care about little things like how we spend our money. But the Bible says that we will all be judged according to what we have done (Revelation 20:12). And one metaphor for the last judgment, a metaphor that Jesus used repeatedly, is that of a master entrusting money to his servants while he is away for a time (Matthew 25:14-30). The Lord will return to evaluate what we have done with the things he has entrusted to us. Indeed, that is what the word “stewardship” means. It is well within his rights to judge us for how we use his money.
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- Are we responsible for stewardship of the environment?
Yes. God created the environment and placed us in his creation to care for it and steward it. The earth still belongs to God—not to the government, not to private property owners, and not to “nature.” The earth is God’s provision for us, a place of blessing and, because of man’s fall, a place of trial (Romans 8:19-23; Genesis 3:17-19). God still insisted on treating animals and the environment with care and respect, primarily because they reflect his provision and care for us (Leviticus 25; 26:34-35; Deuteronomy 12:9; 20:19-20; 25:4; Exodus 23:11-12). He even includes animals in his covenants and his mercy (Genesis 9:12-16; Jonah 4:11). Many of Jesus’ miracles reflect the ultimate victory over the present chaos in the environment—some of it created by human failure to exercise environmental stewardship—that will accompany the new creation. Our responsibility to steward the environment has not dissipated, just as our responsibility to steward knowledge, wealth, skills, relationships and the gospel has not diminished. When we practice environmental stewardship, we anticipate God’s new world and show ourselves to be grateful recipients of the creation he has made for us.
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- Are there spiritual benefits to environmental stewardship?
Yes. Above all, environmental stewardship shows that we are grateful to the One who provided the earth to sustain its creatures. Environmental stewardship reflects our Christian belief that Jesus is reconciling all things to himself, and that the risen Lord is presently reigning over the cosmos (Colossians 1:16-20). When we practice environmental stewardship, we show ourselves to be participants in his new creation (Isaiah 65:17-25). We may not be able to see the curse completely reversed until Jesus and his children reign in peace (Romans 8:18-21), but we can avoid causing ourselves grief by taking care of the resources God has given us. Christian environmental stewardship illustrates to the world that we care about the world God has given us, as well as all those who rely on that world for air, food, water and shelter.
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- What are some historical examples of the church getting stewardship wrong?
Throughout history Christians have been known for their generosity. Along the way, however, there have been some serious pitfalls which, if not considered, run the risk of being repeated. Stewardship missteps by God’s people are also present today, but these historical examples offer some unique insights:
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What are some modern-day examples of the church getting stewardship wrong?
- Asceticism: Made famous by certain monastic orders of the Middle Ages, this belief (also known as poverty theology) often centers around the idea that wealth and physical pleasure are always wrong and its corollary, that poverty and physical denial are always right. While we are called to share, we are not always called to complete and total poverty. See Proverbs 30:8; 1 Timothy 6:17.
- Indulgences: Toward the close of the Middle Ages, the church claimed to offer remission of sin by means of good deeds, especially the act of giving to the church. Much of the revenue from these “gifts” funded the construction of lavish religious buildings. This system quickly became abused as alleged “pardoners,” most notably the friar Johann Tetzel, extorted money and preyed on fears of hell for personal profit. The Lord used Martin Luther’s response to this disgraceful behavior (95 Theses nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg) to launch the Protestant Reformation.
- Wealth accumulation by church leaders: At times, leaders in the church have confused their gift of service with the quest for power and comfort, accumulating vast amounts of wealth and land. See Deuteronomy 17:14-17; Nehemiah 5:15-18; 2 Corinthians 12:14-15, on leaders and financial sacrifice.
- Government-enforced giving: Still active in some European socialist countries, the church often has enforced tithes or other charitable giving on the basis of the power of the state rather than by means of generous hearts. See 2 Corinthians 9:6-9.
While Christians have made many mistakes about stewardship in the past, there are many unique problems for us today. Being aware of these dangers can help us to avoid falling into their traps and to exhort lovingly those who are in error:
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What are some historical examples of the church getting stewardship right?
Despite past missteps in their stewardship role, God’s people through the ages have been marked by a spirit of generosity. We who live in such prosperity today would do well to remember the selfless acts of our brothers and sisters who lived long ago:
- Prosperity theology: This is a notable, recent error which has become enormously popular in North America and around the world. Prosperity theology, or the “health-and-wealth gospel,” centers on the alluring idea that God wishes all Christians to experience earthly prosperity. Consequently, if one is suffering or poor, it is due to a lack of faith. Prosperity theology takes certain promises and ideas and absolutizes them, making them relevant for all Christians at all times and in all places. It also ignores the call to follow Jesus in a life of sacrifice.
- Legalistic tithing: Many churches struggle to motivate their people to give, to the extent that they have taken hold of a clear Old Testament command that seems to answer the question, “How much should I give?” Meanwhile, they overlook the Bible’s emphasis that much more than 10 percent is required (Matthew 23:23) and that the tithe may not apply today exactly as it did in ancient Israel.
- Subjective, individualistic giving: This common approach is a misinterpretation and misapplication of 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Many Christians misunderstand this verse to mean that they can give however much (or however little) they subjectively and individualistically feel, without adequately considering the plight of the world’s poor and lost, the example of godly Christians throughout the ages, or the Bible’s call to a life of sacrifice. Christians who make their giving decisions in this insulated manner miss out on the blessings of true Christian generosity.
- Ignoring the environment: Increasingly a hot issue, the church’s responsibility to care for God’s creation often is ignored or misunderstood. See Genesis 1:28; Leviticus 18:28; 25:2-5; Deuteronomy 20:19; Psalm 65:9; 145:9, 17.
- Callousness toward the poor: The apostles James (James 1:26-27; 2:1-9, 14-24), Paul (Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and John (1 John 3:16-18)—and also Jesus (Luke 14:12-14; 16:19-31)—warned the church about the tragic consequences of ignoring the needs of the poor. But far too often we fall into the errors of courting the rich (to the exclusion of the poor) and turning a blind eye to the poverty and suffering in the world. As the Old Testament prophets warn (Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 58) and the New Testament writers confirm, such ignorance renders our “religious” practices—even great sacrifice and offering—worthless.
- Liberation theology: While it is true that Jesus came to aid the poor and oppressed, many have wrongly used his mission as justification for political revolution, particularly in Latin America. Jesus, however, resisted this idea, saying his was a kingdom in the hearts of men (John 18:36).
- Glorification and Christian materialism: There is a strong tendency to draw inspiration or sermons from the construction of the ancient Jewish temple as we build modern church buildings, thus labeling our houses of worship “God’s house.” But Jesus and his body (the church, i.e., people) are God’s temple today (1 Peter 2:5). When we compare our Christian houses of worship with God’s Old Testament temple, the result is often an insistence on “only the best for God’s house.” Consequently, we pump far more resources, especially time and treasure, into things that benefit the wealthiest of believers —when God really calls us to pursue mercy and mission, the things that truly build and care for God’s temple.
- False litmus tests of faithfulness: Churches often turn optional, nonessential choices into tests of Christian faithfulness; this includes decisions like whether to have or fund church buildings, schools or certain programs. These are matters of wisdom about which Christians might respectfully disagree, not make-or-break tests of financial faithfulness.
- Government redistribution of wealth: Many are enticed by the idea of paying taxes to help the poor, supposing they have done their part. This attitude runs in stark contrast to the attitude of Christ and the message of the New Testament requiring our all and personal involvement with the poor. See Luke 14:32-34; 16:19-31; Matthew 25:31-46; James 1:27.
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What are some modern-day examples of the church getting stewardship right?
- Communal giving in the first-century church: Many in the early church knew Jesus while he walked on earth, and their lives clearly reflected his call to radical generosity. Their example is one unsurpassed by most of us living today: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Astoundingly, they were so generous and willing to share that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34).
- Hospitals: As early as 260 A.D. Christians started and staffed community hospitals that provided needed medical care to the poor. Hospitals spread rapidly in the 14th century throughout Roman Catholic Italy, and by the 15th century almost every town had a hospital of some kind thanks to the work and funding of religious groups or sometimes town councils. In the 19th century, major Christian philanthropists in England funded a sweeping reform re-advocating the importance of hospitals, orphanages and schools for the poor.
- Orphanages and schools: Throughout the church’s history Christians have been active in establishing orphanages and schools for needy children. These life-saving institutions included “ragged schools” for the “ragamuffin” children of 18th century England’s cities, orphanages for children left destitute by war, and schools for the mentally or physically handicapped.
- Prison reform: The late 1700s and early 1800s saw the beginning of reform in England’s prison system. Advocates fought for the proper treatment of prisoners (many of whom were poor), healthy accommodations and end to the mistreatment and torture. Notable Christian proponents of prison reform include John Howard and Elisabeth Fry.
- Abolitionism: William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and other Christians led this long but successful struggle to end the slave trade in the British Empire. The full abolition of the slave trade, specifically the sex trade, is an issue of respect for human life that is still a pressing concern today.
Living in today’s prosperous Western world tempts even the most faithful Christians to become greedy and materialistic. However, many modern-day believers are using their ample resources—including money, education and spiritual gifts—to bring hope to the lost and relief to the oppressed:
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- Economic and community development: Fairly recently, academic and development groups have begun to address poverty holistically: They focus not just on the physical causes of poverty but also on its spiritual and relational roots. By helping to develop poor communities’ assets and letting them direct their own renewal projects as much as possible, community developers give poor communities the tools to help themselves. For instance, development organizations often grant microenterprise loans, which allow small entrepreneurs in poor countries to fund and grow their business ventures. Community developers strive to avoid and correct the past errors of development and missionary work, including paternalism, neglect of education and the equating of poverty with mere physical deficit. One proponent of Christian community development work is the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. This group—and others like it—works alongside the church to build up impoverished communities both economically and spiritually.
- Financial teaching ministries: A number of organizations have been formed in order to promote smarter money management and greater generosity among Christians. They include Crown Financial Ministries, The Gathering, Generous Giving, the Christian Stewardship Association and Kingdom Advisors. These and others groups have gained momentum in the frequency, attendance and quality of their conferences, programs and publications. Additionally, several high-profile pastors preach to their churches regularly on Christian generosity, and their influence extends well beyond their own pulpits (e.g., Andy Stanley, David Jeremiah, John Piper, Brian Kluth and Rick Warren).
- Homeless shelters, soup kitchens and leprosariums: Relief and development organizations have done much to help the needy in cities throughout the world. Organizations such as The Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, YMCA, YWCA and the Red Cross were established by Christians in the 1800s and 1900s to help the homeless, poor, sick and mentally or physically disabled to receive proper care and get back on their feet.
- Living among the poor and in the slums: Mother Teresa is perhaps one of the most well known believers to have lived with and cared for the poor. Founded in 1952, her Home for the Dying in Calcutta, India, cares for lepers and terminally ill people within India’s slums. Mother Teresa lived with the poorest of poor and sacrificed her comfort, health and life to look after India’s forgotten. Her ministry and others like it exemplify a right response to Jesus’ radical call to give sacrificially to the poor.
- Evangelical relief organizations: Numerous Christian organizations like World Vision have helped to fund famine relief, medical work, education and assistance in economic development across the globe.
- Child sponsorship: This model has been successful in educating wealthy Westerners about the needs of people in impoverished nations. A picture of a poor child goes a long way toward personally connecting people who are isolated from poverty with the actual child they have “signed up” to help.
- Prison ministries and fellowships: Christians ministries like Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship reach out to prisoners in U.S. state and federal prisons, ministering to their spiritual and emotional needs and working for reform in the U.S. criminal justice system.
- Championing human rights: Since all people are made in God’s image and therefore ought to be treated justly, it is our duty to seek out and defend the oppressed. One Christian group that exemplifies advocacy for the downtrodden is International Justice Mission. Established in 1997, IJM works to rescue victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and other kinds of oppression. The human rights experts, attorneys and law enforcement professionals of IJM use their expertise to stand up for people across the globe who have no power to help themselves.
- Relocation to the inner city: The 20th century has seen an increase in Christian concern for revitalizing cities economically, spiritually and culturally. Many Christian families, churches and organizations are choosing to make their homes in the city and inner city in order to be a light for Christ in some of the darker places.
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