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The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age

This book seeks to recapture the biblical background of the concept of "steward." Hall writes, "Stewardship does not describe any one dimension of the Christian life; it describes the whole posture called 'Christian.'"

Hall contends that the terms "steward" and "stewardship" are used with greater frequency outside the churches than inside them. As such, it makes the word more accessible to a much wider audience.

Hall argues that the symbol of "Steward" sums up the whole of the Christian life and represents the gospel in miniature.  The church has not embraced this potentially rich symbol.  The term has accumulated a functional connection to fund-raising and book-keeping, but Hall believes the Bible gives us access to a much deeper, richer, more radical view of Stewardship that can orient theology and faith practices.

In the Old Testament, two ideas emerge:  
1) the steward occupies a trusted position vis a vis the owner, usually royalty; there is close identification of interests;

2) the steward is not, after all, the master, the owner, but is strictly accountable to his lord and will be replaced if his attitude and actions are not consonant with the wishes and interests of his lord.

In the New Testament, the master is the risen Christ and the disciples are charged with responsibility for Christ's household.  As stewards, the disciples are responsible for feeding, sheltering, protecting against thieves.  The steward has great responsibility and participates in the household of God. (the mystery was made known to me by revelation." Eph. 3:2.  The NT also adds an eschatological dimension:  the end is coming, we are transients and in the same boat with all other creatures.

God is the owner of everything.  Christ is the chief steward and we who are in Christ share this stewardship with him.  It is into the prior stewardship of grace that Jesus initiates us into.  Stewardship is not a matter of law--something we ought to do.  It is, rather, of grace:  we participate in Christ's gracious stewardship in our ongoing  process of identification with Him.

The Hellenization of Christianity spiritualized things and rendered the metaphor of steward too worldly, too materialistic, to gather up the gospel.  Thus, Christianity lost touch with the world of money, goods, services, and tended towards the mysteries of God.  Expectations of an imminent parousia didn't help.  If the end was near, travel light.

The imperial church, established under Constantine and Theodosius the Great, was more interested in consolidating power than in being a servant to the world.

In North America, two things are important: Christianity takes on a this-worldly orientation.  It is to make a difference here and now.  Secondly, evangelistic efforts to combat secularism required funding. So stewardship got pressed into a functional role to finance missionary activities.

Hall's analysis of the times is worth studying.   At the heart of the matter is sin, which is two pronged:  pride (over-reaching our finite limits and place in the created order) and sloth (checking out into cynicism, despair, self-indulgence).  The image of steward speaks to both sides of sin.  As stewards we occupy a subordinate position, but also a responsible calling to care for the earth and all that is in it.

I have barely scratched the surface here.  Hall makes some very important arguments that challenge the traditional orthodoxy of loving God first and loving the neighbor second.  He says this tends to make the neighbor and the world secondary.  The neighbor is primarily seen as a target for evangelism and the world, in this approach, tends to be something to be transcended or ignored.  A heaven-bound theology is not good stewardship, according to Hall.  Hall's work is thought provoking and challenging to a theology that embraces the status quo.

Review by Steve Ramp


Douglas John Hall is professor of Christian Theology in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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