What is the starting point of stewardship?
Option A: Stewardship as Investment
Option B: Stewardship as Crisis Management
Option C: Stewardship as Obligation
Option D: Stewardship as An Act of Faith
The Starting Point of Stewardship
While any number of motives can be appealed to in order to evoke or challenge the giving of time, finance, and skills in God's service, not all will take us the full journey-to lives that imitate God's example of giving.
Fifteen years ago, I learned what could have been a very costly lesson on the importance of starting points. It was our last day in Germany, and my family was at the Hanover railway station. After getting the track number of the train to Amsterdam, we made our way to the platform. Conveniently, lots of empty seats remained in the first cars we encountered. At the front of each car was a small cardboard sign with the name of what we presumed to be a town. Even though we didn't see "Amsterdam" on a sign, we didn't think much of it since we knew that this was the right train. We chose a car and settled in.
With time to spare, I walked ahead toward the engine. Beginning several cars forward, I noticed that "Amsterdam" was written on the little signs in the cars. I waved to my family to come ahead, and we boarded one of those front cars. Only later did we learn that the towns on the signs indicated where those cars would be uncoupled. As quickly as the crews did this during a stop, we likely would have been stranded in some little German or Dutch town as the train pulled away! Picking the right starting point on that train was crucial to getting us to where we wanted to go.
Likewise, picking the right starting point for stewardship is crucial in getting us to where we want to go as individuals and as communities of faith. For while any number of motives can be appealed to in order to evoke or challenge the giving of time, finance, and skills in God's service, not all will take us the full journey - to lives that imitate God's example of giving.
Stewardship as Investment
One possible starting point could be called stewardship as investment. "Give and God will bless you" expresses the same idea. There is some biblical testimony for this understanding. When seeking to reassure the disciples who wondered at the sacrifice asked of them, Jesus said, "There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age...and in the age to come eternal life" (Mk 10:29-30). The Christian steward is one whose giving will be met by God's giving.
However, to use this as a starting point for stewardship can be misleading, if not counterproductive. If we begin by presuming that we give in order to get, where does that take us? If we give to secure God's blessing, aren't we giving in order to procure God's favor? The Reformation erupted over just this issue in the sale of indulgences. Beyond that, if our starting point is "give and be blessed," what happens to stewardship when the giver encounters pain, suffering, or deprivation? Does the giving end until life improves? Or, does guilt induce more giving, so as to force God's hand? To me, this is the first car to be uncoupled.
Stewardship as Crisis Management
A second starting point could be named stewardship as crisis management. The church needs a new roof, the furnace needs repairs, there's not enough in the checking account to pay the heating bill...The appeal of this starting point is two-fold: the needs and crises are usually real and people do tend to respond when it's clear that backs are up against walls.
However, if this is the starting point for stewardship, what happens to giving when the crisis is met? When the bills are paid and the balance is growing (or at least not declining), what will be the motive for next year's giving? If crisis management is the basis of Christian stewardship, does that mean the church must go through a yearly process of finding something new that will push the right panic button? This car uncouples when no crisis arises that is sufficient to get the members' blood flowing.
Stewardship as Obligation
A third starting point is perhaps the most attractive. It can be summed up in three words: It's your duty. It states that stewardship is one's obligation to help shoulder the load. Organizationally, who can argue with that? Yet, even the motive of duty does not provide an adequate starting point for Christian stewardship.
To be sure, a number of biblical texts define such duties in explicit terms. The first six chapters of Leviticus go into lavish detail on prescribed sacrifices. The tithe, for some religious groups, is the favored touchstone for defining the duty of stewardship, to the point of making it a legalized yardstick applied as a criterion for membership. But applying a law to giving, whether by imposing percentages or sums, runs counter to faith's moorings in grace. As Paul is so fond of reminding us, the reign of law is succeeded by the sovereignty of grace.
Please do not misunderstand my point. Exercising discipline in giving is a positive thing. Without discipline, stewardship-like waistlines -becomes flabby by lack of challenge. In that context, tithing can be a valuable tool, either evaluating where we are in our giving or encouraging us to consider new levels of support. But tithing, if done only as an imposed obligation, does not benefit the giver. If tithing is only duty, it is devoid of grace. Now the coming of grace in Jesus Christ does not mean anything goes. Grace broadens our responsibilities - except now, they are responsibilities received by invitation rather than imposition. In Christian stewardship, the motive of duty proves insufficient. Legalism's car uncouples when faith reaches the junction of grace.
Another Stewardship Starting Point
So if these three popular starting points come up short on stewardship's journey, what takes us the full distance? Consider two texts, each capable of bringing stewardship to focus and fruition.
First, consider the opening verse of Psalm 24: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it." All faithful stewardship begins in that affirmation. All that we have, all that we are, all that is - all belongs to God. Whatever comes into our hands does so as a trust from God. We live in a God-given world.
The second verse to consider as a starting point is John 3: 16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." All creation is not only God-given, it is God-loved - a love made clear in God's own selfless act of giving.
Christian stewardship simply, yet profoundly, imitates God's example of giving. Stewardship is our love taking form - even as God's love took form - through the giving of ourselves. Stewardship is nothing more and nothing less. Taken together, these two verses provide stewardship's most enduring starting point.
Beyond stewardship as investment, this starting point makes possible stewardship that is an act of selfless thanksgiving. Instead of giving in order to secure God's favor, our giving celebrates and responds to that favor so freely given already.
Beyond stewardship as crisis management, this starting point makes possible giving that is a steady act of faith, whatever the circumstances. When we attribute the earth's fullness to God's eternal dominion, and trust that we are the objects of God's unceasing love, our stewardship is an ongoing part of life's rhythm, rather than an act that depends on how much the church leaders crank up the need.
Beyond stewardship as mere duty, this starting point moves us to giving as an act of love. Duty can be commanded, but only love can be offered. The gift of Jesus did not originate in an act of God's duty. Incarnation embodied God's love. A sense of duty prompts us to meet minimal standards. Love beckons us to reach toward maximal efforts.
Stewardship evoked by the starting point of God's sovereignty and love challenges each person to such maximal efforts. To affirm that the earth is God's declares that neat boundaries between what is "mine" and what is "God's" are deceptive. Such stewardship involves not just what I do with 2, 5, 10, or 20 percent of my possessions or time or skills. It encompasses the whole of my life, spiritually and materially. To confess that God manifested love for the world in the gift of Christ calls forth sacrificial giving.
What I do with "what I can spare" has little to do with stewardship. What I do with those things that matter most to me is how I strive to imitate God's giving. Blessings wax and wane according to our human perception, crises rise and fall due to changes in our circircumstances, and duties come and go depending upon our capabilities and positions, but God's sovereignty and love are eternal. When we take God's sovereignty and love for stewardship's starting point, we will always have a reason to offer thanksgiving, a foundation for our faith, and a motivation to love.
Reprinted with permission from The Clergy Journal, July/August 2003.
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John Indermark is a United Church of Christ minister and writer who lives in Naselle, WA.