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Living in God's Abundance-- Upbuilding the Saints: An Address on Stewardship to the Members of "First Lutheran" (Session 3 of 3)

This Bible study is the third of three prepared by Dr. Sundberg for adult studies in a variety settings in congregations. Each lesson includes a presentation that may be reproduced and distributed among participants or used as a presentation by a leader. There are discussion questions for each presentation.

In this session, Dr. Sundberg gives an intriguing exploration of the historical experience of stewardship in the United States. "There is  a vibrant, homegrown practice that seeks to fulfill God's command to be good stewards of the manifold grace of God."

Click on the following for the other presentations:  

A Bible Study for Church Leaders Who Hate to Ask for Money (Session 1 of 3)

In Search of the Cheerful Giver (Session 2 of 3)

Upbuilding the Saints: An Address on Stewardship to the Members of First Lutheran

For this last session on stewardship, I offer an address to an imagined congregation we shall call "First Lutheran." The occasion is All Saints Sunday, which falls in November, the customary month for stewardship campaigns. The purpose of the address is to illustrate one of the important rules for a stewardship campaign that we learned from St. Paul in Session 2: Rule 3, Encourage the mutual upbuilding of the saints.

I Peter 4.10 "Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received."

If you look around the sanctuary today you will see your friends and neighbors, perhaps a guest or two, and maybe someone seeking Christ or a new church home. You may think of yourselves as an average gathering of Christians in America, doing what other Americans are doing all across the country this weekend: engaging in the worship of God. And that description is no doubt accurate. But there is much more to be said. You are, along with your fellow Christians all across the land, a remarkable group -- more remarkable than you might think in the broad scheme of things. You know what it means to be a steward, a good steward "of the manifold grace of God." I want to tell you about this remarkable quality that you possess because I don't want you to ignore it or dismiss it or take it for granted. The best way to understand the remarkable character of the American practice of stewardship -- and that is my subject on this All Saints Sunday, which is also Consecration Sunday for your congregation -- is  to see how it fits into the great story of the Christian people in here in America. I hope it gives you perspective as you consider your promise of giving for the coming year.

Stewardship and American History

Where to begin? In 1952 the German Lutheran bishop, Hanns Lilje (1899-1977), had this to say about the idea of stewardship:

"To know that with all that we are and all that we have we are God's   stewards is the answer to a particularly deep yearning of the time in which we live, namely the yearning for a vita nova, a complete renewal of our life. Here the insights of our American brethren in the faith have in the perspective of church history, something life the same significance as the lessons which the German Lutheran Reformation has taught us about justification by grace ... "{1}

This is quite a statement. The context was this. It was less than a decade after the end of World War II. Germany was trying to rebuild itself from the bottom up. It was doing so with large doses of American money provided by the Marshall Plan, but also by private charities, the majority being Christian relief agencies. Who supported those charities? The answer is American Christians with their countless individual gifts. The Germans were surprised and overwhelmed by this generosity. It made them especially open to American ideas and ways of doing things.

And they needed new ideas. In Germany, the church was traditionally paid for by the collection of taxes. Pastors were civil servants, churches public buildings. The sense of ownership and responsibility for the life of the church was very defused. "How are we going to make the church new?" asked Lilje. Lilje and others looked across the Atlantic to the life of the church in the United States, especially the nuts and bolts of organizing and managing the church day to day. He saw how unique the American church was, how different from Europe. And this is the reason for the statement I just read.

In America, beginning with the time of our origin as a nation, churches have not been paid for by tax collections. There were exceptions but they did not last long. Churches refused government control. When Christians arrived in America in colonial times, there was no parish system in place, no church buildings, no pastors. If they wanted communal Christian life, they had to organize it on their own and build houses of worship by themselves. And they did. Their principle of organization was the congregation. The chief decision-making body was the local church council made up of elders who took care of the property and deacons who were in charge of spiritual matters. American Christians took a liking to being in charge. In 18th-century Virginia, for example, where the Anglican Church had a concentrated presence, a proposal was made by the Church of England to appoint a bishop in residence in the colony. Anglicans all across the colony met in their vestries (that's what they call a church council) and said, "No! We don't want an ecclesiastical official in a hierarchy telling us what to do. We are responsible for what goes on in this parish."

There are many examples like this in the early story of America. Consider the political cartoon from the year 1769, published in a paper in Boston, which at that time was a hotbed of the rebellion that would eventually lead to the Revolution. (To download, click on An attempt to land a bishop in America )

The context for this cartoon was as follows. There were those in the colonies who wanted the king to appoint a bishop to Boston to secure the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church over other denominations, especially in New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and others said no to such privilege. The cartoon thus shows an imagined Anglican bishop, in fear of his life, climbing the rigging of ship docked in Boston harbor. His carriage, crook and miter have been unceremoniously dumped on board. An angry group of colonials stand demonstrating while two of them push the ship away with poles. They are not an unruly mob. They carry volumes by John Locke and Algernon Sidney, two great theorists of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 that secured the power of the English Parliament over the monarchy and thus marked the beginning of representative government in early modern Europe. What the colonists in the cartoon represent is the desire for political and religious liberty. Against liberty, the office of bishop -- because it was the religious representative of the king -- stood in the way. One historian describes what is going on as part of a general pattern of independence that begins with the first colonists: "Men who had gained independent status as property holders by clearing their land with flintlocks close at hand were not the type to be unduly submissive ... "{2} No, they were not; neither in church nor state.

To be sure, lay leadership in the church could cause problems, not only for bishops, but also the local pastor. Realizing the power he had as a member of a church council to call a pastor, one colonial Lutheran had this to say: "Since we have to hire a preacher for money, let's have a jolly one."{3} Trying to lead a congregation to follow the gospel is never easy; being dependent on a congregation for one's livelihood makes the task only harder. For the most part, however, the mission of the church prospered; how well is described by the Englishman William Cobbett (1763-1835), influential journalist and political activist who fled to America with his sons in 1817 to escape political persecution for his radical views. Among the observations he shared by letter sent to his neighbors back home in the town of Botley, Oxfordshire, was that in the new nation of the United States the Christian church seemed to prosper without the benefit of taxes imposed by the state:

"I have talked to several farmers here [in America] about the tithes in England; and they laugh ... they seem, at last, not to believe what I say, when I tell them that the English farmer gives, and is compelled to give [by law], the parson a tenth part of his whole crop ... They cannot believe this ... But, my Botley neighbors, you will exclaim, 'No tithes! Why, then, there can be no churches and no parsons! The people must know nothing of God or Devil.' ... By no means my friends. Here are plenty of churches. No less than three Episcopal (or English) churches; three Presbyterian churches; three Lutheran churches; one or two Quaker meeting-houses; and two Methodist places; all within six miles of the place where I am sitting. And these, mind, not poor shabby churches; but each of them larger and better built ... with the church yards all kept ... with a head-stone to almost every grave ... "{4)

Christian churches thrived without the imposition of coercive giving by taxation. The laity had a stake in their congregations: they built them; they maintained them; they were responsible for mission. This mission included the building of schools, colleges and hospitals. The educational and health care systems of America are largely the creation of Christian churches. American Christianity, especially Protestantism, fostered the understanding of Christians as stewards of the gospel. This notion became an ideal that pertained especially to the life of the laity. The encouragement of lay initiative is essential to the purpose of stewardship.

Definition of the Concept of Stewardship

In light of this history, it is no wonder that the theology of stewardship is so identified with American culture and religious practiced. Stewardship is our major contribution to the discipline of Christian theology. The word itself has been in frequent usage since the beginning of the 20th century to express the personal responsibility each Christian assumes in the voluntary association of the local congregation. While the notion of Christian steward may be expanded to include responsibility to care for such important matters as the environment and social justice, the common understanding of the term among lay people in the church relates to giving. The definition from the U.S. Council on Stewardship in 1946 is as good as one can find:

"Christian stewardship is the practice of systematic and proportional giving of time, abilities and material possessions, based upon the conviction that these are trusts from God to be used in his service for the benefit of all mankind in grateful acknowledgement of Christ's redeeming love."

The word "steward" comes from the Old English word stigweard. Sti(g) is of uncertain meaning but probably refers to a "house" or "hall"; weard means "warden" or "keeper." In the King James version, "steward" is used to refer to a higher servant who does not simply do the bidding of the master but has the authority to make independent decisions regarding the management of the household staff and the use of the master's property. There are many such figures in the Bible.{5}  The first we meet is "the steward (asher) of [Joseph's] house" (Gen. 43.16), who receives the brothers of Joseph when, because of a famine in the land of Canaan, they are forced to go to Egypt to seek grain. Joseph's authority is second only to Pharaoh. His servant, then, is an important figure in his own right and the brothers of Joseph address him with respect: "Oh my lord, we came down the first time to buy food ... " (v. 20). In Isaiah 22, we meet Shebna, who is the major-domo of King Hezekiah. He has overstepped his bounds by building an elaborate tomb for himself: "What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock?" (v. 16).  For his misuse of his office, he must pay: Isaiah 22:17-19 "The LORD is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, 18 whirl you round and round and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master's house! 19 I will thrust you from your office and you will be pulled down from your post."

Shebna teaches that with the privileges that accrue to the office of steward come responsibilities to obey the master and act according to one's station. Failure to live up to those responsibilities entails harsh judgment.

In the New Testament, the understanding of the steward as manager is a stock figure who appears incidentally in the gospels (Matthew 20:8; Luke 8:3; John 2:8). But he also serves as an object lesson for Jesus' teaching:
Luke 12:42-48 "And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and prudent manager [oikonomos] whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave [doulos] whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."

The terms "steward" and "servant" or "slave" are used interchangeably in this passage. Stewardship has to do with readiness, watchfulness and obedience to the intentions of the master, authority for the sake of others under the steward's care. In New Testament letters the idea of stewardship undergoes a development that has specifically theological implications: as servant charged with the responsibility to make known the revealed will of God; as pastor who oversees the affairs of the church; as mediators of divine grace to one another:

1 Corinthians 4:1 "Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries."

Titus 1:7-9 "For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; 8 but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout and self-controlled. 9 He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it."

1 Peter 4:10 "Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

Upbuilding the Saints

We stand in the long line of stewards of the gospel, both as pastors and as lay people. On All Saints Sunday, when we honor the Christians who have preceded us in the church, passed on the faith to us, defended it and built our churches like First Lutheran, we should pause to remember what this has meant. For nearly four centuries our fellow Christians and citizens have sacrificed for us, been stewards for us, and have trusted us to do the same in this, our time of responsibility. They answered the call of the Lord to be stewards in their time. They now from their labors rest. It is our turn to take responsibility.

What does this all mean for you the people of First Lutheran? It means simply this: The church is God's; but you are the manager. First Lutheran is yours. God has entrusted its mission and work to you. He has given you the keys and said, "Unlock the door" -- which is the door not just of the building but of your heart; "turn on the light" -- which is not just the switch on the wall but the light of faith that shines from your very being. The church is yours: lay people who pay for it, give of your time, volunteer your talents. You are "the stewards of the manifold grace of God." You are God's children. You are the merciful.

Bishop Lilje from Germany saw this willingness on the part of Americans to take responsibility for the church a half-century ago and said, "This is what we need in Europe." But it did not happen. What we take for granted here as naturally the way things are is much harder to put in place than you might think. In Germany the old system -- they call it the territorial church -- in which the church is paid for by taxes and its finances managed by professional bureaucrats, is still in place. In Germany, average church attendance is less than 3 percent. Churches, instead of being beehives of activity and programs, are museums enshrining the art and architecture of the past. They are visited less by seekers of God than tourists in a bus.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not saying that we are morally superior to our fellow Christians in Europe. But our congregational life and attendance are much more healthy. And our tradition of stewardship is a good part of the reason.

I hope then that you see what I mean when I say that you are remarkable. You are part of a vibrant homegrown practice that seeks to fulfill the Bible's command to be "good stewards of the manifold grace of God." This is the American voluntary church. If a church is built, if a pastor is called, if a program operates, if a mission is supported, it is only because the Christian people pay for it directly out of their own pockets, take the time to build it with their own hands, maintain it and grow it and make it prosper by their hard work and varied talents. It is they who have built schools and hospitals and relief agencies that cradle this society with nurture and care. This was done in the past because your parents and grandparents promised, "Yes, I will give." It will happen today because you make the promise, "Yes, I will give."

Thank you for being who you are: God's stewards. Amen.

{1} Quoted in T.A. Kantonen, A Theology of Christian Stewardship (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1956) 1. Besides Kantonen, two other texts are especially good on the theology of stewardship: Helge Brattgࣲrd, God's Stewards (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963); Douglas John Hall, The Steward (New York: Friendship Press, 1982).
{2} John Corrigan and Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004) 50.
{3} Quoted in E. Clifford Nelson, ed. Christians in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) 64.
{4} Quoted in Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992) 20.
{5} See especially Hall, The Steward, 17-22.

Discussion questions

1) Bishop Hanns Lilje talks about the relation of the idea of stewardship to Christian renewal. How do you think stewardship and renewal are related?

2)The purpose of the brief history is to highlight the importance of lay initiative in the story of American independence and the development of American Christianity. But it can have a problematical effect on pastoral leadership as noted in this passage from the address: "Realizing the power he had as a member of a church council to call a pastor, one colonial Lutheran had this to say: 'Since we have to hire a preacher for money, let's have a jolly one.' Trying to lead a congregation to follow the gospel is never easy; being dependent on a congregation for one's livelihood makes the task only harder." In Session 1, we saw the difficulty that Paul had balancing ministry and money. Reflect on the problems of pastoral leadership in a congregation that holds the purse strings.

3) Discuss the definition of stewardship as defined by the U.S. Council on Stewardship in 1946: "Christian Stewardship is the practice of systematic and proportional giving of time, abilities and material possessions, based upon the conviction that these are trusts from God to be used in his service for the benefit of all mankind in grateful acknowledgement of Christ's redeeming love."

In the light of the three sessions on stewardship in this study, does this definition hold up?

4) Reflecting on the idea of steward in Luke 12, the following claim is made: "Stewardship has to do with readiness, watchfulness and obedience to the intentions of the master, authority for the sake of others under the steward's care." Discuss.

5) The address ends with a section, "Upbuilding the Saints." Its purpose is to encourage congregational members to become faithful stewards. How do you think this approach would work in your congregation?

-- Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary

Permission granted by the Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship In the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.


Dr. Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary.

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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