Stewardship and the Church

Stewardship means performing the role of a steward. The word “steward” has evolved to mean several professional designations but its main meaning denotes the simple idea of one who carries out the responsibilities of maintaining or sustaining something that has been entrusted to him by someone else: whether servants, finances, or an entire household. The etymology of the word in Old English signifies “house guardian”, yet the importance in the meaning centers on the idea of taking care of things owned by someone else.
The first explicit encounter of this role among biblical personalities is found in Genesis 15:2. There, Abraham explains that he is childless and the only one to fill the role of steward of his household is Eliezer of Damascus. The literal Hebrew designation of Eliezer’s role is a term that means “one who has responsibility for the household possessions”. As we trace the role of Eliezer in Genesis 24, we find that it is expansive, even encompassing finding a wife in a far-away land for Abraham’s son Isaac. In that chapter, he is described as the eldest servant of Abraham’s house, “that ruled over all that he had”. This man was more than a simple servant; he was a steward. A servant carries out the precise word of the master. A steward, on the other hand, makes decisions about the household in line with the master’s overall wishes and with the master’s substance. He rules the master’s possessions and household – not his own.
Without using the word, the Old Testament makes use of the idea of steward as an analogy to the role that man has been assigned by God. God is clearly shown to be the Creator of heaven and of earth (Genesis 1) and as Creator, the real Owner of all that is. He reproves His people when they want to offer sacrifices without recognizing that He is the one who provides them from His ownership (Psalm 50 – English numbering).
God created man in his image (Gen. 1:27). In the Old Testament, this meant that God made man to rule the Creation, just as God does, and on His behalf: a steward of Creation. “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (vs. 28). “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (Gen. 2:15). Man was to give his time and energy to steward the Creation. He was to take care of it for the glory of the Owner, and to partake of it as he needed. He naturally, in thankfulness and in worship, offered part of it back to God as did Cain and Abel in the first offering of fruits of the earth and animal sacrifices mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 4). This principle, that man stewards and offers to God what God has provided for man in the first place, will, many years later, show up in the Divine Liturgy in words that are said to God of the offering: “Thine own, from Thine own, we offer to Thee, in all and for all.”
At the beginning, God was shown to be the Creator and Owner of all and that man is his steward. However, in the ancient world, as today, the idea became perverted. The principle of private ownership set in, apart from any stewardship to God. As private owners, people began to believe that they could simply focus on making “their own” wealth. As a result, they neglected the land, the poor and the work of God. This was to be corrected when God called the nation of Israel from among the nations. God gave Israel several major laws for stewardship that were to run counter to the principles then operating in the world. These laws were a limited revelation until the full revealing of the Holy Spirit was to come, but they were of high principle nevertheless.
One set of laws involved the stewardship of the poor, as opposed to their neglect. If a man, through poverty had indebted himself as a servant (slave) then he was to be released to freedom the seventh year (Ex. 21:1-4). His poverty was not to claim his freedom for the rest of his life and his “owner” would bear the economic consequences. If one owned property that produced harvest, one was not to glean everything from the property but to ensure that some was left in the field for the poor (Lev. 19:10). This principle sustained Ruth before she became one of the ancestors of our Lord (Ruth 2:2). Another principle involved lending money to the poor without expecting interest in return (Ex. 22:25). Yet another principle declared a land restoration every 50 years (a Jubilee), so that those families that had lost their land in the process of poverty could be restored to the land of their forefathers (Lev. 25:8:13). This was an “economic loss” to the owners but a reminder that they were really only stewards and not owners.
Another set of laws involved the stewardship of the land itself. The land was to be worked six years and the seventh year it was to lie fallow (Lev. 25:4-5). If new trees were planted, the fruit was not to be reaped until the fourth year (Lev. 19:23). Even if there was to be a war, fruit trees were not to be cut down for the purpose of the war because they were created to bear fruit and should be used thus (Deut. 20:19-20). If a tree was to be found with birds or eggs, the mother was to be let go before taking those (Deut. 22:6). These laws of God went some way to show man the road back to become a steward of Creation.
More importantly, a set of laws stipulated the stewardship of God’s religious work which meant supporting the tabernacle or temple, the priesthood, the festivals and the vulnerable of society. One of these was the law of the three tithes. The Israelites were to give a tithe (an Old English word for a tenth, or 10%) of their produce to the Levites, God’s religious officials in Israel, who were serving in and around the tabernacle or the temple (Num. 18:21). If the agricultural tithe was to be converted to money instead of produce, one would be required to add a fifth to it, making it 12% instead. Even the Levites were to tithe of their tithe directly in sacrifices to God. A second tithe was designated for the celebration of God’s festivals which was also shared with the Levites (Deut. 14:22-27). A third tithe was to be given every third year and was used to finance those that needed extra help including the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (vss. 28-29). Therefore approximately, 23-25% of an Israelite’s income was designated to support the religious order, apart from the freewill offerings he would make and the economic impact he would sustain from other stewardship laws for the poor and the land.
When the Son of God became incarnate and came among men, He clarified what should have been known from the beginning. No longer did God legislate every detail of stewardship but taught that He was Creator and Owner of all and therefore that every individual owed Him their entire energy, body and material worth — besides their entire lives — and not only a limited percentage. To one individual He asked to sell all his possessions, give to the poor and follow Him (Mat. 19:21). Of a widow, He commended that she gave a larger percentage to the Temple, even in her poverty, as compared to those who followed the letter of the law (Luke 21:1-4). To another, He reminded that to be a follower of Christ, one might have to give up having a bed or home to lay one’s head (Mat. 8:20). Of another, He praised the wise usage of the multiple talents of coins given him which were invested and given back in due time, with all of their increase, to the Lord (Mat. 25:19-21). When the Church was first started at Pentecost, the members were inspired to consider no property that they had as their own, but they gave all to the disposal of those that had need (Acts. 4:32-35). This form of “communism” was to be later disdained by our private ownership society but was adopted by monasteries and other Christian brotherhoods.
Thus, the Fall of man resulted in a world that went astray, believing that those who gathered the wealth were the real owners of it and were not responsible to God, their community or land (a philosophy which persists even today). In the Old Testament we have a new direction that shows that a significant portion of the increase was to be used in stewardship of the land, the poor and the religious work of God. In Christ we have the full light that God, the Creator of all, who expects us to lay final claim to nothing that we appear to “own” including wealth, land, talents, gifts, time or even our own bodies, but to use it all in wisdom for the glory of God, for the Church of God, for the Creation (land, air and water), and to help the vulnerable and needy. Glory be to God, the Creator and Owner of all, who has given us this stewardship! Truly “Thine own, of Thine own, we offer to Thee, in all and for all.”