My Theology of Stewardship
Rev. Phil Pratt
Challenged by Rev. Clif Christopher, a leading stewardship consultant among denominational and non-denominational churches, I endeavor now to articulate a theology of Christian stewardship from my perspective. It is my hope that this work may assist in leading others… particularly members of my congregation… to allow their own use and designation of the resources over which they have been given authority to joyfully serve the Lord, and align with God’s will. Have grace on me as you read… I am by no means an expert.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”[i]
My theology of stewardship begins with a single, simple principle… that God, as creator of the world, is the sole owner of all of its resources. But God seeks to share, out of the abundance of creation, generously with the creatures of the earth, most notably humankind. God also gave humankind the responsibility to care for and keep the earth, and offered the privilege of sustaining ourselves with its bounty.[ii] Throughout history there have been occasional periods and isolated occurrences of drought or famine, poverty and hunger, but largely God’s earth has sustained the population, which continues to grow under God’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”[iii]
It is easy, living in the United States in the 21st Century, to lose the connection between the “stuff” of our lives… homes, cars, cash, electronics, food, vacations, education, health care, retirement savings… and that original gift from God of the simple bounty of the earth. We have distanced ourselves from the raw material that was the Garden of Eden, and live in a highly processed world which would make us believe that we have, in fact, created the “stuff” of our lives. We’ve worked for it, we’ve earned it, we deserve it. And we aren’t the first to think that way. Centuries ago, Jesus spoke to a crowd of anxious, hard-working Jews not unlike ourselves who thought they needed to “create” well-being for themselves. He reminded them that God cares for and provides richly for all of God’s creation, and even their highly refined goods and carefully preserved food could not compare with the simplest of God’s handiwork. They shouldn’t worry, because God would provide for them too.[iv] If we tear away at the layers of production and pull apart the components of our refined “stuff,” we find the handiwork and provision of God at the origin… the raw material… of everything we have. And so it’s clear to me that all of the “stuff” of our lives is, in fact, a gift from God.
Furthermore, God’s provision is a historic reality and a future promise. When we remember that our ancestors ate manna and quail in the desert,[v] or that Jesus turned water into wine,[vi] or fed many multitudes (4,000[vii]; 5,000[viii]; more than 5,000[ix]), we are recounting the historic reality that God has offered consistent provision for our basic needs, not only day-to-day, but even in desperate situations. The promise comes in a number of fashions throughout scripture, beginning with the Garden itself, in which the earth is given as provision to be cared for by Adam and Eve and their offspring, but repeated again in the Abrahamic Covenant,[x] in the promise of a land to God’s people enslaved in Egypt,[xi] and ultimately in the living water[xii] and bread of life[xiii] declarations that Jesus makes of himself. It is my conviction, through these and other scriptural testimonies, and through personal experience and observation, that we can believe that God has and will provide for our every need, today, tomorrow, and eternally. Recalling that conviction overpowers the anxiety that comes with a self-determinate understanding of provision. A friend of mine wrote a song which asks, “Why are we so afraid? Don’t we know the savior?!”[xiv] The truth is, in relationship with our loving and gracious God, we need never fear.[xv]
When we move beyond fear we leave behind the great capitalist motivator, competitive scarcity. Hoarding resources for fear of an impending lack of resources does not fit with a biblical theology of stewardship, as Christ rebukes the servant who takes his talent and buries it in the ground simply to insure that it will be available to him later when he needs it.[xvi] Christ reiterates this when he teaches the parable of the so called “Rich Fool.” The man has had an abundant crop, and decides to build bigger barns so that he can store up his wealth and relax for several years. Jesus said to them, “be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The story ends with the man dying that very night, and never enjoying a bit of the bounty of his labor. Jesus closes with, “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”[xvii]
“But, it’s hard to jump from the place where we are into a life utterly unattached to the material world!” This is a struggle I live daily. I know, and my family knows, and my parishioners know that I too like my stuff. My restored pickup truck and my sailboat are possessions that have a special place in my heart, and I also like to live comfortably, in a nicely furnished home, and to travel, and to eat well. And I have a retirement account into which I make contributions regularly. And a savings account to be prepared for any surprises. Here is the place where, for me, Christ’s teachings and my lifestyle can begin to rub uncomfortably. In order to experience peace of mind, I have to determine a standard at which I feel I am both living a comfortable life, in which I experience and value the abundance of God’s creation and blessing, and in which I feel I am being rich toward God, and contributing generously out of my gratitude for that abundance toward the mission of God’s Kingdom here on earth. I am grateful that the scriptures offer a standard in the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham[xviii] and continuing through Mosaic Law of a 10% tithe, because when I meet that standard of giving back to the Lord’s work through the church, I know that I am meeting God’s expectation for my sacrifice and generosity. In the tithe, I find great peace.
Finally, we can add words to more words when we seek to express our understanding of God and our relationship to God, but nothing “makes it real” like “putting our money where our mouth is.” Words are not that precious to us… just take a quick look at the internet and see how our culture likes to throw words around at a pace faster than we can digest them. Actions are not even that precious to us… we are willing to try almost anything, just for the experience. But money! Money is precious to us, which is why stewardship is one of the most essential of our spiritual practices. Healthy giving works to break down the grip that the love of money… greed… anxiety… holds on our souls and on our purse strings. Good stewardship offers all that we have to glorify God and further God’s mission in the world around us. We owe it to the Christian community to show them this important practice, so that they too can experience the peace and bounty of God in their whole lives.
[i] Psalm 24:1
[ii] Genesis 1:28-30
[iv] Luke 12:22-31
[v] Exodus 16
[vi] John 2:1-11
[vii] Mark 8:1-10
[viii] Mark 6:30-44
[ix] Matthew 14:13-21
[x] Genesis 12:2-3
[xi] Exodus 3:7-8
[xii] John 4:7-15
[xiii] John 6:25-59
[xiv] Josh Schicker, Moonlighting, “Afraid”
[xv] Romans 8:38-39
[xvi] Matthew 25:14-30
[xvii] Luke 12:13-21
[xviii] Genesis 14:20