01 May 2024

Christian stewardship.

STEWARDSHIP 'st(j)u.ərd.ʃɪp noun. The job or duty of supervising or caretaking a person, property, or organization.
2. [adjective] Having to do with the role or condition of supervision or caretaking.
[Steward 'st(j)u.ərd noun; stewarding 'st(j)u.ərd.ɪŋ verb.]

Why on earth have I decided to tag the topic of stewardship with “Mammon”? Because way too often—in fact I would argue most of the time—whenever Christians talk about stewardship, we’re talking about managing our wealth… but we’re pretending we’re managing God’s wealth.

First time I heard about stewardship, I was a kid, learning about Adam and Eve and creation. Adam and Eve had been put in charge of the planet Earth. Says so in the bible.

Genesis 1.27-28 KJV
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 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 moveth upon the earth.

“Subdue it” (Hebrew כִבְשֻׁ֑הָ/khivsá literally means to tamp it down, but usually has the sense of conquering and subjugating. Humans are meant to take over our world, and make it do as we want.

But, my Sunday school teacher pointed out, not so we could just do as we please with it, and ruin it as if it’s a disposable commodity. Littering is bad! Polluting is bad! I know; your Sunday school teacher may not have ever taught such things. Mine did, and justified it by pointing to something the LORD told the Hebrews in the wilderness about the land he intended to give them.

Leviticus 25.23 KJV
The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.

It’s God’s land, and God’s world, she pointed out. We humans are just stewards of this world. We take care of it for him. At at some point we have to answer to God for how we did.

Other Evangelicals have profoundly different attitudes about creation care—and many don’t believe we do answer to God for it. Ever. He gave Earth to Adam and Eve; we’re descendants of Adam and Eve; so it’s our planet to do with as we see fit. And after Jesus returns he’s just gonna destroy the world and make New Earth anyway. Rv 21.1 So it’s okay if we trash the world, and make it uninhabitable and poisonous. We’re getting a brand-new one!

Anyway, that’s how I was introduced to the concept of stewardship. I no longer agree with that interpretation of it; I’ll get to that. But between that and Jesus’s parable about the Faithful and Stupid Stewards Lk 12.41-48 —one of whom watched out for his master, and the other who acted as if the master would never return—to my mind, stewardship had to do with responsibly doing as God wants during our time in this world.

Then, as a teenager, I was introduced to stewardship as it has to do with how Christians handle our money. And that’s where I encountered a buttload of Mammonism. Disguised as Christianity of course; disguised as biblical principles which’d make Christians wealthy, and justifications for all our covetous and stingy behavior: “We’re practicing good stewardship of God’s money. We’re doing it for him.”

Yeah right. If doing it for God were truly the case, we’d see way more good fruit in all this “stewardship.” But when it’s not—when it’s all just hypocrisy and Mammonism—we look like greedy, graceless people who have built a lot of Christian corporations and fancy buildings, but haven’t built any of God’s kingdom. Nothing that’ll last after Jesus personally takes over. Because we’ve prioritized money.

Is it God’s money, or ours?

The first “stewardship principle” you’re gonna come across is the idea all your money is, in fact, God’s money. Not yours. He’s lent it to you, like the master in the Talents Story, and expects you to make his money grow… even though he’s God and oughta be able to supernaturally do that without us.

Really, it misses the whole point of that parable. But the proof texts people use in their stewardship seminars regularly miss the point. ’Cause they’re about growing your wealth, not the kingdom; but they claim no, really, they’re helping the kingdom! But hey, while that’s happening, why not also have a fat bank account and be financially secure?

“Jesus talked about money more than any other subject,” they’re quick to point out. He talked more about money than heaven and hell! But they ignore the fact most of the Jesus-statements about money come from his parables. Being parables, it means Jesus doesn’t literally mean money; he’s using money as a metaphor for something else. And seeing as his parables are all about God’s kingdom, his kingdom is what he talks about more than any other subject. Not money. But hey, what’s the heart of a Mammonist following the hardest after? Hint: Not the kingdom.

Lemme also point out something interesting one of the guys in Jesus’s parables has to say about money:

Matthew 20.15 KJV
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

That’s from the Equal-Pay Vineyard Story, in which the vineyard owner pays everybody a denarius, no matter how long they worked. “Is thine eye evil?” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “Are you stingy?” The vineyard owner’s argument—which Jesus’s audience accepted as valid!—is it’s his money. If he wants to generously overpay people who only worked an hour, he can. If you wanna object—“People should only be paid what they earned, what they deserve; charity makes them soft and entitled”—well you’ll make a great Mammonist, but you realize you’re picking a fight with the kingdom of God.

In his story, Jesus undermines the idea that all our money is God’s money. It’s actually not.

True, stewardship teachers are gonna insist it totally is. God’s owns everything. “All the earth is mine,” he told the Hebrews; Ex 19.5 “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,” wrote King David. Ps 24.1 KJV If everything really belongs to God, that’d include “our” money, and we gotta put “our” in quotes because it’s not really our money. God owns that. And us. And the cattle on a thousand hills, Ps 50.10 no matter what the ranchers who think they own ’em might imagine.

But they’ve misunderstood what God is claiming. These aren’t verses about ownership. They’re about sovereignty. God is the master of these things. He doesn’t own my money. But he is the boss of me, and as such, he has every right to tell me what to do with my money. Same as any human king, or any human government, which claims the same power over everything and everyone in their countries. God claims the same power—and his claim is legit. (Whereas human kings and governments, not so much.)

If private ownership was an illusion, God’s command, “Neither shalt thou steal,” Dt 5.19 KJV would be ridiculous. If all wealth in God’s realm actually belongs to him, how does he relinquish ownership?—it never leaves his realm! Doesn’t matter how far the thief tries to run away; he’s an omnipresent God. Doesn’t matter where the thief hides it; he’s an all-knowing God. But again, God doesn’t claim ownership but sovereignty. The wealth belongs to a person, a family, or a corporation; don’t take it from them without their permission or due process! And at the same time, they answer to God, and what they do with their wealth matters to him. Because they matter to him. And the good and evil they might do with their money, likewise matters to him.

What’s Jesus say about this?

Claiming all our wealth actually belongs to God… is actually something Pharisees sometimes tried to claim. It’s part of a scam they pulled which Jesus roundly criticized, because Pharisees used this trick to evade their duty to their parents and God. It was their way of looking devout, but really being evil. It’s good ol’ Mammonist hypocrisy.

Mark 7.9-13 KJV
9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. 10 For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: 11 but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. 12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13 making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Qorbán (KJV “Corban,” Hebrew קָרְבָּן/qorbán) was the first word of a Pharisee ruling. It means “gift-offering.” It refers to ritual sacrifices, money, food, animals, grain, valuables—anything you’ve decided to give to God. The Law gives instructions on how to give all sorts of qorbaním to the LORD. Pharisees gave additional instructions on how you could give God stuff: You didn’t actually have to take it to temple. You could point to your money, declare “This is qorbán,” and now it belonged to God. Even though it’s still in your house. Or in your bank account, gaining you interest. Or even if you’re planning to otherwise use it… but “for God.”

It’s God’s money, not yours. And you are just a steward of it. Sound familiar?

Because it’s not yours but God’s, there are all sorts of things which the Pharisees figured they could get out of doing with that money. Like, as Jesus pointed out, taking care of their parents. They couldn’t do this with the money ’cause it was dedicated to God; it’s his; they promised, and God takes our vows seriously. Sorry Mom and Dad; you’ll have to live off your Social Security check as best you can. Oh wait; ancient Israel didn’t have Social Security. Guess you’ll have to glean your neighbors’ fields then.

Christian “stewards” tend to get the very same way with “God’s money,” and claim there are all sorts of things we’re not allowed to do with it because it belongs to him. Including good things. Including charitable things. Plenty of Christians are actually gonna insist they can’t give money to help the undeserving poor, or can’t give away money they’ve earmarked for investment, because it’s supposedly God’s money and he made those earmarks, not them. Plenty of churches are gonna abandon expensive ministries because they’ve determined they’re not cost-effective investments in the community or in people… but instead of saying anything like that, they’re gonna claim, “We can’t; it’s just not good stewardship.”

Nevermind that the Holy Spirit might actually want ’em to pay for that ministry. Nevermind God doesn’t worry about our limited resources, because he’s an unlimited God and is willing to give us a whole lot more resources if we’d stop being stingy and trust him.

But it’s not stinginess, we insist; we’re “practicing stewardship.” Not coincidentally, our “stewardship” tends to be just as faithless and stingy and Mammonist as we are.

Would Jesus critique us for trying to evade our Christian duty in the very same way he critiqued those Pharisees? Well, search your conscience. Better yet, have someone else search your conscience—namely one of the people who really needs help from that charity. Because it’s a good bet they’re already crying out to God about you.

If all money is God’s money, as these teachers claim, then you’re justified in loving the things of this world. You’re justified in the love of money, which is no longer the root of all sorts of evil when you’re an enlightened Christian like they are; you can wield it like a snake-handler plays with poisonous serpents. It justifies all their Mammonist behavior and makes it appear perfectly Christian. Still idolatry though.

Don’t be foolish with your money. But follow God.

I will admit that a lot of advice given in stewardship seminars tends to be careful, wise, and shrewd. It usually comes from people who deal with money for a living, and have managed to do well for themselves. So their advice isn’t wholly invalid.

Thing is, their expertise is money. Not biblical scholarship, which they only got into in order to justify their advice. They borrow bible verses to defend their behavior—and not always legitimately. Verses regularly get pulled out of context. Passages from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are used as examples of biblical wisdom—but wisdom verses are meant to be situational, not universal; sometimes they apply, and sometimes not, and you use wisdom to figure out whether they do or don’t. Yet these stewardship teachers wrongly claim these verses always apply; they’re as authoritative and unchanging and infallible as the God who inspired them… and violating them is sin. This is how their misuse of scripture is used to back up all sorts of “principles” which aren’t consistent with the good fruit of compassion, generosity, love, kindness, and grace.

Greedy people really don’t do grace, and “good stewardship” is all too often just greed disguised as Christianity. So when you go to these stewardship seminars, look at the fruit. How gracious are they with people who respectfully, constructively disagree with their “principles”? How dire are their warnings to people who won’t follow all their instructions to the letter? How much compassion do they have for people who don’t do as they’re instructing? Good fruit means they might be worth listening to; bad fruit means beware.

And bear in mind there are gonna be some occasions in a Christian’s life where following God defies your financial adviser’s teachings. He might tell you to get start saving up for a house… and the Holy Spirit might tell you to forget about that house, ’cause he’s got a mission for you in some other country, and he’ll provide you a house. Your adviser might tell you to get rid of the credit cards; the Spirit might tell you to keep those credit cards because he needs you to make some big purchases, and relax; he’ll pay you back. I should of course point out: Make absolutely sure that’s God before you empty out any bank account. Don’t be unwise!

The very fact I’m telling you any of this stuff will make some financial advisers wring their hands in fury: “God doesn’t do that sort of thing! Stop telling them that!” It’s no coincidence a lot of financial advisers don’t really believe God does anything anymore. You realize people who trust their wealth more than they do God, are naturally gonna sound like that. Again, bad fruit means beware.