Giving as Jesus gave—a theology of stewardship

Stewardship means much more than the narrow limits we have often placed upon it.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Div., is a member of the department of religion at Columbia Union College, Washington, D.C.


What is stewardship? Julius Earl Crawford in The Stewardship of Life gives the following definition: "It is the recognition and fulfillment of personal privilege and responsibility for the administration of the whole of life—personality, time, talent, influence, material substance, every thing—in accordance with the spirit and ideals of Christ." —Page 11.

This theme of inclusiveness is reflected in the most widely accepted definition of Christian stewardship in American churches adopted by the United Stewardship Council in 1945. Twenty-seven denominations joined in approving the following statement: "Christian stewardship is the practice of systematic and proportionate giving of time, abilities, and material possessions, based on the conviction that these are a trust from God to be used in his service for the benefit of all mankind in grateful acknowledgment of Christ's redeeming love." —Quoted by Glenn McRae, Teaching Christian Stewardship, p. 18.

If, then, stewardship involves man responding with his whole life to God, what prompts him to make such a response? Is it because the law of God demands it? Is the basis of stewardship to be found in the text, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself " (Luke 10:27, R.S.V.)?

Or must stewardship be based solely upon the free grace of God transmitted by the gospel and eliciting spontaneous and grateful love? Is the proper starting point found in such a statement as "You received without pay, give without pay" (Matt. 10:8, R.S.V.)?

A woman of the streets once bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with costly oil. When Simon the Pharisee protested, Jesus told a parable about a moneylender and then said, "'Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown' " (Luke 7:47, N.E.B.).* The divine grace operative in His person had evoked a response in the woman that did not count the cost. Man's response to the gracious activity of divine love is to give unstintingly.

The ground of stewardship

Although the Biblical testimony sees divine grace brought to focus in Jesus, the whole of the creative process is grounded in God's freely given love. God's love is the motivating power in His creative and redemptive activity. He does not create because of any deficiency of being, for He is Himself the very fullness of love. Any necessity in the creative act arises from God's desire to share His love with beings who shall freely respond to that love. Creation, as much as redemption, springs out of the divine self-giving. The very nature of such creative love is to evoke from the creature a corresponding love.

Such a love, however, implies human freedom. God awaits man's voluntary, freely given response. Redemption means being set free to choose God and to live as His child. We use our dowered freedom aright as we surrender to the will of God, manifested in Jesus. We learn that true freedom consists of being made captive by His love.

Daniel Day Williams has pointed out that the highest form of love is "not possession, but participation." Love grows as it discovers that "its claims, its demands, and its fulfilment is the spirit of participation rather than possession."—The Spirit and Forms of Love, p. 209. Freedom rightly used is freedom to love in the sense of participation and self-giving.

The cost of stewardship

Discipleship and stewardship are bound together. Our response to the sacrificial giving of God manifested in Jesus is the way of costly self-giving in our own life. Costly discipleship means giving without the motivation of reward. Paul declared that the prior motivation in Christian stewardship is the example of Christ and the riches of the believer be cause of His poverty (see 2 Cor. 8:9).

Frank Stagg comments on this pas sage: "There is a total absence of legalism, regimentation, and appeal to the profit motive. . . . Paul recognized giving to be a duty, but he emphasized it as a matter of grace. . . . Stewardship he saw to be rooted in the very grace from which comes our salvation." —New Testament Theology, p. 29.

True Christian stewardship is, first of all and always, stewardship of the gospel. The significance of our financial stewardship lies precisely at the point of motivation. Joseph McCabe says: "The problem in our church is exactly the problem of every church. It is the problem of getting people to stop giving money to the church budget, and to begin responding to the gospel in terms of discipleship. ... All the devices and methods of raising money within the church that are not founded on man's response to the gospel will go to pieces on the rock of man's selfishness."—The Power of God in the Parish Program, p. 14.

Christian giving springs from faith. But it is also true that faith is strengthened by giving. Our relationship with God is in the active voice. A living God, He calls us to a living faith. The truth of the gospel is not a set of propositions; faith centers in a Person. Truth is some thing that happens. The truth with which theology deals is living truth, which centers in Him who said, "I am the truth." Stewardship, then, is the reenactment of Christ's life in Christ's people. Such stewardship is wholehearted, spontaneous, and tireless.

The product of stewardship

The structure of stewardship is remarkably simple—the divine gift and the human response, grace and gratitude.

Particularly significant is the sublime status that the gospel ascribes to the concept of giving. Giving is, in the first instance, not a human activity at all, but originates in the creative depths of the heart of God and reveals to us His in most nature. God so loves that He gives. The gospel thus bears the character of a gift rather than the character of an achievement. Christian giving is not only called into being by what God does but is itself a continuation of God's own activity. God the giver of every good and perfect gift, "gives to all men generously and without reproaching" (James 1:5, R.S.V.). To this divine giving we owe our life and our redemption; a Christian is one who lives by what God gives.

In response to that gift, stewardship is a spiritual act, as truly religious as praise and prayer. When the acquisitive attitude of the natural man has been trans formed into the giving attitude of the redeemed man, the explanation of the change is this: "God is at work in you" (Phil. 2:13, R.S.V.; "We are his workmanship" (Eph. 2:10, R.S.V.). Genuine Christian giving reflects faithfully God's own character of love. Spontaneous and creative, it is free from the desire to obtain something in return, and unconditioned by the worth or worthlessness of the recipient. It is patterned on the heart of a God who with abandoned prodigality showers His favors on the good and the evil alike. It is so free from selfish calculation that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

Unlike other forms of giving, Christian giving is first of all an act of worship. The stewardship appeal calls for a "living sacrifice," but the basis of all true worship is gratitude. The worshiper in the Old Testament brought "thanksgiving as his sacrifice" (Ps. 50:23, R.S.V.), and worship in the New Testament church was described as "always and for everything giving thanks" (Eph. 5:20, R.S.V.). The early Christians named their sublimest act of worship, the reception of the body and blood of their Lord, eucharist, or thanksgiving. And when they envisioned worship as it was to be in heaven, they saw the redeemed giving "glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne" (Rev. 4:9, R.S.V.). Giving that is prompted by gratitude for the goodness of God be comes doxology.

Christian giving is not only an act of worship; it is also an act of service. It is highly important to note that the two, worship and service, are inseparable. The New Testament uses the same word, leitourgia, for both, just as we do when we speak of worship as a "service." The underlying motive and the connecting link between both aspects of Christian giving is thanksgiving. This three-cornered relationship between worship, service, and thanksgiving is beautifully expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:11, 12: "You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service [leitourgia] not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God" (R.S.V.).

Christian stewardship's basic orientation is thus clear. It is rooted in the Christian's new relation to God established by God's saving action in Jesus Christ, revealed and transmitted by the gospel. In so far as it is genuinely Christian it bears the marks of the gospel—its unconditioned love, its creative spontaneity, its overflowing joy and gratitude. Free from calculating self-interest and legalistic coercion, it does not strive to win God's favor, for that favor has already been richly and freely bestowed. The stewardship life in its deepest sense is indeed nothing other than the reenactment of the Christ life (see Gal. 2:20).

However, such reenactment takes place "in the flesh," within the conditions of concrete human existence. Here lies the justification for that phrase of stewardship that tabulates the needs of the church, metes out apportionments to care for them, and stresses the obligation of proportionate giving. The same "hardness of heart" that led Moses to grant divorces and thus modify God's will for the indissolubility of marriage is also the reason for apportionment tables in the church, where overflowing love should render such prescribed obligations unnecessary.

If the aim of stewardship were only to achieve practical results, such as securing money for a worthy cause, any kind of theology serving this purpose would be justified. We hear echoed Tetzel's popular couplet: "Soon as the groschen in the casket rings, The soul from purgatory springs." Here is a type of theology that has lost none of its effectiveness for fund raising. It is the theology of those, whatever their background, who present their offerings to God expecting a return of corresponding blessings. But it is not the theology of the gospel, and it has nothing to do with the stewardship that is based upon the gospel.

The treasure of our stewardship is the riches of God's grace freely bestowed upon us in Christ and appropriated by faith as capital for a new life in partner ship with God.

* From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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Rex D. Edwards, D.Div., is a member of the department of religion at Columbia Union College, Washington, D.C.

August 1979

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