Our church members have tended to think of stewardship as the giving of money for the support of the church and its activities. They know that in theory it comprises more than this. Yet in practice, the officer appointed to stewardship in the local church is usually also the treasurer and bears as well the responsibility of raising enough money to prevent the church from ending the year in the red.
This is a worthy and necessary service. Though our Lord ranked spiritual treasures above material goods, this does not suggest that God approves sloppy business dealings in a church under the cover of piety or that He desires His professional servants to be less than adequately paid. When in gratitude for God's gifts church members share their wealth or their "widow's mite" to provide the financial underpinning by which the work of the church can go forward, they truly exercise stewardship.
But stewardship is broader. In the full sense it springs from the Christian doctrine of Creation. It centers in the conviction that "the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof (Ps. 24:1); that all we have, whether of material, mental, or spiritual treasure, is the gift of God; and that we hold these gifts in trust. God has delegated to us a high responsibility in that He has commissioned us to "have dominion" not only over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air (Gen. 1:28) but over great power plants, wide expanses of mechanized industry and agriculture, electronics, aeronautics, atomic energy, and much else.
Stewardship, then, means much more than merely giving to the church and to church-related or charitable causes, though this giving legitimately comprises an aspect of it. Stewardship covers the getting, the spending, and the saving, as well as the giving of money. It means the Christian use of all our economic resources and the investment of time, talent, energy, and, in short, of life itself in the way most consistent with the will of God.
In this comprehensive sense we hold a stewardship of leisure time as well as of daily work, of family and business as well as of church relations, of mind and hidden thought as well as of the overt output which the world observes. To be a steward of God's gifts in the fullest sense is to be a Christian in the whole of life to the fullest possible degree.
Nevertheless, in spite of this comprehensiveness of scope, stewardship comes most sharply to focus in the Christian's daily work when he views it as divine vocation.
Stewardship in daily work
What does it mean to be a Christian in one's daily work? Some emphasize injecting the devotional life into business, industry, and politics. The gatherings of businessmen or Congressmen for prayer breakfasts illustrate this approach, as do the providing of meditation chapels in hospitals and large plants and the lending of the names of well-known business, professional, or political leaders to the support of evangelistic campaigns or to the "religion in American life" emphasis. All of these serve a good end if they are done with sincerity and Christian devotion and not to enhance profits or prestige.
Others hold a second and perhaps more common understanding of what being a Christian in one's daily work means. They suggest that a Christian acts with moral integrity and with eagerness to serve the needs of men in whatever calling he pursues. Thus the physician seeks to relieve pain and to prolong life; the teacher to elicit mental and personal growth in his pupils appropriate to their capacities and level of development; the social worker or counselor to promote the adjustment of the maladjusted; the housewife to make a good home for her family and rear her children with healthy bodies and strong characters. Being a Christian in the complex processes of making or selling products may be more difficult because of the sharp competition and temptations to shortcuts in modern life. But a sense of service in what is made or sold and a thoroughgoing honesty in the process should characterize the Christian. Likewise, the lawyer who will not make false statements or contravene justice on behalf of the guilty, or the legislator who speaks and votes according to the dictates of an enlightened Christian con science exercises an important form of stewardship within his daily work.
Critics of this viewpoint note that other persons besides Christians try to act with integrity in their work. And they add that since neither business nor politics can be conducted with an idealistic moral perfection, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith with the promise of forgiveness for the penitent sinner had better be at the center of one's concept of Christian vocation. According to their view, the proper criterion for adequacy in Christian vocation is found, not in ideals of service, but in performing adequately the duties and demands of one's profession, even though it may involve deep-seated moral ambiguities, and trusting to the accepting love of God made known in Christ. Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., who holds this position, also rejects "job-related piety" because while it appears outwardly to relate religion and daily life, it actually tends to deepen the divisions between the sacred and the secular. '
What God requires
I believe this challenge to be partially true. God requires more of a Christian than merely church attendance and acts of piety. These become bogus rather than real Christianity if they are not projected beyond themselves and integrated with the totality of life. No Christian lives without sin either in his personal life or in his vocation; we all stand in need of penitence as well as prayer. Every Christian ought to do his work as well as he can do it. So far, the challenge strikes at vulnerable spots.
Nevertheless, this view of Christian vocation comes dangerously close to making the demands of the job, rather than those of the gospel, paramount. Granting the centrality of justification by faith, forgiveness is still only one side of the gospel message.
Few would question that the clergy's ministry must include both corporate worship and personal devotions on the one hand and moral integrity and service to humanity on the other. Are these two elements not equally necessary in the church members' work? Are they not inherent aspects of the gospel message? Remove them, and basic foundations, not only of Christian stewardship but also of the total Christian life, are shaken.
The ultimate goal of the church and of its ministry, says the Niebuhr-Williams-Gustafson report, is the increase among men of the love of God and neighbor. If our congregations are, in fact, the ministry in their manifold vocations, then they are as truly responsible to this goal as is the clerical ministry. And if this is true, neither personal piety nor moral idealism can be set aside as inconsequential elements in Christian vocation.
Application to daily work
What, then, does Christian steward ship in daily work mean within the circumstances of our callings? Stated broadly, it means so to conduct ourselves as to manifest and seek to promote the love of God and neighbor. Conceived more explicitly, it has numerous facets, none of which exhaust the meaning in the term but certain of which we need carefully to take into account. Among these are (1) personal awareness of and serious concern for the way of life set forth by Jesus as the will of God, with the recognition that we need to try to apply this directive to the-changed conditions of our day; (2) the endeavor through both corporate worship and personal prayer to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit and strength for the daily task; (3) the choice of a vocation, insofar as the choice is open, in which we will have opportunities either for the direct or the more distant and long-range service of humanity; (4) the adaptation of talent and training to opportunity, so that we will be able to do our work well within our chosen fields; (5) the refusal, even at personal cost, to work at an occupation we conscientiously believe to be destructive of human good; (6) the performance of our duties with integrity, fidelity, and as much skill as possible in the job we do, even though opportunities for service may seem remote; (7) our conducting of ourselves on the job, as at church and everywhere else, with decency and dignity, with friendly relations toward associates, and according to Christian standards.
This is not a blueprint for action. Even if we accept these principles as valid, every individual must apply them within his own varied circumstances. In the attempt we shall make mistakes. Yet to the degree that we make earnest, dedicated efforts along some such lines as these, our love of God and neighbor will increase, and stewardship within our daily work will become an actuality.
Christian stewardship, then, does relate to the spending and saving, as well as the acquiring and giving, of money. What a nest of problems this opens up in our luxury-loving, status-seeking, installment-buying society! But, as we have previously stated, stewardship involves more than money. Stewardship speaks of our role as creatures created in God's image. It is all of life regarded as a happy and holy trust, for which at last we must give account. Perhaps Martin Luther summed it all up when he said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord who redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature ... in order that I might be His son, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness."
1 See his article, "Christian Vocation in
Practice," The Christian Century, LXXVII, No. 41
(October 12, I960), pp. 1179-1181. Long edited
an important series of books written by
represenatives of various fields on the Christian in his
2 H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams,
and James Gustafson, The Purpose of the Church and
Its Ministry (New York: Harper and Brothers.
1956), p. 88.