The privilege of stewardship

A Christocentric view of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of stewardship. Statement of Faith #20.

Ben Maxson, DMin., is director of the stewardship department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #20: "We are God's stewards, entrusted by Him with time and opportunities, abilities, and possessions, and the blessings of earth and its resources. We are responsible to Him for their proper use. We acknowledge God's ownership by faithful service to Him and our fellow men, and by returning tithes and giving offerings for the proclamation of His gospel and the support and growth of His church. Stewardship is a privilege given to us by God for nurture in love and the victory over selfishness and covetousness. The steward rejoices in the blessings that come to others as a result of his faithful ness. (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15; 1 Chron. 29:14; Hag. 1:3-11; Mat. 3:8-12; 1 Cor. 9:9-14; Matt. 23:23; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; Rom. 15:26, 27.)

Stewardship! The very word confronts us with the idea that we have something to do, and that it will cost us—money and effort. Questions come to mind when we think of stewardship. Why should I give? How much should I give? Do I really want to give? Why is it always about money? Why is money so important, or so much a problem? And, who really is owner? Yet as we look at the biblical concept of steward ship, we see something much greater. Stewardship is the lifestyle of one who accepts Christ's lordship, walking in partnership with God and acting as God's agent to manage His affairs on earth.

Where it began

It all began with God's creation of Adam and Eve in His own image. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26).

Shaping Adam's form with His hands and breathing through his lips the breath of life, God created us by means of an act of incredible intimacy. This story provides humanity's initial and core identity—intimate friends with God who as stewards are entrusted with the task of managing God's world. Remember, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Ps. 24:1, NIV).

Thus God shared with us His governance of the world. We became His agents with the task of handling His resources. God is the Owner and we are His managers. Everything in our hands—our time, our talents, our energy, our material resources—everything is His. And we hold it only in trust. This concept forms the foundation of biblical stewardship.

Stewardship in and through Christ

When sin entered the world, it shattered and distorted God's creation and separated humanity from God. It broke the union with God and marred the image of God. The governance God had shared with us was surrendered, and this earth became sin's domain. In the same way, stewardship without a relationship with God becomes simply an extension of our sinful lifestyles.

In Jesus Christ, God restored the divine-human relationship and re established His kingdom on earth. Thus the gospel provided reconciliation between God and humanity as Christ became the Second Adam, winning back humanity's lost role as stewards of the world under God. Today, steward ship begins with the recognition of God's sovereignty as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and Owner.

Through the Incarnation, Christ identified Himself fully with humanity. The shared intimacy of God with humanity is embodied in Jesus Christ—the God- Man. His life and death form the basis for a renewed relationship with God. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the living presence of Jesus restores the reality of a shared intimacy with God.

Restoring God's image in humanity is part of the redemption process. While not complete before the Second Coming, the process begins here on earth. The Holy Spirit brings the promised presence of Christ into the life of the believer (John 14:16-20) and begins a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Sinful humanity, saved by grace, again shares the image of God (2 Peter 1:4). Through Christ's power, the believer who accepts the gift is again in union with God.

As the model steward, Jesus Christ demonstrated the lifestyle of the individual in union with God. Through His ministry in heaven, Christ enthrones humanity with Him (Eph. 2:6) and renews humanity's partnership with God. When we allow God to live on the throne of our lives, He lifts us to sit with Him on His throne. In this partnership, we as human agents function as regents under the authority of God. All the power of heaven is available to aid God's stewards in their daily lives.

While enthroned by God in heavenly places with Christ, we are totally dependent upon Him for every aspect of life. Yet God is also dependent upon us. He has chosen to depend upon His believers as the ultimate demonstration of His power and character to the world. He trusts us with a complete partnership in union with Him. The awesome concept of God's dependence on us is crucial to our accepting full dependence on Him.

Partnership and interdependence

This renewed interdependence provides the model for relationships with other human beings. The corporate dimension of the church as the Body of Christ, with Him as its Head, reflects the ultimate level of partnership and/or stewardship. Each part of the Body, individually or corporately, grows and matures through interdependence. Interdependent with God, as members of His Body we are also interdependent with each other.

At first, as individuals or even as a corporate group, we are totally dependent on the rest of the Body. With growth and maturation, we gain strength until we are able to contribute to the Body as a whole. Stewardship is an important ministry in fostering this growth in inter dependence.

Through a discipleship walk, stewards acknowledge God's lordship and surrender every area of life to Him. Discipleship—moving the entire life toward God—takes place under the Holy Spirit's guidance as He recreates the believer in God's image. Faithful stewardship is the Christian lifestyle and the joyful result of a personal relation ship of assurance in Jesus Christ. It indicates the believer's response to God's initiative in creation and redemption. It indicates an acceptance of the relationship established by God, and the willingness to integrate obedience into every area of life.

Thus, stewardship carries over into every area of the life of an individual or church. It provides the foundation and motivation for ministry and witness.

Living in partnership with God shapes the priorities and focus. And as believers grow in this partnership, the Holy Spirit guides them to provide the financial support for the church as the Body of Christ.

Time and money

The issues of time and money are critical in stewardship because they are the two most fluid and changeable dimensions of life. The management of these two areas quickly reflects and influences our spiritual lives. God created the Sabbath as the crowning act of Creation week. As a sign that they accepted Him as their Creator and Sovereign, He has asked humanity to rest and worship Him before doing anything else.

God established the system of tithes and offerings for the same purpose. Through the tithe we worship God and acknowledge Him as our Lord. We recognize that all we are and have belong to Him. God asks that both the first portion of our time and of our material possessions be given to Him as a sign that we accept our covenant relationship with Him. God then invites us to live the rest of our lives in partnership with Him.

Money plays an important role in our lives. How we deal with money reflects what is happening in our spiritual relationship with God. Jesus stated, "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matt. 6:24, NIV), Money, in fact, appears to be one of the most important subjects in Scripture. There are over 2,300 biblical references to money and material possessions, while there are only about 500 that refer to prayer, and fewer than 500 dealing directly with faith. A majority of Christ's parables deal with money and material possessions.

This is why our stewardship must include a strong financial dimension. We must come to the point where we recognize and accept God as Owner of all the material blessings He has placed in our hands. When we think of our selves as owners, we deny God's essential identity as Master and Owner. It is really a question of lordship. Who will be in control?

Tithes and offerings

As growing disciples, we accept God's control of all material or financial areas. We seek to do His will as guided by the Holy Spirit. This essential stew ardship principle is brought into focus by the system of tithes and offerings.

We are tempted to look at tithes and offerings as the church's method for funding itself. Yet when we look at the biblical record, we discover that tithes and offerings began long before there was a church or even a corporate dimension to God's people. The biblical accounts of the first sacrifices are found in Genesis 4 and clearly have to do with offerings that are brought to God as acts of worship.

The word tithe or tenth first appears in the story of Abraham and Melchizedek in Genesis 14. The concept next appears when Jacob promises to return to God a tenth of all the blessings he will receive (Gen. 28:22). During the entire time of the patriarchs, there was no church to support. Tithes and offerings were returned to God simply as acts of worship.

Later, when God established a corporate people whom He would call His own, He used the system of tithes and offerings as a means of support for the Levites and priests. (See Lev. 27:30-33 and Num. 18:21-28.) The people presented their tithes "as an offering to the Lord" (Num. 18:24). Thus the concept of worship was central to tithing.

A return to tithing was part of the great revivals in Israel (see 2 Chron. 31:4-13 and Neh. 10:37, 38; 12:44; 13:5, 12). As God's people responded to God's call to return to Him, their faithfulness was so great that new store rooms had to be built to contain the tithe. Today, the church has designated the local conference as the "store house" where the tithe is to be stored and distributed.

The most direct passage relating to tithe belonging to God is found in Malachi 3:6-12. The entire book is an extended dialogue between God and His people, especially the leaders of His people. They are in apostasy, and God is calling them back. The climax comes with His call for them to return to Him. And a core element of that return is for them to stop robbing God of His tithes and offerings and to bring them to His "storehouse." Because of their apostasy, God's people cannot enjoy His blessings, and He states that those blessings can only be restored in the context of their faithfulness.

In the New Testament, Jesus reaffirms the principle of tithing (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11 -.42) when He tells the Pharisees that they ought to tithe and practice justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Paul uses the Old Testament tithing practice as the basis for supporting gospel workers (1 Cor. 9:13-14).

In 2 Corinthians 9:6, 7, Paul outlines the guiding principle for determining how to give and how much we should give: "Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (NIV).

Thus the system of tithes and offerings is a critical part of our financial discipleship. The tithe is holy, claimed by God as His own. But this does not mean that the rest of it is ours. As we first return to Him the money He has placed in our hands, we remind our selves that it all belongs to Him—that 100 percent of it is to be used for His glory and honor. This principle then guides our complete use of His finances, even when we use what remains to care for our families and our needs.

It's a lifestyle

The truth is, however, that when we have returned our tithe and given our offerings, our stewardship has only begun. It is not a matter of "paying our dues" and then living the rest of our lives for ourselves. Stewardship reminds us that everything we are and have belongs to God. He invites us to enter into an intimate partnership with Him— to let Him be Lord of our lives. As someone has said, "If He is not Lord of all; can He be Lord at all?"

Thus stewardship becomes a lifestyle that involves submitting ourselves completely to God as an act of heartfelt worship (Rom. 12:1). All this is a privilege given to us by God to nurture a life integrated in Him. Stewardship becomes the practice of God's presence in all we do. From slaves to sin, God lifts us to be partners with the Divine—stewards managing His affairs on earth.

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Ben Maxson, DMin., is director of the stewardship department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

June 2004

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