A Biblical Foundation for Stewardship and Generosity
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 4 in 2019. You can access the full issue here.
Stewardship is not simply fundraising! The church has much to learn from the school of fundraising regarding methods and process, but stewardship is about much more than money. Generosity can be expressed in ways that are not measured by the impact they leave on the financial ledger. Generosity flourishes where gratitude thrives. Gratitude grows where the source of blessings is understood and acknowledged. Stewardship and generosity have biblical roots, theological implications, and represent an important part of Christian discipleship.
The creation poem in Genesis sets the tone with the Divine’s affirmation of each day’s handiwork. God delights in everything that God has made; and on the sixth day it is not just good, but very good. God then gives dominion to the human creatures—bidding them to rule the earth the way that God rules in the cosmos—for the benefit of all living things. (This implies that stewardship includes creation care.) The humans are also encouraged to “be fruitful and multiply,” (Gn 1:28) an assurance that there is enough not only to survive, but to thrive.
From the beginning there is the promise of abundance, or at the very least sufficiency, so that humans need only work for six days, but have enough produce from the earth for seven days. This is the main point of the Sabbath stories—to remind us (weekly) that God provides. We know that the earth was designed in such a way to supply every person with clean water and food. We also know that globally, many are dying from a lack of these things, not because there isn’t enough, but because we are poor stewards of the existing resources. The management of the resources is poor, allowing too much to be hoarded by a few at the expense of the many. If we understand stewardship in part as faithful management, then this too is a stewardship issue.
Sabbath stories also remind us of the source of our blessings. In keeping Sabbath, we remember that we are not the creator, but rather the created. The world does not exist solely because of our frenetic activity, but rather as a gift from God. In Deuteronomy 5 we are explicitly told that honoring the Sabbath proclaims not only God’s provision, but also God’s deliverance. Sabbath is a gift we are given by Divine agency. It represents the overthrow of Pharaoh’s economy, where human worth was measured by how the empire was served (in this case with brick tallies), and replaced by Kindom value that says human life matters because God chooses that it should.
Sabbath becomes a vehicle for self-care; providing rest, renewal, and recuperation— another expression of stewardship. Our bodies are a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, and we have been endowed with spiritual gifts. We cannot deploy those gifts to achieve their maximum potential when our physical self is worn down and depleted.
The epistle of 1 Peter states that “…we are stewards of the manifold grace of God” in chapter 4, verse 10. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul says that “we are stewards of the mysteries of God.” The necessary inference here is that sharing the gospel—what we might call evangelism—is an act of stewardship. We know how much God loves the world, and through Jesus we know that this love is stronger even than death itself.
In all these ways, stewardship is about more than money. But faithfulness with money is a part of stewardship. The Bible is very concerned about money, mentioning money or its many derivatives over 2,500 times! This conversation about money takes two forms: our relationship with money and our use of money. Regarding our relationship with money, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:24 about “serving two masters” elucidates a broad biblical perspective in a concise form. Money is an excellent servant, but a poor master. As for our right use of money, the story of the rich, young ruler as told in Matthew 10:16- 30, Mark 10: 17-31, and Luke 18:18-30 is a succinct summary. Money is neither a god to be worshipped nor is it a commodity to be held only for personal gain: it is a tool to be utilized in keeping with and promoting the values of the realm.
The tithe is instructive here for thinking about generosity and stewardship. Rather than legislative legalism or moribund duty, the tithe sets a benchmark for disciplined giving. The idea of ten percent of everything (flocks, wine, oil, grain, etc.) serves to remind the giver of the source. It is not meant to create a state of constant trepidation, but rather a perpetual reminder that once you plant the seed, you are powerless to make it grow. That is a mystery given over to God: making everything a providential gift with God as the ultimate source. It reminds us of our relationship with God as the creator.
In Deuteronomy 26, tithing is specifically tied to a liturgical remembrance of the deliverance from slavery and the possessing of the land— another gift from God. Here, even the alien and the stranger share in the feast, because there is an abundance. It is a celebration that takes place in the midst of community. There is enough to sustain us and enough to share. One gives not to receive, but in thanksgiving because one has already been blessed.
Responsibility for managing the tithe—the gifts given in thanksgiving—becomes an additional task of stewardship for the community. Every third year the tithe was set aside to provide for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and perhaps anyone whose crops might have failed. In addition every male was expected to come to the temple and make an offering—over and above the tithe—three times a year. In addition to this giving was the offering of alms for the poor, who never were to be looked past or forgotten. In case you didn’t notice, there is a lot of giving going on in the Bible and the tithe is the floor, not the ceiling!
And take a moment to observe two other important things. One: there are stories of tremendous generosity in scripture. Whether it is the widow whose mite was a gift of all that she had (Lk 21:1-4) or the woman who anointed Jesus with oil worth a year’s salary (what would you give a year’s salary to?), (Lk 7:36-50) people respond to the grace and gifts of God in powerful ways. When people realize what Jesus has done for them, they simply can’t help but respond with generosity. Two: wherever Jesus is, there is enough: so much bread and fish that twelve baskets are left over after feeding 5,000, or more than enough of the really good wine so that everyone can have more than a taste. No one goes without when Jesus is present. It is the nature of God to be generous.
In the church we are tasked with teaching God’s people about both stewardship and generosity as elements of Christian discipleship and faith formation. The scriptures are our best resource and the pulpit and small groups are our most typical venues. We need to encourage these conversations and to do so without hesitancy. It is also helpful to offer personal finance classes so that people can lower their anxiety about money, improve their relationship with it, and discover the joy of giving as their capacity increases through better stewardship.
The secret is not to beat people into submission that the tithe is a duty they cannot escape or to guilt them into believing they can never enjoy a mocha latte so long as anyone anywhere in the world is hungry, but rather invite them into another world view that calls for sharing based on our capacity in response to real need. We give not to curry favor with God, but to become a partner in the unfolding realm of God now because we love God and the creation of which we are a part. Generosity comes from the grounding of our attitude in gratitude that realizes everything is a gift; and when we have enough to share, we do so because that is the nature of the God in whose image we have been created. We give from the capacity of our well-managed resources (stewardship) out of our desire to see the kingdom flourish on earth as it is in heaven (generosity). And we have the courage to give generously because we know that God will provide for me should we to ever have a need. And that brings joy!
The Rev. Bruce Barkhauer is minister for faith and giving for the Center for Faith and Giving for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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