The word steward, as it applies to every created being, is not generally understood, and the term stewardship is usually misunderstood. This fact was illustrated by a theological student who frankly observed, "When the professor said we were going to have four class periods on the subject of stewardship, I thought he was really scraping the bottom of the barrel!"
This attitude is not limited to a few people or a particular location. Most churchgoers associate stewardship with the giving of money, and the parting with one's money in most instances appears to be a painful experience; therefore, the word does not have a pleasant meaning to them. Absenteeism from the worship hour can rise markedly if the sermon subject is announced in advance.
A false concept
This false concept of stewardship is one reason why many people realize no real satisfaction from their lives. In the desire for worldly things, their perspective is limited; their entire lives are confined to an existence that has a beginning and an ending. People working solely for these things are going down a deadend street with no lasting reward for all their labor. Solomon asked, "What profit hath he that hath labored for the wind?" (Eccl. 5:16).
It is unfortunate that this subject should create an adverse reaction in the minds of many people. But this could be due to the fact that the bulk of the preaching, teaching, and writing on the subject are usually in connection with finance. This gives it a wrong connotation. The giving of money might be an evidence of good stewardship in the handling of entrusted means, but stewardship is not a synonym for money. When it was divinely ordained, there wasn't any money or any churches, schools, or mission programs. Neither can stewardship be considered a program, a canvass, or a procedure.
It seems strange that in church usage the term should generally be thought of in connection with finance, when in everyday parlance it is always used in association with its real meaning. The word steward (with some exceptions) is not as common as the words foreman, superintendent, or supervisor. Possibly the term manager is better understood and more often used as a synonym for steward. Many times the individuals holding these positions are not responsible for money at all. There are times when finance is their sole responsibility; at other times it is only part of their trust. In each case, however, these persons are responsible for the goods of another person and accountable for its wise and honest management. These persons are stewards, or managers, and their responsibility is stewardship, or management.
The degree of accountability varies with the size and extent of the trust. The fact that they have been entrusted with the possessions belonging to another person proves that this is a position of dignity.
It is essential that each person clearly understands his relation to God, and the lofty plans that God has for him. If he does not accept this concept, then he is little better off than an ant that goes through life rearing its young and trying to store up enough food during the summer months to last through a hard winter. If all there is to living is a day-to-day existence with no life beyond this world, the wonder is that there are so few suicides.
What is a steward? What is stewardship? The dictionary defines a steward as "one who manages the property of another." Stewardship is "the position, duties, and responsibilities of a steward." Stewardship, then, is management. A steward is a manager.
To the Christian manager, this responsibility should be even more relevant, for he is managing the possessions of the Owner of the universe. Only in the framework of this concept does his life have any meaning or direction. An acceptance of this responsibility will permit him to follow a divinely planned blueprint. It will allow him to expand every talent, every capacity. Think of the magnitude of this role!
"A steward identifies himself with his master. His master's interests become his. He has accepted the responsibilities of a steward and he must act in the master's stead, doing as the master would do if he were presiding over his own goods. The position is one of dignity, in that his master trusts him. . . . Every Christian is a steward of God, entrusted with His goods." That I May Know Him, p. 220.
It is possible that the average professing Christian does not really understand the meaning of life management according to Cod's plan because he considers himself an owner rather than a manager. One factor contributing to this attitude may be that most of the appeals made for church financial support approach the member not as a manager but as an owner. The usual request is for his time, his talents, his means, rather than presenting these needs as an opportunity to use that with which he has been entrusted. Often he is praised for his service, his liberality.
This owner attitude is unfortunate, because every person becomes one of God's managers at birth and remains one as long as he lives. He may be a good manager or a bad one, but he is always a manager, never an owner. Even his life is not his own; it belongs to God, first by creation, and then by redemption. A person who makes no profession is just as much a manager of God's goods as are those who do, for he has also been entrusted with time, talent, and means for which he is responsible and will be held accountable. "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:12).
Why talk about money?
In its truest sense Christian management refers to the relationship that exists between a person and God. Why, then, are money and the material things of life stressed when considering this subject? Are money and material things more important? Jesus said they were not. He taught that one could not serve God and mammon. But He also taught that one could serve God with mammon.
In relationship to importance, the management of time is more important than any other talent. "Of no talent He has given will He require a more strict account than of our time." Christ's Object Lessons, p. 342.
Why, then, do the people who devote their lives to teaching this vital subject spend so much time with the material aspects of life?
It is because the world has become so moneyoriented. Success, failure, happiness, and discontent are usually associated with the possession or lack of money and material possessions. However, there are three primary reasons why a frank discussion of the material aspects of life is considered important when discussing a person's responsibility and accountability to God.
Focal point of selfishness
Money appears to be the focal point of nearly all selfishness. Possibly this is because it is associated with the gratification of selfish desires. It also represents security, and this becomes the life goal of nearly everyone just as soon as he is old enough to recognize that food, clothing, and shelter are essential to life. But Jesus cautioned His followers not to fall into error by seeking these things: "For after all these things do the Gentiles seek" (Matt. 6:32).
Selfishness is at the root of every other sin. The most logical point to begin its eradication would appear to be at its source. Every Christian must be led to see that self-seeking is contrary to Christian principles. He must realize that money is of no lasting value except as it is used to further spiritual ends. He must understand that security can never be found in the perishable things of this world, no matter how essential they may appear to be. These are all subject to sudden and unpredictable loss. The only true security lies in a simple, childlike trust and dependence upon God. Therefore, the relationship that material things bear to Christianity must be clearly delineated.
Money represents life
Money is a visible representation of the actual expenditure of life itself. Someone has said that money is life done up in a convenient package for handling, storage, and use.
The early American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau observed that people do not ride on the trains, the trains ride on them! To his amazed and somewhat skeptical neighbors he explained that the ties and rails on which the train moves represent a portion of the lives of the men who laid them. Therefore, the train actually travels on the lives of these men.
This also applies to the Christian. When he gives a gift of money to God, he is really giving a portion of his very life, that portion he used in making the money. In this way a person who may never have had the opportunity to go as a missionary can, through his gifts, send a portion of his life to some foreign field.
Call to reform
God, through the prophet Malachi, called for a reform among His people. "Return unto me, and I will return unto you" (Mal. 3:7). When the people inquired wherein they should return, God referred to a specific point on which they were deficient. They had been robbing Him by withholding their tithes and offerings. God pointed to this as the diseased root to all their problems, for it was a clear evidence of the selfishness in their hearts. This selfishness was infecting every part of their lives.
In the church today, when unfaithfulness in tithing is so evident and when offerings show an alarming percentage of income decline, surely the message that God sent to the church prior to Christ's first coming must be the message to His church waiting for His return.
For these reasons, money and material possessions are considered of sufficient importance to discuss specifically when considering the broad subject of mankind's manager relationship to God. Frankly, this is regrettable, for it would be far more pleasant to spend this time studying more deeply into the beautiful plans God has for those who recognize this intimate partnership.
Unquestionably, Jesus would rather have spent more time talking about His Father's love and of the wonderful place He was going to prepare, but somehow, in His day as in ours, money always seemed to get in the way.
The need for reform
"There is need for a genuine reform in the church today. The last warning message, which should be going forward with jet speed, is in many areas slowed to a walk because of the selfishness of God's people. There must be a heart reformation. God cannot pour out His spirit when selfishness and self-indulgence are so manifest." Counsels on Stewardship, p. 52.
The results of reform
From these and a host of other messages that have been sent to the remnant church, it can be seen how vital it is that every professing Christian thoroughly understands and puts into practice the true principles of life management. Compliance with these will prepare the way for the Lord's soon return. The evidence will be seen in many ways:
First, God will be able to pour out His Spirit without measure and the gospel can go to every corner of the earth. The Holy Spirit will open hearts to receive divine rays of light. It will make the truth impressive and convince souls of the need of a Savior, and will supply the power essential to conversion.
"When all are faithful in giving back to God His own in tithes and offerings, the way will be opened for the world to hear the message for this time." Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 450.
Second, unselfishness will permit the church to move forward in unity, marching as an army with banners, armed with God's Spirit, impelled and aided by divine power. The world will then witness a force not seen since apostolic times.
Third, an acceptance of the owner-manager principle will be seen in the unselfish use of time, talent, and means in carrying the gospel message. With the debris of selfishness cleared from the channel, God can pour all the resources of heaven into a final jthrust that will culminate in the total eradication of ;sin. Once more peace will reign over all of God's universe, and His faithful managers of perishable things will become the managers of eternal riches. All the universe is waiting for this union of dedicated human effort and divine power.
Mel Rees writes from Andrews University.