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Towards a Theology of Stewardship

By Alun Brookfield.

(The author was asked to offer a theology of stewardship as part of a training course for newly appointed Stewardship Advisers in the Church of England. The following is a transcript of that presentation, amended somewhat for a seminar at the Baptist Union Assembly in Cardiff, 2003)

Setting out in written and spoken form a theology of stewardship is a daunting task, not because we don't have a theology of stewardship with which we work on a day to day basis, but because that theology is largely internal, not fully coherent and is based on all sorts of assumptions which may or may not be valid.

For example, one of the assumptions is that the church is a good thing to give money to, but not everyone would agree, which is why they don't give as much as we need them to! Another assumption would be that there is clear scriptural evidence that giving, whether it be goods, services or cash, is good for the soul, but then the question arises about what do we give to? Do we give to the church, to the poor, to the local authority to help them with their budget, to the Inland Revenue to pay the costs of running the country? At this point the Scriptures are, to my mind, unclear. Jesus doesn't help much either. Faced with a question about paying taxes to an occupying foreign power (a phrase which, for many Anglican churchgoers, would describe the Diocese!), he holds up a coin and says "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God". The obvious meaning of that comment is that money should be given to the government and everything else can be given to God. The trouble is that you can't pay the electricity bill, much less the Vicar or Pastor, in good wishes and religious devotion!

So to a theology of stewardship. Let me first attempt to clear the ground a little. There are, it seems to me, three dangers to avoid, all of them related, when thinking about a theology of stewardship. The first is that we allow ourselves to fall into the trap into which many of our parishioners/churchgoers have fallen, of restricting the meaning of the word 'stewardship' only to the act of giving money to and through the church. It is a much bigger word, and is surrounded by a much bigger theologically built up area, than that.

The second is that we, whether we be Stewardship Advisers or ministers of local congregations, become mere pragmatists, devising schemes to extract cash from the tightly zipped wallets of those who attend church. The first leads to shallowness in our thinking, because we forget that stewardship of money is merely a product of how we steward our whole relationship with God. The second leads to manipulation of people to get a response, as we spend our time simply devising ways of getting people to give more. The first leads to complacency, as we forget that stewardship does not begin or end in the collection plate, the second to exploitation as we abuse people in an attempt to justify our existence and earn our salaries/stipends.

A third danger to avoid is that of forgetting why we are interested in stewardship at all. Unlike most stewardship advisers or Christian Giving Advisers, I also carry the responsibility in my Diocese for evangelism. Evangelism advisers share this danger. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we do what we do in order to save the church from either financial ruin or from numerical decline, when what we are really about is not saving the church, but saving the lost. That means that whenever we address the issue of Christian giving, we are in the business of resourcing the church's mission, not financing its survival.

So, having cleared the ground and dug a few foundations, let me move to the business of building a theology of stewardship. However, I am not going to attempt a systematic theology of stewardship. I went to the kind of theological college which stressed the importance of systematic theology, but I was always a bit suspicious. One always felt that theology is a bit like being given a box of Lego, and then being told to build something which must use all the bricks. What you end up with is a model, but not all the bricks fit as well as they should and there are usually bits of brick sticking out which don't actually belong. One is then left with the embarrassment of explaining why some of the bricks don't fit properly and why you still have a few which won't fit anywhere.

So I want to offer you one large pair of coat-hooks on which to hang your theological raincoat, and then run through a series of broad concepts which have something to say to us about stewardship and how we practise it.

A few years ago, the Church of England, in association with several other agencies, carried out what has become known as the Church Life Survey. One of the findings was that over 50% of churchgoers were either negative or neutral about money being mentioned in church. If that statistic is true, those who responded in that way would have been very uncomfortable around Jesus, because, annoyingly, he talked more about money and our handling of material resources than any other single subject. If he were your vicar/pastor, 50% of his sermons would have been about our material possessions and our handling of them.

And that only reflects the whole balance of Scripture. I have argued elsewhere that there are only two major areas of doctrine in Scripture (these are the coat-hooks!). The first is the group of doctrines which I call salvation issues. These broadly answer the question: "How do I get into relationship with this God person?" These doctrines explore who God is, who we are, sin, who Jesus is and what he did, grace and how we can receive forgiveness.

The second is what I call the stewardship issues. These broadly answer the question: "How do we then live?" and deal with God's and our relationship to the created order which, of course, includes our stewardship of creation and the small bits of that over which we have a degree of control. Within that comes our handling or mishandling of our money, time, talents, skills and experience.

On the off chance that you may think I am overstating my case here, I can claim support from the Protestant work ethic, thanks to an observation from Margaret Whipp, a specialist in the realm of spirituality, not just among Christians, but in the wider population too. She observes that the Protestant work ethic, so maligned nowadays because of the way it was exploited by unscrupulous businessmen, was actually intended to link these same two concepts. She comments that in the Protestant work ethic, the primary call to the faithful (to believe in God) was closely related to the secondary call, which (and I quote) "embraced all that was to be undertaken in the world in response to faith, harnessing each particular gift and opportunity for the service of others and the fulfilment of God-given potential" (Spirituality, p.143; quoted in The Salt of the Earth, p.310).

It is my firm conviction that we are all too often trying to get people to live like Christians when they haven't been converted. I make no apology for using that word. An Anglo-Catholic friend of mine complains that most of the people in his church have been sacramentalised, but not evangelised. In the more evangelical congregations, one might often say that the people have been introduced to Jesus, but have yet to fall in love. You cannot impose the Protestant work ethic on those who have not believed.

And that is why it is not good enough to let clergy get away with never preaching about money and giving. If a large part of Scripture is concerned with stewardship in its broadest sense, then a large part of their preaching and teaching should be on those themes. I have been known to comment that the first two commands in Scripture are both stewardship commands - look after the garden and populate the earth. Needless to say, people who hate gardening will find the second command more attractive to fulfil than the first! And it's worth adding the comment that, when you're in love, neither command is a problem!

The reasons I have set out above are also the reasons why I believe that, at the very least, Church of England stewardship advisers need to work in close harmony with evangelism advisers, CME (Continuing Ministry Education) officers and lay education advisers. In the context of a local church or parish, stewardship must be closely connected to evangelism. The reality is that it is not possible to separate stewardship in general, and giving in particular, from the questions of evangelism, clergy training and lay education. In my view, the sharpening of our minds and skills, the evangelization of our neighbourhoods and the quality of clergy leadership are all aspects of stewardship, as is the giving of money.

Having said all that, let's open up what I believe to be the key theological themes which inform our practice of stewardship - vistas, if you like, which we can then explore further on another occasion.

The first theme is creation. As I've suggested above, stewardship, in its widest sense, is 'designed in' by the Creator. Mankind is given responsibility for looking after creation. The Hebrew word radah is usually translated in our English Bibles as meaning to have dominion, but it does not contain any sense of exploitation. Rather the emphasis is on care, order, management, husbandry - in short, what we would probably call stewardship. The created order needs to be stewarded. The story is, I'm sure, well known of the vicar who noticed how lovely his neighbour's front garden was. One day he met the neighbour and commented, "You and the Lord have made a wonderful garden". "Ah," said the neighbour, "but you should have seen it when the Lord had it to himself". Stewardship, then, is about the proper management of the limitless possibilities of creation.

The second theme, strongly related to the first, is generosity. We have an incredibly generous God who has given us all things in abundance to enjoy (to quote the apostle Paul). But, as (then Bishop, now Archbishop) Rowan Williams pointed out in 1995, in a paper addressed to the Stewardship Network of the Church of England, the thing that God gives more than anything else is himself. He doesn't just give us life, but HIS life, his energy, his curiosity, his creativity. The Archbishop says it like this: "That life, which is God, is in itself movement, diffusion, spreading out, self-bestowal ... (it is) life which pushes outwards, which pushes to diffuse itself. To receive is not to have a possession, it's to be caught up in the stream of God's action."

So he goes on to say that we are always in danger, when we think about God's and our generosity, of thinking in terms of God handing over a parcel to us, in response to which we give something back. And that leads us on to our third theme, that of response.

I have often heard it said and taught that our giving to God should be a response of love to his generosity. Up to a point, that is true, but I've always felt uncomfortable with that notion. I don't give gifts to my children measured in some way by what they give to me. And I certainly don't measure their gratitude by how much they give back to me. Indeed, I would be quite upset if I gave a gift to my son or daughter and they then felt obliged in some way to give one to me in return. I know we often get trapped into this reciprocal gift-giving in families, but it never quite feels right, does it? We know that a gift ought to be a gift, not a generator of obligation.

And Rowan Williams' 1995 talks helped me see what the problem was. Gifts are given, not so that we can give something back to the giver, but so that we can give something on to someone else. And God's generosity to us is not so that he can have back the gift of our love or our money or anything else, but so that we can be rich enough to give to others. The objective of God's giving of himself is to diffuse that generosity and that divine life beyond ourselves and share it with all those with whom we come into contact.

My fourth theme is that of ownership and disposal. Normally when one speaks of receiving a gift, we think of ownership. If I buy my son something for his car, it becomes his to do with as he pleases. I relinquish all right of influence in what happens to that gift thereafter. But the gift of God's life to us in Christ is different because it is given to us as trustees. Rowan Williams talks about this gift as having a restlessness about it that makes it impossible to hold on to, that is only fully realised when we hold it loosely enough for someone to take it from us if they so will.

This is all prefigured, if you want a biblical reference, by the relationship of Israel to the Promised Land. They were given it as a place to live, develop, grow, improve and so on. But they were not to own anything. Hence the themes of jubilee and sabbath, that the land was to be allowed to rest from time to time and that land could only be sold for the value of the harvests it would produce and even then it was to be given back to its original tenant every seven years and then every 50 years, there was to be a grand realignment of stewardship of the land.

More mundanely, anyone who has ever attempted to play golf or cricket will know that the one thing you must never do is grip the club or bat so hard that it cannot be pulled out of your hand. The same is true of all our possessions.

Preaching and teaching about stewardship then, is about helping people to grasp these two related truths. First, that God has relinquished control over his gifts to us. Second, that we need to learn to hold on to those gifts loosely enough that they can be taken from us.

Finally, we cannot forget the theme of sacrifice in all this. The gift of God in creation and redemption cost God dearly. His stewardship of humanity led to his giving of his life to the world which in turn meant that he made himself vulnerable to rejection. Ultimately the divine stewardship led to the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. When someone gives us something valuable and invites us to give it away, that involves sacrifice, and that applies to our evangelism and our behaviours as well as our money.

I have often been heard to comment that giving only becomes genuinely Christian when it hurts. Up to that point, giving is merely charitable.

You will notice that I haven't talked about tithing, nor have I mentioned those well-known passages in the New Testament about collections for the needy. I haven't mentioned Malachi 3 or the Widow's Mite. Not because those biblical passages are unimportant to the theme of stewardship, but because they tempt us too readily to narrow stewardship to discussions about financial matters. As I hope I have demonstrated, if we want our people to develop their generosity with money, we need to give them a broad picture instead of a narrow one.

For further reading:

Think Niagara and Into the Stream of God's Passion, two talks given by Bishop Dr Rowan Williams at the Stewardship Network Conference in 1995 (transcribed by Robin Stevens at Church House, Westminster)

Only Disciples Give Sacrificially, a paper given by the Revd Alun Brookfield at the Stewardship Network Conference in 2002. E-mail: revalun@tiscali.co.uk for a copy.

Yours, Lord, Michael Wright (Mowbray, 1992; ISBN 0 264 67275 5)

World on Loan, John Davies (Bible Society, 1993; ISBN 0564 08465 4)

Why Be Generous, Roland Riem (Grove Spirituality Series 58;

ISBN 1 85174 322 7

The Grace of Giving, Stephen Olford (Lakeland, 1972; ISBN 0 551 00386 3, but probably no longer in print)

First Fruits, Adrian Mann, Robin Stevens and John Wilmington (Canterbury Press, 2001; ISBN 1 85311 392 1)

The Salt of the Earth - Religious Resilience in a Secular Age, Martyn Percy (Continuum, Sheffield Academic Press, 2001; ISBN 1 84127 287 6)

The Revd Alun Brookfield is a parish priest in the Swansea Valley and Parish Development Adviser in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. He is editor of Ministry Today.

Alun Brookfield

Editor of Ministry Today

Ministry Today

You are reading Towards a Theology of Stewardship by Alun Brookfield, part of Issue 28 of Ministry Today, published in June 2003.

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