The Believer as a Steward
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
The topic of stewardship opens up an interesting field of study with the potential to inform, enrich, and challenge every Christian. God’s arrangement of His affairs and interests is far from centralized; rather, in very many respects He devolves responsibility to human agents, who are thus accountable to Him for the administration of that which has been entrusted to them. In considering stewardship, the central notion is that of delegated responsibility. The usual New Testament word for ‘steward’ points, literally, to someone who is a manager of a house, or an estate, or a part thereof. It could signify someone who is the head of a department, such as head cook or accountant, and, in New Testament times, they would typically be a slave or a freed person. The steward functions with particular reference to people for whom he is accountable, as well as other resources. He is answerable to the master to whom, at any time, he may be called to give account.
The Old Testament background is always of interest when considering a Bible topic. There are several references to stewards as administrators usually in connection with royal courts.1 From the outset of human history, Adam and Eve were entrusted with responsibility as God’s stewards and representatives over creation, a high honour celebrated in Psalm 8.2 In the providence of God, Joseph was entrusted with all of Potiphar’s household, and his master could rest assured that his affairs were in good hands, a situation later replicated in the prison.3 Moses was entrusted with a momentous and daunting stewardship over God’s house, Israel. At the same time, we are reminded that Moses served as one who was himself part of the household.4 In each of these cases, the ideas of devolved responsibility, trust, and accountability are prominent.
Stewardship as a metaphor
Very few of us are literal stewards, but scripture points to several important examples of stewardship in a metaphorical sense. We will briefly consider these in turn.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful’, 1 Cor. 4. 1-2. The Corinthians were aligning themselves to prominent servants of God, much as the Greek world celebrated its philosophers and orators. Therefore, Paul is concerned to bring them back to a true Christ-centred spirituality. Even an apostle is but a servant and steward, and accountable to God. Faithfulness in the discharge of his apostleship is vital in view of the coming day of review and reward.5
Further, writing to the Colossians, Paul brings out his special responsibility when he states, ‘I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints’, Col. 1. 25, 26. He is concerned that the Colossians, endangered as they were by false teachers, should recognize his uniquely important ministry ‘to complete the word of God’, v. 25 JND. This refers to his receiving and communicating the revelation of the ‘mystery’ of the church as the body of Christ, integrating believing Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing.
Whilst the apostolic era has passed, we should still regard those who preach and teach the word of God as exercising a solemn stewardship. Frequently, Timothy and others in the Pastoral Epistles are exhorted to guard the ‘deposit’ entrusted to them. This precious heritage of scriptural and apostolic teaching is to be cherished, and, most importantly, communicated to faithful men able to teach others also.6 This remains an imperative today.
The assembly elder (or overseer) is a steward of God in a special and important sense: ‘an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach’, Titus 1. 7 ESV. The preceding verse teaches that a well-ordered home life is required of overseers, such that a would-be critic should have nothing compromising to point to. Such is a ‘steward of God’, reminding us of Paul’s remark to Timothy that if a man is not exemplary in his own household, how can he care for God’s?7 One is also reminded of the parting exhortation of Hebrews, ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you’, Heb. 13. 17. The stewards of God’s household will have to render account when the Owner comes again! In this connection, the Lord’s parable of the steward should be carefully pondered, ‘Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?’ Matt. 24. 45. Note the need for wisdom as well as faithfulness to order aright the household of God.
Whilst few are called to be elders, all believers have stewardship responsi-bilities in a number of vital respects.
Peter exhorts, ‘As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God’, 1 Pet. 4. 10. It is to be noted that each believer has received some spiritual gift which is an expression of the grace of God, to be exercised in the power of the Holy Spirit for the benefit of all. The New Testament supplies us with several lists, none of which is exhaustive, bearing out the fact that God’s grace-gifts are richly varied.8 Therefore, how ill-advised it is to envy another’s gift! Again, the parabolic teaching of the Lord Jesus has a particular bearing on this, both the Parable of the Pounds, and the Parable of the Talents.9
Daily life supplies us with numerous opportunities which we should seek to grasp for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. A kindly deed for someone in need could set up an opportunity to share the gospel. To a greater or lesser extent, God has given us skills and resources. We are bought with a price, we are not our own, and, in a very real sense, we are accountable to Him for their proper use. How sad if a believer’s life is consumed in the acquisition of things which will one day be left behind in this world! In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the steward exhibited shrewdness by making use of the resources at his disposal to ensure his future wellbeing, when removed from his stewardship.10 Hence, Christ taught, ‘Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles’, Luke 16. 9 RV. Let us see to it that our money, homes, means of transport, and whatever else God has entrusted to us, are used for the extension of His kingdom. Happy the believer who wisely converts the perishable resources of this world into the imperishable assets of the world to come!11
Time is a critical resource, and especially so in the modern world. The Lord Jesus knew a strong sense of urgency in His ministry, ‘I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work’, John 9. 4. We all know that time is short, and once again it is Paul who counsels, ‘See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil’, Eph. 5. 15-16. The force of this is that we should be alert to buy up opportunities for the gospel which might otherwise slip through our fingers. Here, the word translated ‘time’ denotes a season, a significant period of opportunity which will not last.12
As we feel our deep need of God’s grace to worthily discharge our personal responsibilities, let us take encouragement that, for His part, God is ‘administering’ everything for His ultimate glory. He is working towards the fulfilment of His eternal purpose to ‘head up’ all things in Christ. The outworking of this purpose is described as an administration (or ‘stewardship’): ‘according to his good pleasure which he purposed in himself for the administration of the fullness of times; to head up all things in the Christ’, Eph. 1. 9-10 JND.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus is the faithful Steward par excellence, with full authority to admit and exclude in relation to His kingdom, ‘He that hath the key of David’13 – an allusion to Isaiah chapter 22 and the story of Shebna and his successor Eliakim. Stewardship, and governmental responsibility, are assigned to Eliakim, ‘The key of the house of David will I lay on his shoulder’, Isa. 22. 20-22. As for the Lord Jesus, we may be assured that ‘the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand’, 53. 10, and one glorious day ‘when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God . . . then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all’, 1 Cor. 15. 25-28.
How instructive and inspiring it is to see our stewardship as playing some small part towards the realization of God’s eternal plan to head up all things in Christ! What a privilege to be entrusted with local responsibilities for the furtherance of His kingdom! May we be faithful and wise stewards of all that God has entrusted to us, as the day of review draws near!
- Those who are ‘over the household’, 1Kgs. 4. 6; 2 Kgs 18. 18, 37; Isa. 36. 3, 22; 37. 2; one who is the ‘steward of his house’, 1 Kgs. 16. 9; the ‘officers of his house’, Esther 1. 8.
- See Gen. 1. 26-29; Ps. 8.
- Gen. 39. 6, 21-23.
- By contrast, Christ rules over the household as the Son whom the Father has appointed to exercise this rule, Heb. 3. 5.
- 1 Cor. 4. 5.
- 1 Tim. 6. 20 ESV; 2 Tim. 1. 14 ESV; 2. 2.
- 1 Tim. 3. 5.
- Rom. 12. 3-8; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4. 7-13; 1 Tim. 4. 14; 2 Tim. 1. 6.
- Luke 19. 11-27; Matt. 25. 14-30.
- Luke 16. 1-13.
- Matt. 6. 19-21.
- The parallel verse, Col. 4. 5, suggests alertness for opportunities to witness to neighbours.
- Rev. 3. 7.