It’s the fall of the year as I am writing this: the time when “churches” of nearly every stripe gear up for their annual “stewardship campaigns.” The title, I am convinced, is chosen to give a slightly more “sanctified” flavor to plain-old, manipulative fund-raising: but nobody is really fooled. They all know it takes “big bucks” to run big institutions, and to pay hired staff to run big programs, so somehow the “country-club dues” need to masquerade as one’s “spiritual stewardship obligation.” Dust off the much-misinterpreted parables of “talents” and such, along with the tear-jerking “widow’s mite”, and here we go again!
Is that “laying it on too thick”? Maybe – but I don’t think so. None of the three word-groups referring to “stewardship” in the New Testament carry any implication whatever of funding salaries, real estate, or programs.
The most common word group consists of oikonomos – a person – (L/S: one who manages a household, the steward of an estate, manager, administrator, the title of a state financial officer, housekeeper, housewife); oikonomia – the job – (L/S: the management of a household, thrift, direction, regulation, arrangement, government proceedings, transaction, legal contract; Thayer: management or oversight of another’s property; Bauer: being entrusted with a commission); and oikonomeo – the verb – (L/S: to order, regulate, manage, administer, dispense, or handle). These are all connected with oikos (L/S: house, dwelling, home; household goods or substance, members of a household or a ruling family; estate, inheritance). Oikodomeo ( building, edification) is another word entirely (note the insertion of the “d”), and is not connected. Sorry, folks: a “building fund” doesn’t qualify!
Only Luke, among the gospel writers, uses this term, once in a positive sense (12:42) and once in a negative (16:1-8 – a very puzzling parable which I will not attempt to exegete), both concerning individuals entrusted with the management of someone else’s property.
Most of the usage in the epistles concerns the faithful performance of responsibility assigned by the Lord. Paul speaks of “stewardship” of “the mystery of God” (see #57), which he defines as the inclusion of both Jew and Gentile into one Body (I Cor.4:1, and Eph.3:9, where it was incorrectly rendered “fellowship”); of “the grace of God” (#60) (Eph.3:2, incorrectly translated “dispensation”, and also used by Peter in I Pet.4:10); of “the gospel” (#67) (I Cor.9:17, also incorrectly rendered “dispensation”), and simply “of God” (Col.1:25, Tit.1:7).
Each of these references the careful, accurate and responsible handling of the message with which he / they/ we are entrusted, as well as its faithful embodiment.
Eph.1:10 looks forward to the final consummation when everything in heaven and earth finally acknowledges its rightful Owner and Lord.
In Rom.16:23, the same word is used as the title of Erastus, the city treasurer.
In Gal.4:2, it refers to the guardian of a minor child, in combination with the next word.
The second cluster of words comprises primarily references to permission granted by a superior authority, whether spiritual or secular. It includes epitropos – the person – (L/S: one to whom the charge of anything is entrusted; a steward, trustee or administrator; the executor of an estate; a governor, viceroy, guardian or protector); epitrope – the task – L/S:an arbiter in a lawsuit; the office of a Roman procurator; guardianship, stewardship); and epitrepo – the verb – (L/S: to bequeath, commit, or entrust; to refer a legal issue; to permit, allow, or command). Although like the former group, they involve the management of people or property not one’s own, the most common New Testament usage is of simple permission. Traditional translators often used the old English “suffer” (10x) in the sense of “allow” (Mt.8:21,31; 19:8; Lk.8:32, 9:59; Mk.10:4; Ac.21:39; I Tim.2:12), as well as other expressions of the granting of a request (Mt.5:13, Jn.19:38; Ac.21:40, 26:1,12; 27:3, 28:16) or a hope for the Lord’s permission (Lk.9:61, I Cor.14:34, 16:7, Heb.6:3). Individuals are designated with specific assignments in Mt.20:8, Lk.8:3, and Gal.4:2. Only in the Matthew and Luke references just cited is the word “steward” traditionally used, but the original word is the same.
The function (performing an assigned task) is also present in the usage of huperetes (L/S: a servant or attendant, a helper in any work, an assistant, a petty officer). Trench calls this a military word, and connects it to diakonos in a civilian context (see #79) , often rendered “minister”, which is an occasional translation of huperetes as well. In the New Testament, it is applied to low-level government officials such as guards (Mt.5:25, 26:58; Mk.14:54,65; Jn.7:32,45,46; 18:3,12,18, 22; 19:6, Ac.5:22,26); to other individuals commissioned to any sort of service (Lk.1:2, 4:20; Ac.13:5, 26:16) and in Jesus’ statement (Jn.18:36) contrasting his “servants” with the forces of a military “king”.
In view of this, what, then, is the proper understanding of “stewardship” or “stewards”?
In every case, the word refers to responsibility conferred by a superior: delegated authority over people or property not one’s own.
That responsibility can be revoked (Lk.12,16), if abused or otherwise not faithfully handled.
It definitely requires an accounting, as illustrated in parables that do not specifically use the word: Mt.21:33-41, Mk.12:2-9, Lk.20:9-16; Mt.25:2-25, Lk.19:12-25.
It is entirely in order that we should regularly help each other to examine the faithfulness of our handling (“stewardship”) of all that has been entrusted to us, taking meticulous care that it is administered according to the orders of the One to whom “everything / everyone in heaven and earth belongs”!
Whether or not that includes any particular fund-raising campaign, is a question that needs to be asked – and answered – frequently , very seriously, and with extreme caution.
“Just as each one has received a spiritual gift [empowerment], serve each other with it, as good trustees [stewards] of the many-faceted grace of God!” (I Pet.4:10) remembering that
(I Cor.4:2) “It is required [expected] of caretakers [stewards] that a person be found faithful!”