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Just How Serious Is the Issue of Stewardship? It's "Exhibit A" of Genuine Faith
In his new book Christians in an Age of Wealth, Craig Blomberg is on mission to treat the Western condition some call affluenza—the painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of affluence.
Another word for it is materialism, the worship of the god whom Jesus named "Mammon" and whom Blomberg says is "the biggest competitor with the God of Jesus Christ for the allegiance of human hearts in our world today." (243) It's a condition that's affected Christians as much as the broader culture.
"It would appear that for many believers," Blomberg says, "giving to God's work in the church and in the world is one of the last or hardest areas of their lives to surrender to Christ's lordship." (145) Stewardship is one of the final hurdles for Christian maturity.
While this may be true, just how serious is the issue of stewardship? Is it an important area, but just one of many? Or is it one of the key measurements of spiritual maturity? Does the absence of this feature of Christian living render any claims to trusting Christ a sham?
In one of his most illuminating chapters, Blomberg sweeps through the canon to reveal just how important this oft neglected area of Western Christian living is for gauging genuine faith, suggesting what many of us fail to grasp: Stewardship appears as "exhibit A" of sanctification.
The Old Testament Teaches Stewardship
Blomberg begins his journey through this important evidentiary feature of Christian living at the beginning, in the Torah at the creation of humanity.
After blessing Adam and Eve and commanding them to "be fruitful and increase in numbers" and "fill the earth," God then added "Rule over" the rest of creation. Blomberg insists "stewardship of material possessions can hardly be excluded from God's purview." Which means "the stewardship of all that God gives people must take center stage in any truly biblical ethic." (147)
Blomberg argues the centrality of the promise of the land to Abram and his descendants reinforces this point. So too do commandments six through ten of the Decalogue; "to varying degrees all deal with the importance of godly stewardship." (148) As does the centrality of the tabernacle and temple. Blomberg notes how "beautiful, ornate, lavish, and wealthy" these structures were, and how God's people had to "voluntarily sacrifice to make them so." (148)
This theme is continued throughout Israel's history and prophetic books, as well.
The king lived under the shadow of Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which required he "must not seek to acquire enormous wealth" or "consider himself better than any ordinary Israelite..." (149) But of course the kings disobeyed this injunction to not "turn from the law to the right or to the left," resulting in wickedness and a divided kingdom.
The prophets are replete with examples of economic sins, as well. Amos shocks Judah and Israel with similar tirades of judgment he had for the surrounding nations' economic sins. Haggai confronts the returned exiles with their passion for luxurious private homes at the expense of rebuilding the temple.
Blomberg concludes that modern-day examples include individual Christians hoarding their resources rather than generously or sacrificially giving to the Lord's work, and churches that demand large offerings yet spend all of it on facilities and salaries rather than mission and outreach. (153)
Continuing this stewardship trajectory are the Hebrew poems and wisdom literature. In Psalm 8 "we are reminded of our divinely intended function," Blomberg explains, "to steward God's creation for him, including its wealth, rather than imagine it is ours to do with as we please." (155)
Proverbs 14:31 has important lessons about how we treat the poor: "all people are created in God's image," Blomberg says, "so good or evil done to anyone can derivatively be said to be done to God." (156) Thus how we treat the poor is at the core of Christian living.
The New Testament Teaches Stewardship
The New Testament continues the same instructions of stewardship, beginning with Jesus. Blomberg insists that stewardship of material possessions appears as "exhibit A" of the works Jesus says prove genuine faith. (157)
Jesus' discourse on the Sermon on the Mount regarding laying up treasures on earth and serving Mammon and God tells us that "what one does with one's material possessions will disclose one's ultimate spiritual allegiance." (157-158)
The parable of sheep and goats shows "that God's ultimate declaration of whether we are 'in' or 'out' on the judgment day will be based on whether we have accepted Jesus' message and thus ministered to his neediest messengers. Only lifelong stewardship can demonstrate this." (158)
Likewise, the parable of the talents is an important warning for those who think they are on the inside simply because they profess to be so. Blomberg argues that "not all professing Christians are truly 'saved.' And one of the best yardsticks available is to measure what they do with their money." (159)
Rather than promoting salvation by works, however, Blomberg insists stewardship demonstrates salvation by works. (158)
The earliest Christians also had much to say about stewardship and salvation. Blomberg notes that in the early church stewardship via the sharing of personal property and giving to the poor was "one of the four essential elements that make a gathering of Christians a full-fledged 'church.'" (162) In other words, a church wasn't a church without stewardship of resources.
Paul himself urged stewardship in several letters. For instance, in Galatians he urged those Christians to "carry each others' burdens (baros)," where baros refers to a burdensome load, including economic loads. (162-163) Additionally, Paul insisted that modeling stewardship was required for church leadership (1 Tim 3:3, 8, Tit 1:7). (166)
"By the time we get to James in our overview," Blomberg writes, "this little letter no longer looks like the odd book out, the lone voice stressing that faith without works, especially works of charity, is dead." (166) Indeed, because James echoes what the whole council of Scripture teaches from beginning to end: Refusal to help needy people or fellow Christians when made aware of that need and capable of helping "belies any profession of faith." (167)
"What is at stake with stewardship," Blomberg concludes, "is one's very salvation." (169)
Bold claim, yes, but it makes sense. Because as he explains, "When absolutely nothing changes in somebody's spending habits after they claim to have trusted Christ...other people have every reason to question whether the supposed new Christian has really become a believer." (169)
Materialism truly is "God's arch-competitor for human allegiance," so much that it "remains the primary barrier to progressing from spiritual infancy to maturity." (169) To help bring maturity to your people, consider using Blombergs important resource to craft a sermon series to help them live open-handed lives of generosity for God's glory and the common good.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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