A “Dark Side” of Stewardship?
Could there be a “Dark Side” to our teaching of stewardship? Might we be teaching a frugality that hampers God’s mission in our midst rather than a generosity that dares to move forward in trust of God? Not that there is anything wrong with frugality, but I have seen congregations so fixated on frugality that they refuse to risk the missional adventure of generosity. I’ve seen congregations so frugal that they refuse to spend $500 on stewardship materials that might increase their offerings by $15,000 and teach principles of generosity that would change the vision of the congregation. I’ve seen congregations that claim they cannot allot $500 for the pastor’s continuing education, even though it might truly revitalize his ministry and theirs. I’ve seen congregations that, when things get tight, always cut first their contribution to Synod and District and then wonder why their members do the same thing to the congregation in difficult times.
Maybe it’s the way we have been teaching stewardship. There are two common models in use today. One is the “stewardship” model, which has dominated most literature for decades. This model often starts with the sovereignty of God, declaring in no uncertain terms that God is the owner of all things and that we are merely managers or stewards of those things, who have a duty and responsibility to be faithful in the management of those resources.
The other is the “generosity” model, which is more popular in recent literature. The ” generosity” model fits a more relational and collaborative model (e.g., the Body of Christ) in which people operate as team players in God’s mission, not out of duty, but out of commitment to a cause for which they are willing to make sacrifices. The generosity model starts not with the sovereignty of God but with the grace of God, who is not simply the owner, but the giver of all things. A generous person is one who gives of himself and the resources he has been given, and who does so freely. Christian generosity is an expression not of duty and responsibility, but of Christian liberty.
Our longstanding stress on being a faithful steward may be in tension with the virtue of generosity. We see a contrast between careful-ness and liberality or between the virtue of frugality and the virtue of generosity. Stewards are servants who administer what belongs to others and have a special obligation to be careful with it. And it is good to be careful – up to a certain point. But, as mentioned before, we have sometimes seen congregations so fixated on carefulness that they become like the steward who buried his talent in the field.
Theologically we must ask whether we are fundamentally administrators or givers. Does God only lend to us as his servants, or does God actually give to us as his children? At bottom that is a question about God’s grace. There is a difference between living as children of a generous God and living as stewards of a sovereign Lord.
Certainly there is value in both models of our relationship to God. The Bible makes use of both. But when you start with the grace of a generous God rather than a sovereign Lord who owns all and expects faithful management, you may find children of God freed to practice sacrificial generosity for the joy of being part of God’s mission rather than careful servants faithfully (and sometimes frugally) administering what God has loaned them.
Art is President Emeritus of the Southeastern District, LCMS, and a Regional Consultant in stewardship and capital funding for LCEF. Dr. Scherer is developer of LCEF’s popular Consecrated Stewards series and author of the new Gift of Joy Bible studies.