- I have often heard Christians describe “conservatism” as though it’s a fruit of the Spirit.
- I know of church leaders who when faced with a decision about a ministry or application of Scripture will seek to identify the conservative choice, because they’ve predetermined that it’s the correct one.
- I’ve been part of a dying church with close to $200,000 in reserve simply to help it through some rainy day in the future.
- I know Christian worried that today’s culture will corrupt our youth. These same people fail to see that culture has influenced their own perception of God.
Churches have a lot of unusual words as part of their normal conversation. One of those words is STEWARDSHIP. The churchy definition of this word is: there’s about to be a sermon on giving more money to the church.
In contrast, the Bible definition of stewardship goes more like this: Everything in Creation belongs to God, and He’s given humanity the responsibility of taking care of it as He would. According to Genesis 1:26 God created humanity in His own image so that we could rule over and care for creation.
Stewardship is a fundamental purpose of human life.
Christians should be people who take this responsibility seriously. We don’t just care for Creation on behalf of God, we carefully manage all the resources that he provides us.
However, many Christians face the temptation to base their role of God’s caretaker, or manager, upon the philosophy of conservatism. We adopt the mindset that our job is to manage God’s resources carefully, and we use words like “frugal, wisdom, and fiscally responsible” to justify our worldview.
Jesus told (at least) two parables that challenge this conservative perspective.
PARABLE 1: The Parable of the Bags of Gold (Matt. 25:14-30)
In this parable describing the kingdom of heaven, three servants were given bags of gold and told to care for it as their boss would. They knew that the boss wanted them to earn a return on the money, but the most conservative servant decided to bury his gold to ensure its safety. When the boss returns from his travels he is irate with the conservative servant.
The lesson here is that God intends us to use the resources he provides to enhance the mission of the kingdom. This involves risk. Conservatism seeks to minimise risk, but in this parable the boss wants his manager to take some risks. The safest option is not the best option.
A key to this story is the statement in v24 “I knew you are a hard man….“. If we are to manage God’s resources the way He would, we need to ground our approach in the character of God. Many Christians have sadly lost sight that our God takes risks.
I’m not suggesting recklessness such as Jesus jumping off the temple roof because God had promised that he wouldn’t break any bones. I’m thinking more of the presence of two trees in the Garden of Eden. As any of us who’ve been through a romantic break-up know… The decision to love involves risk. God is love at his core, so the presence of two trees demonstrates his willingness to risk rejection for the sake of love. As does the third tree on Calvary.
Sometimes churches will be taken advantage of. Sometimes ministry ideas will fall flat. Sometimes we’ll use our gifts to preach or teach and we’ll say things that are wrong. Sometimes we’ll do things that in hindsight were just foolishness. And I’m confident that God says, “I’m so glad you didn’t bury those resources. Dust yourself off. Rub the sore spot. Let’s try again. The reward will be worth the risks.”
PARABLE 2: The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16)
In this story about Gentiles entering the kingdom of God, the farmer recruits workers throughout the day. He promises all of them a day’s pay, regardless of when they start. Needless to say, at the end of the day those who’ve been working since sunrise aren’t thrilled to see those that arrived during afternoon tea receiving the same pay.
While this parable isn’t specifically about stewardship, the dramatic hinge of the story depends upon the audience thinking God is a just God who gives everyone what they have earned. Instead, Jesus surprises everyone by describing God as generous, who’ll give what He wants to who He wants! “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v15)
Many Christians see stewardship in terms of a bank. God has given us resources. These resources might include the church building, the church treasury, personal wages, individual skills. And in our worldview, we’re the bank. God intends for us to protect his resources and use them very wisely.
This means we have rules about using the church building. This means we don’t give money to people who aren’t good managers of their personal finances. This means we provide for our family first before we give to the church. This means I have to use my skills to work hard to make sure my family is provided for.
But what if our generous God gave us these resources not to act as his stewards by preserving them, but for giving them away? What if he’s saying, “I trust you to distribute these funds as I would distribute them.” What if it’s okay that we have to spend God’s money to repair a hole in the wall of the church building because a group from the community was breaking rules and running and throwing balls when they used it last week? What if generosity is more important that frugality?
God wants us to serve as managers of His resources, but the type of managers we’d expect. He wants us to be risky managers and he wants us to be generous managers.
Which means, God doesn’t want us to be conservative in representing Him while serving His world. Too often we have allowed cultural values of independence, self-determination, and wealth accumulation to influence our perception of God, that in turn influences the way we fulfill our function as God’s stewards.
I’ve been preaching through Ephesians and stressing a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.
In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.
Verse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:
- Pastors; and
We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.
Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)
The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God, but Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other. It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described here, but when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they leave uncertainty about their commitment to unity.
Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when the leaders don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.
While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that this letter is written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted. The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various tensions they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptised in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.
While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of that church family.
My last blog post asked, “Who benefits from your faith?” or “Who were you saved for?” This week the text builds on that thought. God has gifted you for the work of equipping others so that the unified body of Christ may be built up. Are you exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of others?
I Corinthians 12 contains this teaching that poses some big questions for me, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the one Spirit distributes them. To one there is given through the Spirit… faith, to another…” (12:4, 9a) Faith here appears in the middle of a list with other gifts. But the passage essentially says “the Holy Spirit distributes more faith to some people than to others.”
Since faith connects us directly with God’s salvation the consequences of this gift appear weightier than some other gifts. Consider these verses:
- For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. (Romans 10:10)
- For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. (Ephesians 2:8)
- But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (Hebrews 10:39)
If the Holy Spirit gives more faith to some people than others, is he giving them unfair access to salvation? I don’t believe so. Remember that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to Christians. My understanding of the concept of Spiritual gifts is that these are additional gifts God gives people who are already Christians. The Holy Spirit does not hold sway over the lives of those who reject his influence. So we should not equate the gift of faith with the gift of salvation.
Having said that the entire reading of Ephesians 2:8-9 provides a curious perspective when read in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 12. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Salvation is a gift of grace that we accept by faith. However, I’d be very cautious about equating these two verses.
Although these verses both contain the words “faith” and “gift” their context is very different. In Ephesians 2:8 “gift” expands the description of “grace”. While in 1 Corinthians 12:4 “gift” has a meaning closer to “blessing” and describes virtues including teaching and wisdom.
I think it would be equally unsettling to me if the Holy Spirit gave some people a gift of extra faith to help them get through times of difficulty while others were deprived of the gift and had to journey through their darkness with less blessing. I doubt that’s the purpose of this gift.
A key interpretive verse for me when considering Spiritual Gifts is 1 Peter 4:10 “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others.” This leads me to ask, “How can my gift of faith benefit others?” We usually think of faith as a relationship between God and ourselves. How do we include others in this relationship?
In Sunday’s sermon I suggested that we can exercise this gift by speaking “words of faith” to those who need them. (This may overlap with the gift of encouragement.) Those who have received the Holy Spirit’s gift of extra faith can share with others how their faith has benefited them. They can testify to God’s faithfulness.
Even more important than just sharing our faith stories with others our “word of faith” can point others toward God. On a basic level faith involves trusting God to work despite evidence to the contrary. Speaking faith to others involves reminding them how God sees them. More than that it requires that we see others as God sees them and treat them accordingly. We need to remind them how God sees their circumstances. We need to remind people that God is always bigger than whatever situation we find ourselves in, or whatever feelings we experience. A word of faith reminds others that our limitations are not God’s limits.
Perhaps Ephesians 4:29 particularly applies to those with the Gift of Faith. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Those with the Gift of Faith may be characterised as people who build others up in a manner that addresses their needs. These people take the time to consider others needs and then speak uplifting words into their lives.
When we point people toward God in this way they benefit from our gift of faith. This is my best understanding of this spiritual gift.
- Have you ever considered that some people in the church may receive an extra serving of faith from God?
- Is this idea reassuring or disturbing for you?
- How have you benefited from the faith of others?
I’m very happy to share with you some comments by Dr James Nored on the topic of spiritual gifts/roles found in Ephesians 4:11-16. James is the minister at the High Pointe Church of Christ located in McKinney, a northern suburb of Dallas. He is also the founder of the Missional Outreach Network, and designer of the Spiritual Gifts Inventory and resources found at www.YourSpiritualGifts.com.
James, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Apostle – the entrepreneur or mission leader who is asking, where are new mission fields? Who has not been reached?
Prophet – the questioner of an organization or church who is probing, pointing out what is wrong, calling the organization/church back to its purpose/God.
Evangelist – the salesperson of the organization/church, who asks, who can I share the good news with?
Pastor – the HR, caretaker person of the church/organization, who asks how to bring peace and stability and healing to the organization/church
Teacher – the systemitizer of the church/organization, who seeks to deepen understanding, asking, how does all of this fit together and make sense?
Hirsch theorizes that the five fold spiritual gifts draw upon these parallel natural gifts found in any healthy organization. It is an intuitive argument that I agree with and have witnessed. I believe that it also has a biblical/theological basis. I would love for someone to do more statistical research on this.
Hirsch advocates that a healthy church will have each role represented in its leadership team. He also says that it is the nature of institutions–and churches–to be dominated by the pastor-teacher role. The apostle, prophet, and evangelist roles all are “disruptive” to the system, and the nature of pastor-teacher roles is to keep peace and prevent disruptions, making sure things get back to “normal.”
On the organization side–who in the record business wanted to have a prophetic voice telling them that they might soon be out of business with the advent of tape cassettes? Or who at Blockbuster wants to hear that it would go bankrupt unless it changed its business model? Think how hard it is for Microsoft to think beyond its cash cow of Microsoft Office on personal PCs to a cloud based Office model that might be less profitable–but in the end, might allow Microsoft to survive the Internet age.
On the church level, think of the bus ministries of the 1970s. They disrupted the local church, and despite the fact that they did reach a lot of people, many local churches were too disrupted by these ministries to continue them.
Hirsch says that the APE gifts (Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist) of the APEPT Eph. 4:11 gifts become marginalized in the local church. They have little voice in leadership and the “system” pushes them out due to the disruption they cause. So those with this gifting usually go overseas on mission trips, go into church planting more recently, or become a part of para-church organizations that focus on feeding the hungry, taking care of the homeless or battered women, reaching out to minority groups, etc.
If those with APE giftings are not “in the room” when decisions are made (which historically, has often been the case), then the PT giftings (Pastor, Teacher) will dominate and always advocate the least disruptive path–which will inevitably lead to the church’s or organization’s slow decline and eventual death (businesses do fail and individual churches do close, even if the Church will always continue).
So what do you think?
- Do you agree that church leadership lives with a natural tension between disruptive and soothing voices?
- Have you seen people with APE spiritual gifts squeezed out of leadership, or at least have their voices muffled?
- How can churches launch and maintain “disruptive” ministries while still keeping “peace” within the congregation?
- What characteristics must a church adopt or emphasise to support these “disruptive” leadership gifts?
- Read Genesis 2:15-16 here.
- If you missed Sunday’s sermon (11 July), you can listen to it here.
- Follow the rest of this discussion here.
My sermon theme this week is “The Church of Christ should embrace stewardship.” It’s derived from the logic that if the church (the people) belongs to Christ, then our stuff also belongs to Christ.
As I was researching this topic it occurred to me that stewardship is an underlying principle of God’s relationship with humanity. It was established at Creation as described in Genesis 2:15. God created the Garden of Eden for Adam, and then commissioned him to work in it, and care for it. God gave Adam the garden, but God didn’t give up ownership. He also gave Adam responsibilities along with the gift.
Adam was to “take care” of the garden (NIV). The NLT translates the instruction as “watch over it”, while the CEV reads, “and look after it”. No matter how hard he worked, Adam could never claim that he created the Garden. He was caring for God’s property. He was God’s steward of the Garden.
As I thought about this, the importance of this responsibility struck me. Many of the central tenets of the Christian faith only exist because of The Fall. Without sin, there is no need for grace, or mercy. Forgiveness becomes redundant when there’s no offences. Corrective discipline didn’t exist in the Garden. Although these are wonderful blessings that we receive from God, they would be unnecessary in the absence of sin. They were not part of God’s pure Creation.
God’s initial design for Creation included: Creativity; Love; Tenderness; Order; Beauty; Intimacy; Worship; Work; Productivity; and Stewardship.
I’m not sure of all the implications of this distinction. Are elements of God’s original design somehow more holy or sacred than post-Fall blessings?
However, if we regard history as God working to redeem humanity from the consequences of the Fall and to restore His relationship with humanity until it culminates in a new heaven and a new earth, then restoring God’s created order assumes some additional importance. Somewhere close to the core of our relationship with God, we find the principle of stewardship.
The first and obvious application is that God expects humanity to care for creation. That was God’s initial intent for Adam, what makes us exempt from it?
Most discussion I’ve heard concerning stewardship revolve around our personal finances. That’s certainly an appropriate application, but stewardship doesn’t start and stop with finances. When we say “Amen” to James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above…” then we’re also undertaking to serve as stewards of those gifts. Let me close by listing a few examples:
- Gift: The Gospel Stewardship: Go and make disciples… (Matt 28:19-20)
- Gift: Freedom Stewardship: Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature… (Gal 5:13)
- Gift: Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) Stewardship: …keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:25)
- Gift: Forgiveness Stewardship: Shouldn’t you have had mercy… just as I had on you? (Matt 18:21-35)
I have just two questions for you today:
1. Are values/principles that we see demonstrated pre-Fall, more significant to us than those introduced to us as a consequence of the Fall?
2. Can you add some examples of Gifts & Stewardship to the list I started here?