What is stewardship? This somewhat obscure and very old word contains a great deal of meaning.
Stewardship Dictionary Definition
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines stewardship as
1 - The office, duties, and obligations of a steward
2 - The conducting, supervising, or managing of something
especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care
However, that first definition begs the question...what is a steward? Again according to Merriam-Webster, a steward is
1 - One employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (such as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)
The old age of the words steward and stewardship is implicit in this definition. Steward was first used before the 12th century, and stewardship probably in the 15th century. The Etymology of steward comes from Middle English:
steward ~ stiweard ~ sti + weard ~ hall + ward
In other words, a steward was someone who was the "ward" of the "hall." They were the person responsible for taking care of the building or estate.
Modern Stewardship Definitions
What do most people today mean when they use the word stewardship? The terms stewardship and steward tend to have one of two senses: stewardship of the environment or Biblical stewardship. Both senses are implicit in the Merriam-Webster definition above. It's just a question of how you fill in the blank:
"The careful and responsible management of ________ entrusted to one's care."
Who is the steward?
Humanity as a whole
Who is the owner?
Unclear when used in a secular sense: either Nature, Earth, or Humanity
God / Jesus
What is in the steward's care?
The environment, in the sense of the atmosphere, plant and animal species, and the entire planet Earth
Everything: children, other relationships, your own body, the environment, and especially money, possessions, and wealth.
What does careful and responsible management look like?
Avoid pollution, don't litter, don't allow animals to go extinct, prevent global warming.
In the sense of managing money: being frugal, saving, giving to the poor, tithing
If you are interested in understanding other aspects of stewardship, check out all of our stewardship articles.
How Does the Bible Define Stewardship?
There are many Bible verses with examples of stewardship, but a definition is harder to find. In my opinion, the clearest Biblical definition of stewardship comes from 1 Corinthians chapters 3 and 4. The context of this passage is not even discussing money.
Stewardship in 1 Corinthians 3-4
Paul uses the stewardship metaphor to explain the ministry of an apostle. The Corinthian church was divided into factions, some of which said they followed Paul’s teaching, others Apollos, and others Peter. Paul explains that all these teachers should be viewed as “Christ's servants and stewards of God's mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1). Furthermore, "it is required of stewards that they be found faithful" (1 Cor. 4:2).
However, their faithfulness is not determined by the people, the courts, or even themselves. Every steward is accountable only to the king or lord whom they serve. In this case, that means Jesus:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or by a human court. Yes, I don’t even judge my own self. 4 For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)
This is evocative of Jesus’s parables. Jesus had several variations on the stewardship theme, but all of them included these elements: the king goes away from his kingdom for a time, leaving one or more stewards in charge. Later, perhaps after many years even, the king returns to judge the stewards for how well or how poorly they managed what the king had entrusted to them.
Stewardship is Not Ownership
The king or lord owns the land, money, or the whole kingdom, and the steward manages it. While stewardship is a high ranking position, the steward cannot let this go to his head. He or she must remember that everything they have was received from the king. That remains true regardless of the kind of stewardship.
Paul was talking about the ministry of preaching and teaching. Apollos, Peter, and Paul himself had quite a bit of authority in the church in their role as apostles. It might have been tempting for any of them to accept the immature Corinthians’ devotion, and think of themselves as the final authority on God’s word. Paul resists this temptation and redirects the church to Jesus:
Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21)
Every Christian Has a Stewardship
With this Paul extends the stewardship metaphor even to the Corinthian believers, immature as they still are. But he shows it is a paradox: all things are yours, and yet at the same time nothing is yours, because all is Christ’s. As we walk with him, under his authority, all authority and power has been given to us. “For the very power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in you”…”You shall do even greater things than these”…”Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Our power and authority is connected to him. Our ability to bear fruit is contingent on remaining connected to the root that nourishes us. “Remain in me and you will bear much fruit, but apart from me you can do nothing.”
Regarding the Corinthians’ own stewardship, Paul rebukes them again. The worst thing a steward can do is usurp the place of their king:
And what do you have that you didn’t receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?
8 You are already filled. You have already become rich. You have come to reign without us. Yes, and I wish that you did reign, that we also might reign with you! (1 Corinthians 3:21)
Paul goes on to explain how the stewardship of being an apostle is not as glamorous as it appears. It involves being hated by many, being in need — hungry, thirsty, and homeless — and being persecuted. He makes it sound as if the Corinthians are happy to let these burdens fall on their supposedly favored teachers, while they themselves remain honored and supplied with their own creature comforts. In this they mistreat the other servants of the king. Jesus also alludes to this in the parable in which one of the servants, thinking that the master will wait long in returning, begins to mistreat the other servants.
So whatever our stewardship — whether managing a business, farm, or other form of wealth, or teaching and preaching the gospel, or raising children — let’s do it for the king and not boast, remembering that all we have is from him and to him who is above all things.
Bible version: the public domain World English Bible (WEB) has been used throughout this post.