On July 29, 1996, British Olympic sprinting champion Linford Christie walked off the track at the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games having failed to defend his 1992 gold medal Olympic title as the fastest man in the world. After four years of tenacious preparation and a worldwide media frenzy in anticipation of the single greatest ten seconds in sports, Christie left the track having never gotten out of the starting blocks. He had done the unimaginable. At the greatest moment in his athletic career, with the world holding its breath and watching, Christie made a false start. Not once, but twice. An official's red card confirmed the incredible.
In a matter of a few moments Linford Christie was disqualified from the one event that defined him as an Olympian. Christie would leave a broken man, and a brilliant career would forever be remembered for that one infamous moment of failure. All because of a false start.
The history of the church's handling of issues regarding stewardship is laden with false starts. So in order to assure that we make the right start, we must immediately change our language. Stewardship is the practice, the work, the vocation of the steward. The very term indicates that we can move past the whole discussion of what it means to be a steward and focus on the practice of stewardship. This is a false start.
Even some of the better books on stewardship fall prey to a subtler form of this error, by first laying out what a steward does and then attempting to support that view with an a posteriori analysis of the meaning of steward. This too is a false start.
This false start is also prevalent in the teaching and sermonizing on Christian giving. Sermons focus on the biblical support for the tithe, on the evils of money and materialism, and on exegeting and contextualizing the stories of the widow's mite, the rich young ruler, Paul's example of the Macedonian church, and Jesus's commands on cheerful giving. Parishioners are challenged, pleaded with, reasoned with, cajoled, shamed, and even threatened into practicing better stewardship. And books are written on stewardship that spend countless pages detailing all the Bible verses commanding us how and why to give, focusing us solely on the practice of stewardship.
In all of these ways, while we have produced resources for understanding what stewardship looks like, we have failed to raise up stewards. The result is the continual need to develop new fundraising strategies and undertake innovative approaches and clever campaigns to balance the budget and further the work of the church. This must indicate that we are not preparing our people to be informed, committed, godly stewards.
The ethics that result from the overemphasis on doing and the absence of being have beleaguered the church in its teaching of biblical stewardship. The dichotomy between the question of what we should do--Christian ethics--and who we are--Christian theology--has a long and sad history in the church. For too long we have divided our theology and ethics in our formal studies and in our more topical writings. In seminary we have separate disciplines and faculties for "systematic theology" and "practical theology." But both disciplines suffer if the study of the practice of Christian ministry is not built on a sound theological base. Speaking of our ethical responsibilities with respect to the poor, Ronald J. Sider, in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, remarks, "Our problem is not primarily one of ethics. It is not that we have failed to live what our teachers have taught. It is that our theology itself has been unbiblical." Our call then is to build the right theology of the steward upon which we can develop a credible ethic of stewardship. That is the order we must discipline ourselves to maintain if we are to make a right start.
Christian ethics is the study of the imperatives of the Christian life (how we should live) that by definition follow from the indicatives of the Christian faith (what we believe). That is the order that must be maintained! Everything we say and do as Christians depends on this ordering, and once this process gets out of order, our ethics cease being Christian. As such they lose all authority and influence, becoming as relative as the situational ethics of the world around us.
When we lose our direction through such a flawed approach to the ethical concerns of our day, our people are left to struggle on their own with only a future hope of escape from a life lived in no qualitatively different way than their secular neighbor. The "life in all its fullness" promised us by Jesus is replaced by a life lived in all its freneticness, stress, and anxiety. This is what is at stake in choosing how we are to study Christian ethics.
Thus, the phrase, "stewards in the kingdom of the triune God of grace," offers a process for our study--if it is read backwards. We know we are called to be stewards, but we cannot begin at this call. Steward is a title of a servant, one hired to undertake this activity on behalf of the owner. Therefore, we must move the ethical question back one step and ask, "Whose steward are we? To whom do we owe allegiance in our work?"
The answer we find is shaped by our status as children in the kingdom of God. We are first and foremost God's children and people of his kingdom. Our call to be stewards then is a call that originates solely from our status as children of the kingdom of God. Our being as stewards is inseparable from our being as children of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, if we are to understand what it means to be a steward, we must move the ethical question back to the question of what it means to be a child in the kingdom of God.
But we cannot start here either. For this kingdom is defined by the God who has established it and called us into it. It is this God's kingdom, and we are this God's children. Therefore, the ethical question of living as a steward must move back another step, to the who question. Who is this God in whose kingdom we live, whose children we are, and to whom we are to be stewards?
This is the question that must undergird every Christian ethic, but we still stand the chance of falling victim to a false start if we do not press this discussion back one more step.
Our knowledge of God is only true knowledge, effectual knowledge, "sufficient" as Karl Barth rightly defines it, if it is knowledge that has been revealed to us. If the only God we know is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then we must let this God and no other direct our ethics.
The God revealed to us in Christ is known to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God of the kingdom in which we live as children is the triune God revealed to us in Christ--and no other. We are children in the kingdom of the triune God. That is the truth of our being. That is the reality of our existence. It all begins with knowing God with certainty as the triune God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Finally, it is not enough to understand this God only as the triune God. The very fact that he has chosen to reveal himself to us, to come to us in Jesus Christ, to die for us, and to call us his children in Christ, reveals something even greater about this triune God. It reveals to us that this God is for us. This is the God we can call Abba, Father. This God is our creator, sustainer, redeemer, and friend. And by this knowledge of who our creator God is, we come to a real knowledge of who we are. It is here and only here that our knowledge of ourselves has validity. This self-knowledge is as Christocentric as our knowledge of God. Therefore, the real who question that abides at the heart of all valid Christian ethics is the dual question, "Who is this God we know in Jesus Christ?" and "Who are we as children of this God?" From the answers to these two questions will emerge a powerful, effectual Christian ethic.
The answers will also have a distinguishing mark. They will testify that this is the God of grace. It is only by grace that we have knowledge of God. It is only by grace that we know God as Father, Jesus as Savior, and Spirit as Comforter. It is only by grace that we know ourselves as created for relationship with this God, as redeemed by the precious blood of this Savior, and as participants in the life of God and mission of God's people through the movement of this Spirit. And our lives as children in the kingdom of this God must reflect that grace in every ethical act and decision.
This is the right start we must make. We must dock the ship that would want us to look at the imperatives of the faith before the indicatives of grace. We must ask what it means that we are stewards in the kingdom of the triune God of grace. We must begin at the beginning, and that leads us to ask first the epistemological question, "Who is this God, and how do we know?" It leads us to the starting point for every Christian ethic, every Christian doctrine, every Christian creed, and every attempt to know and understand ourselves and our world as Christians. It leads us to Jesus Christ.
This article is an excerpt from Stewards in the Kingdom by R. Scott Rodin (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. <www.ivpress.com>, $18.99) Copyright -- 2000 by R. Scott Rodin.