Called to be Stewards

In his collection of wide-ranging ordination addresses, On Priesthood: Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels and Stewards, the last metaphor for ‘priesthood’ explored by Stephen Cottrell is ‘steward’.

As Cottrell notes, the word steward (oikonomos) appears only twice in the New Testament with reference to Christian leadership. The first time is in 1 Cor 4.1-2 where Paul writing of himself and of Apollos, and no doubt of other leaders said: “This of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they should be found trustworthy.” The second instance is in Titus 1.7, where Paul in his list of qualifications for a ‘bishop’ or ‘elder’ (see Titus 1.5) wrote: “A bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless….”

The underlying Greek word translated in the NRSV (as also by the Revised English Bible and Revised New Jerusalem Bible) as ‘stewards, means ‘manager’. Owners of large estates would often appoint a slave to ‘manage’ their properties. This position of manager carried a good deal of responsibility, as also of privilege and authority. An illustration of this is found in an ancient commissioning document:

I have empowered you by this document to administer my estate in Arsinoe, and to collect the rents and, if need be, to arrange new leases or to cultivate some land yourself, and to give receipts in my name, and to transact any business connected with stewardship, just as I can transact it when I am present, and to distribute the plots in Karamis, restoring to me what remains over, as to which matter I rely on your good faith, and I confirm whatever you decide about them.

The ‘steward’ or ‘manager’ had a wide range of tasks, which required him to be pro-active and to take the initiative. But at the end of the day, the manager had to give account to his master. The authority he exercised was delegated authority. “Those who have been given a trust” (NIV) must prove themselves to be “faithful” or “trustworthy” (1 Cor 4.2). But what specifically did Paul have in mind when he spoke of “faithful” or “trustworthy” stewards? In Titus 1.7 it is not clear. However, the context of 1 Corinthians indicates that Paul was probably thinking of three ways in which Christian leaders would be held accountable:

  1. First leaders are required to faithfully expound the Word of God. They are to be “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4.1). These “mysteries” are the truths of the Gospel –what Paul in 1 Cor 2.10 paraphrased as “the depths of God”. Rather than to “practice cunning” or to “falsify the truth”, they are called to openly state the truth as revealed in Jesus (see 2 Cor 4.2). In Paul’s later letters, this mystery included the inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s saving purposes (see Rom 16.25-27; Eph 3.1-13; Col 1.26-27), but here the emphasis is on the Gospel in its fullness.
  2. Secondly, leaders are called to have the right motivation. Paul referred to the day when God “will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4.5 NRSV), what the REB calls “our inward motives”.
  3. Thirdly, leaders are called to ensure that the Cross is the pattern for their ministry, and not just the message of their ministry – even if this means ultimately being regarded as ”the rubbish of the world” (1 Cor 4.13). Far from expecting acclamation and adulation, Christian leaders must be prepared for scorn and rejection if they are to be true followers of Christ.

Roy Ciampa & Brian Rosner in their monumental commentary wrote: “The Corinthians were assessing their leaders on the criteria of wisdom, eloquence and impressive personal presence.  In stark contrast, God’s basis for judgement is very different…. Whereas we may be tempted to judge ministers on their success or initiative or giftedness in terms of interpersonal relations or speaking, the sole requirement Paul counsels them to keep in mind is their faithfulness to God”.   Here indeed is food for thought. Christian leadership is a challenging calling.”

Unfortunately, Cottrell ignores the Biblical context and instead develops the metaphor of stewardship in two ways which suit his more general approach to the work of a ‘priest’. In the first instance, he likens a ‘priest’ to the conductor of an orchestra: “When we call a priest a steward… we are referring to the role of the priest in animating, releasing, and directing the gifts of the whole people of God”. A little later he says: “All clergy… are called to oversee the ministry of the people of God and the work and witness of God’s church in the locality where they serve”. Although Paul himself does not specifically link this concept of ‘stewardship’ with the ministry of all God’s people, it nonetheless is rooted in a more general Biblical truth. As Paul wrote in Eph 4.11, 12, God through his Spirit gave leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry”. We can therefore with some justification argue that those in leadership are accountable for their stewardship of the gifts of God’s people. I found this a helpful and challenging thought.

Secondly, Cottrell interprets “the mysteries of God” as referring above all to “presiding at the Table”. But nowhere in Scripture are the sacraments referred to as ‘mysteries’ – that is a much later development in church tradition. Cottrell writes at length about the sacramental role of ‘priests’. “Standing at the table breaking bread is what priests are called to do and is the clearest possible explanation of the ministry to which they have been called”. Christ “asks us, as ministers of his gospel, endlessly to hand out invitations to the banquet of heaven of which the Eucharist is a shadow”. From a Biblical perspective this approach to ministry has no justification.

However, let me not end on a negative note. Where I do agree with Cottrell is his emphasis on the joy of serving God and his people. I love the way he speaks about “the beautiful music of the Gospel”. “Priests are called to tell the tale and sing the song of God’s love”. Cottrell clearly revels in the privilege of ‘priesthood’. It is this zest for ‘ministry’ (my term!) which makes this chapter on the ‘Steward’ such a delight to read.

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