There is an old children’s poem that goes like this: “What kind of church would my church be, if all of its members were just like me?”
That is a good question to ask ourselves related to the stewardship of our time, talents, treasure and testimony.
Many churches are in a time of “stewardship emphasis” during the fall months in preparation for a new calendar year.
Let’s take a moment to think about stewardship in the church. To do so, I want to focus our thoughts on the difference between stewardship and philanthropy.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “philanthropy?” You might say, “Giving.”
True – philanthropy is an important form of giving. It supports the arts, college sports, civic advances, caring services and higher education. Philanthropy is a good thing. I encourage all of us to be philanthropic.
Have you ever thought about the meaning of the word? It is a combination of two Greek words.
The first is “philos,” which is the word for “brotherly/sisterly love” or a mutual love between two people with common interests.
The other part of the word “philanthropy” comes from “anthropos,” which means “humanity.”
Our word “anthropology” is the study of humanity. Combined together we see that the motivation for philanthropy is the love of humanity.
Contrast that to the word “stewardship.” As 1 Peter 4:10 reminds us, we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” The word for “stewards” in this passage and in other places in the New Testament is “oikonomos.”
The “oikonomos” was a “house manager” (“oikos” is the word for house). The steward was often a slave or a servant who managed a house that belonged to someone else. This was a position of great honor and responsibility.
To put it in terms that any “Downton Abbey” fan will understand, the “oikonomos” would be Mr. Carson. He did not own the big house – but he did manage it for the owner.
In the same way, we are to be stewards by being good managers of all that belongs to God.
There is the great difference between philanthropy and stewardship. Philanthropy is motivated by a mutual love of humanity. Stewardship is based on an allegiance to God who has entrusted us to be the managers of all that belongs to God.
Here is the challenge as I see it: Too often we think that giving to the church and serving in the church are forms of philanthropy.
We are happy to give and serve as long as there is a mutual love and friendship for the other humans around us.
If the church is doing what we want, if I am being loved and accepted in the family, if my needs are getting met in this place, then I am happy to give and serve to support the effort. That is philanthropy.
However, stewardship is not about us or about the church’s needs or about how well we get along with each other. It is about our relationship to God. We are to be “like good stewards.”
So what is stewardship?
1. An expression of gratitude to God
Philanthropy is fueled out of gratitude for human achievement that has meaning for us.
A symphony plays beautiful music that touches our hearts and we support it with our gifts; a hospital helps to heal hearts that are sick, and we support it with our gifts; an athletic program stirs our hearts – or breaks our hearts – so we support it with our donations.
Stewardship comes when we are grateful to God for the gifts that God has given to us.
All of the earth is the Lord’s – we are just the house managers – stewards of the “manifold grace” that is shared with us.
We offer our financial gifts and our committed service to God through the church because we are grateful for all that God has given to us.
Our gratitude is to God. That is why making a commitment of your finances and service to God through the church is not philanthropy – it is stewardship.
2. An act of obedience for God
Philanthropy is based on our free choice. No one makes you support sports, hospitals or the arts. You do so because you want to.
Stewardship has a different dimension. It is not an option based on your personal preferences. It is the will of God.
So God says, “Bring all of the tithes into the storehouse” and we are called to obedience. Verses like the one mentioned earlier in 1 Peter 4:10 say, “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received” and we are called to obedience.
Faithful stewardship is joyful because we want to obey – not because we feel like we have to.
We want to obey because we are grateful for the gifts of God and we trust that life lived in obedience to the commands of God will be far better than what we can cook up on our own.
Philanthropy is totally optional. Stewardship is not optional if we desire to be obedient to the God who has so richly blessed us.
That is why making a commitment of your finances to God through the church is not philanthropy – it is stewardship.
3. A shared ministry with God
Philanthropy is often what you give so that someone else can do the work. Our gifts enable others in the arts, sports, healthcare and education to do work that we cannot do.
We support them so that the work can be done because it is important to the good of humanity that we love.
Stewardship is different. It actually is a shared ministry with God.
The concept of a “house manager” – or steward – says it all. God is the owner, we are the managers. We work together.
Paul said it well in 1 Corinthians 3:9 when he wrote, “For we are laborers together with God.” In the church we work together with each other – and we work together with God. Stewardship is a shared ministry with God.
As you think about stewardship in the life of your church this time of year, I encourage you to think like stewards rather than philanthropists. The word makes a big difference.
David Hull is the southeast coordinator for the Center for Healthy Churches and lives in Watkinsville, Georgia. He was previously the pastor of First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. A version of this article first appeared on the Center for Healthy Churches blog and is used with permission. You can follow Hull on Twitter @DavidWHull.