Faithful Living: A Biblical Ethic of Financial Stewardship

[1] Financial stewardship is not only a matter of faithful giving but of faithful living. In response to the gospel, we submit our lives to the rule of God, to the lordship of Christ, and to the direction of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be the people God wants us to be and have the lives God wants us to have.1

[2] With regard to financial stewardship, faithful living entails at least four things: 1) we acquire our money in God-pleasing ways; 2) we regard our money in God-pleasing ways; 3) we manage our money in God-pleasing ways; and, 4) we spend our money in God-pleasing ways. If you are one of those persons who likes nifty acronyms, the key words here can be associated with the word arms:

A – Acquire
R – Regard
M – Manage
S – Spend

How We Acquire Money
[3] When we are faithful stewards, we acquire our money in God-pleasing ways. The Bible often shows concern for such matters.

[4] To start with, scripture offers no commendation for those who don’t do any work at all. Everyone should “earn their own living,” one text maintains, and “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thes 3:10-12). The point here is not to commend starvation for the unemployed or to put a scriptural kibosh on government-sponsored welfare programs. In fact, these words may have been intended as a condemnation of the idle rich: well-to-do persons who have no need to work for a living will not be welcome at the church’s community meals unless they start devoting themselves to some sort of worthwhile labor. Work is good, the Bible maintains, and even people who don’t need to work for a paycheck ought to take jobs that will allow them to contribute to society and prevent them from turning into “mere busybodies” (2 Thes 3:11).

[5] Assuming that people are working for a living, the law of Moses provides details for honest business dealings (Lev 19:35-36; Deut 25:13-15), maintaining that “all who act dishonestly are abhorrent to the Lord” (Deut 25:16). The prophet Amos cries out against merchants who bring a caveat emptor code to the marketplace by practicing “deceit with false balances” or by “selling the sweepings of the wheat” (Amos 8:5-6; cf. Lev 19:35). In the New Testament, John the Baptist tells soldiers not to supplement their wages by extorting money or accepting bribes (Luke 3:14), and he instructs tax-collectors to gather no more than the prescribed amount (Luke 3:13).Thus, scrupulous honesty is intended to typify persons who are faithful stewards of God (see also Jer 17:11; Prov 10:2).

[6] The Bible further indicates that money ought not be earned in ways that create hardships for those who can least afford them. God forbids the Israelites from taking advantage of those who “have fallen into difficulty,” saying, “Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them” (Lev 25:35-37; see also Exod 22:25-27). Amos also rails against those who gain wealth at the expense of the poor (Amos 2:6-7; 5:11). In the New Testament, Jesus castigates religious leaders who have become rich by confiscating the homes of widows (Luke 20:47), and his brother James has some choice words for wealthy landowners who fail to pay their field hands a decent wage (James 5:1-6).

[7] Stewards of God, however, do not just seek to avoid what is negative, resisting temptations to dishonesty, sloth, or greed. Beyond that, we are encouraged to view our employment positively as a vocation from God, as something that we do in order to make a worthy contribution to life in this world. Martin Luther encouraged every worker to view his or her job as a calling from God. Of course, there may be some professions that stewards of God should simply avoid, work that is intrinsically immoral or contrary to the purposes of God. Luther himself thought this of certain “trading companies” of his day, which he called “a bottomless pit of avarice and wrongdoing.” His only advice to Christian employees of these hopelessly corrupt companies was “Get out! They will not change.”2 But, generally speaking, we can all be faithful stewards of God by pursuing occupations that involve us in useful and worthwhile activities.

How We Regard Money
[8] When we are faithful stewards, we regard our money in God-pleasing ways. The Bible often displays strong interest in the attitudes and motivations that undergird human behavior, and this is never more true than with regard to material things. Scripture says that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” and maintains that one “cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24). Money, then, is to be something that we use, not something that we love or serve. We should not allow money to become a primary source of joy or meaning in our lives (that would be loving it) nor should we allow money to exercise a controlling influence over our decisions (that would be serving it).

[9] Beyond such caveats, however, we should note that the Bible generally encourages us to take a positive attitude toward our possessions. God is often identified as the ultimate source of prosperity (Prov 28:25) and Moses tells the Israelites to view affluence as something to celebrate (Deut 8:10). Jesus says that the Father in heaven gives “good things” to his children (Matt 7:11) and we might conclude from other stories in the Gospels that such good things include nice clothes and jewelry (Luke 15:22), fatted calves (Luke 15:23), casks of wine (John 2:6-10), perfume (Mark 14:3-6), houses and fields (Mark 10:30) and other things associated with pleasant living in a material world.

[10] If there is a problem with affluence in the Bible, it is not usually that there is anything wrong with prosperity itself but that material abundance leads to spiritual amnesia. Moses has to warn the Israelites, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand has gotten me this wealth,’ but remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut 8:17-18). Thus, stewards are encouraged to view their material possessions as gifts of God and to be thankful for them. In our modern age, notions of entitlement run rampant and have become increasingly easy to adopt. Such notions are a surefire prescription for joyless living: we find it difficult to appreciate what we have when we think that we are only getting our due, and we find it easy to complain about what we lack when we think that we are not getting our due. The good news of biblical stewardship provides an antidote to such notions. It inculcates genuine gratitude, a first cousin to joy.

[11] Acknowledgment of God as the giver of all that we have also implies trust in God’s continuing benevolence. The Bible cautions us not to be anxious (Matt 6:25-33). “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus says (Matt 6:34). “Do not worry about anything,” the apostle Paul adds (Phil 4:6). When we trust in God to provide us with what we need, we can have less stressful and more satisfying lives. Indeed, it is trust in God that accounts for Paul’s startling claim, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil 4:11). Such contentment is grounded in the confidence that we not only will have enough to get by , but that we already do have enough. We have enough to be the people God wants us to be and to have the lives God wants us to have.

How We Manage Money
[12] When we are faithful stewards, we manage our money in God-pleasing ways. The world of the Bible knew nothing of stock markets, tax brackets, or pension plans, but the Bible does have more to say about money management than we might imagine.

[13] As a general principle, the Bible indicates that money is to be used, not hoarded. The best example of this may be the parable of the rich fool that Jesus tells in Luke 12:15-21. This man has so many goods that his barns will not hold them. To use a modern idiom, his biggest problem in life is what to do with all his “stuff.” So, he finally hits upon a solution-tear down the barns and build bigger ones. Note his reasoning: I need bigger barns, not less stuff . But he is going to die and discover the truth of that old adage, “You can’t take it with you” (cf. Psalm 49:17; 1 Tim 6:7). Or, as they say in Texas, “There is a reason why you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul.”

[14] There is another problem that we also want to avoid. The opposite of hoarding may be squandering, and the Bible does not denounce the former so as to recommend the latter. Indeed, just three chapters after the parable of the rich fool, we find a story about a foolish boy who squanders his inheritance on frivolous pursuits and then is caught unawares when a famine comes upon the land (Luke 15:12-16). So, saving money for some definite purpose is not the same as storing away more than we ever intend to use.

[15] To get this right, to avoid both hoarding and squandering, we need to think through our intentions and prayerfully submit them to God, asking, “How much should I set aside for this or for that? When am I storing away too much and when am I saving too little?” Jesus told yet another parable that might be apropos to this subject. In Matthew 25:14-30, he speaks of a man who gives money to three of his servants and waits to see what they will do with what they have been given. Two of the servants are deemed “good and trustworthy” because they successfully engage in the commerce of the day and manage to double what was given them. The third servant is denounced because he simply buries the money in the ground and digs it up later, proud that nothing was lost. Like most parables, this story has a metaphorical moral with a wide range of application, but there is certainly something to be learned at a literal level about financial management: doing nothing at all is seldom the best course.

[16] Concern for money management is, in my view, one of the most overlooked areas in contemporary stewardship education. To take but one, obvious example, the pervasiveness of high-interest credit-card debt in our modern society is evidence that mismanagement of personal finances has reached epidemic proportions. For many of us, faithful stewardship must begin with a basic commitment to getting our finances under control. Faithful stewardship might mean altering our spending habits, developing a budget, or learning to invest and save our money wisely. It might mean seeking the counsel of trained financial advisors, and approaching all of our decisions about money management with prayerful consideration of what God would have us do.

How We Spend Money
[17] When we are faithful stewards, we spend our money in God-pleasing ways. We please God when we use our money in ways that serve others (1 Pet 4:10-11) and that demonstrate appropriate self-care.

[18] Christian stewardship generally commends the virtue of frugality, a way of moderation that encourages Christians to distinguish between luxuries and necessities and to place some limits on acquisition of the former. But there is a difference in pursuing such a life on the basis of the gospel rather than on the basis of the law. The latter approach may be exemplified by a writer in Proverbs who pleads, “Give me neither poverty nor riches . . . Or, I shall be full and deny you . . . Or, I shall be poor and steal” (Prov 30:7-9). Such thinking is grounded in fear and espouses a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward stewardship. The apostle Paul, as we have seen, evinces exactly the opposite approach: Rich or poor, having plenty or little . . . it doesn’t matter. He knows that he will be content and that he will be a faithful steward of Jesus Christ regardless (Phil 4:12). Paul does not assume that either poverty or riches would be his undoing because he knows that God is at work in him (Phil 1:6) and that he can do all things through Christ (Phil 4:13).

[19] Accordingly, Christians may view the commendation of frugality and moderation not as a requirement but as an invitation to a joy-filled life. We all know that acquisition of possessions does not in itself bring joy. What is called for, then, is not an arbitrary distinction between “necessities” and “luxuries” but discernment regarding what is truly worthwhile and what is not. Ultimately, such decisions must be matters for personal conscience or family discussion. Christian stewards may not always be consistent or predictable in such deliberations, but the mere fact that they consider such matters prayerfully, seeking the guidance of God’s Spirit, will set them apart from the general population.

[20] If we begin consciously spending our money in ways that we believe are pleasing to God, we will not miss out on the pleasures of life. If anything, we will begin appreciating such pleasures all the more, knowing that God approves and applauds our enjoyment of this good world and much that it affords. Discerning people lack no appreciation for the wonder and value of life but, to the contrary, appreciate what they have and do not regret the absence of what they choose to forego.

[21] We need make no apologies for showing such discernment. John Westerhoff points out, for instance, that parents often deflect the more extravagant desires of their children by saying, “We can’t afford that.” The implicit message is that the parents would buy the costly item if they had the money, which may or may not be true. In any case, the children are left feeling sad and, worse, believing that such sadness could be remedied if only the family had more money. Why not tell the children, “We don’t think that getting this would be a good use of our money” or even, “We don’t believe that God would want us to use our money in this way”? Of course, such a response might invite arguments from the children regarding why the purchase would be a good use of the family’s money or why God would favor the purchase, but such discussions involve the entire family in thinking about the use of money in broader terms than “Can we afford it?”3

End Notes

1. This article is a re-worked condensation of material taken from Mark Allan Powell, Giving To God: The Bible’s Good News About Living a Generous Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

2. Martin Luther, “On Trade and Usury,” anthologized among other places in On Moral Business, ed. Max L. Stackhouse, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 174-179; quotations found on pages 178, 179.

3. John H. Westerhoff, Grateful and Generous Hearts (Atlanta: St. Luke’s Press, 1997), p. 20.