Perhaps you have heard the story of the football coach whose team seemed particularly inept as they extended a losing streak. Gathering his squad for a team meeting, he produced the old "pigskin" and declared, "Gentlemen, this is a football." His point was clear — the team had to go back to the basics.
In our last article, we looked at some troubling statistics from a study conducted by the Barna group about giving that suggest we need to get back to basics in our teaching about stewardship principles. In spite of the rather disappointing and discouraging facts about giving nationwide, there was a ray of hope. The study indicated that most people surveyed were essentially illiterate about what the Bible actually teaches concerning stewardship.
It may be that we take for granted that the people in our pews already know the basics and would be offended if we repeated truths they should have already mastered. I think that in many cases we have been reluctant to teach Biblical truths about stewardship because we have been told it would make it difficult to reach "busters," or "boomers," or whoever the focus group seems to be at the moment. Many of us bought that church growth myth hook, line, and sinker, and we are all reaping the consequence.
I'm not just talking about the consequence as it relates to our church budget; I am talking about the consequences in our personal lives. It is estimated that Americans spend $1.20 for every $1.00 they earn. Americans presently have $600 billion in credit card debt. In 2001 banks sent out five billion pieces of mail offering us the opportunity to accumulate more debt. Many of the families that listen to you preach weekly are no longer living paycheck to paycheck. No, it is much more serious than that — they are spending paychecks today they hope to earn in the future. Many marriage counselors indicate that money is the number one cause of divorce.
It is imperative that we teach the entire counsel of God's Word. The Good News includes wise counsel on money including how to earn it, how to spend it, how to save and invest it, and how to use it to advance God's Kingdom. So let's look at a few of the basics.
Let's Start at the Very Beginning
We neglect the first chapters of the Bible to our own detriment. The doctrine of creation is an essential doctrine that is repeatedly underlined throughout the Bible. The first chapters of Genesis contain five essential truths about material things.
The King Created and Owns Everything
We give "lip service" but not "life service" to this foundational truth. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis. 1:1). This means precisely what it says. God created everything that exists out of nothing. It is a simple statement with profound implications. It means God owns everything and we own nothing. While we tacitly endorse the first truth — God owns everything — we often live in rebellion against the corollary truth — we own nothing. It is this rebellion on our part that creates our "spiritual my-opia." We think the church wants "our money" or that someone is putting too many demands on "our time." Where did we ever get the impression that it is our money or our time?
While we tend to think of the negative side of God's ownership, the Bible views it in a totally positive light. First, it means that everything has been created with intentionality and purpose. Second, it means that God is directing everything toward an ultimate or Kingdom purpose. Finally, it gives us the freedom to live without the anxiety that ownership creates. Read the entire context of Matthew 6. Don't forget that the prayer of Jesus is immediately followed by a warning against accumulating earthly treasure and the opportunity to lay up heavenly (Kingdom) treasure. The secret to anxiety free living? — Seek first the Kingdom of God!
It Was Very Good
The first chapter of Genesis contains a seven-fold declaration (4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31) that God's creation was "good." In fact it reaches a crescendo with the declaration that it was "very good." In other words, God declares that the material world has meaning and purpose.
We should contrast this biblical view with other world views. In much of pagan mythology, the world is viewed as evil and threatening. In Hinduism, the world is viewed as unreal or illusory. In Buddhism, the material world is a distraction, contributing to man's desire. In materialism, the material world is seen as the ultimate goal and thus leads to greed and hoarding. In the biblical view, the material world is for the glory of God and the good of man.
The biblical view takes a positive view of the material world. It was created to provide for man's existence. Beyond that, God designed the world for man's enjoyment. It gives man the opportunity for enrichment and self-expression. All of this is to be understood in the context of man's privilege to participate in Kingdom activity.
Man's Role is That of the Steward
The zenith of God's creative activity is mankind. Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth" (Genesis 1:26). Man is given the role of managing all that God has created. Remember we are managers or stewards and not owners.
Man in the image of God is relational, rational, and responsible. Man was designed to live in personal relationship with His Creator. We see the beautiful picture of God and man enjoying fellowship in the garden. Since man is a relational being, God declares that it is not good for him to be alone. He creates for man a partner of his own kind.
Man is rational, and thus the Creator and man can communicate. Perhaps you can see the significant implication of this truth as it relates to Scripture. Since man is a rational being, God reveals Himself truthfully and enables man to record it accurately, providing for Him an inerrant guide to all of life.
We can't escape the obvious conclusion to this truth — man is responsible. He can understand the truth of God and is therefore accountable as a steward of all that God has given Him. As responsible stewards, we must manage the material world, including money, by the standards God has provided in His Word. We will be held accountable for managing God's resources by His standard and for His Kingdom.
The Impact of the Fall
Genesis 3 records the tragedy of man's rebellion. Man is given the totality of the garden, with one exception — the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Man is led to question God's Word and His goodness, leading to sin and the fall. As you might expect man's sin has profound implications in terms of his relationship with His Creator and his wife and fellow-man. As a rational being he understands the enormity of his sin, but in his fallen state he seeks to blame it on another. As a responsible being, he is still to till the garden, but now his labor is painful with the ground producing thorns and thistles.
In contrast to the "very good" creation, we now see material things in rebellion.
• Man accumulates rather than managing and distributing.
• Greed leads to exploitation rather than cooperation with God.
• Man's affection is for creation rather than the Creator.
• Material things now become a source of anxiety rather than blessing.
• The creation is now in rebellion against its Creator.
Do you recognize the root of many of our problems with materialism? Do you understand why stewardship seems to be such a foreign idea to many today? Many people who claim to be born again actually relate to the material world in terms of the fall rather than redemption. So let's turn our attention to redemption and its impact on material world.
Redemption and the Material World
As you might expect, redemption impacts man in terms of all of his relationships. First his relationship to his Creator is restored, which, in turn, is intended to renew all other relationships. Further, his relationship to the material world is renewed and he is empowered to be a responsible steward and participate with God in Kingdom activity. The Old Testament looks forward to a restored bountiful harvest (Ezekiel 36 and Amos 9:13-15). In the New Testament we have a powerful example of the redeemed man's responsible stewardship. Zacchaeus, after his encounter with Christ, commits to restore anything he has taken by extortion and to give half his goods to care for the poor (Luke 19).
It is critical that we note that creation, redemption, and stewardship are inextricably bound together. The gift of material possessions implies a Kingdom mission. The Bible teaches that God has provided man with sufficient resources for:
• Man's needs and pleasures;
• Provision for the poor, the widows, and the orphans;
• The support for and expansion of ministry;
• The reaching of the nations.
Here's the truth that excites me. God created the world with sufficient resources to provide for all the above. Can you imagine the potential that would be ours if we followed God's principles of stewardship? Local churches could easily quadruple their budgets. I know it sounds like a dream too good to be true, but you do the math.
According to some studies only about 25 percent of those who attend church give in a systematic fashion and they give only about 2.5 percent of their income. If only half of our people gave 5 percent, the church's budget would literally quadruple. Now think about the implications of tithing. God truly has created the world with sufficient resources to enable us to complete the Acts 1:8 challenge in this generation!
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.