The Stewardship of Mankind

It is a well-known principle of sound hermeneutics that the interpretation of less clear passages should be informed by the clearer relevant passages. The application of this principle to the question, “Does the Bible teach that humanity has a stewardship from God?” sends us first to the most certain and defining passages that establish and frame the biblical teaching on stewardship.

The appropriate starting point for any consideration of stewardship is the clearer and fuller revelation of the New Testament with its more abundant references. The Gospel writers record Jesus’ use of the image of the steward and his stewardship in Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:42-48 (paralleled in Matthew 24:45-51 and Mark 13:32-37); Luke 16:1-12; and 19:11-27. Paul refers to it in First Corinthians 4:1-4; 9:17; First Thessalonians 2:4; First Timothy 1:11; and Titus 1:7. Peter relies on the image in First Peter 4:10.  Other less direct references and inferences can be discerned. This New Testament information combines to say three things:

 1. A steward is generally assumed to be a servant in God’s household, subject to his master in all things. Thus, his subjection to the demands of the general will of his master, no matter how great, is only the expected submission and service of a servant (see Luke 17:10). As a soldier in an army is first a subject of his commander-in-chief; as an ambassador is first a citizen of the country he represents, a steward is first a servant of his master.

 2. A steward is a servant entrusted with a charge (Mark 13:34) according to his ability (Matthew 25:15). This task, duty, trust or charge (generally pictured as necessitated by the master’s absence) is a particular assignment above and beyond the general submission and duties of servanthood. The servant who receives this charge is thereby constituted a steward. The charge or trust given, and his administration or management of it, is his stewardship. In the New Testament, the range of possible stewardships includes managing the master’s money (Matthew 25:15; Luke 19:13), caring for the master’s business affairs (16:1-12), supervising the distribution of food allotments for the master’s servants (12:42-48), preaching the gospel and the secret things of God (1 Corinthians 4:1; 9:17), discharging the office of elder (Titus 1:7) and ministering good to others through the use of one’s spiritual gift (1 Peter 4:10). The assignment of the trust may come directly from the Master, God Himself, as in the case of Paul (Acts 9:15; 26:17-18). It may come by the appointment of the church, as in the case of the election of an elder (Titus 1:5, 7). Or it may come to light through one’s personal spiritual conviction, as in the case of the Apostles’ realization that they needed to focus on the ministry of the Word of God and prayer as their special trust (Acts 6:4).

 3. A steward is judged with regard to the administration and the results of his stewardship, with consequences for both his stewardship and himself. Positively, the faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2; Matthew 25:20, 23; Luke 12:42; 1 Peter 4:10), trustworthy (Luke 16:11-12; 19:17) and wise (Luke 12:42) management of one’s stewardship produces positive results. This fidelity and productiveness is rewarded in two ways: by enhancing one’s stewardship in the Master’s kingdom (Matthew 25:21, 23; Luke 12:44; 16:10; 19:17, 19) and by consigning the steward to the blessing and joy of fellowship with his Lord (Matthew 25:21, 23). Negatively, the wicked, lazy and fearful (Matthew 25:25-26); the unjust and self-serving (Luke 16:1); and the arrogant, rebellious, willful and ignorant (Luke 12:45-48) administration of one’s stewardship leads to stewardship failure and loss for the Master’s interests. This faithlessness and harm is punished in three ways: by depriving the culprit of his stewardship (Matthew 25:28; Luke 19:24), by inflicting temporal punishment (Luke 12:47-48) and by consigning him to eternal separation and destruction (Matthew 25:30; Luke 12:46).

 Thus the New Testament picture of stewardship teaches us that the stewards of God are His servants, that is, believers, carrying out a special trust from God. This stewardship is their person-specific and highest duty in their service for God.  It is the work for which they are best suited and most productive for God, if they execute it faithfully. Their efforts and results for God’s cause will be especially rewarded or severely punished.

 Now that we have laid out the clearer New Testament components of stewardship we can more pointedly pose the original question: “Given that the clearer and most explicit passages teach that stewardship is the province of the servants of God, does the Bible also teach that all of humanity has a stewardship from God?” The prime referent here would be Genesis 1:26, 28: “. . . let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth. . . . Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

 Likewise, the psalmist marvels that God has given to mankind dominion over all the works of His hands (Psalm 8:6). Does not this authority to subdue and rule over all God’s works entail mankind’s stewardship of all the earth? Many conservationists and environmentalists operate on this assumption.

 Certain factors may be cited in favor of such a universal stewardship. When Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, he was charged with working it and taking care of it (Genesis 2:15). When the flood came, a man, Noah, was charged with rescuing all of the kinds of land animals by providing safe haven for them on the ark (chapters 6-9). Moses’ law demanded consideration in the treatment of animals in such commands as, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). The idealized natural state in the vision of the kingdom of God in Isaiah 11 and 65 suggests that working toward the mutual benefit and the universal harmony of all life is most in keeping with the end to come. Therefore, all life is precious and protecting it, its ecosystems, habitats and physical environment is humanity’s stewardship.

 However, there is strong data that weighs against this position. The effect of Adam’s sin and the curse of God in Genesis 3 broke the harmony of three relationships: man to God, man to man and man to nature. But are these relationships of equal importance? Follow redemption’s story. The wicked line of Cain in Genesis 4 shows great success in the use and subduing of nature (e.g., musical instruments, domestication of animals, building cities, forging metal weapons). Seth’s righteous line had its main issue in righteous men such as Enoch and Noah (Genesis 5). The righteous line wins out; all the nature worshipers perish. Next, at Sinai God gives His law, His will for humanity in two tablets: one to restore man in piety to God, the other to restore man in righteousness to men. If our concern for nature had a comparable standing, there would have been a third tablet. After all, if the restoration of man to his original harmonious relationships is in view, where is nature’s tablet?

 Most important in this redemptive train is the account of Romans 1. Here God’s wrath is manifested against humanity. Why? Because of their ungodliness (read that to mean sinful violations of the revealed knowledge of God—violations of the first tablet). God is also judging them as inexcusable for their unrighteousness (read that to mean sinful violations of the law of God that is written upon their hearts regarding the right treatment of men—violations of the second tablet). Of one thing you can be sure, what God is really concerned about He legislates and He judges. This means that God is really, and fundamentally, concerned about two things: our relationship and conduct toward Him and our relationship and conduct toward our neighbor.

 God judges in detail the stewardship of Christians, His servants. But there is not a trace of a reference about judging humanity’s stewardship of nature. Nature, time, talents, resources, etc., as managed by the natural man, are ultimately weighed and counted on but two scales named Godliness and Righteousness. That is to say, when something the natural man does touches upon the glory of God in His creation or the welfare of men, only then has he triggered the radar of God’s concerns.

 So, then, is there a stewardship of mankind distinct from Christian stewardship? Certainly, none that can be expressed after the pattern of New Testament stewardship. Yet there remains a tangential and secondary concern here that should discourage carelessness and arrogance. A reverence for the works of God that bear His glory and for all of humanity that bears His image is certainly appropriate for both the sons of men and the sons of God.

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©2006 by K. Neill Foster