The Counterculture of Biblical Stewardship
Moving from “property” to “partnerships”
By Oliver Glanz
For some years now the world has struggled with a severe economic and financial crisis. Unemployment levels are high. Families are forced to leave their homes, as they can no longer pay their mortgages, and children have to discontinue their college education. The situation makes us wonder what a biblical perspective on human economy looks like.
The word “economy” comes from the Greek oikonomía, a term which we can also find in the Bible (1 Tim. 1:4). It is a compound word consisting of oikos (“house”) and nómos (“law”), meaning “house law.” The “economist” (Luke 12:42), or steward, therefore, carries out the laws of the house.
But what are the laws of a house? This depends on what house we are talking about. Is it a hospital, a school, or a bank? Each of these houses focuses upon distinct values and therefore requires specific laws that will protect key values and help them flourish. The most fundamental value of a school lies in its students. Therefore laws governing a school are of pedagogical nature and involve methods for improving learning. Hospitals serve patients; the laws governing them are of medical nature, focusing upon ways for improving health. Banks follow monetary laws of saving and multiplying finances. Values trigger specific laws.
The question for any of us is what value characterizes the “house” we are living in. Modern, contemporary culture answers this question in a specific way: the most basic value is the material wealth surrounding us. The laws that derive from this key value are of an economic nature and guide us in growing our material worth. Life is good when we earn good money, when we can buy a big car, when we own a nice house or have the latest iPhone. Therefore, society pushes us to become good consumers. We are humans because we are consumers.
The Bible offers a very different answer to the question about the basic value that we find in the house in which we live. In the Creation account, we learn that the house in which God placed humanity was huge—it covered the entire earth (Gen. 1:28). We were placed in a house made of rivers, plants, and animals. But what was the ultimate value of this house? Scripture tells us that the ultimate “capital” of our house is not measured in monetary value of noble metals or vegetable harvests, but focuses upon the creation covenant—a relationship between all living beings: (a) between man and woman, and more generally between people; (b) the relationship between humanity and the animals; and (c) the relationship between humanity and God. The only time God said “very good” was after the day in which He constituted the relationships between man and woman and between humans and animals (verses 28-31). Humanity was asked to take care of the animals as a good ruler takes care of citizens. God was serious when he stressed that animals are to be protected and not to be reduced to food. In fact, both humanity and animals shared the same type of food (namely fruits and vegetables) in God’s original plan.
Sabbath and Stewardship
The introduction of marriage and the Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3, 24, 25) further underlined the threefold partnership as the key value of Creation. The Sabbath is not governed by an economic agenda; work and other obligations are no longer hindering intimacy, separating people from one another. Sabbath is the moment in time and space where we can fully engage the people surrounding us—be they a family member, a neighbor or a foreigner—and, ultimately, God Himself. This is a radical thought for our times. During the week we don’t work to “make money” or worship the idol of material progress, but we want to arrive in and improve meaningful relationships with all living beings. We are humans because we are partners.
The Sabbath idea is not to have a day of rest in order to recover from work. God did not need to recover from His work, either. The idea is to get priorities right and work no more during the week than necessary, so that no exhaustion, no work frustration, no material dreams, are going to compromise the core value of our God-given human house: intimacy, care, understanding, and recognition.
The Bible is serious on this matter as it shows that the Sabbath is not only the pinnacle of the week; it is also the focal point of each phase of our lives. Every seventh year the Israelites were to be free from labor (Ex. 23:10-13). Parents were supposed to spend time with their children, to enjoy marriage, and to deepen their spiritual walk with God.
But the Sabbath is not only the pinnacle of each week or the focal point of our lives—it also has a generational purpose. No person in Israel was to ultimately suffer from the economic choices of his or her parents. Every fiftieth year each person was guaranteed to have enough material property, to be released from debt, and to build a life that focused on relationships, protected the animals and God’s creation, and had God as the central guide for one’s life (Lev. 25:8-13). One could say that the Sabbath is a synonym for “Creation covenant.” The Sabbath is the basic value of our “house.”
Humanity is asked to be an “economist” (or steward) of the Sabbath. This is the basic idea of biblical stewardship. The laws that depend on this value are manifold. God had Moses write many laws that show what Sabbath life looks like, how relationships can flourish and be protected.
Unfortunately, the idea of a biblical economy was challenged and corrupted again and again in human history. People started to kill one another (Gen. 4:8, 23). They started to kill their animal partners (starting with Nimrod, a mighty hunter and the founder of Babel; cf. Gen. 10:9). They tried to usurp the role of their ultimate partner, God (see the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9), and built cities as centers of production in order to improve the productivity of material progress. The idea of the Sabbath as the ultimate value of life was ignored and replaced.
In the last days of this world God initiated the Adventist movement. Like the three angels of Revelation 14, we are asked to proclaim God’s end-time message to this world and remind its inhabitants, both the victims and the originators of our enormous financial and economic crisis, about the Creator, the house in which we are living, and the ultimate meaning of human life.
The third angel calls us to be courageous, to dare to invest more time, money, gifts and talents into our families, fellow man, nature, and the church than into the acquisition of things and goods that help us improve our social ranking in a Babylonian world (cf. Rev. 13:15-17; 14:9-12).
The second angel’s cry that “Babylon is fallen” (Rev. 14:8) reminds us that the end is in sight. God’s economy is soon to be restored!
Oliver Glanz, originally from Germany, is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Free University of Amsterdam and the Protestant Theological University of the Netherlands. Together with his wife, Karen, and their two daughters he has recently been called to serve as professor of Old Testament at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University.