What is Stewardship, Really?
July 16, 2012
As concern over human interactions with the environment has increased over the past few decades, "stewardship" has become a buzz-word in the evangelical community. When asked about a Christian's responsibility for the environment, a pastor might even give the vague response, "Well, we are called to be good stewards of Creation." But what does this word stewardship actually mean? Especially in modern times, when the Church is contemplating its role in the global warming and environmentalism debate, how should we define the idea of stewardship?
The church I’m a member of recently started a new group called the Green Team to focus on environmental stewardship. As a member of the group, I along with the rest of the team have been looking at Genesis to try and get a handle on what Christian environmental stewardship looks like, and we've been finding some interesting results.
To identify what Christian environmentalism entails, we’ve taken a close look at what often-cited scriptures are actually saying on the topic. Instead of using only the modern traditional translations such as the TNIV or NRSV, we have been using a variety of translations, including what's known as a “mechanical translation,” in our search for what the Bible has to say about stewardship. A mechanical translation of text attempts to translate each Hebrew word into its literal English counterpart and uses definitions that place each individual word within its ancient cultural context.
Here's how Genesis 1:28 reads in the NIV: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’"
This is what the mechanical translation looks like: and he will Kneel / At them / Powers / and he will Say / to them / Powers / Reproduce / and Increase / and Fill / At / the Land / and Subdue her / and Rule / in Swimmer / the Seas / and in Flyer / the Skies / and in All / Life / the Treadings / Upon / the LandAnother important verse is Genesis 2:15. The NIV translates: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
And the mechanical translation reads: and he will Take / He exists / Powers / At / the Human / and he will make Deposit him / in Garden / Pleasure / to Serve her / and to Guard her
The team identified four words that are especially important to these verses in the context of environmental stewardship: subdue, rule, serve and guard. In the ancient Hebrew lexicon, these words had different connotations than ours today. "Subdue" meant to place the foot on the land in the sense of subduing it. "Rule" implied leadership by walking among one's subjects. And interestingly, the word "serve" is the same one used in other parts of the Old Testament to describe the religious duties and responsibilities to the Tabernacle. "Guard" is translated later as “keep” in Numbers 6:24: "The Lord bless you and keep you."
These seemingly four simple words are actually packed with meaning and significance that can easily be missed in today's modern translations. The particular vocabulary used by the author of Genesis suggests a profound and intimate relationship between Man and Creation, something that mirrors God's relationship with Man and the Tabernacle.
As Christians living in a culture that has serious impact on the environment, we need to ask ourselves as individuals and as a community if we are following these four words.
By breaking down these early passages of scripture the Church can be given a more complete idea of what stewardship means, and for the individual believer, by examining their own life, the commands of Genesis can be made more clear. Am I subduing by placing my foot on the land? (Do I appreciate creation? Do I walk with an understanding of God’s power and majesty?) Am I ruling by walking in Creation? (Do I involve myself in the environmental discussion? Do I make an effort to understand my role in caring for what God has given us?) Am I serving the Garden like I would serve God's Temple? Am I guarding as I would want God to bless and keep me? By applying these ideas and asking these questions in our own lives, environmental stewardship becomes a more real way to follow some of God’s earliest commands.
May we subdue, rule, serve and guard like the stewards we were intended to be.