I’m a collector. I have been all my life. From baseball cards to stamps, from books to vinyl records I have always been in the thrall of one collection or another. I say this by way of admitting that I understand the lure of stuff. I, like you, have grown up in a culture where property is something close to sacred and the protection of that property has become the defining feature of our legal code.
Our homes. Our jobs. Our land. Our church. We know what it means to possess.
And, to be clear, private property is not a bad thing. The ability to hold property for oneself is one of the most important developments in moving a culture beyond feudalism. It has created freedom for many. It has become a way to better lives for our families, better education, better access to the goods of a society.
Yet, holding property too dear can limit us as well. It can keep us from seeing clearly enough the moral demands that the needs of others place upon us. When property becomes an end in itself, we have moved into idolatry, and we have replaced God in our lives with something less.
This is why the focus, in Reformed theology, on the doctrine of stewardship has always been an important corrective for me and for my own attachment to stuff. When stewardship season comes around we are reminded that our calling as Christians demands of us that we use property to the glory of God. Property is not an end in itself, and the value of property is best determined by the mission it enables.
The doctrine of stewardship also reminds us of something more. When John Calvin wrote on stewardship, he knew that his audience understood the term “steward.” It was a regular occupation in 16th century Europe. A steward was one who managed the property of the Lord while the Lord was away. While it was the steward’s job to make sure that the property flourished, the steward did not own the property. It always belonged to the Lord.
So when Calvin called us stewards, he was not only reminding us of our duties, he was also reminding us that what we have does not ultimately belong to us. Taken in its fullness, the doctrine of stewardship calls us to re-examine the very concept of ownership. It undercuts the sacredness of private property and it reminds us to whom we belong.
As congregations and as individual Christians, it is always a faithful exercise to remind ourselves of this theology whenever we are making decisions about property: how to use it, how to share it, how to dispose of it. Our goal is a different one from the goals that the market demands. We are always called to make sure, above all else, that in whatever actions we take, in whatever transactions we engage, we are furthering God’s work in our world.
May it be so.
Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.