A New Paradigm
In the New Testament, Romans 8: 14-17 offers the most direct support for the notion that our primary identity and relationship to God is as a child to a parent, not as a steward to a master.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
As Paul makes clear not only in the passage from Romans, but also in a similar verse in Galatians (4:7), the implication of being a child of God is that we are also heirs. And both draw a strong contrast between childhood and slavery. Many writers have pointed out that stewards could technically be in a state of slavery; some have gone on to proclaim quite proudly that as stewards of God we are slaves to the divine will. Why, if we are children of God by adoption, would we insist on thinking of ourselves as slaves?
Here is a list of passages from the epistles that make direct reference to our identity as children and heirs of God:
Rom 4:14 – heirs to the promise
Gal 3:29 – heirs according to the promise
Gal 4:1 – child and heir though God
Eph 3:6 – fellow heirs in the promise
Tit 3:7 – heirs according to the hope
Heb 6:17 – heirs of the promise
Heb 11:17 – heir to the righteousness
If we are the beloved children and heirs of God, then the blessings we enjoy are received not by way of trust, but through inheritance. Inheritance is a form of gift that takes place between generations. As gift, an inheritance comes without obligations of the sort that are implicit in the idea of a trust. (This is not to deny that wills can put conditions on bequests. Nor does it deny that some forms of inheritance — the family farm, treasured heirlooms, etc. — can be received with a heavy feeling of responsibility to preserve the inheritance and pass it on to the next generation. But these are not the same as the terms of a trust.)
The challenge I offer to all supporters of the traditional stewardship paradigm is this: if mainstream theology tells us that we are children of a loving, generous God in all other respects, why is it that we are servants of a master when it comes to money and wealth?
What will we call this paradigm that rests on the idea that we are children and that what we have comes from God in the form of an inheritance? Heirship contrasts nicely with stewardship, and it might work in print, but when spoken aloud it is too likely to be confused with either the Hindenburg disaster or the Snoopy blimp that patrols the skies at golf tournaments.
Perhaps it is less important to have a snappy name than to recognize that a new paradigm has profound implications on how we think about money and giving in the church. And that is the topic to which I will turn next.