Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1–2—NKJV)

To the Christian ears any discussion of stewardship seems to eventuate in an exhortation to be faithful in tithes and offering. The biblical use of the word certainly affects the use of time, talent, and treasure, but stewardship has a much more comprehensive architecture than merely being a “bean counter.”

My family has a Scottish background. Our clan is the Stewarts of Atholl. I remember asking my dad when I was a kid about how the Stewarts got their name. His response directed to satisfy little ears was, “They were keepers of the King’s deer.” I got the idea that they were little more than game wardens. I retired to other youthful distractions with images of Robin Hood and his merry band in the green wood swirling through my mind.

It was much later that I found that the King’s Stewart was one of the highest offices in the land. The coat of arms of the various Stewart families generally include a blue and white checkered band signifying the fact that stewards often used checkered cloths in order to assist in counting coins for the king. The Stewart name came from a compound of two ancient words “stig-weard” meaning “house-guard,” a steward, or stewart as it came to be known in court usage. Members of the Stewart clan claim to descend from the first High Steward of the King, a hereditary office.

In common usage, stewards were trusted and responsible people in a lord’s house. The steward’s job was to manage and administrate the property of another. He had oversight over finances, servants, food, buildings, lands, resources, food, and many times, the children of the lord of the house. In short, the success of the house, the business of the house, and legacy of the house rested in the hands of the lord’s steward. The faithful steward placed the interest of the house before his own welfare. The lord of the manor benefited the most when he could safely trust the capabilities, loyalty, honesty, and diligence of his steward. It was a priority that his steward made his lord’s interests his sole pursuit.

It is this word that the English translators chose to translate the Greek word oikonomos (house + arrange, to manage the property of another, the word from which we get our words economy and economic). It is the same biblical word that has lent its meaning to dispensational theology (Ephesians 1:10), which seeks to identify God’s different modes of administering and arranging His working with mankind throughout the ages.

Our text from 1 Corinthians is Paul’s instruction concerning how he wanted the Corinthian believers to view the heart of everyone God had significantly used to disciple them. He says, “Let a man so reckon us” as servants and stewards. “Servants” translates a term meaning “under-rower.” This term described the lowest tier of rowers on a Roman galley; they were the least of the rowing slaves, the first to drown. They were subordinate in everything to another’s direction (Matthew 5:25, Luke 1:2, 4:20). Disciple-makers are servants of Christ, the Master, who beats the cadence for the rowers.

The disciple-makers are not just under-rowers of Christ, but they are stewards, subject to the will of the owner with the charge of oversight of the interests and property of the Master. Of them it is “required,” something to be sought out in a man, to be investigated, to be put to the test, and subject to audit. The steward was to “be found” (examined and found upon inquiry) faithful. “Faithful” carries a world of meaning. “Bean counter” audits do a poor job of assessing the faithfulness of a heart. The final judgment is not limited to calculated facts; it is rather a weighing the heart of the steward. Is his heart fully embracing the interests of the Master, allowing his heart to be consumed with the care of the Master’s household?

While Paul’s words speak directly to church leadership (Titus 1:7), his lesson has significance for every Christian (1 Peter 4:10). First, our stewardship is not often quantifiable, able to be tabulated in an earthly book, like tithing. Rather, the books where heart matters of faithfulness are recorded are kept in Heaven (Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 27, 22:19) without error or emendation. To be sure, your use of time, talent, and treasure is important, but the health of the spiritual heart matters most (2 Corinthians 8:5, 12); all other matters rise from heart health. Second, there are three types of accountability—momentary, regular, and final. A focus on moment-by-moment accountability to God sure beats regular accountability on Sundays only, or every-so-often. Moment-by-moment faithfulness in everything is the only way to prepare for the final audit when the heavenly books are opened. Finally, it is the Lord who judges the faithfulness of His stewards (Matthew 24:45ff, 25:21). Let us accord to our fellow stewards of God’s grace the unbegrudging courtesies and assistance due to brothers in humble, faithful service to the Master (1 Corinthians 4:3–5). Trust and obey.