Stewards of the Mysteries of God

There has been a great deal written about Orthodox spirituality in the last several decades but very little about Orthodox stewardship as opposed to materialism. Materialism seeks to divide the responsibility of the Church into the real and unreal. This belief posits that the hierarchs, priests, deacons and other members of the clerical order are responsible for the spiritual affairs of the church (i.e. the unreal) but that the lay members of the church are responsible for the material affairs of the Church (i.e. the real).

Although it comes as a shock to many people the Early Apostolic Church did not have church officers in the modern sense. All Church property, not that there was that much of it in those early days, was seen as being entrusted to the Apostles themselves. This is illustrated in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Chapter Five of the Books of Acts, who laid their money at the feet of the Apostles.

In later centuries Canon Law recognized that church properties were to be entrusted to the Bishop of the diocese as the successors to the Apostles. St. Justin the Martyr, in his ”First Apology” (circa 150 A.D.), wrote that the collection from the Sunday Liturgy was given directly to the Bishop, who was able to help those in need. "What is collected is deposited with the president and he takes care of orphans and widows......" (First Apology 66.)

St. Justin, writing for a pagan audience, refers here to the bishop as the "president" since he was the one who "presided" over the Eucharistic liturgy. At a very early time however, as the Church grew, it became impossible for the Apostles and later the bishops to administer every detail. Indeed, we read in Chapter Seven of the Book of Acts that the first deacons were elected, not because the Apostles needed them for worship, but because they needed help in administering the resources of the Church because of its growth: “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables." (Acts 6:2). The deacons of the Church were the first to share in the tasks that are assigned today to the Church Officers, helping in the administration of the church resources on a daily basis.

As the Church became the "official church" of the old Roman Empire, then the Byzantine, then Russian Empires and the state church in many Orthodox countries governments assumed the role of taking care of Church properties, paying clergy salaries and funding many of the other apostolates of the Church. This was and still is the case in most European countries today.

In America, however, Orthodox Churches found again in their organization and funding a need for laypeople also to serve, as St. Paul referred to himself and his fellow workers, as "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor. 4:1) in co-operation with the Hierarchs of the Church. We must from the outset realize that stewardship is not ownership. In many instances those parishes which loudly in the past touted that they were the "people's church" and claimed a material ownership rather than stewardship have manifested in their loss of membership, their decline of spirituality and general loss of interest in them by their own membership, that indeed they were indeed the people's church and not Christ's Church.

Church Officers are called, along with the pastors and bishops to "stewards" of Christ's Church, realizing that sometime they will be called to give an accounting of their stewardship to Christ. The first question to be asked of any candidate for church office is the question posed at the time of Baptism, "Do you believe in Christ and do you promise to serve Him?"

A Church whose officers and pastor strive to answer "yes" to this question every day will find their service, though it have many difficulties to overcome, a source of spiritual joy and personal satisfaction. They and their parish will grow in the things of the spirit which will lead to growth in funds and resources. Conversely, a church whose parish council members are seeking to answer the question "Who is the most important person in the Church" with any other name than that of Jesus Christ will find that they are torn by divisions and internal strife. Their service will consist of a multitude of confrontational meetings, private conferences, innumerable telephone calls, threats and counter threats. The level of spirituality will drop, funds will become tight and the faithful, especially the young people, will see the Church not as the living icon of the Holy Spirit, but as the "People's Church”, another failed human institution from which they will have no trouble excusing themselves.

Stewardship implies temporary custody and then turning the mystery of faith and its vessel, the church, over to another generation. At the Gospel of the Baptism service the newly-baptized is charged with the command, "Go and make disciples of all nations!"

No successful business ever plans to keep the "status quo". A business is constantly seeking new markets, trying new ideas and new forms of advertising. The Church to be successful and to continue must to the same thing in a spiritual sense. A church that is content with the status quo is one that is dying already. Like the Apostles and the deacons of the early Church, we must all become mindful of being stewards of the Gospel message whether we are bishops, priests, deacons, church officers or lay people.

The term “lay person” itself is misleading. A dictionary will usually define “lay person” as “someone who is uninitiated.” But the word “lay” comes from the Greek word λ?ος (laos). This word is used in the New Testament and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer exclusively to the “people of God” and not simply “people” generally for whom the word ethnos is used. In the language of the Church a “lay person” is someone who is initiated in the life of Christ through Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist and participates in that life through his or her membership in the Church.

Everyone who is baptized is called to be a steward of the Church and is called to be a steward of the Faith in all of its aspects both material and spiritual. Simply put, we must be concerned with not the growth of the Church’s bank account only but with the spiritual growth of our church and the spreading of the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Doing this is both simple and difficult. Church growth, as the New Testament and Church History reveals, does not come about as the result of any program, or campaign no matter how well-marketed. It is the direct result of the spiritual growth of the members of the church in question. St. Seraphim of Sarov stated this truth very simply: “Acquire the Spirit of Truth and a thousand souls will be saved around you."

The ultimate task of a Church Officers in particular and of all lay members in general centers not just on handling money, but to be along with the pastor, someone who manifests the life in Christ to the membership of the Church community and to the world at large.

Again to return to the Apostle Paul’s description of himself and his fellow workers "stewards of the mysteries of God" (I Cor. 4:1). Again we must remind ourselves that stewardship is not the same as ownership. The steward does not own the property - the master does.

This is the falsehood in the statement that “the priest handles the spiritual (i.e. the unreal things) but the people handle the material (i.e. the real things).” In the Church the only real things are the spiritual things. … “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and all other things will be added to you.”

A parish which experiences the wealth of spiritual gifts will never lack for the material gifts…. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things (Matthew 6:32).

by Fr. Lawrence Barriger