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Leadership as Stewardship

Leadership as Stewardship - 1 Timothy

Dale Marshfield

The literal translation of the second half of  1 Timothy 1:4 is “the household management of God which is in faith.”  Since “literal” is not synonymous with accurate, it is clear there needs to be some thought about this theological cornerstone of 1 Timothy and Titus.  The NIV translates the phrase as “God’s work which is by faith.” Johnson’s (2001, 149) rendering is “faithful attention to God’s way of ordering things.”  The phrase builds around the important Greek word oivkonomia, which means household management, stewardship, dispensation or order/arrangement.   Towner (2006, 68) says the term “envisions a divinely organized pattern of life – God’s ordering of reality.”  It is significant that the metaphor appears in Paul’s opening instructions to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3-4).  Fee (1988, 7) says “everything in the letter has to do with this passage”.  Whether or not one agrees with his assessment of the passage’s reach, it does clearly identify the occasion for the letter[1], which is the need to silence false teachers because they do not promote “God’s ordering of reality”. 

The entire oikos (house) word group is important in both the Old and New Testament. Since the concept has deep roots in the Old Testament, a brief, backward-look is in order .  The house metaphor was not used until the Abraham narrative in Genesis[2] but the concept network for the metaphor is laid down in the account of creation and God’s ordering of the world (Hebrews 3:3).  God created human beings to be stewards or managers (Genesis 1:28-31 & 2:15-17) of the creation he ordered (note the chaos-to-order picture of Genesis 1).  The man and the woman are to bear dominion, but only to further the purposes of God.  He sets the parameters for their freedom and makes it clear he is the creator (owner) of all the gifts he bestows upon them.  Everything they are and have is a trust given by God. 

Later, just before He judges the world with a flood (Genesis 6:13), God says "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.”  What a graphic picture!  Just five chapters earlier God was pictured as ordering the world, declaring everything was very good, and entrusting it to human beings.  What did they do?  They filled the world with violence, not God’s glory.  They worked in opposition to God’s way of ordering things, so God judged them.  The Flood is not an abstract picture of God’s wrath and judgment.  It is a picture of the design of reality.  God holds human beings accountable to maintain His ordering of the world.  They are to manage the creation in such a way that it is filled with His glory, not violence and destruction.  This meaning of the metaphor becomes crystal clear in Numbers 12.

Noah and the Patriarchs were important people in the history of revelation and the unfolding of God’s redemptive promise.  However, it is not until Moses that God sets in motion an alternative to the failed dominion of Adam.  Because of God's promise to Abraham, God constituted Israel as a nation (Exodus 19-20), he promised them all the divine resources they needed to become the greatest of all nations (Lev. 26:3-13 – the head, not the tail) - a source of blessing to all people.  But it was clear that this greatness was a vehicle for expressing God's glory, not theirs (Ex. 6:7 & 19:3-6).  They were to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.  All of this depended on obedience to his instructions, in other words, they were to be faithful household managers. He would give them land and resources as he had Adam, and they would fill that land with his glory by obeying his Word – by being faithful managers.  Over this entire arrangement, Moses was established as the leader.  But not a leader in the worldly sense of the word.  Israel (and the church for that matter) did not need visionary leaders.  They needed stewards,[3] and that idea leads to Numbers 12:7.

Excluding the divine testimonies concerning the merits of Christ (e.g. Matthew 3:17),  Numbers 12:7 is one of the grandest statements concerning the accomplishments of grace in a human being.  God declares Moses “is faithful in all my house.”  Despite the complete failure of the nation (Numbers 11) and even his closest colleagues (Numbers 12:1-3), Moses was faithful.   But God sets the faithfulness of Moses in a context – the house metaphor.  Moses was faithful in all God’s house.   At last, a word (house) is put to the concept that has been brewing since Genesis 1.  As is the case with all metaphors the reader must parse out its significance or meaning.  Keil (1980, 78) argues that the house metaphor represents Israel. He says that the term, "whole" would be redundant if it only referred to the Tabernacle.   But to limit it to Israel seems a bit restrictive given the metaphorical use of the term “house” in the OT. 

Two passages, 2 Samuel 3:1-6 & 7:11, give insight into the sign significance of this metaphor. These passages use the metaphor in relation to David and Saul.  Right away a few things seem obvious:

1) The "house" of David and the "house" of Saul were not synonymous with the physical structures, locations, institutions, or organizations through which they were expressed.  

2) There is more inferred in the metaphor than merely the community attached to David or Saul. This is clear in 2 Samuel 3:2. The increase of the house of David and the decrease of the house of Saul does not refer to the size of the community they led. Rather, it refers to the power and influence they enjoyed. The growth of David's house was a growth of David's influence - a growth that occurred through everything connected to his name. 

3) The reference to Abner's strengthening his position in the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:6) indicates that the metaphor does in some way involve the structures through which the advance of the name of Saul was tangibly accomplished.  Those structures might be Saul’s army, his rules, his children, or anything else that allowed his reputation and influence to grow in the world.  However, if those structures ceased to serve the interests of Saul, they are no longer a part of his house, as in the case of Abner.

So, the house of David or Saul was everything created by or connected to one of these men through which their reputation, purposes, interests, and influence were advanced.  Accordingly, it seems Hughes (1977, 130) best captures the meaning of the house metaphor in Numbers 12:7 when he says it refers the "sphere of Moses stewardship” Moses was faithful to the order God set in place for advancing His reputation, purposes, interests and influence.  Moses was not a creator, he was a manager. He was to follow the pattern (God’s way of ordering things) given to him, Exodus 25:9 & 40, Numbers 8:4, Acts 7:44, Hebrews 8:5.   

This brief survey of the house metaphor in the Old Testament sets the stage for understanding the metaphor in 1 Timothy 1:4[4].  The myths and endless genealogies of the false teachers promoted speculation that inevitably led to controversy (Titus 3:9).  True teaching follows the pattern received from the apostles (2 Timothy 1:13) and thereby promotes God’s way of ordering the world.  The mission of the church is to submit to and promote that order in faith.  For Paul, this spoke to the heart of the church’s mission.  Towner (2006, 69) explains this big picture perspective.

"The implications for a Christian understanding of the church in the world and mission are enormous… The metaphor makes the people of God the microcosm or paradigm of a world obedient to God’s ordering; and its mission is to extend this reality beyond its walls so that God’s way of ordering life can be known and obeyed by more and more of the unbelieving world. The whole world is God’s world, and present social obligations are therefore still meaningful within Christian households. Consequently, men and women, husbands and wives (2: 8– 15; 5: 1– 2), widows and their relatives (5: 3– 16), and slaves and masters (6: 1– 2) must not ignore the social rules that determine respectability in their quadrant of human culture; but they must also live in full awareness that God’s presence is redeeming, renovating and reshaping the impulses for behavior within these relationships."

Leaders have the responsibility of ordering their world according to the ordering of God.  The world needs to see communities of faith that illustrate what it means to live under the authority and rule of God - to pursue His passions - to follow His agenda - to prioritize His priorities - to openly acknowledge that their leaders are not the creators, visionaries, or designers, but that they are merely the stewards (managers) of God, 1 Corinthians 4:1, Titus 1:7.  

[1] In fact, both 1 Timothy and Titus are clearly build around this household management metaphor.  In Titus 1:7 (another statement of intent passage) Paul’s protégé is told to appoint overseers that are blameless since they are God’s household managers.  The Overseer has a responsibility to ensure the church is ordered according to God’s ordering of reality.       

[2] The metaphor is used of all that pertains to Terah and Pharaoh in Genesis 12.  It is very clearly used of Abraham in Genesis 15:2 and Genesis 17. 

[3] This is the fundamental error of much that is taught and written on Christian leadership.  God is the visionary.  The human being entrusted with leadership is to faithfully enact His vision, not create their own.  Israel’s management responsibility was not world domination.  Their borders were set by God (limits).  They were simply to fill what God gave them with glory through obedience.  

[4] The majority opinion is that the metaphor has its roots in the Hellenistic world,(e.g. (Verner 1983)).  This is because of the similarities that exist between Hellenistic household codes and the household codes of the NT.  Further study needs to be done to demonstrate the metaphor draws its meaning from the Old Testament and the house stewardship language of the Gospels and only secondarily relates to the Hellenistic household codes.