Minding God's Business

Just over three weeks ago, my wife and son, myself and many hundreds of books moved four miles to a new house. Well, a very run down house really, but set in fields on the edge of lovely Malvern and giving us more space in every way. Within four days of arrival the builders arrived, Daffyd, John and Jamie. Then the plumbers and then the electricians. The house became a building site and will stay this way for a little longer. Dust everywhere. The large gardens are tussocks of grass. Everything needs decoration. My wife wanders round with tea and biscuits and a long, long check list. And so far, so good. She always was a clever administrator. But she mustn’t lose the plot, as we say. In the way our family runs, she has the job of project management. 

The New Testament uses a similar word to project management to describe the business of ministry.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. (1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ESV)

For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain (Titus 1:7 ESV)

The word ’oikonomia’ (steward) is a combination of ‘oikos’ (house) and ‘nomos’ (ruler) – ruler of the house. The word arises in the context of rich people having estates in the country that were run for them. They appointed an estate manager to run everything. Jesus was very familiar with this. The economic environment of Palestine was one in which absentee landlords were common.

He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.(Luke 16:1 ESV)

This ‘oikonomos’ could not be trusted. Paul picks this idea up and runs with it to explain what the leaders of the newly formed churches should do. They too are like project managers. They manage, not an earthly estate, but a ‘good’ that doesn’t belong to them. Like good estate managers, stewards of God have to be without reproach. Trustworthy. They are not the owners. They don’t get to choose the business.

God has a plan, a project. The work of the steward is rooted in the intentions of the owner. Paul regards the telling of the Christian message as key to this stewardship. It is a heavenly commission not a personal choice. ‘Oikos’ sometimes means to build or develop.

‘making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ…as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’(Ephesians 1 ESV)

‘and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’(Ephesians 3:9-10 ESV)

God’s ministers are called to build God’s project, the ‘household’ He is building on earth. God’s stewards manage God’s business but not business projects they have personally invented or find more congenial. There is a limited amount of time before HE, the landlord, the owner, visits. The ‘oikonomos’ is responsible for the ‘oikonomia’ of the state – grapes or grain or cattle. The steward cannot decide to arbitrarily change the intentions of the owner.

I am quite worried about us as ministers, lest, under the unremitting pressures of retrenchment, we stop, little by little, to be engaged in God’s project, minding God’s business and start getting engaged in self invented projects which have more to do with the historic heritage of the Church of England. It might be that how we spend our time is worthy but biblically unfocused.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this. He says that the greatest duty we all have is our duty to the gospel of Christ. Unless the church is a group of people being transformed in a supernatural, rather impossible kind of way, by its encounter with Jesus Christ how shall the world know that it is ‘the world’? You may bridle at his bluntness. You may feel this is hyperbole. But it is a question that needs to be answered. What makes the church ‘church’ – God’s project – rather than just a religious gathering in the context of the Church of England.

The ‘world’ wants a particular kind of ‘church’. It always has. A church subservient to the needs of the secular project of running things without God. We need to make sure that what is in our Parson’s Pocket Books or Filofaxes or Google calendars bears some correspondence to what Paul would have regarded as ‘God’s business’. The church is HIS business not ours. We are not the owners. It seems clear that we will be held to account and not just by our diocesan bishop.

Tim Marks

May 2013