Part 1: The Scope of Biblical Stewardship
Part 2: Stewards in Biblical History
Part 3: Steward of Stewards
Note: Throughout this series, I am using the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise. If you are looking up texts in your own Bible as you read, you may notice differences in key words and phrases. Sometimes this just means the underlying Greek text can be translated more than one way. I will discuss one such term in the following paragraphs. Other times, differences may arise from variant readings in the Greek. Such variants affect two of the verses I will cite. If you are reading from the KJV or NKJV, you will not find a word equivalent to steward or stewardship in these two verses. In both cases, the Textus Receptus used by the KJV translators has a different word than most Greek manuscripts (the Textus Receptus is usually close to the majority text, but these are two of the exceptions). In each case I will add a footnote with a more detailed explanation. If you prefer the TR/KJV reading, that’s fine. The rest of the passages cited are more than enough to support my main points.
In Part 3 we saw how Jesus uses the language of stewardship for both Himself and the people He entrusts with spiritual leadership. He is the Chief Steward, opening the door of salvation. We are His understewards, distributing spiritual food by proclaiming the Word of God. Paul picks up this motif in his letters, eloquently describing and synthesizing both roles.
This installment will focus on how the New Testament epistles use the words oikonomos and oikonomia, introduced in Part 2. Oikonomia had a wide range of meanings in antiquity and acquired more over time. Its basic meaning had to do with household management, but ancient writers expanded its usage to include an orderly arrangement of parts of a system, the administration of a city-state, and even divine regulation of the universe. As a result, while stewardship is often a good translation of oikonomia, it is not the only one, and in some contexts not even the best one.
Other words English Bible translators sometimes choose to translate oikonomia include plan, administration, and dispensation. The last term merits a little more attention. Dispensation, related to the verb dispense, came into English from Latin. The Vulgate used dispensatio to translate oikonomia, which no doubt influenced early English translators to use dispensation. Dispensation occurs four times in the KJV, accounting for about half the uses of oikonomia. It’s not a bad choice, as long as we take care to distinguish which meanings of dispensation make sense in context and not to read back into the text other ways the word is used today.
One meaning of dispensation is simply “the act of dispensing”. This overlaps with aspects of a household manager’s job, which involves “dispensing” food and other necessities to the members of the household—or, in the spiritual sense we’ve been discussing, “dispensing” the word of God to other people. This meaning works well in several of the stewardship texts we will read. Another relevant definition is “a general state or ordering of things”, which is probably closer to the intended meaning in some other texts. Throughout church history, both oikonomia and dispensation have picked up additional theological meanings. While studying those historical developments is useful, this article will focus on New Testament usage.
Enough preamble; let’s look at the texts!