One of the dangers we face as we look to guide our congregations in honoring God with our finances is the danger of “Stewardship Pharisaism”. Pharisaism can creep into our ministries and into our impact without our realizing it. Our teaching can lead our congregations to focus on the outward manifestations of stewardship; our emphasis can unintentionally move people into places of judgmentalism toward others; and our coaching can create attitudes of joyless obligation rather than joyful gratitude.
These attitudes characterized the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and he often confronted them about their focus on the external rather than the internal, their pride in their own spirituality and lack of concern for others, and their emphasis on the trivial over more important matters.
How can we keep our stewardship ministries on track, avoiding the attitudes of the Pharisees?
Emphasize heart transformation, not offering plate response
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” — Matthew 23:25-28
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for focusing on external appearances over internal realities. In stewardship, those external factors might be things like tithes and offerings, debt, or spending. To the extent that our coaching and training focuses purely on these factors, we run the risk of creating pharisaical attitudes in our congregations toward stewardship. On the other hand, as we shift our focus to concepts like gratitude, a mindset of abundance, and acknowledgment of God’s ownership, we empower our congregations to approach stewardship from the inside out.
Major in the majors
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” — Matthew 23:23-24
Consistent with their emphasis on external appearances, the Pharisees paid more attention to minutiae than to more important matters – matters that weren’t as easily observable but that have much more meaning in God’s sight. They “majored in the minors” – raising things that were relatively insignificant to places of importance in their sight, and neglecting the things that were more important to God.
Jesus’ teaching here is reminiscent of God’s words through Isaiah:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” — Isaiah 58:5-7
Emphasizing heart transformation will help us to “major in the majors”, keeping the things that are most important in God’s sight at the center of our teaching and ministry.
Broaden the scope of stewardship
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” — Matthew 23:16-19
The Pharisees focused on the monetary aspects of worship. They valued the gold of the temple more than the temple itself, and the gift on the altar more than the altar itself. While our focus in stewardship is typically on the financial aspect, we need to keep in mind that stewardship involves more than just our money. Some have said that it’s about our LIFE – our Labor, Influence, Finances, and Experience.
Maintaining this broader scope of stewardship is consistent with a focus on heart transformation rather than on the externals. The believer who concentrates only on the externals may consistently drop checks in the offering plate, but he’s not likely to honor God with his life as a whole. The believer who is wholeheartedly committed to God will naturally steward all of his life accordingly.
Focus on helping people rather than establishing rules
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” — Matthew 23:4
Jesus noted that the Pharisees were quick to make rules difficult for others to obey but had no concern for actually helping people obey those rules. The fact that the Pharisees themselves did stick to their rules was another way they had of separating themselves from other people, another way they could think of themselves as being superior to others.
By contrast, Jesus’ own burden was light (Matthew 11:28-30). Our teaching and coaching on stewardship should be like that of Jesus, not that of the Pharisees. Rather than imposing difficult rules and then inducing guilt when people cannot meet those rules, our stewardship ministries should come alongside members of our congregation, helping them to experience inside-out transformation. By providing Biblical guidance, practical tools, support and sensitive accountability – all with a grace-filled approach – we become enablers and encouragers of real stewardship in our congregations.
Emphasizing heart transformation, majoring in the majors, promoting a broader view of stewardship, and focusing on helping our congregations will create an environment in which our stewardship ministries encourage true discipleship rather than surface piety.