Overcoming Corruption Through Stewardship
by Jason Barker
The Holy Prophet and King David gives a profound statement regarding creation, “The earth is the Lord’s, and its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 23:1, OSB; see also Psalm 49:7, 10-11, 12, OSB). This proclamation is all encompassing: what belongs to God? The answer, quite simply, is the world—not merely the planet itself, but also everything and everyone on it. The Holy Apostle Paul puts it even more plainly, “All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16, emphasis added).
Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it like this:
"Being God’s creatures, human beings have nothing that we can claim as our own. We are nothing and have nothing that we have not received from God. We belong to God, together with every created thing, because God made us by His divine will and action, through His Son and Word, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”
The fact that everything belongs to God has enormous impact on our lives, especially when it comes to that most desired commodity: money. God’s possession of all things means, of course, that what we tend to perceive as “our money” isn’t really ours—it belongs to God. We therefore do not possess money on our own, but instead simply manage it on God’s behalf. We are, to use the most common phrase, stewards of God’s money (and other parts of creation).
An important aspect of Christian stewardship involves giving God’s money to His Church to be used to further His work in the world; for example, the Didascalia commands,
Set aside part offerings and tithes and first fruits to Christ, the true High Priest, and to His ministers, even tithes of salvation to Him…Today the oblations are offered through the bishops to the Lord God. For they are your high priests; but the priests and Levites are now the presbyters and deacons, and the orphans and widows.
The modern Orthodox Church is certainly aware of this (it could be said that Church leadership is emphatic—and even enthusiastic—about it): the Greek and Antiochian archdioceses have departments dedicated to stewardship, and the OCA makes available a Stewardship Resource Kit. There is therefore no need for me to replicate the abundance of teaching on the necessity for financially supporting the work of the Church.
At the same time, however, events over the last few years in numerous parishes and jurisdictions raise a very significant question: how should we, as God’s stewards, handle God’s money when certain members of Church leadership are using His money for decidedly ungodly purposes?
This dilemma is hardly new; St. John Chrysostom writes in the fourth century about the issue when he says God gives us money “not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need.” Even earlier, our Lord relates to us the Parable of the Faithful and Evil Servants, describing a servant who, instead of properly caring for his master’s possessions, “says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk” (Luke 12:45)—notably, St. Cyril of Alexandria says this parable is addressed to apostles and teachers of the Church.
If we know a priest, bishop or other Church leader is using God’s money to pursue the kind of life described in the above biblical passages—a sinful, anti-Christian life of pride, greed, lust and/or abuse—are we obligated to fund that lifestyle simply because the individual is above us in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or does our responsibility as Christian stewards require us to ensure (at least so far as we are able) that God’s money is used to fulfill His purposes?
Some Orthodox Christians believe God’s money is to be given to the Church leadership regardless of any reservations or objections we may have—they believe God demands that His money go to one’s immediate clerical superior(s) without qualification. Such individuals claim, in essence, that we “owe” money to the Church, and we are obligated to “fulfill this obligation” regardless of such extenuating circumstances as the use to which the money will be put.
Fr. Stanley Harakas, however, points out that the propriety of the way in which the money will be used is an essential aspect of ethical stewardship,
Honesty in handling money, diligent attention to fiscal and fiduciary practices, and careful administration of church funds in accordance to charter and by-laws procedures are ethical requirements of all those entrusted with the proceeds of the stewardship giving of others. This is basic, elementary, natural law ethics as embodied in the Decalogue.
"The Christian sense of stewardship expressed by God in his provident care of his creation, by the stewardship we are called to exercise for the ‘mysteries of God,’ and by the ethical imperative that ‘it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy’ (1 Corinthians 4:1-2) are causes for soul-searching and prayerful concern for those who are responsible for the stewardship of the faithful. This stewardship is sacramental."
Fr. Stanley makes two important points that are vital to understanding how we are called to use the money with which God has entrusted us. First, rather than simply blindly moving money “up the ecclesiastical chain,” we are called to engage in soul-searching and prayerful concern over the ways in which God’s money will be used. Secondly, the priests, bishops and other Church leaders who receive God’s money from us must be trustworthy; this means that giving God’s money to an untrustworthy leader would be to waste God’s money (we’ll see the ramifications of this later).
Regarding the second point, the Didache says, “Every true prophet that wishes to abide among you is worthy of his support. Likewise, a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman of his support” (emphasis added; see also Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18). But what constitutes a true prophet or teacher? We find an answer in the requirements for an episkopos in Titus 1:7-9:
For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
Notice the things which disqualify a person from Christian ministry: being self-willed, quick-tempered, given to wine (which can be extended to any substance abuse problem), violent and/or greedy (also, by implication, turning away from “the faithful word”). St. Paul says that Church leaders who live such lives, but desire the glory of Christian office, are
false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
Interestingly, St. John Chrysostom says about such Church leaders, “The false apostles looked good on the surface, but underneath they robbed the soul. Indeed, they took money as well, though they were careful to conceal that as much as possible” (emphasis added).
The implications for the Church in North America are clear. Unfortunately, it does not take long to think of bishops, priests, chancellors, council leaders and trustees, etc., whose characters closely match the list of sinful attitudes and behaviors which disqualify a person from ministry. Given this, we should then ask: how many of these individuals are deeply concerned with maximizing the money they obtain from God’s stewards, and equally concerned with ensuring that few—if any—people know how much money they obtain and the ways in which the money is used?
St. Paul makes the situation clear: if we give God’s money to such individuals, we are in fact giving it to ministers of Satan. Without meaning to sound facetious, we must ask: can any sincere Christian truly believe that God wants—nay, commands—us to use His money to support such rebellion against Him?
Regrettably, there are some Orthodox Christians who would answer, “Yes, God does command this. It is not our responsibility to worry about what is done with God’s money—our only responsibility is to pass His money on to the Church leaders who demand it.” Without meaning to question the sincerity or piety of such a person—because there are pious people who sincerely believe such a position is a matter of spiritual obedience—I must nonetheless show that such a position is not only mistaken, but even more it is spiritually damaging.
This is where we come to Fr. Stanley Harakas’ first point: we are called to engage in soul-searching and prayerful concern over the ways in which God’s money will be used. Part of this process involves discerning the quality of the person to whom the money will be given. While some faithful Christians would strenuously argue that this is not our responsibility, the Didache tells us this is a necessary action: “Everyone who comes to you ‘in the name of the Lord’ must be welcomed. Afterward, when you have tested him, you will find out about him, for you have insight into right and wrong.” The point is clear—we must use our God-given discernment to be certain that the Church leader to whom we give God’s money is truly a Christian, and not someone who, to use St. Paul’s description, deceptively disguised himself as a minister of righteousness.
St. Paul makes clear that we are to exercise such discernment when he laments to the Corinthians,
I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)
The Apostle states in no uncertain terms that a Church leader must not be accepted, not only if he teaches heretical doctrines, but also if he brings “a different spirit” into the Church. And let’s be honest: a Church leader who demands that we actively support crime, abuse of any kind (be it physical, psychological or spiritual), and/or sexual immorality is most decidedly demanding that we receive “a different spirit.” It is not necessarily our responsibility to expel such a person—canonically, only bishops have that authority—but it is absolutely our responsibility to prayerfully refrain from misusing God’s money through financially supporting this different spirit.
Prayerfully engaging in Christian stewardship in part through refusing to waste God’s money on those who would misuse it for ungodly purposes should not be a punitive act. In addition to simply being responsible, it also should be intended to spiritually benefit the heretofore-wayward Church leader. We can see this principle in 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul tells the church in Corinth to avoid interacting with a Christian who unrepentantly engages in a sinful lifestyle. This is done, Ambrosiaster says, “So that when he is avoided he may feel ashamed and repent.” Similarly, a faithful Christian steward would withhold God’s money from a sinful Church leader, not to generate hardship or suffering for that leader, but instead with the hope that the leader will leave behind his or her sinful lifestyle and instead walk with God.
The way in which we exercise stewardship regarding God’s money can also have a profound spiritual impact on us. Christ vividly explains this in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), in which a master distributes talents to his servants before leaving on a journey, then, upon his return, rewards the servants who profitably invested the talents and punished the servant who misused the talent. The servants who profitably invested the talents were given more talents and received the joy of their master, while the servant who misused the talent given to him was stripped of his talent and “cast into outer darkness,” leading St. John Chrysostom to say, “Do you see how sins of omission also are met with extreme rejection? It is not only the covetous, the active doer of evil things and the adulterer, but also the one who fails to do good.”
St. John’s words raise an important issue for us: just as we can be judged for actively engaging in sin, we can also be judged for refusing to do good. While the Parable of the Talents refers to the myriad of blessings and abilities given to us by God for our spiritual benefit and the good of the world, money is certainly among these talents. If I may be so crass, which response would we want to give Christ if He were to ask what we did with His money?
“I fed and clothed the poor, provided medicine for the sick, and assisted in sharing the Gospel.”
“I gave your money to the bishop because…well…that’s what I was supposed to do, wasn’t I? I think he bought himself a Rolex.”
While the above scenario is rather hackneyed, the point remains valid: true Christian stewardship means more than literally “passing the buck”—as I’ve stated throughout this article, it means prayerfully, thoughtfully working to invest God’s money in places where it will be used to do God’s work. When we have godly priests, bishops and other leaders, then we can joyfully give God’s money to His Church.
When we have ungodly priests, bishops and other leaders, however, then we are faced with a dilemma: what should faithful Christian stewards do with God’s money when confronted with ungodly leadership? I believe the answer in such an unfortunate—and, God willing, in the future increasingly rare—case is to invest it outside the reach of the problematic member of the ecclesiastical structure.
There is no single way in which this can or should be done—any of a myriad of options can be taken after praying deeply for strength and guidance.
Some people are specifying the precise purposes for which their offerings can be used.
Other people are withholding money that otherwise would have been taken by a corrupt leader, placing that money in escrow (or some other form of savings) until the corrupt leadership is replaced by godly leadership.
Others are giving the temporarily withheld money to Orthodox Christian charitable or evangelistic ministries.
Money could also be given to non-Orthodox—or even non-religious—charitable organizations.
Such an action should not be taken lightly—I cannot overemphasize the need for deep, prolonged prayer before taking embarking on such a course with your stewardship—but, in cases in which you have no doubt that God’s money would be horribly misused if you distributed it through the normal “channels,” then your responsibility as a Christian steward may necessitate such an unconventional investment.
As I conclude, I wish to remind readers that many—if not most—of us have godly priests, bishops and other leaders who labor faithfully to serve God and His Church; these leaders must be supported through responsible Christian stewardship. In those cases where the leadership is ungodly, however, we must engage in particularly careful stewardship to ensure that God’s money is used to achieve His purposes, including helping the leadership transform into truly Christian ministers.