People are often surprised to hear that I don’t like the language of stewardship: ‘You’ve been calling people to look after the environment for years’, they say to me, ‘so surely you should be pleased that our role as stewards of creation is now so widely accepted in the church’?
They’re right in some respects – it really is encouraging that so many Christians now see taking care of the wider natural world as an important part of their faith and of what the good news (the gospel) of Jesus is about. And I fully recognise that the concept of stewardship has played a positive role in helping people grasp that we need to be looking after the whole creation, and not only the human part of that creation. So, I am respectful of that language and grateful for the part it has played.
But, it has some problems attached to it; problems that aren’t just nit-picking but that go to the heart of how we read the Bible and understand our relationship with the wider creation:
1. At a basic level, it’ s not biblical!
Nowhere does the Bible use the language of stewardship to describe our role in relation to the world. It goes back to the seventeenth century English lawyer, Matthew Hale, who used legal language to talk about us looking after the world like an estate manager, and it has got muddled up in our minds with the parables about stewardship in Luke 12 and 16. But it’s not a term that is found in the Bible, so I struggle to understand why we are so attached to using it.
2. We steward things that are inanimate, not living
When we think of stewardship (as in Jesus’ parables) we think of things that are inanimate: we steward money or wine or time. We don’t steward living things: I don’t steward my children or my friends; I look after them, nurture them, seek to protect them, honour and respect them.
Buried in the language of stewardship is the often-unconscious notion that ‘creation’ is a ‘thing’. Like ‘the environment’, it’s an object to be done-to. How far removed from the amazing world that God has created with all its diversity and brilliance; a world that is ‘teeming with life’ and full of interconnected relationships. How utterly disrespectful that this complex, throbbing, living, humming, vibrating reality is simply something that we steward!
3. Stewardship implies hierarchy
One of the key problems with the notion of stewardship is that there is an inherent separation from the steward and that which is stewarded: as stewards we are separate from ‘the creation’, and in a way that implies our superiority. When we look at the terrible problems facing the wider natural world, we know they have come about because we have failed to see ourselves as part of that world. We have believed ourselves to be separate and superior, with ‘the environment’ an inanimate object that exists only to serve us.
In one way, biblically speaking, we are separate, as the only species to have been made ‘in God’s image’, and there does seem to be a voice within Scripture that highlights that (Psalm 8 is the obvious referent). But overall, the Bible is clear that the human creature is exactly that – a creature; part of creation, interwoven into the natural processes of life, and one voice in the orchestra of creation that exists to worship Creator God. We are made in God’s image not to lord it over the wider creation but that we might have the qualities we need in order to care for the rest of the creation most effectively.
(Please note, there is nuancing needed here that I can’t give in a blog of this length, so please read chapter six of my Saying Yes to Life for a fuller reflection.)
4. Stewardship leaves no space for wilderness (thank you to Richard Bauckham for this point)
With its roots in estate management, the concept of stewardship has within it the idea of a country park, the entirety of which needs to be overseen and managed. It comes from the enlightenment view that nature needs to be tamed and controlled, and links with the above point about superiority: nature needs us. It leaves no space for the concept of wilderness; that there is something inherently precious about there being places and creatures that are untouched by humans.
So where do we go from here?
If we leave behind the language of stewardship, what can we replace it with? Other concepts have been proposed: guardianship, priesthood, earthkeeping… I don’t think any of them are adequate and I want to ask, why do we feel the need to find one word or concept that sums up our relationship with the wider creation? Scripture doesn’t, so I’m content not to either. Instead, I prefer to vary my language: caring for, looking after, respecting, protecting, joining… other creatures, the wider natural world, the whole creation, the environment, nature, God’s world…
Language is inadequate. We simply don’t have the words to describe this reality that God has created, nor the incredible wonder and privilege of being a part of it. But one thing we can say for certain: let’s cherish it together.
 R. Bauckham, ‘Being Human in the Community of Creation – a biblical perspective’, in, K. Jorgenson and A. Padgett (eds.), Ecotheology: A Christian conversation (Eerdmans, 2020).