A Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Stewardship


Stewardship is at the heart of the Wesleyan revival, and John Wesley considered it an integral component of Christian discipleship. Careful reading of Wesley will demonstrate that he had much more to say about the necessity of stewardship in the Christian life than “a heart warming experience.” Stewardship was a consistent theme of his preaching and personal practice throughout his life, which spanned nearly the entire eighteenth century. Giving of financial resources was viewed as a necessary spiritual discipline of every member of the Wesleyan classes and societies. For Wesley, no one was exempt from the commandment to love God and neighbor and giving was considered an expression of that love.

The class meetings had their origin in meeting financial needs. An initial purpose of the classes was collecting money for the benevolent ministries of the connection, including the payment for the Foundry in London. As apparently suggested by Captain Foy, a class leader, each class leader was to collect a penny a week for the connection; and the leader was expected to contribute when a member was unable to do so. The weekly visit to collect the contribution led to the class meeting becoming a means of growth in discipleship as the class leader encountered the members in their home and saw the need for spiritual support and discipline. “Watching over one another in love” included accountability for ones stewardship practices.

John Wesley considered the failure to practice Christian stewardship a major threat to the spiritual health and effectiveness of the Wesleyan revival. He wrote in 1786: I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the world in all its branches.

The only means of avoiding the deadly spiritual consequences of riches, according to Wesley, is to practice Christian stewardship.Wesley feared that Methodism would have the “form of religion without the power” if the Methodists failed to practice stewardship. Recovery of a Wesleyan perspective on stewardship has the potential for being a means by which the heirs of John Wesley will have both the form and the power of authentic faith. This Summit, therefore, has the potential for being a catalyst for the recovery of Methodism as a movement in a dangerous and fragile world.

Theological Anchors of Wesleyan Perspective on Stewardship Stewardship for Wesley does not begin with money. Neither does it originate in humanitarianism, charity, or duty. Stewardship has its origin in the nature and mission of God. God owns everything and God desires that all people share in the blessings of God’s good creation. At the very core of existence is grace, and creation itself is permeated with God’s grace. God gives God’s own self for the creation and salvation of the cosmos! God’s gifting, God’s grace, is present with all creation. God’s grace pervades all existence—prevenient, justifying, saving, sanctifying, perfecting. God wills that all receive and respond to the divine grace in all its full dimensions. God’s grace, God’s unmerited gift bestowed upon humanity, is the lens through which we are to view the world and our own existence. The logic of grace is the guiding logic of the Christian’s life in the world.

The anchor of a Wesleyan perspective on stewardship is grace, God’s grace, which is defined as gift. Everything is owned by One whose very character is expressed in giving and who desires that we share in God’s generosity by giving ourselves. The Psalmist expresses the foundation for stewardship in the Wesleyan tradition: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it . . .(Psalm 24:1).

One of God’s special gifts to human beings is the invitation to share in God’s own life and mission by being a steward. Wesley believed that God placed resources in our care to use as God sees fit; and God desires that all people have the necessities for a full and abundant life as beloved children of God. Douglas Meeks states it profoundly as he affirms that John Wesley considered stewardship “the Christian way of being in the world through community as well as the economy through which God works for life against death in the world.” He adds, “Economy is for Wesley at the heart of Christian discipleship and the substance of the way of salvation” God’s economy is one of abundance rather than scarcity. Because all creation has its origin and destiny in God, there is always enough when the resources are appropriately shared. When treated as an expression of grace, gifts multiple and are as inexhaustible as the grace of God who is their source.

Stewardship, then, is derived from God’s very being and mission and God’s invitation to share in the divine nature and mission. It is our “way of being in the world” as beloved children of a gifting God. It, therefore, encompasses all life and must not be reduced to a fund raising campaign on behalf of institutions, religious or otherwise. It is a way of life and not mere rhetoric for motivating charitable contributions. God has a prior claim on everything and not just that which we label as “tithe.” The popular notion that we acquire as much as possible and then give to God out of what is left over after our wants and needs are fulfilled falls short of Wesley’s holistic understanding that stewardship is derived from God’s ownership of everything and our invitation to be in the world as recipients and means of grace.

Another theological anchor of a Wesleyan perspective on stewardship is God’s identification with the poor as special recipients and means of God’s grace. Doug Meeks states it this way, “God has a soteriological claim upon the poor, for it is in them that the glory of God’s power for life appears. They belong to God.”3 God identifies with the slaves, the weakest and most vulnerable, those seen as burdens by a market-consumer-driven society. Generosity toward the poor is not a matter of humanitarian concern for the Christian; it is constitutive to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. One cannot fully know and serve the God of the Exodus and the Incarnation apart from personal relationships with and generosity toward those who Jesus called “the least of these” and Charles Wesley called “Jesus’ bosom friends.”

Wesley’s own theological understanding and practice of Christian stewardship were shaped by lifelong relationships and ministry with those who lived in poverty. He demonstrated in his early years at Oxford a special concern for and obligation to those without the financial means to provide life’s necessities, especially the widows, the orphans, and the prisoners. He was convinced that it was contrary to God’s purpose for him to enjoy the comforts of life if others did not have the necessities. He shares a story of a poor girl who visiting him one winter day, looked cold and hungry. “You seem half starved,” he said. Have you nothing to cover you but that thin linen gown?” When she said that was all she had, Wesley put his hand in his pocket and found he had scarcely any money left, having just purchased some framed pictures for his rooms.

He later wrote of this incident with sarcasm: “It immediately struck me, will not thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold!’ O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid.”

As Dr. Heitzenrater reminds us in The Poor and the People Called Methodist, Wesley did not have to search out the poor or go to another part of town to encounter them. They were members of the classes and societies and they were the predominant population to whom he preached and ministered. It is estimated that 65 to 75% of the members of the Methodist societies fell into the category of those considered poor, those earning an average of less than thirty pounds per year. (About half of the English were in this category.)

A consideration, then, of Christian stewardship in the Wesleyan tradition (and the Biblical witness) gives priority attention to how the poor are recipients and means of God’s grace and generosity and how society is shaped to insure that the poor have access to the table of God’s abundance. The disparity between the rich and the poor, therefore, and how that chasm is bridged must be part of any summit on stewardship that seeks to be faithful to the Wesleyan tradition. Motivation for economic justice and compassion is theological in origin for Wesley because separation from the poor is separation from the God who is among the poor as special recipients and means of grace.

Richard Heitzenrater writes, “The combination of serious stewardship and personal concern for the plight of the poor became a hallmark of the Methodist movement.” The two are inextricably bound since stewardship is derived from the very being and mission of a gifting God who owns everything and who has chosen the poor as both special recipients and means of divine grace.
The Practice of Stewardship in the Wesleyan Tradition

Wesley’s ethics and praxis regarding stewardship appears in several of his sermons, letters, and tracts. Toward the end of his life and ministry, he toured the Methodist work in the British Isles and returned somewhat discouraged. The movement had all the visible signs of strength and success, having grown to approximately 50,000 members in England and a new growing denomination in America. Yet, Wesley feared the loss of spiritual, evangelical, and missional power as the result of the growing affluence of the Methodists. Market capitalism was growing as a dominant economic system and the Wesleyan emphasis on diligence, frugality, and discipline seemed to provide a religious underpinning for capitalism. Yet, Wesley had a mounting suspicion of the acquisitiveness and consumerist dimensions of capitalism. Randy Maddox writes, “While Adam Smith held that surplus accumulation was the foundation of economic well-being, Wesley viewed it (when surrounded by those in need) as mortal sin!”

Wesley’s stewardship practice or his economic ethics is summarized in the familiar three-part formula: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. That formula was laid out clearly in his sermon entitled “The Use of Money,” which is his clearest statement of his economic ethics.8 Let us look briefly at those specific practices of Christian stewardship.

Earn all you can. Do we need any admonition to earn all we can? Close reading of Wesley, however, quickly shows that he was not giving theological rationale for an aggressive acquisitiveness that characterizes much of American society. Instead, Wesley’s emphasis is on earning all you can through participating fully in God’s healing and creative work in the world. His sermon is actually a polemic against destructive ways of earning.

How income is earned is as integral to Christian stewardship as what is done with the earnings. Wesley warns against earning money by hurting oneself or others or God’s creation. The emphasis is the restriction on the pursuit of wealth by exploiting others, gaining from the pain and suffering of others, and inflicting suffering on oneself and others.

‘Earn all you can” is a call to vocation that contributes to God’s mission of salvation (healing) of creation. Our labor and vocational choices and practices are part of the giving, not a means to personal gain. It is a call to vocational investment in the common good.

Save all you can. “Having gained all you can, by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence . . ., save all you can,” said Wesley. Again, Wesley’s emphasis is a challenge to the contemporary practice of accumulating and hoarding rather than an endorsement of such practice. He was not advising ‘the people called Methodist’ to invest wisely and build large savings accounts. In fact, he went so far as to compare such practices as “throwing your money into the sea.”

“Save all you can” is Wesley’s call to a simplified lifestyle. It is a warning against extravagance, opulence, and self-gratification. Wesley expected the Methodists to provide the necessities for their families but he considered expenditures for anything beyond the necessities as being extracted from the blood of the poor. “Necessities” included sufficient food, decent apparel, and proper housing. Wesley’s earlier sermons included the following as superfluous expenses: expensive furniture, opulent apparel, frivolous entertainment and books, unnecessary foods, and even “elegant” gardens. But he moderated his definition of necessities somewhat and allowed for more than ‘bare’ essentials so long as one did not actively pursue them or neglect those who lack the necessities.

Stewardship in the Wesleyan tradition, therefore, includes not merely properly using what we have, but also what we choose NOT TO HAVE in order for others to have the necessities for living. Are we willing to forego opulence and extravagance in order for others to have sufficient food, decent clothing, proper housing, medical care, and education? Are we willing to pay more for Nike shoes in order for workers in Africa and Asia to receive a decent wage? Are there implications for our budgets and operation as boards and agencies and councils? What are the essentials and what are the non-essentials? What would it mean to evaluate our meeting expenses, facilities, and equipment in light of Wesley’s admonition that we “save all we can?”

Wesley affirmed the appropriateness of saving for our families’ necessities while avoiding throwing “away money on your children, any more than yourself, in delicate food, in gay and costly apparel, in superfluities of any kind. Why should you purchase for them more pride, or lust, or vanity, or foolish or hurtful desires?” The criteria to be used in leaving money to the children is the children’s commitment to practice a simple lifestyle and share with others.

Give all you can. Wesley proclaimed in his sermon, “The Use of Money”: But let not any [man] imagine that he has done anything barely by going thus far, by gaining and saving all he can, if he were to stop here. All this is nothing if a [man] go not forward, if he does not point all this at a farther end. Nor indeed can a [man] properly be said to save anything if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea as to bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectively to throw it away. If you indeed ‘make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness’, add the third rule to the two preceding. Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.

Almost thirty years after writing those words, Wesley noted that the Methodists had all but ignored the third point of his sermon. He wrote in 1789, two years before his death:
“Of the three rules which are laid down. . ., you may find many observe the first rule, namely, ‘Gain all you can.’ You may find a few that observe the second, ‘Save all you can.’ But how many have you found that observe the third rule, ‘Give all you can?’ Have you reason to believe that five hundred of these are to be found among fifty thousand Methodists? And, yet, nothing can be more plain than that all who observe the first rules without the third will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.”

It is the third rule that gives meaning to the first two. We are to gain all we can and save all we can so that we can give all we can; and for Wesley, that means giving all to God to whom everything belongs. Even the poor were expected by Wesley to help those who are worse off than they because no one is exempt from the command to love the neighbor.

Certainly Wesley’s admonition to ‘give all you can’ includes giving of ones financial resources. Apparently he practiced what he preached. He gave personally from his own pocket. Heitzenrater states that Wesley never took any money directly for himself. He was supported by a quarterly allowance from the London steward, as were the other preachers. This protected him from any charge of becoming rich from the collections, gifts, and profits from the publishing enterprises. His quarterly allowance, according to Heitzenrater, was twice the poverty level and five times that of many of the preachers.

Wesley was committed in his own lifestyle to simplicity, frugality, and generosity. One of his stories tells of one of the Oxford Methodists [possibly himself] who, though his annual income ranged from 30 pounds to 120 pounds, lived on 28 pounds and gave away the remainder. He is reported to have said that if he died with more than 10 pounds in his possession, he may be considered to have been a thief. According to the records, when he died in 1791, he was carried to his grave by six paupers who were paid one pound each, thus depleting his personal resources. He had directed that all the draperies used in his funeral services be taken down and sewn into clothing for poor women.

Giving all you can for Wesley also meant asking others to give. He begged from the rich, many times soliciting known benefactors door to door. The rich were among his friends and acquaintances and shared alongside the poor in class meeting and the Societies. One week Wesley noted his disappointment that he could find only six or seven people that would give ten pounds each (now worth about $140). On another occasion, when he was in his 80s, he spent a week in December slogging through the snow and slush of the wintry London streets to “beg” 200 pounds from friends. He raised today’s equivalent of $30,000 for his benevolent programs for the poor.

Giving all you can in the Wesleyan tradition goes beyond personal contributions and soliciting from others. It includes establishing and supporting institutions that provide for the necessities of others and contribute to the common good. Wesley developed programs and institutions to deal with a variety of problems. He established a pension fund for “tired and worn out preachers” and their families. To relieve the helpless (the powerless poor), he collected clothes, took food, and furnished adequate housing. To the unfortunate (the able poor), he boosted their employment by sending weavers yarn and established a loan program to distribute seed money for struggling merchants and manufacturers.

For children, he established schools; and for the literate but uneducated adults, he provided a prolific publishing program. For the sick, he established apothecaries and doctors to staff free medical clinics in his preaching houses n London, Bristol, and Newcastle; and he published and distributed copies of Primitive Physic as a readily available medical resource for the populace.

Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Such rules for stewardship practice remain as relevant in the 21st century as the 18th century as we confront a world increasingly dominated by the market logic of commodity exchange based on a presumed economy of scarcity.

Components of a Wesleyan Perspective on Stewardship (Summary)
1. Christian stewardship begins with a gifting God who owns everything and who is present in the world as grace.
2. Christian stewardship is a way of being in the world and a means of sharing in God’s mission.
3. Christian stewardship is an expression of love for God and neighbor, a necessary component of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and integral to the church’s preaching and teaching.
4. Community with, compassion for, and commitment to the impoverished are constitutive of discipleship and stewardship in the Wesleyan tradition; and economic justice is measured by what happens to the poor and most vulnerable.
5. Stewardship involves both personal and institutional responses to the needs of others, including ones own family, the poor, and the global community.
6. Stewardship includes vocational choices and how income is earned as well as how the proceeds are distributed.
7. Stewardship includes simplified living by choosing necessities for everyone over excesses for the few.
8. Leaders who model stewardship in the Wesleyan tradition in personal practice and institutional involvement are critical to the Wesleyan movement.
9. Economy is a spiritual issue and all economic systems, policies, and practices must be critiqued in the light of the Bible’s understanding of creation as a gift, not a commodity, and justice as enabling the least and most vulnerable to flourish as beloved children of God.

On August 4, 1784, the aging Mr. Wesley reflected on the past and the future of the Methodist movement. He asked: “How, then, is it possible that Methodism, that is, the religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay-tree, should continue in this state?” He provided this answer:
“We must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich! What way, then, (I ask again,) can we take, that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who ‘gain all they can,’ and ‘save all they can,’ will likewise ‘give all they can;’ the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.”

As many of you are aware, I had a serious health issue last July. I had a heart attack on Friday, July 5, and the subsequent weekend was a traumatic one. The ability to continue in ministry was questionable. In a very experiential way I became aware of how fragile and precious life is and how privileged we are to participate in Christ’s ministry through the Church.

An important experience in that context occurred on Sunday morning. Into the room came a friend whose name you would recognize. He entered the room carrying the loaf and cup, the signs of God’s covenant and love. He shared communion with me and my family. Then he said, “Let us pray,” and he began praying the Wesley Covenant Prayer. When he came to the phrase “let me be laid aside for you,” I wanted to ask him to stop. I wasn’t ready to genuinely and sincerely pray to be laid aside or brought low or have nothing. But since that day I have prayed that prayer almost daily with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It is a prayer of radical stewardship. I haven’t yet prayed the prayer today.

Would you pray it with me?
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.