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Who Owns It Anyway?

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Although many Americans may never have heard of Adam Smith, they have been deeply influenced by his viewpoints. Smith was an eighteenth century Scottish social philosopher who believed that one of the primary purposes of any justice system was to guard private ownership of property and possessions. The commitment to maintain the right of private ownership drives much of the current political debate in America.

But ownership is a complex concept. It has been understood in a variety of ways throughout Western history. Non-Western cultures have divergent ideas about what constitutes rightful possession and even about who may own what. As a result, societies also define the responsibilities and privileges of ownership in different ways. I confronted the challenges those different ideas present soon after my wife and I began ministry. Eventually, I recognized that attitudes toward ownership are really spiritual matters. Possessions held too tightly often become idols.

Our first place of ministry was among Native Americans. The Native concept of property was much more communal than my own. That is to be expected. Native Americans were traditionally a tribal people for whom possessions were few. To a certain degree, the conflict between Native Americans and European colonists was about ownership. Native Americans tended to view land as a common possession. The earth was not something to be bought or sold. Of course, European colonists and frontier settlers felt differently!

Traditional tribal perspectives were much more akin to the one found in Scripture than was the prevailing European view. Certainly, they were more biblical than was my own attitude. My personal view of possessions was inevitably challenged. I grew up with the maxim: “Neither borrower nor lender be.” So when the tool I reluctantly loaned to a neighbor on the reservation was not returned the next day as promised, I became nervous. The fact that it was not returned the next day or the next one or the next was downright disconcerting. I spoke about the lack of “good stewardship,” and after several weeks, I concluded that the object could be considered stolen.

The truth was somewhat different. It had not been stolen, and the neighbor who borrowed it had actually been a good steward. In fact, there were several other borrowers, the last of whom turned out to be me! Each solemnly promised to return the implement and to take good care of it. And each one did. Since there was always another person who could benefit from using the tool, it continued to make its way around the community until, at last, I needed it again; thus, there was no complaint when I asked for it to be returned. I was the only person who thought it had been stolen and the only one who failed to realize that it is not really good stewardship for a perfectly good tool to remain unused. But then, I was also the only person who did not understand that I did not really own the implement. Possessing the tool provided first use but did not guarantee exclusive use.

Scripture neither endorses nor condemns private ownership of property. Neither does God’s Word endorse communal living, as some radical believers have suggested throughout church history. The biblical perspective is seen in the words of Nehemiah, “You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it . . .” (9:6) In Psalm 24 David declares, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (v. 1). That is where our idea of ownership must begin. Personal stewardship is rooted in God’s ownership. One Alliance core value says, Everything we have belongs to God. We are His stewards.

I am naturally and sinfully inclined to believe that possessions are mine by right. But I possess them only by the grace and provision of God. All that I have first belongs to Him by virtue of creation and in recognition of what Jesus paid for my redemption: “you were bought with a price.” (1 Cor. 6:20).

Stewardship is a spiritual discipline. Giving is a grace we must cultivate. We give because we are committed to the cause of Christ. We give because we recognize our responsibility to be wise stewards. We give because we recognize that God owns it all. He has entrusted us with the gospel (1 Tim. 1:11). He has entrusted us with the good deposit of sound teaching, guarded with the help of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 1:14), and He has entrusted us with earthly possessions. As followers of Jesus Christ we will be held accountable for each. Everything you have belongs to God. You, like all followers of Christ, are His steward.

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