Section I, Chapter 4: Which Term, “”Steward” or “Trustee,” Is More Appropriate?

Click here to go to the following webpage for Table of Contents with links to all chapters of: Simply Church: The Holy Union of Christ and His Local Church

Appendix 1 gives links to resources which explain why church incorporation, federal tax exempt status, and other statutory or legal status of churches betray the love relationship between Christ and His churches.

Copyright © by Jerald Finney
February 9, 2023

Why not use the term “steward” instead of “trustee?” Over the years, several have suggested that “steward” should be used. For example, a gentleman at an Unregistered Baptist Fellowship Conference said to me something others have commented on over the years, “We use the term steward because Biblical law is over man’s law.”  This chapter will look at Bible teaching to address this and related matters:  the meanings of the words “steward,” “trust,” “trustee,” “beneficiary,” “trust estate;” the eternal and temporal applications of the relationship; just versus unjust stewardship according to God; and the consequences of just and unjust application of the relationship. This lesson will explain why the use of “trustee” is appropriate and preferable.

The Bible explains the God-ordained trust relationship with all property and the functions of each party to the trust relationship. That relationship has a trustor, a trustee or steward, a beneficiary, and a trust estate. The term “trust” is used in the Bible; “trustee” is explained but the term “trustee” is not used in the Bible. “Steward” is used in the Bible. Like “Trustee,” “Steward” refers to the person to whom someone commits the care and management of his goods for his benefit.

One use of term “trust” references a relationship with property, either material or spiritual. “Trust,” in the context of the trust relationship with property, means: “Property committed to a person’s care for use or management, and for which an account must be rendered. Every man’s talents and advantages are a trust committed to him by his Maker, and for the use or employment of which he is accountable.”

The suffix -or means a person who is something, such as lessor (a person who leases property) or trustor (a person who declares a trust relationship with property). A trustor commits, to the care of someone, God’s property for the sole benefit of God, the owner of the property, the owner of the property held in the trust estate. New Testament churches never owned or falsely claimed ownership of property; they were spiritual entities only, entirely separate from civil government and worldly entanglements. See, Is a Church a Spiritual or Legal Entity? In the context of the Bible trust declareded by a church, the trustor, a derivative of the term “trust,” declares the trust relationship—not with property of the church, since the church, when in obedience to the Word of God, claims ownership of no earthly property, but with property of the true owner of all things, God..

The suffix -ee is used (1) with some verbs to make nouns meaning someone who is affected by an action—as a trainee or an employee-and (2) with some verbs to make nouns meaning someone who performs an action—as a lessee, escapee. When added to the word trust, we have “trustee,” someone who performs an action. A trustee property held in trust for the true owner of the property holds and manages property for the benefit of the owner of the property. Thus, even though the term “trustee” is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, trustee accurately describes the one to whom God has entrusted His property.

The beneficiary – that is, the true, equitable, and beneficial owner – of the property held in a Bible trust is the Lord Jesus Christ, and all of the properties of the trust estate are held in trust, by the trustee, solely for the benefit of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the true, equitable, and beneficial owner of all property including all property held in the trust. The trustor, in declaring the church Bible trust relationship with property is not naming or making the Lord Jesus Christ the Beneficiary or the Trust Estate; Christ is the Beneficiary–the true, equitable, and beneficial owner of the earth and all that is in it (Exodus 19:5, Leviticus 25:23, 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, Psalm 24:1, Psalm 50:10, Psalm 89:11, Haggai 2:8).

The term “trust” refers to both temporal/earthly or material and eternal/heavenly or spiritual relationships. “Trust” relationships are found throughout the Bible, even when the word “trust,” “trustee,” or “steward” is not mentioned. Luke 16 speaks of a temporal material trust, and relates that trust to an eternal spiritual trust. 1 Thessalonians 2.4, and Titus 1.11 speak specifically and solely of the eternal spiritual trust.

The first time the relationship is mentioned is in Genesis 1.27-31, where obviously, although not explicitly stated, the relationship is both earthly and spiritual:

  • “27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. 29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which isupon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which isthe fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. 31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”

All such earthly and spiritual relationships have several essentials: the possession(s); the true, equitable, and beneficial owner of the possession(s); the commitment by the true owner of the possession(s) to another’s care and management; and the one to whom is entrusted the care and management of the possession(s) for the benefit of the true owner. Every Bible dispensation presents a specific stewardship under God.

Only once in the Bible, in Luke 16.1-13, are the words “steward” and “trust” used in the same passage. That passage is concerned with an earthly steward dealing with earthly possessions of his earthly master, the true owner of the possessions. There, “steward” refers to the person who has a duty to manage the goods of his master, for his master’s benefit. However, the Lord makes a connection between one’s earthly stewardship and his eternal stewardship. “Stewardship” means the office of a steward. The Lord says, “If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? … “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk. 16.11, 13).

As has been pointed out, “steward,” in one context, has the same meaning as “trustee.” So why not use “steward” instead of using derivatives of the word “trust,” to include “trustee.” The conclusion will answer this question; but first, let us take a further look at “steward” and “trust.”

God entrusted mankind with all possessions, real and personal as well as spiritual. He owned all things—even the body, soul and spirit of man—but left all things, including the real estate, to man to be used for Him. God trusted man with all His earthly and eternal possessions. God committed all to man’s trust. He was “steward” or “trustee,” the one to whom God entrusted management and care of His possessions.

Now, let us examine the terms “steward” and “stewardship” from a Bible perspective. Then we will look more at “trust” and related terms—“trustor,” “trustee,” and “trust estate.”

The term “steward” is found in Genesis 15.2, 43.19, 44.1, 44.4; 1 Kings 16.9; Daniel 1.11; Matthew 20.8; Luke 8.3, 12.42; 16.1,2, 3, 8; 1 Corinthians 4.1,2; Titus 1:7. The word “stewardship” is used only three times in the Bible, all in Luke 16, verses 2, 3, and 4. “Stewardship” simply means “The office of a steward.”

A steward is a man who has charge of another’s goods. As defined in the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, “steward” means: “(1) A man employed in great families to manage the domestic concerns, superintend the other servants, collect the rents or income, keep the accounts, &c. See Gen. xv. 2—xliii. (2) In Scripture and theology, a minister of Christ, whose duty is to dispense the provisions of the gospel, to preach its doctrines and administer its ordinances. It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. 1 Cor. iv.”

The first meaning of “steward” is reflected in several passages of the Bible: Genesis 15.2, 43.19, 44.1, 44.4; 1 Kings 16.9; Matthew 20.8; Luke 8.3, 12.42, 16.1-13 (parable of the unjust steward). Certainly, although not directly dealing with the eternal meaning, many of those stewardships have spiritual applications: Matthew 20.8; Luke 12.42-48 (levels of punishment based upon whether or not the steward knew the Lord’s will), 16.1-13.

The eternal application alone is seen in 1 Corinthians 4.1, 2: “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.  Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.”; and Titus 1.7: “For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre.”.

The story of a rich man and his unjust steward, which is related in Luke 16.1-13, is very instructive. The terms “trust” and “steward” are used in that parable. The master committed his goods to the steward’s trust (verses 1 and 11). The master was the beneficiary—“the true, beneficial, and equitable owner.”

The steward in this parable was an out-and-out-crook. He was guilty of malfeasance in office and misappropriation of funds. He wasted the goods of his master. His day of reckoning had come (Lk. 16.3). He was afraid of losing his stewardship, felt he could not do manual work, and was ashamed to beg. However, he, like many, was not ashamed to steal (verse 3). He did not repent, nor did he have regret or remorse for his actions. He was crooked—called “clever” by the world’s standards. He had no training for other work, his age was probably against him, he was too proud to beg, but he was not ashamed to be dishonest. He called all his master’s debtors and gave them big discounts.

The Bible tells us that the world loves its own but hates those who belong to God. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (Jn. 15:18-19). In Galatians 1.3-4, Paul says, “Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father.” Again, in Romans 12.2, Paul says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).

The first commandment of the world is “self-preservation.” A shady business deal is winked at, questionable practices countenanced, and a clever crook is commended by the world. The law is on the side of the crook and the criminal many times. Every man, according to the world’s law, is innocent until proven guilty. God takes the opposite approach. God says that a man is guilty until proven innocent. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Ro. 3.23). A man can never be innocent before God, but he can be justified before Him. When a man trusts Jesus Christ as his Savior, he is justified by faith. See, e.g., Ro. 8.1.

The master did not punish the unjust steward, but commended him. Apparently the rich man got rich using the same kind of principles that his unjust steward used and he commended him, saying that the steward had done wisely. In what way? According to the principles of the world. This is the world that hates Christ. It makes its own rules. The law of the world is “dog eat dog.” The worldly master commended his worldly steward for his worldly wisdom according to his worldly dealings. The Lord Jesus said, “… For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” That is, the children of this world, of this age, use their money more wisely than do the children of light.

Then, our Lord makes the most shocking and startling statement of all. It concerns the relationship of the “mammon of righteousness,” that is, riches, money: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (Lk. 16.9). Money is not evil in itself; it is amoral. The love of money is the root of all evil. For believers, money is to be spiritual. Our Lord said that we should lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. We should be wise in the way we use our money. Then when we “fail” or come to the end of life, we will be welcomed in heaven.

Believers are spiritual stewards (trustees) of all that God commits to their trust; all of which is spiritual. We own nothing as believers. We are responsible to God for how we use His goods. We are to use the “mammon of unrighteousness” to gather spiritual wealth:

  • “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?  And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own. No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Lk. 16.10-13).

In this parable, the Lord Jesus is saying, “Do you think God is going to trust you with heavenly riches if you are not using properly or rightly the earthly possessions which He has given you?” Are you serving God or mammon? You cannot serve both.

Now, let us review and supplement “trust” and related terms. “Trustor,” “trustee,” and “trust estate” are derivatives of the word “trust,” a concept found throughout the Bible. The suffix “-ee” added to trust results in a new word meaning a person with to whom something is entrusted. A “trustor” is one who entrusts monies and properties to a “trustee” who holds the money and property entrusted to him in “trust” for the benefit of the true, equitable, and beneficial owner, the “beneficiary.”

Some meanings of trust, as given in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, are: “(1) Confidence; a reliance or resting of the mind on the integrity, veracity, justice, friendship or other sound principle of another person. He that putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe. Proverbs 20.25. (2) Something committed to a person’s care for use or management, and for which an account must be rendered. Every man’s talents and advantages are a trust committed to him by his Maker, and for the use or employment of which he is accountable.” In the context of definition (2), the word “trust” is mentioned four times in the Bible:

  1. “But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts” (1 Thes. 2.4).
  2. “According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust” (1 Ti. 1:11).
  3. “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called” (1 Ti. 6:20).
  4. “If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who [what trustor] will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own” (Lk. 16:11-12)?

In all these references, that which God entrusted was not material and spiritual, but spiritual only—“the true riches.”

The Lord spoke of this concept of trust, in conjunction with an earthly temporal example in Matthew 25.14-30 and Luke 19.12-27, although He used neither the word “trust” nor “steward” or “stewardship.” He spoke of an earthly master leaving certain amounts of his goods or money with his servants, according to their abilities. Actually, the more important parallel spiritual meaning was to the Lord and His servants. The master had an absolute right to his own goods, but he distributed to his servants to be used for the benefit of the master, the servants to be awarded according to their profitable use of the property entrusted to them. Some used the money productively and upon the master’s return presented him with a profit. The property belonged to the master, and the servants were to use it for the master’s benefit, not for their own benefit. Of course, they would be rewarded if they used the property wisely for the benefit of the master. One servant in each example returned only the original amount left in trust with them. The master instructed that the goods which he had left with the unprofitable servants be taken from them, and they were left with nothing. The profitable servants were rewarded by the master. In the story found in Matthew, the Master said, “[C]ast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25.30). Men, as servants of the Master are likewise left in trust of all things for His benefit and will be rewarded or punished accordingly.

In conclusion, the words “steward” and “trustee” signify the same thing. However, the use of the term “trustee,” a word derived from the word “trust” by adding the suffix “-ee”  is preferable to the use of “steward” when describing the entire relationship. Why? For six reasons taken together. First, in only one context do the terms “steward” and “trustee” mean the same thing.

Second, the one time “trust” and “steward” are used in the same immediate verses, “steward” denotes the person with the responsibility over another’s goods and “trust” is used to signify the fiduciary relationship with the master’s goods or property (Lk. 16). Even though “steward” is the one with the duty to rightly administer the goods the master commits to his trust, the name given to the arrangement is “trust.”

Third, nowhere in the Bible are all the terms involved in the relationship reduced to singular (as “trustor”) or modified terms (as “trustee” or “trust estate”); yet, those terms accurately explain elements of the trust relationship even though the specific terms are not in the Bible.

Thus, fourth, the use of “trust” and derivatives is more practical. The term “trust” as a noun (and as an adjective) and its derivatives, more succinctly describe aspects of the relationship: “trustor,” “trustee,” and “trust estate.” On the other hand, the term “stewardship” is less adaptable: one can interchange “steward” and “trustee;” but the word “trust” describes the overall relationship. No word derived from “steward” or from which “steward is derived” describes the person who declares the stewardship (the “trustor”). No word derived from “steward” or from which “steward is derived” describes the estate the steward is responsible for (“trust estate”)—er, perhaps the “stewardship estate?”; but stewardship means the office of a steward. Parallel words leave less room for argument and misunderstanding. Imagine trying to explain these matters to a lost person.

Fifth, the church, not God, declares a Bible Trust relationship with property. To repeat: “Steward” refers to the person to whom someone commits the care and management of his goods for his benefit. In the church Bible Trust context, the church, the trustor, not God, consistent with Bible principle, commits the care and management of God’s goods for God’s benefit.

Finally, American law, although not legalizing or setting up the Bible concept of trust, recognizes and defines the trust elements consistent with Bible principle. American law uses the Bible term “trust” and its derivatives.  For example, American Jurisprudence 2d Trusts, a highly regarded encyclopedia of American law, describes “trust” in § 1, as follows:

  • “The fundamental nature of a trust is the division of title, with the trustee being the holder of legal title and the beneficiary that of equitable title. By definition, the creation of a trust must involve a conveyance of property.
  • “A ‘trust’ exists where the legal title to property is held by one or more persons, under an equitable obligation to convey, apply, or deal with such property for the benefit of other persons. A trust has been defined as a fiduciary relationship with respect to property, subjecting the person by whom the title to the property is held to equitable duties to deal with the property for the benefit of another person, which arises as a result of a manifestation of an intention to create it. The Restatement definition is similar, providing that a trust, when not qualified by the word ‘resulting’ or ‘constructive,’ is a fiduciary relationship with respect to property, arising from a manifestation of intention to create that relationship and subjecting the person who holds title to the property to duties to deal with it for the benefit of charity or for one or more persons, at least one of whom is not the sole trustee.
  • “Caution: A trust consists not only of property, but also of the trust instrument, the trust’s beneficiaries and trustees, and the trust administrator [if any].”

American Jurisprudence 2d, Trusts § 2 makes clear that a “trust” is not a legal entity, but merely a fiduciary relationship with property. For one thing, this means that the one cannot sue the trust, since it is not recognized as a legal entity. This is not true of a “business trust,” a “charitable trust” or some other legal extensions of the “trust” relationship.

Even though particular words are not necessary to create the Bible Trust relationship, as a study of God’s Word reveals, using certain words is a simplified way of declaring the Bible Trust relationship. “No particular words are necessary to declare a trust if there exists reasonable certainty as to the intended property, object, and beneficiary. Further, the purpose and intention, rather than the use of any particular term, determines whether a valid trust has been established.” American Jurisprudence 2d, Trusts § 65. The preservation of God’s Word exactly as inspired by the Holy Spirit is very important to God. See, e.g., Psalm 12:6-7, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:19. Within those Words are concepts which God wishes His children to understand, apply, and obey.

The important thing for the born-again believer, regardless of the terms used, is that he handle the use of God’s properties, both material and spiritual, according to the principle of trust as described in the Bible. Those faithful and wise churches who remain under God only will be blessed by their Lord. However, churches who choose to leave their first love by placing themselves at least partially under the state (for example, corporate (aggregate or sole) 501(c)(3) or 508(c)(1)(A) churches), have left their first love and betrayed their Lord’s trust. They are unfaithful and act unwisely; they act either knowingly or unknowingly and will  be judged accordingly (see Lk. 12.42-48; see also Lk. 16 discussed above).

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