When Christians Are “Worse Than Infidels”: Stewardship and Subsidiarity 

The Lord has a simple yet powerful way for the world to thrive that starts with helping first those closest to us, not the other way around.


John Stonestreet

Shane Morris

Each of the Apostle Paul’s letters to different first-century churches contains robust explanations of complex theological concepts, such as justification, sanctification, the connection between faith and works, and the role of Jewish law after Christ. In more than a few places, however, Paul drops punchy and simple statements such as, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). That’s straightforward. Or how about this one: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). That’s pretty clear, too. 

Obviously, these statements have clear implications for husbands and fathers who abandon their spouses or children, or who fail to do what is necessary to provide for them. Today, these would also seem to indict those who pressure women into aborting a child they fathered; or those who, through IVF, create multiple embryos only to abandon some of them in freezers; or those who pressure aging parents into physician-assisted suicide. The implications of Paul’s blunt and powerful statement about the responsibilities we have to those who depend on us are vast. 

For example, I recently asked a Colson Fellow who has taught personal finance for years at a Christian college how he integrates worldview into that class. His answer was simple: stewardship. And, then he quoted Paul’s clear, pithy statement about who is worse than an infidel. 

Few words better encapsulate what it means to be created in the image of God than stewardship. Human beings were created by God to steward the world He made. He charged our first parents with tending His garden. Though Sin made that task more difficult, it hasn’t altered His original command to His image bearers to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In fact, this was how He intended for us to rule benevolently and wisely over all the works of God’s hands.  

It is in this concept of stewardship that we find the key to understanding Paul’s blunt statement. It’s also in this concept that the task of caring for this world is even possible, as finite people with finite resources and maybe a few hungry mouths to feed at home.   

Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve’s home was a garden that God planted for them “in the east.” This was more than a sacred flower bed. It was a sanctuary, a meeting place between God and man, and the embryonic form of the garden city that is described as complete in Revelation. The first man and woman weren’t supposed to sit idly around in this garden. They were given work to do, work that would eventually involve the entire world. As theologian G.K. Beale explains, “Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through his image-bearers.”  

In other words, God gave humans a starting point, a home base, a focal point where their responsibilities as stewards began. They could not start with the whole world, or they never would have started. 

This is still true today. No matter our roles, responsibilities, or calling, we are most responsible for the people, things, and places closest to us. This principle is often called “subsidiarity” and is the basis of sound thinking on family, finances, economics, government, and much more. The reason a person who fails to care for the members of his household is “worse than an unbeliever” is that these are the people closest to him, to whom he is most responsible. 

As my friend pointed out, the heart of what it means to be a good manager of family finances, a good steward of church resources, a responsible leader for a Christian college, or a good city, state, or nation is to enable care for those closest. Proximity directs priority.  

If true, subsidiarity means that the progressive strategies for child-rearing, welfare, healthcare, and other issues that abstract responsibility back to “society” are dangerously backward. The duties in these areas lie primarily with those closest to the needs. The concepts of stewardship and proximity also mean that leading people into a mess and then abandoning them is wrong, and reflects unbelief. This would apply to parents who create and abandon excess embryos (or “donate” their gametes), as well as to Christian colleges that sell teenagers enormous amounts of debt, have them marry each other, and then send them off to be youth pastors. It’s not good stewardship, and to paraphrase Paul, potentially leaves these Christian young people in infidel territory.   

Ultimately, this comes back to what St. Augustine called “rightly ordered loves.” It’s as impossible to love all people, all families, and all nations as it was for Adam to tend the whole Earth by himself. Love in the abstract is not actually love. We must love and care for particular people in particular places, and according to one of Paul’s least difficult-to-understand teachings, those closest to us should be top priority.   

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Have a Follow-up Question?

Related Content