Having This Ministry
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Biblical and Ministry Words That We Love: Economy

Throughout Living Stream Ministry’s publications, we use the term economy to refer to God’s plan to dispense Himself into His chosen people. Our decision to use this term is not without careful consideration, since the word economy has other meanings in the English language, which according to The American Heritage College Dictionary can mean “a careful, thrifty management of resources, such as money, materials, or labor” or “the system or range of economic activity in a country, region, or community.” A less common, theological definition of the word economy is “the method of God’s government of and activity within the world.”

Biblical and Ministry Words That We Love: Economy

The use of the word economy in our publications agrees more with the latter, less common theological definition and is based on the root sense of the Greek word οἰκονομία (oikonomia), from which we get the English word economy. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines oikonomia as ‘the management of a household or of household affairs; specifically, the management, oversight, administration, of others’ property; the office of a manager or overseer, stewardship’. It occurs nine times in the New Testament (see below). Oikonomia derives from a verb oikonomeō which means ‘to be a steward, to manage the affairs of a household’ (Thayer). It occurs once in the New Testament (Luke 16:2). Oikonomeō derives from oikonomos ‘the manager of a household or of household affairs; especially a steward, manager, superintendent’ (Thayer). Oikonomos occurs ten times in the New Testament, six times according to standard secular Greek usage (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; Gal. 4:2), and four times with a spiritual sense, referring to Paul and the apostles as stewards of the mysteries of God needing to be found faithful (1 Cor. 4:1-2), overseers in the church as stewards of God (Titus 1:7), and the believers as good stewards of the varied grace of God (1 Pet. 4:10). These three words, oikonomia, oikonomeō, and oikonomos are compounds derived from two Greek words, oikos ‘house, household’ and nemō ‘to distribute, dispense’. Two other significant words derived from nemō are nomos ‘anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, usage, and [most commonly] law’ and nomē ‘pasture, fodder, food’ (John 10:9) and ‘growth, increase, spread’ (2 Tim. 2:17).

Three times the word οἰκονομία focuses on the economy from God’s perspective. Paul talks about the economy of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10); the economy of the mystery (3:9); and giving heed to God’s economy, which is in faith (1 Tim. 1:4). Six times οἰκονομία focuses on the economy from the human perspective, i.e., a ‘stewardship.’ It occurs three times in the parable of the steward (Luke 16:2-4), and three times Paul uses it to refer to the stewardship with which he was entrusted to dispense “Christ’s salvation, life, and riches to His believers” (1 Cor. 9:17 and Recovery Version, footnote 2 on 1 Cor. 9:17), the stewardship of the grace of God given to him for the believers (Eph. 3:2), and to him being a minister according to the stewardship of God to complete the word of God “in regard to the mystery of God, which is Christ, and the mystery of Christ, which is the church, to give us a full revelation of God’s economy” (Col. 1:25 and Recovery Version, footnote 4 on Col. 1:25).

At first glance, oikonomia and these related words might give the impression that they just refer to an orderly management or administration of the affairs of the household. However, the focus is not primarily on the arrangement (emphasizing the connection between oikonomia and nomos), but rather on the distributing or dispensing of resources to the members of the household (emphasizing the connection between oikonomia and nemō), which, from God’s perspective, is the dispensing of the riches of the all-inclusive Christ to the members of His Body.

Oἰκονομία has been translated variously, especially when it is considered from God’s perspective (Eph. 1:10; 3:9; 1 Tim. 1:4). The American Standard Version translates οἰκονομία ‘dispensation’, the NASB translates it ‘administration,’ and the NRSV ‘plan’. Alford in his commentary on Ephesians 1:10 in The Greek Testament states that “after long and careful search, I am unable to find a word which will express the full meaning of οἰκονομία.” He later concludes, “our best rendering will be œconomy, leaving the word to be explained in the teaching.”

Witness Lee first started to use the word economy in his ministry around 1963. In a conference in Portland, Oregon, in June 1963 he said:

In this universe God has an administration, in which is His divine economy. The Greek word for economy means “household law,” implying a plan, an administration, an arrangement, for distributing, or dispensing, the household supply to the members of a family. The base of this word is of the same origin as that for pasture in John 10:9, implying a distribution of the pasture to the flock. God’s economy is His household economy, His household administration (Eph. 1:10; 3:9; 1 Tim. 1:4), which is to dispense Himself in Christ into His chosen people that He may have a house to express Himself, which house is the church (3:15), the Body of Christ. (The Collected Works of Witness Lee, 1963, vol. 2, “The Living That Fulfills God's Eternal Purpose,” p. 295).

In the summer of 1964, he gave a series of messages that were published in 1968 in a book entitled The Economy of God. In those messages he further developed his understanding of the economy of God. He writes:

What is God’s economy?...God’s economy is simply His plan to dispense Himself into humanity. God’s economy is God’s dispensation, which means nothing else than God dispensing Himself into the human race. It is regrettable that the term dispensation has been misused by Christianity [being mostly understood as a divinely appointed order or age]. Its definition is nearly the same as the Greek word economy. It means the administrative arrangement, the governmental management, or the dispensing, distributing stewardship of God’s plan. In this divine dispensation God, who is almighty and all-inclusive, intends to dispense nothing other than Himself to us. (pp. 152-153)

There are fourteen books by Witness Lee (excluding an additional eight titles published in The Collected Works of Witness Lee) which contain the word economy in the title: The Economy of God (spoken in 1964), The Two Great Mysteries in God’s Economy (1977), Crucial Elements of God’s Economy (1978), The Divine Economy (1984), God’s New Testament Economy (1984), The Economy of God and the Mystery of the Transmission of the Divine Trinity (1986), The God-ordained Way to Practice the New Testament Economy (1987), The Economy of God and the Building Up of the Body of Christ (1988), The Mysteries in God’s New Testament Economy (1990), The Economy and Dispensing of God (1990), The Divine Dispensing for the Divine Economy (1990), The Law and Grace of God in His Economy (1992), The Satanic Chaos in the Old Creation and the Divine Economy for the New Creation (1992), and A General Outline of God’s Economy and the Proper Living of a God-man: A Fellowship with the Elders from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia (1994).

In scanning the book titles, we can see a development in Witness Lee’s understanding of the term economy and his association of this word with other key notions. God’s economy is the divine dispensing or the dispensing of the Triune God, which is associated with the words grace and mystery (indicated in Eph. 3:2 and 9) as well as with the God-ordained way and the God-man living (from Christian experience and practice), to transform us to be part of the new creation and to build up the Body of Christ as the goal of God’s economy.

God’s economy is an arrangement for the purpose of distributing or dispensing the riches of His household to the members of the household. In the steps of God’s economy, the Triune God was processed so that He could dispense Himself into tripartite man. The Father embodied in the Son (Col. 2:9) became a man (John 1:14), who passed through death and resurrection and became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), so that He can dispense Himself into the believers’ tripartite being. He dispenses Himself into our spirit at the time of regeneration (John 3:6) to make our spirit life (Rom. 8:10), then He spreads Himself as life into our mind to make our mind, the leading part of our soul, life (v. 6), and then He even gives life to our mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells us (v. 11). All the believers also participate in this economy, not only by allowing the Triune God to dispense Himself into their tripartite being, but also as stewards entrusted with a stewardship to dispense the Triune God into others, particularly through their prophesying, speaking for Christ, speaking forth Christ, and speaking Christ into others, which builds up the church (1 Cor. 14:4). From God’s point of view, it is an economy; and from the believers’ point of view, it is a stewardship.

By going beyond the more common definitions of the word economy in English, tracing the word back to its Greek roots, we see that the phrase God’s economy encapsulates many important notions. God’s economy includes God’s plan, God’s household administration, but most importantly God’s dispensing of Himself into His believers as the means to accomplish His plan, as well as all the believers functioning as stewards to build up the church as the house of God and the Body of Christ, which consummates in the New Jerusalem, the ultimate goal of God’s economy.