Jonathan Merritt, author of Green Like God, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Cal Beisner, national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, discuss how concerned Christians should be about environmental care.
Creation Care: As Much as God Is
If we are concerned about the gospel, we should be concerned about the environment. While the two issues might not immediately strike one as connected, I have come to believe they are inextricably so.
Creation care is a launching pad for the gospel. I correspond with missionaries around the world who are glad to see American Christians championing "creation care." In many foreign countries, missionaries don't begin with Jesus, an unknown, when witnessing to others. Rather, they begin with creation and the Creator, who is clearly evident to all (Rom. 1).
Creation care strengthens our gospel witness. In Western countries like ours, where we see a growing sensitivity to environmental problems, people view environmental stewardship as the mark of a "good person." When people see Christians selflessly caring for the planet and advocating for those who depend on Earth's resources, our gospel message becomes convincing. That's why church planters across the United States are beginning to incorporate environmental stewardship practices into their congregations' DNA.
Non-Westerners carefully observe the historically Christian West and form opinions about our faith based on our lifestyles and practices. For example, Americans make up only 5 percent of the world's population, yet consume over a third of Earth's paper products. How does this influence the gospel message in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador, where deforestation causes so much suffering and injustice?
Living out the gospel includes caring for creation. It is inappropriate to claim that creation care—or any social issue—composes the foundation of the gospel. But the gospel calls us to a radically sacrificial, compassionate lifestyle. Jesus commands us to "make disciples of all nations" and teach others to "obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). This includes the commands to love our global neighbors, care for the least of these, and uphold the creation care mandates throughout Scripture.
Ignoring environmental problems heaps shame on the gospel. Part of missional living is telling the truth. That means we must be honest about our world's problems. When we blindly follow Christian lobbying groups and "alliances" that ignore global injustice, the gospel suffers. Augustine cautioned against this in The Literal Meaning of Genesis: "If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books [Scripture], how are they going to believe those books?"
I could offer more reasons Christians should care about creation: because the "earth is the Lord's" (Ps. 24); because it reveals the attributes of God (Ps. 19; Rom. 1); because God asked us to care for it (Gen. 2:15); and because Christ's death began a process of cosmic redemption in which we are called to participate (Col. 1; Rom. 8; Rev. 21). But more than any of those, we must care about creation because we want the kingdom of God to reign on earth and the gospel of Jesus Christ to take root among all people.
Creation Care: No Less Than Stewards
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Concern for the environment is one of the most controversial issues facing Christians today. On the one hand, we confront an environmentalism that is often deeply rooted in a naturalistic worldview, sometimes wedded to pantheistic or panentheistic spirituality. On the other hand, we face a painful legacy of silence, apathy, and unconcern among evangelicals.
The larger cultural conversation is often politically and ideologically polarized to the point of meltdown. Evangelicals cannot ignore the political debates and implications of public policy, but our proper concern is prior to the political and deeper than policy.
A proper evangelical concern about care for the environment is rooted in a song many of us learned as children—this really is "our Father's world." The biblical themes of dominion and stewardship are essential to our reading of the Scriptures, from creation in Genesis to new creation in the Book of Revelation.
In Genesis, God creates humanity in his own image. To this creature, God extends a mandate of dominion in no uncertain terms: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen. 1:28, ESV).
For a long time, I did my best in my teaching and writing to "balance" this verse and its clear declaration of human dominion over the created order with the biblical theme of stewardship. But I have come to the conclusion that they are really one and the same. A proper understanding of dominion includes stewardship.
God invested the only creature made in his image with the power of dominion. There is little room for misunderstanding. Human beings are not blights upon creation. Indeed, creation itself is, as John Calvin famously declared, the theater of God's own glory. Human dominion over the earth is to be exercised so that God's glory is most evident in God's creation. The love and care the Creator invested in the cosmos is to be our model of dominion, rightly fulfilled.
We cannot buy into the implicit pantheism and questionable science of so many environmentalists. We cannot accept environmental apocalypticism. Far too many evangelicals seem to do this while ignoring deeper Christian motivations for proper earth care.
At the same time, we cannot neglect our responsibility to exercise our dominion in a way that treasures the earth, heals its wounds, respects its creatures, and values its divinely given resources.
We know that we will be judged for our stewardship of the earth. This implies a hierarchy of concerns. Our first concern is our gospel commission. But, as we all know, the gospel comes with implications.
A proper environmentalism is one of those implications. But in the end, the keeper of the earth is the Creator himself.
Creation Care: Depends on One's Gifts
I care for my aunt who has Alzheimer's disease and for her mentally handicapped daughter. That is, their needs are often on my mind, and I sympathize with them. My aunt's doctor hardly knows her, but in terms of outward, objective action,he cares for her more than I do. My daughter, who lives with them and manages their household, cares for them both subjectively and objectively, much more than either the doctor or I do.
How concerned should Christians be about care for the environment? It depends partly on what we mean by "care for the environment." Are we talking about subjective, emotional care, or objective, active care?
I suppose we all are capable of a good deal of emotional care for the environment,for what that's worth. But our resources are more limited for objective, outward care—time spent removing litter from a streambed, protesting toxic waste at a chemical plant, inventing a more fuel efficient and less polluting engine. Time and money and bodily energy spent on those cannot simultaneously be spent on HIV/AIDS care and prevention, hunger relief, evangelism, fighting human trafficking, or reading Bible stories to our children.
Prioritizing is inescapable. The apostle Paul's statement about gifts in the church applies: "There are many parts, but one body.The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!'" (1 Cor. 12:20-21).
Suppose Julie dedicates full-time service to Earth stewardship and no time to her church's clothes closet for the poor. Ron does the opposite. Jean divides her time unevenly among homeschooling her children, teaching a women's Bible study, following up on visitors to her church, and contacting her state and federal representatives about public policy concerns. Is one of them wrong? "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4).
How concerned should Christians be about caring for the environment? It depends on the Christian and his or her gifts; it's not something we can generalize about. But we can state some principles, as I did in a monograph for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, What Is the Most Important Environmental Task Facing American Christians Today?
The more important tasks in caring for the environment include testing claims about environmental degradation and how to fix it, doing cost-benefit analysis of problems and proposed solutions, and promoting economic development for the very poor, since poverty is a great threat to the environment. It is also important to promote transparency, accountability, and integrity in government structures, since good environmental stewardship depends in part on them.
Finally, we should remember that people are more valuable than many sparrows, and let that knowledge guide our priorities.
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Jonathan Merritt is the author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cal Beisner is the national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
Previous Christianity Today articles on environmental care include:
Second Coming Ecology | We care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth. (July 18, 2008)
Weeping for the Jordan | Revered river endangered by pollution, overuse. (August 28, 2007)
Why We Love the Earth | "Our belief in a Creator, not crisis scenarios, drives our environmental concerns." (June 1, 2001)
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