Care for the environment lies deeply rooted in our belief system. Stewardship of the planet and its creatures is part of humanity’s God-given mandate.
A national gathering of Christian journalists last spring included a workshop on creation care in which the presenter cited dispensational thinking as a major contributor to apathy about the environment. An emphasis on end-times theology, he suggested, has kept Christ-followers so focused on the rapture and our hope of “getting out of here” that we approve earth trashing. The mentality is, “It’s all going to burn anyway.”
Some people associate Dallas Seminary with an overemphasis on end-time prophecy or eschatology. While we desire initial associations such as “Christ-worshipping,” “Trinitarian,” “biblical,” and “evangelical,” our dispensational theology—and more often a caricature of it—seems many times to define us in the public eye. Still, as long as people know us for our dispensationalism, let us be quick to say what else we believe: We’re called to be stewards, not despoilers. In other words, we have a mission.
We who eagerly await Christ’s imminent return followed by, as Milton put it, “paradise regained” do care in the here-and-now what happens to the place God called “good.” Though our future hope includes a new heaven and a new earth, God never absolved us of responsibility to manage this one well. Perhaps in the past a fringe few have taken “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28) as license to engage in violent conquest, but Dr. Eugene Merrill, distinguished professor of Old Testament Studies, says, “I don’t see that in anybody’s writing. … We, by our sin, brought creation into disarray, and we can’t restore it. But we do bear some responsibility.”
Most dispensational theologians see God “fleshing out” His intentions for what “subdue” should look like in the chapter that follows His directive: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (2:15, italics added).
As the landlord who holds the deed, God gave humans responsibility for caring for what He made, but it’s still His. David wrote, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). People. Land. Water. Animals. Fish. Birds. Reptiles. Everything. As He said through the psalmist, “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10).
In the New Testament we learn of Christ’s involvement in creating the world. And we also find a reason for His doing so: “all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:16, italics added). The world is His workmanship and His possession, and it exists for His pleasure. Paul tells his readers in Romans that God reveals through nature His invisible attributes—“his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20). Certainly a clear, starry night or a fresh mountain stream tells a more accurate story about that nature than a polluted sky and poisonous waters. When we sing “How Great Thou Art,” we don’t think of mercury-filled fish, exhaust fumes, or smoke belching from factories. These are evidences of the Fall, not original glory. And we wrestle against—we don’t embrace—the Fall’s effects.
Yet sometimes our practices fail to line up with our theology. At the first mention of environmental issues, many Christians become entangled in debate about the causes and cures of global warming and their political ramifications. Yet our biblical environmentalism is much broader than global warming. Think of endangered species, pollutants such as mercury poisoning, dirty air that makes our kids wheeze, poverty and its effect on environmental choices, the consequences of ignorance and greed. If we belittle environmental concerns as merely the province of political propaganda, we shirk our God-given responsibility. And we fail to engage the culture where we have some common ground.
“People used to say, ‘The Great Lakes are history,’ ” recalls Dr. Dorian Coover-Cox, assistant professor of Old Testament Studies, who grew up near Lake Ontario and Lake Erie when they were dying. “Yet massive dumping was stopped,” she said, “and the lakes are much cleaner today. Decisions such as that were made without reference to global warming or cooling.” Having water to drink and swim in are good, obtainable goals, she stated. And such decisions fall right in line with our Genesis mandate.
The shift from consumption
Behind much of the damage done to the environment is a consumer-driven mentality of entitlement. Becoming better stewards requires more than recycling, turning off lights, and changing the thermostat—essential as these are. We must shift from having a consumer mind-set to a “manager” mentality.
For Rebecca Good (MA[BS], 2005) a chaplain to graduate students at Harvard University, such a shift began with a change in her thinking about wealth. She and eight others met for twelve weeks to consider what the Bible says about money. She explained, “We learned four biblical principles—wealth is a blessing; it must be justly distributed; it is a potential idol; and it’s for sharing with the poor.” As a result of their contemplations, each group member worked toward practical simplicity “by remembering the poor and covenanting not to spend money on something we value but could honestly do without.” These included refraining from eating out, highlighting hair, and purchasing new music/iTunes, as well as choosing to read books they already owned instead of buying more. Their goal: to share the resources they saved.
“We also evaluated the humanness of our current purchases,” she explained. That meant investigating free-trade fruits and vegetables as well as the companies in which their mutual funds invested. “In our capstone meeting the last week,” she said, “nine of us from three graduate schools gave $4,000 to organizations we researched and selected together.”
Benji Bruneel (ThM, 2007), who serves as Campus Life coordinator at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College, made a similar decision along with his wife, Greta. As a New Year’s resolution, they committed to buying nothing new in 2007—with the exception of gifts and consumables such as food and toothpaste. Why? To participate more intentionally in their community by sharing.
When Greta’s watch broke, she discovered it would cost more to fix it than to replace it. But then two women in her small group learned about her loss, and they both gave her extras they weren’t using.
The link between consuming less and caring for the environment becomes clearer when one considers what the makers of Dixie products have identified as an “Environmental Hierarchy”:
- Reduce the amount of materials and energy used
- Reuse products—design them for multiple vs. single use
- Recycle materials into the same or different products
- Waste-to-Energy: Incinerate used products to capture inherent energy value
- Compost: Reduce volume to landfill
- Incinerate: An alternative method to reduce volume to landfill or litter
- Landfill: A cache of materials for harvesting in the future?
- Litter: Not an option
Rather than electing green practices at the “recycle” level, the people mentioned above have cut back at the more fundamental “reduce” level.
Still, we must consume to some degree. The question of how best to do so requires wisdom from above. “Poverty can prohibit some people from participating in greener living,” observes Sharifa Stevens (ThM, 2004), an admissions counselor at the Seminary. “In some parts of Africa I have visited, conservationists are more concerned with the lives of animals in the savannah than they are with the livelihood of the folks who hunt those animals for survival. And in the Bronx where I grew up, my mom would have a choice: make a larger carbon footprint to find fresh vegetables and fruits in Manhattan or settle for neighborhood markets. Supermarkets in my part of town sold a lot more processed foods and almost no fresh fruit and vegetables.” So thinking biblically on the subject includes listening, exploring, and approaching solutions with humility.
Creation care as ministry
Though some Christian leaders have warned that environmentalism distracts the church from preaching the gospel, such thinking suggests an either/or mentality. Obedience to our stewardship mandate is not only the right thing to do; it also gives Christ-followers more credibility when we do speak. Consider the Wiccan who wept when a Christian came to one of her pro-earth events and read Psalm 8. She had no idea the Bible had anything good to say about the creation she values so much.
Residents in a rural area near Buffalo, New York, receive free home infrared photography service from volunteers at Folsomdale Baptist Church, where Bill Lambert (ThM, 1976) serves as senior pastor. Specially trained members take color photos using technology that detects energy loss and then use the information to help homeowners take steps to save energy—and money. Church volunteers also offer home-improvement meetings where they teach about residential conservation and do-it-yourself weatherization techniques. Then, having established credibility through a shared value, members find ample opportunities to talk about their faith.
Participating in the conversation
At the same time the journalists mentioned at the beginning of this article were meeting to discuss Christianity and the environment, Dallas Seminary’s president, Dr. Mark Bailey, and professor Dr. Darrell Bock were participating with other Christian leaders in the release of “The Evangelical Manifesto,” an open declaration of who evangelicals are and what they stand for. The manifesto included these statements:
- “We believe that being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives, secular as well as spiritual, public as well as private, in deeds as well as words, and in every moment of our days on earth, always reaching out as he did to those who are lost as well as to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the socially despised, and being faithful stewards of creation and our fellow-creatures.”
- “We have impoverished ourselves and supported a culture broadly careless about the stewardship of the earth and negligent of the arts and the creative centers of society.”
People across the globe are growing in their awareness of environmental issues. And as followers of Christ we must contribute to that conversation. We can begin by acknowledging our failures and then demonstrating the depth of our repentance by embracing the truth—with all its ramifications—that God has called humanity to have dominion over the earth. We must work together to subdue God’s groaning earth, caring for it as best we can, managing what isn’t ours until the One who is coming soon makes all things new.