Is Stewardship the Same as Going Green?

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What should be the Christian response to the environmental concerns of the Green Movement? Because it has been taken up as a popular cause by people who often are against conservative Christian principles, does that mean we should therefore be anti-environment? Is there something inherently wrong with wanting to be environmentally conscientious? Or have we become so ingrained to fight against anything that is endorsed by secular media and evolutionary scientific propaganda that we don’t even examine what we are fighting?

What is our responsibility to the earth and to its inhabitants? Bible-believing Christians are often falsely accused of being anti-earth because we believe that God gave mankind dominion over the earth as stated in Genesis 1:28 and implied again in Genesis 9:1–2 after the Flood. What does this dominion mandate really equate to? Does it give us free reign to mistreat animals, pollute rivers, and poison our atmosphere? More importantly, is this what God would have us do in accordance with His character?

A popular atheist blog gives us a look into common misconceptions of the Christian viewpoint on environmental issues. The blogger comments on reasons why Christians “oppose environmental legislation”:

The more important reasons are religious. In the first place, many sincerely believe that because the Bible says God will provide, then this means that there are sufficient natural resources for everyone on the planet. They don’t believe that there is any real crisis, so there is no reason to conserve or recycle because we won’t run out.1

Wendell Berry, a Christian essayist and supporter of environmental causes, recognized this mischaracterization (and to some degree agreed that Christians fostered it):

The culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés of the conservation movement.2

A slightly less harsh approach is taken by Christian social commentator and essayist Stephen Mattson:

Christians are similar to the rest of society: we value the present more than the future. We selfishly and continually ignore problems related to pollution, landfills, food processing, environmental change, chemical waste, and land mismanagement because they seem irrelevant to our current wants and needs. Environmental problems require lots of time, patience, and perseverance—too much for many churches to handle.

Westernized Christianity currently doesn’t appear to value the environment and few Christian organizations and churches offer educational classes, teaching, and ministries that focus on earth stewardship.3

While these criticisms may accurately describe individual Christians who struggle with sin and imperfectly follow God’s commandments, are they really a proper understanding of what Scripture teaches Christians to do in regard to the world in which we live? In some cases, the belief by Christians that in part nature is resilient and self-correcting because the Creator designed the earth’s ecosystems to be adaptable, has been misconstrued by some as indifference or even hostility to the environment. That is a false characterization, and it is not (and should not be) used as an excuse for wanton destruction of natural resources. Scripture has ample examples of principles of good stewardship (Deuteronomy 25:4; Proverbs 6:6–9, 12:10, 27:23–27; Luke 13:6–9; 1 Timothy 6:6–9; Hebrews 13:5). In point of fact, Christians should have a mindset of doing the best we can to use the environment for man’s good and God’s glory, as good stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

Before we go any further, we should cite the most often-used dominion mandate texts from Genesis:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27–28)
So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.” (Genesis 9:1–2)

The pertinent aspects for mankind are therefore reproduce, subdue, and have dominion, with the animals developing a “fear of man” as men began to hunt or raise animals for clothing, food, work, or companionship. A few points need to be made to clear up misperceptions that have crept into the interpretations of these terms:

  1. “Fill the earth” means that mankind has a primary place on the earth: he is not an intruder. Neither does this statement equate to overpopulation. Consider that God first gave this same command to as-yet unfallen man in Genesis 1:28. If the command to mankind was “fill the earth” and this was “very good” by God, as was everything up to that point in Genesis 1:31, then there is no theological reason to automatically equate filling the earth with overpopulation, mass wastage of resources, food shortages, and so on. Besides, it may seem counterintuitive, but Christians who promote biblical concepts such as abstinence before marriage and lifelong devotion to a single spouse are somehow labeled as the ones responsible for overpopulation because we don’t condone abortion. Yet those who promote sexual freedom, promiscuity with multiple partners, and easy divorce are labeled as population-conscious. Which worldview really leads more readily to population explosions?
  2. “Subdue the earth” was a command given to mankind in his yet unfallen state, so there is no connotation of this being a tyrannical subjugation. Instead, this was to be a benevolent stewardship of the earth and its creatures by mankind. Just as God put man in the Garden of Eden and had them tend it (Genesis 2:15), so this subduing of the earth was to be a stewardship and caretaking of the earth.
  3. “Dominion” in the pre-Fall world again is a benign caretaker role. Man was to take care of the animals of the land, oceans, and the air, which certainly also implies stewardship of their domains. Wantonly polluting the land, air, and oceans would be the opposite of dominion—it is exploitation.
  4. The phrase “given into your hand” in Genesis 9:2 does not implicitly allow (or as some claim, demand) animal exploitation. This is a common misrepresentation by those wishing to mock Scripture and Christianity. Although this verse is specifically referring to mankind being given permission in a post-Fall world to eat meat, some Bible critics have tried to paint this as an anti-environment attitude giving Christians license to be cavalier about managing natural resources. One such sarcastic example is from a 2004 article bemoaning the preconceived Christian position: “And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a Word”?4 The claim is that Christians believe we can do anything we want under the dominion mandate. But this is clearly belied by other passages that curtail human action over nature (e.g., Leviticus 25:5–7; Numbers 20:8, 35:3; and Proverbs 12:10).

God clearly cares for man and beast as a characteristic expression of His righteousness (Psalms 36:6, 104:10–14, 104:27–28, 147:9; Jonah 4:11; Luke 12:6–7, 24). It would be incongruous for Christians to recognize God’s goodness in caring for His creation, to claim to be desirous to follow the will of God and seek the mind of Christ, and yet display a cruel and selfish mindset towards that very creation, knowing that our actions affect other humans and animals. Stewardship then is a correct Christian worldview in understanding our dominion mandate role.

However, the dominion mandate also means that humanity has been placed in charge of the environment and the planet in a stewardship role. This means that mankind is allowed to use God’s natural resources and engage in animal husbandry, farming, and horticulture. Although we are to be wise stewards, we are not required to place animal and plant welfare above human needs. Humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); plants and animals are not. Therefore we are of more value than the sparrows in God’s eyes (Luke 12:7), and environmental decisions and policies should reflect this hierarchy. Knowing this, then, we are responsible for helping meet the needs of all humans—not just ourselves—present and future. That alone should sober our view of conservation and stewardship.

This clearly does not involve a callous disregard for animal life, a wasteful mindset toward natural resources, or an exploitative mindset toward the planet which all of us must share. When one stops to think about it, heedless exploitation is the opposite of stewardship and actually hampers dominion: we cannot wisely rule over something we are wasting. God demands one thing from stewards—that they be found faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). May we be faithful stewards of this earth that God owns (Psalm 24:1) but has entrusted to us to care for.

Footnotes

  1. Austin Cline, “Environmental Problems Don’t Exist or are a Sign of the Apocalypse,” About.com, accessed January 22, 2015, http://atheism.about.com/od/religiousright/ig/Christian-Propaganda-Posters/Christian-Environmentalism.htm.
  2. Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 93.
  3. Stephen Mattson, “5 (Stupid) Reasons Christians Reject Environmentalism,” God’s Politics (blog), Sojourners, April 22, 2013, http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/04/22/5-stupid-reasons-christians-reject-environmentalism.
  4. Glenn Scherer, “Christian-right views are swaying politicians and threatening the environment.” http://grist.org/article/scherer-christian/.

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