Editor's Note: Micah Bennett is a graduate student in biology at Saint Louis University and a member of the church at McKnight Road, St. Louis, MO. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. [His biblical references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV). Our online biblical references are from the King James Version.]
Many Christians today seem to take an uncaring and nonchalant "so what?" approach to environmental issues. "If Christ is coming to get us, and if God is in control," they say, "why should we worry at all about the state of the environment?" This view is more common than you might think, and it is sadly unbiblical. First, while God has certainly promised to help and aid His people, this providential care will not protect us from the results of human sin and negligence. God has saved us in Christ. He has made us a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV). But we still reside in a sin-altered, fallen world in which the consequences of our actions are felt everyday: "Whatever one sows, that will he also reap" (Galatians 6:7).
Second, while we are to put our trust and hope in Christ's return, we are not to rest in that fact to the point that we neglect our responsibilities. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul begins by comforting the brethren there with the fact of Christ's judgment of their evil persecutors at His second coming. But some of the Thessalonians, having heard from false teachers that Christ had already returned, and others perhaps thinking Christ's return was imminent, were becoming idle, thinking that work was not important if Christ's second coming was at hand. This is essentially the attitude of many Christians about the environment. Paul exhorts them to "keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness" and to "not grow weary in doing good" (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 13). Many might say environmental protection is not important in Christianity, but by examining Scripture we see its important place in the heart of God and its connection to the mission of Christ and the church. We increasingly face environmental issues in our society today, and the Lord's church cannot be silent or ignorant of the responsibility we have been given to be stewards of God's creation. As we examine the theme of environmental stewardship in the Bible, let us not have the same attitude as did these Christians in Thessalonica.
In the Beginning: The Inception of Man's Responsibility for Creation. In the first two chapters of Genesis, God creates the universe, the earth, and all living things, then man and woman, and pronounced them all "good" (Genesis 1:25) and "very good" (1:31). Unlike most worldly value systems which may focus on the ability of nature to be used or subjective ideas of beauty, the Bible depicts God conferring inherent value to nature itself. In this early part of the creation story, we find the origin of man's responsibility for nature in God's commands to Adam. From the two accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, God declares man's responsibility to "subdue" and have "dominion" over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:28), but also he is to "work" (or "till") and "keep" the Garden, and by extension, nature (Genesis 2:15). According to Strong's concordance the Hebrew word for "work" in this passage means to use, and the word translated "keep" means to guard, to protect, and to preserve. Thus from the very beginning God expected man to use the products of nature for his sustenance, but also to be responsible in that use and to preserve the life-giving systems and creatures of the creation.
The events of the great flood in Genesis 6-9 also provide insight into God's early view of creation. In order to preserve part of the creation, part of Noah's responsibility was gathering some of every animal "kind" into the ark (Genesis 6:19). After blotting out all life on earth, God "remembered Noah and all the beasts" on the ark (Genesis 8:1) and made the flood subside. After the flood, God is very clear, and emphasizes repeatedly that His covenant to never flood the whole earth again is with "the earth" (Genesis 9:13) and "every living creature" including Noah and his offspring and all animal life as well (Genesis 9:8-11). Indeed, "every moving thing that lives" was given to mankind for food (Genesis 9:3), but a high view of creation established by God through covenant relationship would ensure a balance of "using" and "keeping."
God's Care for the Environment in the Old Testament. Even before the fall of mankind into sin, God had a plan in place for his eventual redemption. As a "schoolmaster" of sorts for humanity, the Mosaic Law itself harkened to the day when a Messiah would come to permanently remove sin's burden from the hearts of mankind and the earth. The details of the Law provide us with insight into God's plan to set the people of Israel apart as His own, and in it we see several examples of God's concern for His creation, both human and non-human.
Leviticus 25 is truly an amazing section of the Law. In it we gain a glimpse into God's view of the earth and His marvelous care for creation. God first tells the people to observe a "Land Sabbath" every seventh year in which the land was not to be cultivated. The stated purpose of this was a "rest for the land" and a "Sabbath to the Lord" (Leviticus 25:4). We know today that this practice would indeed profit the people themselves as the year of rest for the land would prevent depletion of soil nutrients and prolong its usefulness; however, the purpose God states seems to point to the inherent value of the earth itself and its value in His sight. God even used the Chaldeans to punish Israel in part to restore the Land Sabbaths they had failed to keep (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).
Soon after God's command for a "Land Sabbath," we see some of these same ideas reiterated in the command for a year of Jubilee every 50th year (Leviticus 25:8-11). This was a year in which everyone was to give their property to its original owner, return to their original family and dwelling place, and no one was to sow or reap anything from the land. This year of Jubilee was to remind the Israelites that they had nothing that was not given by God. God explicitly tells the Israelites, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess you shall allow a redemption of the land" (Leviticus 25:23-24). While we are certainly not under the requirements of the Mosaic Law today (Hebrews 8:13; 9:15-17), it does provide insight into God's view of creation. In contrast to our consumption-driven society today, would not a "Jubilee" view of the environment be more in line with our call to be "strangers and sojourners" (Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 2:11-12)? If we viewed the environment as God's, and ourselves as merely stewards, caring for it until He reclaims it, would we not take more care with it?
The Creation in the New Testament. With the Gospels and some of Paul's letters revealing truths about the creation we can see the same theme of stewardship of nature carried throughout the New Testament. The ultimate understanding of our responsibility for stewardship comes from the beginning of Colossians when Paul is praising Christ. He says of Christ:
"For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:16-17).
While God did indeed tell man to "till and keep" the earth, from this passage it is clear that this was only in the capacity of a steward. We see now why God placed so much value on the earth through the Old Testament. All created things were made "through" and "for" Christ. We should be careful not to usurp Christ's position in this case, thinking that the earth and its creatures were created solely for our benefit. The best environmental stewardship will be accomplished through a realization that Christ was both the conduit for creation and the purpose of it, certainly not ourselves. Christ brought perfection and beauty to creation; mankind brought death and a curse (Romans 5:1ff.; Genesis 3:17).
Connected to this, Christ's mission to redeem us from sin is also directed toward the earth itself. When man--created from the earth itself--sinned, he brought a curse to the earth as well: "cursed is the ground because of you" (Genesis 3:17). Christ's power to specifically forgive sins "on earth" (Luke 5:24) points to His mission of "reconciling.all things, whether on earth or in heaven" to God through His death (Colossians 1:20; see also Ephesians 1:9-10, 1 Corinthians 8:6). While we of course automatically think on what His death means to us personally, the redemption of the entire creation is explicit in His mission: "this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me" (John 6:39). This includes "everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him" (John 6:40), but also the entirety of creation which was created "through" and "for" Christ. Indeed, the creation has been "groaning," waiting eagerly "to be set free from its bondage to decay" when Christ returns and "the sons of God" are revealed (Romans 8:18-25). One of the most quoted verses in the Bible also points to this. The first part of John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son." The word translated "world" here is the Greek word kosmos, which has a much broader meaning than we usually think, encompassing the universe and all created things. It signifies Christ's mission to redeem all creation from the effects of sin.
Christ had much to say about good stewardship (for example, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30), and this certainly applies to the creation. We have been given many blessings through this earth that God created. Certainly, "much will be required" of us as well (Luke 12:48).
An Issue of Morality. The rampant environmental degradation taking place worldwide today is one of the moral issues most ignored by Christians. It is clear from the continuity of the idea in both the Old and New Testament that nature occupies a special place in the heart of God. As the psalmist indicated in Psalm 147, all nature declares praise to God. Paul said that the creation shows God's "eternal power and divine nature" (Romans 1:20). God pays attention to the life and death of even a sparrow (Deuteronomy 22:6-7; Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6). If God cares so much about nature, we must too.
But not only does destruction of nature show disrespect for God and the environment He created, it also shows a lack of concern for the consequences environmental destruction has on humanity in current and future generations. As the data continues to come in, we are beginning to see more clearly the real connections between environmental pollution and degradation and worsening health and livelihood both at a local and global level. Increasing water pollution in the United States has made many of our freshwater and marine fish toxic to children and pregnant women due to harmful levels of chemicals such as mercury and dioxin (www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish). Air pollution causes over 64,000 premature deaths annually in America alone (www.nrdc.org/air/pollution/qbreath.asp). The tremendous destruction of life and property during storms and flooding in places such as India and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. was greatly increased due to removal of coastal forest habitats and other natural barriers. In other countries outside the U.S., with little ability to regulate and enforce pollution and environmental laws, things are much worse. Yet the U.S. is not without some blame for these problems as well. Many of our consumer choices contribute to health concerns in other nations. For instance, our demand for low-cost paper and wood products increases deforestation in countries across South America. This pollutes water sources, contributes to species extinction, and forces poor families to move off land they have been living on but cannot afford to buy. Until we recognize how our waste, destruction, and over-consumption of natural resources affects others, and do something to change, we cannot fulfill the second great commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). Whatever we do "to one of the least of these" we do to Christ (Matthew 25:40).
Five Practical Suggestions. Even after recognizing the biblical imperative for responsible care of the environment, it can be difficult to translate this knowledge into action. Here are five steps you can take to begin practicing and promoting environmental stewardship:
1. Recycle and re-use. These are "old standards" of the environmental movement, but they are crucial. Not only will this help reduce your waste and cut down on pollution, it could potentially provide a source of supplemental income. Start a congregation-wide recycling program and encourage members to participate.
2. Reduce paper waste. This will be a natural result of recycling, but consider other ways to reduce paper use. Could your congregation find another way to track attendance besides filling out paper cards? Many have. This would cut down on costs as well.
3. Turn down the thermostat. Consider changing your thermostat temperature just a few degrees. This will cut down on the amount of energy used and will also lower your cooling and heating costs. If you are out of town, turn the heat/air off or down if possible. This can also be done in church buildings and facilities as well.
4. Reduce driving when possible. Many times we must drive to work or school; but some situations do not require driving. Walk, bike, or carpool when you can. Take public transportation if available. This will help reduce air pollution which has a direct effect on human health and the environment.
5. Consider getting involved in local environmental work. A wonderful project for young and old alike is to do a project to improve the environment: clean up a highway, clean up a local river, work in a recycling program, participate in a local community environmental project. It teaches our youth and is wonderful positive advertising to the community.
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