Evangelicals and the Environment: Checkered Past, Brighter Future

Allan H. Harvey

NOTE: This essay began as a talk for an Adult Sunday School class at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Boulder, Colorado, in October 2006. A revised and expanded version was presented as an Adult Ed class at my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, on Creation Care Sunday, April 22, 2007. This is essentially that latter talk, with some translation into better written English and a few edits.

As we think about the role of Evangelical Christians in creation stewardship, I will start with an analogy. In many ways, I think where Christians are with the environment today is where we were with racial equality 40 years ago. In the 1950s and 60s, it was mostly the "liberal" churches that were leading the way on that issue. The more conservative churches (except for the black churches) were mostly on the sidelines. They probably had official statements against racism, but they weren't actually doing much about it. And some churches, especially in the South, were actively working in the wrong direction. I think history is repeating itself with the environment Ė the conservative, Evangelical part of the church is mostly on the sidelines, with some actually opposing good stewardship of Godís creation (of course they wouldnít view it that way). Now, we look back with some shame on the way the Evangelical church was late to the party on racial equality. I think future generations of Christians may look back on us the same way.

But, this analogy can also give us hope, because the Evangelical church finally did wake up on racial issues. Not that there isn't still room for improvement, but for example a few years ago we saw the Southern Baptist Convention issue a very heartfelt apology for its past racism. Another example is the Promise Keepers; regardless of what you think of the movement, you have to respect the way they have made racial reconciliation a major part of their agenda. Just as Evangelical Christians finally woke up on the issue of racial equality, I see some signs of progress on the issue of creation care.

In this essay, I want to look first at how we got here, how Evangelical Christians ended up being mostly lukewarm at best on this issue, then talk about some ways things are changing for the better, then talk about prospects for the future, how we as the church can come together to honor God in this area. My remarks will mostly be confined to the American church, since that's what I'm familiar with.

How We Got Here

How did we get to this point where, in many conservative Christian circles, the idea of caring for God's creation is viewed with suspicion at best and hostility at worst? I can think of five reasons that may have contributed to this unfortunate state of affairs.

  1. Blame Charles Darwin?
    100 years ago, many conservative Christian leaders had no problem with evolution as God's way of creating, but nowadays it's widely viewed (mistakenly in my opinion) as a major enemy of the faith. One result of that is that, since evolution is a big part of our understanding of biology and ecology, Christians have shied away from those areas. Distance has been created between Christians and nature, and suspicion of evolution has kept us from appreciating our connectedness with the rest of creation. It has also caused many Christians to view scientists as enemies, and therefore not listen when science tells us how we are degrading the environment.

    I saw a talk a few years ago where somebody suggested that this was the main reason for the Evangelical church's failings on environmental issues. I think that is an overstatement, but it is a significant problem. Unfortunately, things in this area are not getting any better, as "creationist" propaganda seems to be gaining a greater foothold in the Evangelical church.

  2. The baptism of capitalism
    What I mean by this phrase is the way the church has come to treat unrestrained capitalism as God's economic system. So, if it comes down to a choice between profits and caring for creation, profits tend to win. There are probably historical reasons for this, such as the understandable desire of the church to reject "Godless Communism," but nowadays I think it's largely a matter of the church reflecting American culture. We've sold out to the idea of the American dream, the shopping mall is our temple, economic freedom is treated as a God-given right.

    I don't think this aspect is getting better either, at least not the materialism of American culture and the unquestioned assumption in many churches that the American dream is something every American Christian should chase after.

  3. Guilt by association
    Some of the loudest environmentalist voices have been overtly anti-Christian, showing contempt for Christians and sometimes for humans in general. We see nature worship and other idolatry in some of the environmental movement. Naturally, Christians want to distance themselves from such things.

    Politically, America has gotten polarized to where sometimes it seems like the only options are to take the whole "right-wing" package or the whole "left-wing" package. Caring for the environment has somehow gotten lumped in with the "left-wing" package, but that package has other elements (for example on issues of sexuality and abortion) that most Evangelical Christians canít stand.

    This is an aspect where I see at least some signs of improvement. Sometimes it seems like the polarization is getting worse, but in the midst of that youíre starting to see people willing to break away from these packages, like political conservatives telling the politicians that the environment is important to them.

  4. Dispensationalism
    That's a way of looking at the Bible and history exemplified by the "Left Behind" novels. Reformed theology would say that it's largely wrong. One aspect of dispensationalist theology is the idea that the present world doesn't matter; they ignore the Biblical indications of continuity between the present Earth and the renewed Earth at the end of time, saying "It's all gonna burn." The implications of this viewpoint for creation care are that the Earth has no lasting value (especially for those who expect the "rapture" to be any day now), so there's no need to take care of it.

    While I think dispensationalism is a problem in the church, I see it as just a minor factor in this particular issue. Is this factor getting worse? You'd think that as these people make predictions that are consistently wrong, it would lose its credibility, but that doesn't seem to be happening so far.

  5. Privatization and spiritualization of faith
    This is my nominee for the biggest reason why Evangelicals have largely been lacking in creation stewardship. The privatization part largely reflects the excessive individualism of American culture. It's always about my rights, about getting what's best for me (which may not be best for the rest of the community or for the rest of Godís creation). The Evangelical church has emphasized "me and my personal relationship with Jesus." That's important, but if that's all the church is about, we get problems. God calls us into community; my commitment to Jesus isn't just supposed to get me into heaven, it's supposed to transform my life, including my relationships. We should see value in the other human beings around us as persons created in God's image, but too often theyíre enemies or maybe just have value as "targets" for evangelism. If we don't even value human community, we won't value the ecological community we're a part of.

    By spiritualization, I mean the common distortion of the Gospel that says only "spiritual" things matter, that ignores our call to be Godís hands and feet on Earth. One of the songs we sing, depending on how you take it, may illustrate that:
    Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
    Look full in his wonderful face,
    And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
    In the light of his glory and grace.

    So we're supposed to look at Jesus, but what are we saying about "the things of Earth will grow strangely dim"? If we just mean that the temptations of the world, all the idols that call us away from Jesus, don't influence us, that's fine. But I think too often the attitude is for the whole world to get dim, the over-spiritualized gospel has us staring blissfully at Jesus and ignoring the world around us, except maybe when we try to get others to join us in that blissful stare. Biblically, following Jesus has to transform our whole lives, we're called to serve God's purposes on earth as it is in heaven, and God cares about all aspects of his world.
    [NOTE: This illustration was borrowed from Mark Noll's excellent book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.]

    So is this aspect getting better? I think at least the privatization is. Churches are recognizing the value of community, of relationship, of interdependence. As we get less focused on the individual, that has to benefit our stewardship of creation. The spiritualization is more of a continuing problem, but even there I think much of the church is starting to realize that our faith has to affect the way we live on Earth.

Signs of Hope

As I mentioned earlier, things are starting to improve. Individually and collectively, Christians are starting to express and live out their concern for Godís creation. Let's consider this statement from the National Association of Evangelicals: "[those who] thoughtlessly destroy a God-ordained balance of nature are guilty of sin against Godís creation." Care to guess when the NAE made that statement? It was actually in 1970. And in 1971 they said, "[A Christian is to act as a] faithful steward of the natural world." So this concern is not new, but it was largely statements that didnít make much difference, maybe like Evangelical churches who had official statements against racism in the 1950s. However, in the past 15 years or so, there has been more meaningful movement toward caring for God's creation.

For example, we have the 1994 Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. The Declaration starts from an explicitly Christian viewpoint, expressing commitment to reconciliation in Jesus Christ for people and for all of God's creation. It goes on to talk about how we are embedded in the creation and how God by his grace uses it to sustain us, but that we face a growing crisis as we continue to degrade the creation. It calls for a Biblical response of repentance, and of theological understanding of our role as stewards of God's creation. Finally, it calls on God's people to live out their faith by working toward healing of God's creation in their personal stewardship, as Christian communities, and as participants in society at large. This was a major statement, signed by many "heavyweights" in the evangelical community.

The organization that grew out of this Declaration is the Evangelical Environmental Network, which tries to educate and motivate Christians on this issue (for example, they were responsible for the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign a few years ago). For more information and the text of the 1994 Declaration, the reader is referred to their website at www.creationcare.org.

In 2006, many Evangelical leaders came together again, this time for the Evangelical Climate Initiative. This statement affirmed the reality of human-induced climate change, warned of its serious consequences (especially for the poor), and called on Christians to work for action on this issue.

Below, I list some other Christian organizations that are involved with creation stewardship in various ways:
A Rocha, international, focused on conservation.
Au Sable Institute, academic, affiliated with 50 Christian colleges.
John Ray Initiative, British educational organization.
Restoring Eden, active with college students.

How Do We Move Forward?

We've come a long way. We may have varying opinions on the best ways to be stewards in specific situations, but caring for God's creation is no longer just a fringe concern in the Evangelical church. The next thing to consider is how we can move forward in a way that honors God and that will make the church a major force for good in this area.

We can start with the five historical issues mentioned above; any improvements in those areas will help. To the extent the church can leave behind silly arguments about evolution, to the extent we can recognize that God's economy is about more than material profits, to the extent we consider issues on their merits rather than automatically turning left or right, to the extent we can replace Left Behind novels with sound Biblical theology, to the extent we can stop seeing our faith as just a private, spiritual thing and recognize that weíre in community and God calls us to work for his purposes on Earth, any progress in healthier directions of these aspects of Evangelical culture will have a positive impact on our stewardship.

I came up with five more things that I think we need to remember if we're going to be faithful to God in this area:

  1. We need to call people to this cause with a distinctively Christian voice. If our concern for the environment sounds just like what they'd hear at a Boulder city council meeting, or at Unity Church, or from Al Gore, many Christians wonít listen, and maybe rightly so. We need to be talking about what the Bible teaches about stewardship, and about how following Jesus should affect our priorities and lifestyles. Not fuzzy language about "spirituality" but following Jesus, because that's what itís all about. And there are things that we as Christians can bring to bear on these issues that these other voices often can't. These would include love, humility, prayer, the power of the Holy Spirit and hope.

  2. A closely related point is that we need to use the resources within the Bible. We need to help people see that creation stewardship isn't some secular bandwagon that the church is following, but that it flows naturally from God's revelation. Toward that end, let me digress to point out some relevant Biblical passages.

    The starting point for a Christian doctrine of creation stewardship is the first few chapters of Genesis. If we can get people to actually listen to the message of Genesis rather than arguing about peripheral things like how long six days are, we find that it offers a powerful call for us to care about these issues.

    The first thing we see in Genesis 1 is that creation has value because God values it. God declares his creation "good" before humans ever appear. The idea that the rest of creation is primarily for our benefit, that it just has value because of what it can offer to humans, just isn't Biblical. Sometimes you hear human-centered reasons for taking care of the environment, like preserving the diversity of species because we never know what rare plant might cure some disease. Not that those things don't matter, but for Christians the primary reason should be the value it has for God, not the value it has for us.

    Toward the end of Genesis 1, we see that humans are created in the image of God. Whole books are written about what that phrase means, but the scholars seem to agree that at least one aspect is that we're supposed to represent God, to be Godís lieutenants in carrying out God's purposes in the world. The implication of that delegation of authority is that we should work for the things God values, like justice and mercy and wholeness for his creation.

    Intertwined with being created in God's image, we see some things God calls us to do. Genesis 1:26-28 says
    Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
    Here we have the terms "dominion" and "subdue," which have sometimes been used to justify exploitation, and also to blame Christianity for environmental problems. Apparently in Hebrew, especially with the word translated "subdue", it's language of conquest, there is a sense of overcoming the forces of nature that threaten us, so there's Biblical justification for doing things like building shelter from the elements. If we just took that aspect we might think it justified exploiting nature to get what we want. But itís also, especially the word translated as "dominion", the language of ruling like a king, and Biblically the sort of dominion God wants, the sort of king God praises, the sort of king God shows us in Jesus, is a servant king, a king who rules for the best interest of his subjects. When God grants us dominion, that's how we need to exercise it.

    As we move into Genesis 2, God places the man in the garden and it says his task is to "till it and keep it" (2:15). The word "till" there can also be translated "serve" Ė it's an active stewardship, working for the best interests of who you're serving. And the word "keep" is also an active word, there's a sense of preservation but not untouched in a glass cage, but in a relationship that protects the other, the same as in the expression "the Lord bless you and keep you."

    Moving to Genesis 3, we see that alienation from the rest of creation is a result of our fallenness (sin). When Genesis talks about the consequences of human sin, we see imagery of broken relationships, not just our relationship with God but also relationships with other people, within ourselves, and with God's creation. Part of our call as redeemed people is to work for healing in all of those areas.

    To choose one example from the New Testament, Paul tells the Colossians that redemption and reconciliation in Jesus is for all creation, not just humans. Col. 1:15-20 says
    He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers Ė all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
    The last verse, where it says reconcile to himself all things, that's not just us who benefit from Godís reconciliation, it's all of creation. And, just like with people, our call is to be agents working for that reconciliation.

    A final caution on this point is that we must avoid claiming more than what the text says, as though the main purpose of the Bible was to teach us about ecology. You can get creation stewardship out of Genesis 1-3, but we can't claim that that's the main point of those chapters.

  3. We need to help people see that the poor suffer most from environmental degradation. There's a big movement of concern for global poverty in the church today. The 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative explicitly makes that connection, pointing out how the poor suffer disproportionately from our abuse of creation. As fallen humans we tend to focus on ourselves and our immediate tribe, but as Christians our lives need to reflect the value God places on others, all over the world, especially the poor.

  4. We need to recognize that creation stewardship is one among many priorities for the church (others would include evangelism, discipleship, poverty, and justice), and that these priorities are interdependent. The church can't be one-dimensional. Sometimes you hear things like "I guess creation stewardship is OK, ministering to the poor is OK, but evangelism is the real mission of the church," as though the Great Commission was the only thing God's people were ever commissioned to do. That's not the Biblical view Ė the Bible condemns those who see someone in need and just say "be warm and filled" (or maybe give them a Four Spiritual Laws tract) while ignoring their material needs. But we can't go to the other extreme either, acting like creation stewardship is the issue when God also calls us to these other things. The church has to bring the love of Jesus to all aspects of the world; we're shortchanging the Gospel if we ignore people's spiritual needs, or if we ignore their material needs, or if we ignore our stewardship responsibilities.

    And, we shouldn't think of these as competing priorities Ė if the church is really following Jesus, these will be interdependent parts of the same effort. Most mission agencies recognize the need to have a holistic approach to material poverty and spiritual poverty, that coming to the poor with only evangelism isn't right. Our bad creation stewardship probably hinders our evangelism Ė if people in the Third World view American Christians as the arrogant, selfish people who are consuming all the resources and letting them suffer the consequences (and unfortunately there's some truth to that image), we won't have much credibility if we try to share Jesus with them.

  5. Leaders will have to lead. If people don't hear it from the pulpit, or hear it from their favorite voices on Christian radio, the cause won't get much traction. Leadership means more than signing on to a statement; it means proclaiming the message to your followers. In over 12 years I've been at this church, I can only recall hearing creation stewardship preached from the pulpit one time, while we've had maybe four sermons on homosexuality. Not that issues of sexuality aren't important, but I think that's maybe a little out of balance. But we can't sit back and wait for our leaders either, we can make changes in our own lives, and we all have circles of influence. If enough of God's people make this a priority, our leaders will eventually see where God is moving.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

    Page last modified June 5, 2007