I love the outdoors and I am concerned about protecting our environment. When I talk to other Christians about these passions, I often get labeled automatically as some extreme “leftist” or “tree hugger.” I was raised believing that we are to take good care of the Earth as stewards of God’s creation, but I keep finding myself feeling like I am in the minority of other Christians in this viewpoint. I am at the point where I don’t want to talk to other Christians about environmental issues, and I feel that I don’t fit into today’s church anymore. What should I do?
This is a very important question. Christians often have misunderstandings about the environmental movement, in part because of extremism on the part of some environmentalists. And no one wants to be dismissed for being a “tree hugger.”
Let me begin by stating a radical point: The Bible teaches that Christians should be the most environmentally conscious and responsible people on our planet. Let me explain what I mean by this and then what I do not mean.
Since we are talking about God’s creation, we need to go back to the creation account in Genesis, because that is where God explains man’s role in relation to the world. Genesis 1:26 says: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”
God said that He created mankind in his image. First, this means that we are made to have a relationship with God. Second, the image of God means that we are to be God’s representatives on earth as “rulers.”
When God says that mankind will “rule” over all the animals on the earth, this means that we should do so as God would – that is, we represent God on the earth. We are tasked with two seemingly contradictory roles: we need to be kings and servants. We are to rule over the earth as kings but to do so as servants of God. In other words, God made us to be servant-kings.
But wait, you might ask. I thought the most important commandments have to do with loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself. For example, in Matthew 22:37-39: “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
What does this have to do with taking care of the environment? The first commandment has to do with our relationship with God. The second relates to other people. Ruling as God’s representatives means that we act with justice and compassion, caring for our neighbors. This implies that we do not destroy the environment that supports all of us. Obviously, I cannot love people while I am actively pouring poison in their drinking water.
In the Old Testament, we see some specific applications of ruling over the world as servant-kings. Proverbs 12:10 says, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.” As a concrete example, Deuteronomy 25:4 says that we should feed an animal that is doing work for us. God is even concerned about mother birds. Deuteronomy 22:6 says that if one comes across a bird sitting on eggs, he should not kill the mother. The Bible even addresses taking care of trees. Deuteronomy 20:19 says that if an army besieges a city, they are not to cut down the trees.
Ultimately, these commands are application of loving our neighbors, because animals and trees benefit humans. But note that loving our neighbors implies taking care of the environment that sustains them.
It is important, however, to emphasize what taking care of the environment does not mean. Misunderstandings of these points can lead Christians to be suspicious of environmentalism or any of its concerns.
First, taking care of the earth does not mean that we worship the earth. We worship God who created the earth. Part of the reason environmentalism has received a bad name among Christians is because many environmentalists see the earth as a kind of “god” (our great “Mother”). And some see plants and animals as having equal value to humans. We need to insist that humans alone are created in the image of God.
This leads to a second point. Taking care of the earth does not mean that we must avoid using any of the earth’s resources, including animals and plants. We can be wise stewards and use the resources of planet earth to benefit people without abusing what has been entrusted to us and without depriving others (including future generations) of those same resources.
To return to the original question, to address environmentalism we need to emphasize two points:
- As God’s image bearers, we have been entrusted as stewards over God’s creation.
- We must love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Bible calls us to be environmentalists in the best sense of the word, working for the welfare of all of God’s creation. We can love God, people and nature for the good of all.
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